As I articulated recently in my speech in council, to tackle the climate emergency, we have to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, for which we have 2 alternatives. We can do less of the activities that emit, and we can reduce the emissions of the activity that remains.
There are many aspects of our lives that we need to tackle in order to reach our goal of carbon neutrality as local communities, as a nation and as a planet. This article is going to focus on energy production and whether a completely renewable energy supply is possible.
What is renewable energy?
Renewable energy is energy from a source that is not depleted when used, such as solar, wind and tidal. There are some forms of renewable energy that bend this definition slightly such as the energy created from waste (such as anaerobic digestion). Unlike fossil fuels, the waste generated to create this energy can be replenished during human time frames.
Renewable energy has been used for hundreds of years; The wind powering sail boats, and windmills to grind grain being just 2 examples. Sadly, humans have turned their attention to polluting, dirty energy sources such as coal, oil and gas, and this is putting pressure on our planet. We all know the damage this is causing and the importance of moving to renewable sources. The big question is, can it be done?
Are biofuels renewable?
Biofuel is a fuel derived from living matter and includes liquid, solid and gas fuels. It is classed as a form of renewable energy (as it can be replenished during human time frames). The most common biofuel is biomass, which is solid plant material, the most widespread being wood. Whether biofuel can truly be classed as renewable depends on how its produced, and most have a big limitation – the amount of land they need.
According to Siham Drissi at UNEP (United Nations Environment Programme) “while biofuel initiatives are meant to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, they may affect the ecosystems, water supply and landscape on which indigenous peoples depend, ultimately leading to an increase in monoculture crops and plantations and a consequent decline in biodiversity, food and water security.”
A UN report states that “up to 849 million hectares of natural land – nearly the size of Brazil – may be degraded by 2050 should current trends of unsustainable land use continue.”
Biofuels actually put up the price of food because farmland is switched over to fuel production meaning there is less land available for food. You could argue that some crops, such as fast-growing trees could be grown on land unsuitable for food crops, so what’s the problem? According to Danny Chivers, “in practice the companies involved prefer to use the most productive land available in order to maximize their profits. This means creating plantations on land that is currently covered by forests or used for agriculture.”
There is also the issue that biomass isn’t actually better when it comes to carbon emissions. In 2018, a letter signed by nearly 800 scientists sent to the European Union states that “even if forests are allowed to regrow, using wood deliberately harvested for burning will increase carbon in the atmosphere and warming for decades to centuries – as many studies have shown – even when wood replaces coal, oil or natural gas. The reasons are fundamental and occur regardless of whether forest management is “sustainable.” Burning wood is inefficient and therefore emits far more carbon than burning fossil fuels for each kilowatt hour of electricity produced.”
Here in the UK, Drax power station, whilst phasing out coal, is now burning wood pellets. “In 2019, Drax burned 6.88 million tonnes of pellets made from at least 13.75 million tonnes of green wood. By comparison, the UK’s total annual wood production was just 11.1 million tonnes.” In other words, Drax is having to import wood pellets and is actually receiving renewable energy subsidies for fuelling climate change. And let’s not forget the government ignoring the planning inspector recommendation to refuse permission for Drax’s new gas power station as it goes against the Climate Change Act 2008.
There will be a place for biofuels in our carbon neutral future, but they must be used with extreme caution and we must not let companies use it as a way of greenwashing.
Can Renewables Meet Our Energy Needs?
There are many out there that will tell you that renewable technologies cannot meet our global energy demand and we will still need fossil fuels to plug the gap. The problem is that predicted global levels of energy consumption are based on the current trajectory and assume that we will carry on along the same path that we are today. This path has the wealthy minority consuming the majority of global energy with mass inequality and poverty. Is this a future we really want?
The question is not can renewable energy meet our future projections, but can renewable energy meet our future needs. We need to address how much we really need.
There is a difference between primary energy use (the amount of energy supplied) and final energy demand (the amount of energy used). Danny Chivers calculates that “38,500KWh of primary energy in the EU supplies around 27,000KWh of final ‘useful’ energy. Getting 27,000KWh of useful energy per year in a 100-per-cent renewable scenario would require just 33,500KWh of primary energy per year, because we’d no longer be losing all that waste heat from burning fossil fuels.” So there is something to be said for efficiency.
Should efficiency solely be restricted to energy production though? We waste huge amounts of energy. Many homes are badly insulated, 55% of British journeys under 5 miles are made by car or van, and we still produce and discard copious amounts of plastic tat.
In 2013, the Centre for Alternative Technology (CAT) produced a report called Zero Carbon Britain: Rethinking the Future. The report details a “technically robust scenario in which the UK has risen to the challenge of climate change by rapidly reducing greenhouse gas emissions to net zero. It demonstrates that we can do this using only currently available technology, whilst maintaining a modern standard of living, eating well, and meeting our energy demand at all times with 100% renewable UK energy sources.”
There is a section called ‘Power Down’ in the report (from page 38), which demonstrates how we can reduce our energy demand by 60% including more public transport, retrofitting homes and businesses and more local production of produce. It also requires frequent fliers to cut down on the number of flights they take to the same amount someone on an average UK income does. What this means is that we can still have a comfortable lifestyle but a less wasteful one with our lifestyles consuming approx. 13,000KWh per person.
If globally the per capita amount of 13,000KWh was consumed, firstly, it’s important to note that this would be an increase for a large proportion of the world’s population which is a huge positive. Secondly, renewable energy is underutilised globally, but according to it’s potential, as outlined in the table on page 115 of Danny Chivers book, has the ability with existing technologies (not to mention the advances in technology) to meet global demand if we balance our ‘need’.
The Dangers of Renewables.
Simply transitioning from fossil fuels to renewables isn’t in itself necessarily the best approach. No form of energy is impact free, and whilst renewable technologies are far better than fossil fuels, they must still be used sensitively. Whilst technologically it is possible to shift to a 100% renewable world, there are still social, political and economic challenges to face.
The fossil fuel industry has been busy trying to squash renewable energy initiatives. They only consider alternatives to their dirty business if they can get quick profits and subsidies whilst maintaining their business models. Companies like BP and Shell have moved into biofuels as it means they don’t have to change their core business practices, and Drax as previously discussed, into biomass. It’s about exploiting maximum profit with very little consideration for the environment and people. According to Danny Chivers “if carried out in the wrong way, large renewable projects could develop along the same neo-colonial and racist lines as our current fossil-fuel industry, where the rights of indigenous peoples around the world are trampled in the pursuit of ‘cheap’ energy for the industrialized nations.”
This is one of the reasons why it is Liberal Democrat policy to not just decarbonise our energy, but to decentralise it too, promoting community energy. Not only is this fairer, but it also helps boost local economies, helps tackles fuel poverty and helps make local energy supply more secure. The Local Electricity Bill, which is on its way through Parliament, will go a long way to helping with this decentralisation because currently there are disproportionate costs that favour the large energy companies. Wokingham Liberal Democrats are calling on Wokingham Borough Council to pledge their support for this bill to ensure its acceptance. The more local authorities that pledge their support, the more chance it has of becoming law. And we can all benefit from a much fairer way of producing and providing renewable energy.
 Although we don’t want to be in a situation where we’re throwing away more food than we need to create this energy, and as such, this should be limited to unavoidable waste.
 Chivers, Danny, Renewable Energy: Cleaner, Fairer Ways to Power the Planet, 2015, New Internationalist Publications Ltd.
 There are disparities with current energy consumption per capita with wealthy countries consuming substantially more energy than poorer countries.
 For example mining for raw materials or the displacement and destruction caused by hydro-electric dams.