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Preventing Future Renewable Energy Contraction

The world is turning towards wind and solar, the trend is unstoppable. Oil companies are increasingly profiling themselves as the indifferent egobastions they are. Ben van Beurden bragging he has a fuel guzzling Mercedes and triggering the interviewer to rephrase his words as “Stop me or I’ll kill again” on the Guardian. Even if the COP21 is bought by Shell, it is clear the brakes will come off soon.

But the revolution has a problem : It is fossil fuel powered. Production of solar panels, the whole chain is largely dependent on coal, oil and gas, even if the cost in terms of these fuels is dropping, this is a major achilles heel.

Another problem that will be amplified by the first problem is that even though solar panels last a long time, they need to be replaced after about 30-40 years if they aren’t destroyed or removed earlier. Some companies are just waiting to schred those panels.

All the current solar panels, or most of them will need to be replaced, and to do that the world needs energy, and as first generation panels are replaced the ability to grow solar capacity will be deminished. What is more importantly, this will likely happen in a world in trouble, a world in which carbon is heavily taxed or even unavailable. This is going to be difficult unless the right strategy is chosen.

refining silicon with solar thermal energy

We don’t know yet if new technologies will be (or have been) developed that trump the efficiency if silicon PV panels, or that CSP (concentrated solar power) will be implemented (as is possible) in the way it can power f.i. the US 6 times over, without using any currently used land. What is certain is that if there isn’t a method to produce renewable energy sources resilient to the circumstances in 2040, we are in deep trouble.

Luckily it is possible to develop these methods, one example is to use solar thermal energy to refine silicon in to solar grade material. Of course the way to cut sicilcon wafers is being innovated so even if energy is spend on refining it, the energy per wafer is less because the wafer is thinner. If processes don’t become more efficient, they may simply be powerde by renewables.

The effect of using renewables to make renewables is that it lowers their cost

Aluminium smelting for frames is also rapidly turning to renewables, in Iceland it’s geothermal, and at a dutch plant the energy source of choice is cheap wind and solar from Germany. Still it requires a deliberate strategy to transform the complete production chain of solar panels and wind turbines into ones only supported by renewables (not even for its lubricants, coatings or plastics).

The truth is that the fight is never over. The fossil industry is driving misguided pessimism regarding renewables, apathism regarding our fossil fuel dependence. Ben van Beurden of Shell does this openly and with a sense of arrogance, becuase he feels himself privy to unique knowledge of the problems we’d face if we suddenly shut down oil. Because of that possible shock he doesn’t take anyone serious who even contemplates an exit.

As renewable energy systems come offline the cost of replacement if it requires fossil fuels will be high. To prevent the situation that renewable installations are not replaced or even maintained we need to build the infrastructure to do so without fossil fuels.

We already noted that using fossil fuels is a limit to growth, but if we don’t make renewables independent of them the availability of fossil fuels will keep determining the volume of renewables, and will ultimately choke it as people choose short term fossil energy to survive in a hostile world. The fossil exit is not achieved by buying solar panels or wind turbines, but by making them without needing fossil fuels.

ref : rerenewal