Prem Shankar Jha | 7 DECEMBER, 2015
Paris draws a blank
NEW DELHI: Days before the Paris conference on climate change began it was apparent that, like the Copenhagen summit of 2009, it too would yield no solutions. This would happen inspite of the volte face that the larger developing countries have made in the intervening years. These countries had gone Copenhagen determined to defend their rights under the Kyoto Protocol because, as they rightly argued, they were being asked to forego, or at least limit, their development to help solve a problem they did not create.
Today all of them have already made hefty commitments to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, in advance of the conference. China has offered to reduce its emissions per dollar of GDP by 60 to 65 percent below the 2005 level and cap total emissions at that level in 2030. India has offered to reduce it by 33 to 35 percent, and Indonesia by 29 percent, below current levels by 2030.
The catch lies in the fact that while the OECD countries are committing themselves to making cuts in their total emissions, the developing countries, with the exception of Brazil, are promising only to reduce the ‘carbon intensity’ of their GDP growth.
In concrete terms this means that if China, which averaged a growth of 9.9 percent from 2005 till 2015, clocks only 7 percent between now and 2030 its GDP will still be close to eight times what it was in 2005. A 60 percent reduction in its emission-intensity will still mean that its emissions will be 60 percent more than they are today. By the same token if India were to continue growing at 7 percent for the next fifteen years, its targeted reduction of emission intensity will still leave its absolute emissions at twice the level of 2015. Other developing countries will show similar increases depending upon their rates of growth. Thus even if every country meets its INDC commitments, the annual emission of Greenhouse gases will be anything from fifty to a hundred percent higher than they are today. At that point we will be so close to the ‘tipping point’ that there will be nothing left to do except pray.
The cause of the impending failure at Paris is the same as the cause of the failure at Copenhagen: our bedrock belief that there are still no alternative sources of energy that can replace fossil fuels. This is not, of course, what our governments say, but the fact that that 1,199 new coal based power plants, with four times the present coal-based generating capacity of the USA are being planned or constructed betrays what they believe.
Paris will therefore fail and, in the coming years the anger of the rich will focus more and more sharply on the upstart poor. Does this have to happen? Had there been no alternative to fossil fuels it would have been unavoidable. But, contrary to world-wide belief, fossil fuels are no longer indispensable. Two of the dozens of alternative energy technologies that scientists have been experimenting with during the past four decades have matured to the point where they can make the world largely free of fossil fuels in as little as four decades. These are harnessing solar energy to produce electricity, and converting biomass into transport fuels and petro-chemicals.
Solar photovoltaic energy is already being deployed rapidly across the world, and ethanol, produced by fermenting starch, meets close to seven percent of the US’ transport fuel needs. But these can at most supplement, not replace, coal and nuclear power and oil-based transport fuels. That capacity rests in two so far neglected variants: Concentrated Solar Thermal (CSP) Power and the thermo-chemical conversion of biomass , via gasification, into any form of transport fuel one may desire.
CSP power can do this because, unlike photo-voltaic plants, its production is not limited by the availability of sunlight. As a result while the latter produce power for at most five to six hours a day, i.e 800 to 2100 hours a year, there is already a solar thermal plant in Spain that has been delivering 6,500 hours of power a day for the last four years. This is “Gemasolar”, a 20 MW, solar thermal plant set up at Fuentes de Andalucia in Seville.
Gemasolar is able to do this because it stores the sun’s heat in molten salt, at next to no cost for and with very little loss of energy for upto 15 hours a day. As a result it is able to provide power on demand with a backup supply of fossil fuel sufficient to meet only 15 percent of its generating capacity, in case of prolonged bad weather. In the summer of 2013, it celebrated its second anniversary by supplying uninterrupted power to the town for 36 days.
Transport fuels are already being produced from biomass, and currently supply 7 percent of the US’ gasoline. But the fuel is ethanol, whose supply is limited because it has so far been produced only from food crops. Ethanol is therefore a blind alley. The real future lies in a thermo-chemical process called gasification. This yields carbon monoxide and hydrogen, jointly considered the basic building blocks of organic chemistry, which can easily be synthesized into any petro-chemical or transport fuel that we now produce from crude oil.
Industry has been doing this, using coal or natural gas as the feedstock, through a process known as the Fischer–Tropsch synthesis for almost a century. But technologies for efficiently gasifying biomass have been perfected only in the last decade . One in particular is capable of doing this with any type of biomass, from wood waste to crop residues to sewage sludge and municipal solid waste, and it too is coming rapidly into commercial use. This is plasma gasification.
Producing transport fuels by this route is already commercially viable. In 2012 British Airways signed an 11 year power purchase agreement with a US based company named Solena fuels to buy Aviation Turbine fuel produced from London’s garbage, using this process, at market prices. Three other airlines – Quantas, SAS and Lufthansa have also signed memoranda of intent with Solena.
Solar thermal and Photo voltaic power have also become competitive with coal-fired power in most parts of the world. An auction of the power purchase agreement for a 500 MW solar photovoltaic power plant in the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh was won by the US-based company SunEdison, at Rs 4.63 – under 7 US cents – a unit. Large solar thermal power plants have yet to be set up in India, but a calculation of its production cost, based on the technical specifications of the Gemasolar plant, shows that despite India’s prohibitively high interest rates, a clone of the plant set up in the Rajasthan desert would be able to provide power at about the same price.
Not only do solar thermal power plants not damage the environment, but they take only two to three years to build. Coal fired plants take a minimum of five, nuclear eight, and large hydro between ten and 12 years. The saving in time cuts down their true cost to society to a fraction of the cost of conventional power.
Another critically important advantage that these two technologies share is the ease with which they slip into the existing energy infrastructure of the world. Solar thermal power stations require the same super-critical steam turbines that modern coal-based plants use and can be fed into existing power grids at no extra cost.
Fischer-Tropsch transport fuels enjoy a similar advantage over ethanol and Palm-diesel oil, because they can be produced from crop wastes such as wheat and rice straw, bagasse and sugarcane leaf and stumps, cotton stalks and crushed seed and black liquor, a toxic effluent from the paper industry that is currently dried and briquetted for use as boiler fuel.
Producing biofuels by this route will therefore, at one stroke double, or even treble, the productivity of agro-based industries, and increase farm incomes by three to four times. In developing countries it will, very largely, mitigate the impact of drought because when farmers lose their food crop, the will still have immensely valuable crop residues to sell to the biofuels industry.
These two technologies can therefore not only make the transition from coal to solar power painless, but transform the future of the world, and most particularly of the economic “South”. Just these two, of the plethora of technologies that have been proposed and explored by scientists and giant corporation, have the capacity to end the conflict between development and the environment that has been dragging the human race closer to its civilisational demise ever since the dawn of the industrial age.
(Prem Shankar Jha has been a journalist since 1966, and has written on renewable energy, and later climate change, since the first oil shock of the 1970s. From 1985 to 1987 he was the member for renewable energy of the Energy Panel of the World Commission on Environment and Development. In 1988 he was awarded the energy journalist of the year award by the Washington DC – based International Association for Energy Economics. He is the Author of a forthcoming book titled The Solar Dawn: The last Energy Shift).