Two of the implications of the lower oil prices discussed in last week’s post was that it makes it more difficult for renewable energy to compete with conventional power and that it might make it more difficult for the world to come up with a meaningful agreement at the Paris climate talks in a few weeks.
As was discussed in a post last December, the upcoming talks in Paris are the continuation of the UN’s Framework Convention on Climate Change which was adopted in Rio in 1992. For the last 30 years, the countries which have signed the framework meet from time to time to try and push things forward. Paris will be the 21st such meeting and so far the international community has not made much real progress although many would say that the Lima Call for Climate Action signed at the last meeting was a turning point as it appeared to mend the divide between rich and poor nations which have divided the talks for decades.
What was agreed to in Lima was for all countries to develop their plans to reduce their carbon emissions and to share it with the UN in time for the Paris meeting. The goal is to limit the amount of atmospheric carbon and other greenhouse gasses in order to keep the Earth’s expected temperature rise at below 2 degrees as compered to pre-industrial levels.
The question is about who gets to grow? or how can developing countries ramp up their economies without relying on fossil fuels even while the West is trying to reduce its emissions. The problem is that according to the International Energy Agency the sum of the country level plans is too high and that the Paris talks will have to go beyond voluntary measures. In other words somebody will have to agree to do more in Paris.
The answer to the issue is literally shinning down on us every day. Solar energy can provide the world with all the power it needs and do so without putting the planet at risk. The trick is to re-wire our industrial societies to harness the power of the sun during the day and store it at night.
A few weeks ago it was announced that General Electric’s purchase of Alstom was approved by regulators in the U.S. and Europe and while much of the focus on the €12.4 Billion deal was on conventional, nuclear, and hydro power, Alstom is also one of the world leaders in Concentrated Solar Power and is currently building a 121 Megawatt facility in Israel’s Negev desert called Ashalim.
A 392 Megawatt facility, Ivanpah, is operating outside of Las Vegas and there are a number of projects underway around the world.
While the cost of such projects is close to conventional power over the life of the facility, the difference lies in the financial model as solar power is all about capital expenditure and has very little operating costs while conventional power is cheaper to build but requires fuel of one kind or another.
Solar power in the dark?
The major drawback to solar power is that it does not produce energy at night. One solution, which Alsthom has developed and tested, is to use the sun to heat molten salt rather than water and then use the hot fluid to produce steam and then make electricity. The advantage of such a system is that it retains enough heat to keep working during the night and allows such plants to be part of a grid’s base load.
Another solution is being launched by Tesla, the electric car company and involves using advanced lithium ion batteries so that people, factories, and even cities can simply charge their batteries during the day and then use battery power at night. Below you can see Tesla’s Chairman, Elon Musk, launching the new business and discussing the challenge facing humanity.
The answer for Paris
So what should be agreed to in Paris? Very simply the wealthy nations of the world need to recognize that everyone wants to develop their economies and give their people a chance at a prosperous future. The best and safest path to do that is for the West to massively subsidize the capital expense needed to build the solar power infrastructure and batteries needed to make it happen.
After all, its only money.