It may have lost all its Dáil seats in the last election, but the Green Party has had a permanent impact on energy policy in that the Government has continued to promote “green” energy.
Battery-powered cars and wind- generated electricity are being strongly encouraged. Grants are being made available for solar panels on houses and the Government argues that “green” technology will be a major source of new jobs.
The recent announcement that a US-based energy company is to site wind turbines in three midland counties to supply electricity to the UK was greeted with enthusiasm by Government Ministers.
Nobody asked why the UK does not generate its own wind energy. Could it be that opposition to the turbines, because of the damage they do to the environment, is stronger in the UK than here?
David MacKay, a Cambridge physicist and author of Sustainable Energy – Without the Hot Air, estimates that for the UK to produce one-sixth of its electricity from wind, an area the size of Wales would have to be covered by wind turbines. And the best locations for wind farms are often the most scenic areas of a country.
Energy policy must address two issues: the depletion of fossil fuels and the contribution of the burning of such fuels to global warming. At present the world depends for about 85 per cent of its energy on fossil fuels.
Replacing fossil fuels is therefore a gargantuan task. To understand why generating even 50 per cent of our energy from renewable resources would be very challenging, we need to understand that the production of all energy needs energy – this is known as Energy Returned On Energy Invested (Eroei).
In a witty article comparing car travel with walking, David Timoney, director of the master of engineering (energy systems) programme at UCD, pointed out that if we measured the fossil fuel used to produce and transport the amount of food a person would need to consume to walk a mile, it may exceed the energy value of the petrol used in driving the same distance.
While wind energy, although requiring vast tracts of land, scores well on Eroei, biomass crops to produce ethanol not only use almost as much energy as they produce, they also may contribute significantly to world hunger. A biomass crop such as sugar cane, corn or miscanthus grass must be grown on relatively fertile soil which could be used for food crops.
In the case of corn, a food crop is being used to produce fuel. In 2008-2009, grain prices rose significantly on world markets as a result of the US increasing its production of bioethanol, leading to hunger and food riots in several poor countries.
Biofuel crops need fertilisers and pesticides, produced using fossil fuels, and in developed countries will be mechanically harvested using considerable energy. Producing bioethanol uses huge amounts of water, a diminishing resource, and creates polluting effluent.
Solar energy may seem to be the ultimate renewable resource but it, too, with present technology, fails the Eroei test. The production of current generation solar panels is very energy-intensive as the silicon base must be fired to more than 2,000 degrees.
Most solar panels are made in China using polluting technology. Considerable research is being undertaken to find cheaper methods of converting solar energy into electricity but an average household that installed currently available solar panels to produce only hot water would have to wait 50 years before it would save in fossil fuel consumption the energy used in producing the panels.
In the case of battery-powered cars, unless the electricity used to power the cars is from a renewable source, charging the battery simply replaces one type of fossil fuel with another, or shifts greenhouse gas emissions from one location to another. The batteries needed to power cars use lithium, a scarce metal, which is very energy-intensive and polluting to produce.
Renewable energy may contribute significantly to energy needs in the future but if we are to end our dependence on fossil fuels we will have to greatly reduce our energy use.
This will require lower living standards for people in the developed world: fewer car journeys, wearing more clothes instead of turning up the thermostat and taking showers only when needed rather than as a form of recreation.
It will also mean much less variety in food and very little foreign travel. The green motto is “reduce, reuse and recycle”. Many people are happy to reuse and recycle but reducing consumption is a much harder policy to sell.
Seán Byrne is a lecturer in economics at Dublin Institute of Technology.
|Wind Watch relies entirely
on User Funding