Electric power production has been at the core of recent industrial revolutions. With the onset of the Fourth and Fifth Industrial Revolutions, this role will become only more central as even decision-making becomes electrified. The rise of renewable energy is of central importance. But in order to discuss the importance of renewable energy, it is necessary to first define what it is.
Power (electricity) can be produced from any source of energy. That source can be renewable or nonrenewable. Renewable-energy sources include those resources that can be considered to exist in perpetuity. Sunshine is a good example of an infinite energy resource. By contrast, other sources are more finite in nature, such as oil or natural gas. Nonrenewables have been the main source of power generation during the last century. However, that is expected to change for two reasons.
Why move toward renewables?
First, the world is expected to go through climate change, which will see its climate warming. It is postulated that reducing carbon dioxide (C02) emissions will help slow down global warming and hence reduce its negative effects.
A second argument regards renewable energy as a way to achieve energy independence, as most nonrenewables are located in the volatile Middle East. Since energy plays a central role in value creation, the prosperity of the entire world could be held hostage by trouble in the Middle East. Additionally, the energy channels of individual countries can be blocked due to hostilities with other nations—Europe discovered this the hard way during the Russo-Georgian conflict of 2008.
For these reasons, a global narrative has been formed outlining the future sources of energy that will be used for power generation.
Narrative and reality
Currently, the narrative that views nonrenewable power generation as a “temporary” technology, with nonrenewable energy labeled as “transitional fuel”, is gaining in popularity. According to this narrative, the world is producing too much power from nonrenewable-energy sources, an undesirable outcome. In order to counter this “bad” energy sourcing, renewable-energy sources are being introduced into the global economy at breakneck speeds. Once renewable energy has been established to the required scale, all nonrenewable-energy sources can be happily retired in order to attain a green and energy-independent world.
However, the reality is the opposite. Not only will nonrenewable energy play an important role in the deployment of renewable energy, but it is also expected to play a major role once renewable energy has been deployed to its full scale.
Nonrenewables: big brother helping “small brother” gather steam
Before one can explain how nonrenewables will catalyze growth in renewables, it is important to define the scope of renewables. Essentially, energy can be of two types: variable and non-variable. Non-variable energy sources are more stable in nature and include traditional sources of fuel such as hydroelectricity (hydel). In comparison, variable renewable-energy resources include solar and wind power. These sources are less dependable because their power production is subject to variation within a day and across the seasons.
Most nonrenewable sources of energy have been in use over the last six decades, and as a result, their technologies have matured. Matured technologies will not provide the needed growth. Rather, it will be variable renewable energy that will grow to make the world more environmentally sustainable. Before one can discuss the interdependence of variable renewable-energy and nonrenewable-energy sources, it is important to clarify the nature of variable power production.
Nature of variable power production
The defining characteristic of variable renewable energy is its lack of a stored energy source. This caveat raises two important issues. First, renewable energy often becomes unreliable. This is because the weather that generates that energy is volatile. Second, variable power production is defined by sudden fluctuations in power. These two implications will play an important role in deciding the future position of both renewable and nonrenewable energy.
Nonrenewables help the implementation of renewables
Existing energy technology can help speed up the implementation of renewable energy in many ways. For example, steam-generating power plants adapt their power-generation mechanisms to ensure that varying power loads do not affect the efficiency of generating units. This is done through a sliding-pressure mechanism. Traditionally, when a power system has had to operate at lower capacity, it has meant that the efficiency of the power plant would also go down. This is similar to the principle of a car that maintains maximum efficiency when going at around optimal speed. With a sliding-pressure mechanism, power turbines can be made to revolve slower while still maintaining energy conversion. This is done through varying the pressure. Employing such technologies will ensure that the installation of power plants does not lead to increased generation by inefficient peaking power plants.
Nonrenewable-energy power plants can help in funding the subsidies for renewable-energy power-production plants. Traditionally, variable renewable energy is often subsidized on the grounds that these subsidies will pave the way for learning-curve advancements that will drive down the cost of power generation in the future. Although the environmentalists and variable renewable-energy power-generation industries are thankful for these subsidies, taxpayers may not be as happy. Nonrenewables can solve this problem by becoming a conduit for taxes that are then spent on subsidies for variable renewable-energy power generation. These types of subsidies are often referred to as cross-subsidies.
Nonrenewable-energy facilities can also be good opportunities for the hybridizing of power facilities. When hybridized, renewable facilities are created on the grounds of nonrenewable facilities. This is justified as a means to maximize the return on energy investment (ROEI) of power projects. Hybridizing facilities maximizes ROEI because current facilities are already connected to the national grid, and therefore, no additional investment has to be made for synchronization with and connection to the grid.
Nonrenewable energy can also help a nation maintain the stability of its critical systems. This is because even if the relevant capacity of renewable-energy power production is installed in a system, its variability may result in the system not being able to meet peak demand. Nonrenewables can act as those dependable sources of energy for their grids.
All of the above characteristics of nonrenewable-energy power-generation systems will ensure that nonrenewables play the part of the big brother preparing the ground for the next generation of renewable-energy power technologies.
Long-term position of nonrenewable-energy power production
In the long-run, variable renewable energy will need nonrenewable energy in three ways. First, nonrenewables help keep a viable market for carbon-emission markets. Secondly, they help renewables deal with the growing power demand of an increasingly electrified transport sector. Finally, they also fund investment into grid mesh networks that will be required to create dependable renewable-energy-generation mechanisms.
Nonrenewable-energy generation can ensure the creation of a viable carbon-emission market. Carbon-emission caps are traded among the firms that demand these permissions and the firms that supply them. Variable renewable-energy power-generation firms make up the bulk of suppliers for these projects. Meanwhile, nonrenewable-energy power generators are major customers for such permissions. Therefore, the presence of nonrenewable-energy power generation will maximize the returns for renewable–energy power generation in the long-run.
In addition to helping the environment get greener via the carbon cap-and-trade market, the nonrenewable power sector will also help meet the greater demand of the electrified transport sector in the economy. The Fourth Industrial Revolution will see the transport sector “get electrified”. In order to meet this demand, the global power sector will have to produce an extra 155,000 terawatt-hours of power per annum. This means that with a variable renewable-energy availability of around 49 percent, the renewable-energy sector will have to add an additional 35.5 terawatt-hours of power-generation facility. It will be very difficult for the variable renewable-energy sector to fulfill this potential demand alone because renewable-energy resources will face resource constraints in terms of raw-material availability.
Finally, nonrenewable-energy power-generation units can become the investment vehicles for the transmission lines of variable renewable-energy generation. This is because the transmission cost of variable renewable-energy power generation is a fixed cost that gives zero return during large periods of time when the variable renewable energy is not being produced. Taxes on nonrenewable-energy power production can become good sources for funding such investments in transmission.
Due to the above reasons, nonrenewables have cemented their place in the power-generation matrix of the future.
Conventionally, nonrenewables are looked upon as “transitional fuels” that have no place in the future. However, this judgment is misplaced, since nonrenewables have a massive role to play in the short- as well as the long-term. In the short-term, nonrenewable energy will help speed up the deployment of renewable energy. While in the long-run, nonrenewables will help variable renewable-energy power meet the ever-larger demand of the electrified transport sector and will also provide a market for carbon-emission trading.