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Solar and wind power lose their shine

It is exquisite that we are to place our energy future in renewables, the energy source most prone to the beast that we are trying to slay: climate change.

Non-renewables, by contrast, are least reliant on climate. Come hell or high water, coal, gas and oil can be pumped, refined and burned.

Fossil fuels are our natural store built from eons of climate change. They are our insurance against the effects of climate change.

The climate change gambit has always been a Goldilocks story. The speed and damage of climate change had to be not too hot (or rapid) and not too cold (or slow), it had to be just right. Too rapid or hot and renewables would never work. Too delayed or cool and the world could wait for better technologies. Renewables seemed right only in the just right scenario.

But, what if climate change creates more clouds, calms the wind, stops rivers flowing, or wipes out bio-crops in regions where panels, turbines, hydro and biofuel stock are located?

You would think CSIRO would research the risk. But it has nothing to say.

The US Environmental Protection Agency says no more than that “the impacts of climate change on wind and solar power is still a developing area of research”.

Both are happy to predict calamity in every other aspect of climate change.

Fortunately, some others have been thinking about it.

David MacKay, chief scientific adviser to Britain’s Department of Energy and Climate Change from 2009 to 2014, thought the idea of renewables powering Britain was an “appalling delusion”.

He said Britain should focus on nuclear power and carbon-capture technologies. The same could be said of many nations with the same climate – that is, much of northern Europe and the northern US.

However, he said solar could be an important power source in other countries, where sunny summers coincided with a big demand for electricity.

So, how are renewables going to cope, even in the right climate? Some researchers have been doing their homework, and all is not well in renewable-land.

There are big hopes for better energy efficiency in heating and cooling buildings. A US study looked at the effect of projected climate change in 10 climate zones across the US and concluded that buildings in half of the zones would miss the target of net-zero energy. “The climate-driven change in heating and cooling energy demand is the main driver for that failure.” (Shen and Lior, Energy, 2016).

There are big hopes for wind energy. A study of projected changes across southern Africa suggests long-term “mean wind resource potential” will “most likely” remain unchanged by 2050. However, “decreased wind speed during winter along the coastal South Africa is a problem because winter is the season of low wind speeds and high electricity demand’’ (Fant, Applied Energy, 2016).

And solar energy? A study of the Black Sea region projects no great disturbance for solar energy. Unfortunately, it excludes key variables for large-scale PV power generation such as atmospheric clearness, components of global solar radiation, reflected radiation related to surrounding surface albedo and sunshine hours at the daily, monthly and yearly scale (Gunderson, Environmental Science & Policy, 2015). Big holes there. Assessments for northern Europe suggest a 14 per cent loss of insolation (Jerez, Nature Communications, 2015).

Mackay was right.

And hydropower? A study of the impact of climate change on hydropower in Brazil, a huge source of energy, found most projects “highly susceptible to changes in water inflow patterns”. Energy will be lower because “the average precipitations are projected to decrease and the drown periods are likely to increase in the Amazonian region” (de Queiroz, Renewable Energy, 2016).

And in Europe? The estimated average annual variations in run-off in the Greater Alpine Region are within ±10 per cent, but up to -30 per cent for the warm-dry scenario in southern France and northern Italy (Wagner, Environmental Earth Sciences, 2017).

And biofuels? In The Philippines, biofuels, as well as the whole agriculture sector, are exposed to risks. It appears that the frequency of occurrence of strong typhoons is growing. Results here are not too bad: about 1 per cent of the biofuel feedstock yield is at risk (Stromberg, Environmental Science & Policy, 2011). Still, some heartache for a poor country.

All in all, renewables become less reliable the more Goldilocks needs them. It is time to rethink our climate response.