From climate doom and gloom to a solar economy – technology provides tools to stop climate change

The solar economy has advanced to a point that enables turning climate change around.

Solar economy

The report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that has lately been in the spotlight has awoken many to anguish over the future of our globe. Is humanity doomed because of its self-indulgence or can we still find a way out? Are we allowed to fly, drive or eat meat? Is it irresponsible to have children?

Gloomy climate reports have generated hopelessness and despondency in people, which is an undesirable outcome. This should be fixed.

Roughly three quarters of all human-induced environmental burden comes from direct or indirect energy consumption, and the remaining quarter from land use changes and agriculture. The energy industry plays a significant role in creating a sustainable economic system. Instead of giving in to pessimism or indifference, we need to develop the energy system in a way that can stop the climate change.

Much has been done, but not enough. We have access to the tried and true clean energy options, such as hydropower, wind power, nuclear power, renewable diesel, biogas, energy efficient heat pumps and LED lighting. Nevertheless, we are still not fully aware that technology enables making nearly all human activity carbon neutral.

In addition to current biofuels, hydropower and nuclear power, the large-scale implementation of a solar economy is pivotal. In the long and dark Nordic winter, it could be backed up with other climate neutral technology. In a solar economy, energy systems are emission-free and practically inexhaustible. Solar energy exploiting technologies have advanced to a level that enables halting the climate change.

Comprehensive, low-cost, ecological and renewable energy solution

The most highly populated countries are located along the so-called Sun Belt. These countries could transition to the use of solar power even without building traditional electricity network systems. Small regional off-grid networks supported by digital technology would suffice to introduce clean energy to remote villages and consequently provide access to information and education.

Part of the electricity generated in the daytime can be stored for night-time consumption with, for instance, resource efficient batteries. In sunny countries, electricity produced by solar panel power plants currently costs less than € 15/MWh, and Fortum forecasts that for instance in Chile the price will gradually decline to € 6/MWh. Also the price of wind power has plummeted and is still on the decline. Even in Finland, the cost of wind power is, despite many nationally imposed obstacles, already clearly below € 30/MWh (compared to the petrol price of € 1.5/l, which corresponds to € 175/MWh).

We have access to a comprehensive, low-cost, ecological and renewable energy solution. It is based on a form of electricity that is not a burden on the environment and on products refined from it that enable climate neutral transportation and industry. For example, the Swedish steel industry titan SSAB has decided to shift its steel production from coal-based direct reduction to hydrogen direct reduction. In addition, the company has partnered up with an electricity company that is building wind power. Transitioning SSAB's plants in Finland and Sweden to hydrogen direct reduction and wind power will reduce carbon dioxide emissions in Sweden by ten per cent and in Finland by seven per cent.

Li Zhenguo, President of the world-leading manufacturer of solar panels LONGi Solar, assesses (https://vimeo.com/293990988) that 1000 GW of solar power will be installed annually over the next three decades, after which the panels must be renewed. Li considers the building of solar power as a continuous 1000 GW business. LONGi is now able to produce 28 GW of capacity a year, and soon this will increase to 45 GW.

Our globe has practically inexhaustible resources of silicon – a material required for the manufacture of solar panels. Silicon is the second most common element in the Earth's crust. China is aiming to transform its energy system and is also able to lead by example in the production of renewable energy devices. It already boasts the world's largest wind power capacity: 160 GW. This amounts to ten times Finland's peak output and a third of the world's total wind power capacity.

When the Chinese vision of an annual solar panel capacity of 1 TW becomes a reality, the panels will in 30 years with a 20 per cent operation time generate over 50 000 TWh of electricity each year. This panel capacity will double or triple the current global electricity production. As investments in solar power grow, coal-based power production can be significantly reduced.

South Korea introduces a Green Credit Card

Low-cost renewable electricity is used to break down water into oxygen and hydrogen. Hydrogen is an energy carrier, fuel and raw material, which will help to create carbon-neutral transportation, industry and food production. Even the current motor vehicles could be driven nearly carbon neutrally with power-to-fuel. The price of power-to-fuel is still higher than that of fossil fuels but is not lagging far behind in the price development. According to a dissertation by Ilkka Hannula of the VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland Ltd, with an electricity price of € 30/MWh, synthetic fuels cost roughly € 0.8–1/MWh, whereas fossil jet fuel is sold at approximately € 0.5/l.

Airlines should start offering climate neutral tickets without delay.

South Korea has introduced a Green Credit Card. It is a system that promotes the market of climate neutral products and an incentive for companies to produce and citizens to purchase environmentally sustainable products and services. Following the principles of the Green Credit Card, airlines should start offering climate neutral tickets without delay. For example, a return ticket to Bangkok would include a 300-euro increase if the consumer wishes to take a flight using climate neutral fuel. Nevertheless, air travel should be restricted because exhaust fumes in the upper atmosphere are harmful to the environment even if the fuel is carbon neutral. In the future, electric airplanes may offer a solution for shorter distances.

Also other modes of transportation could apply this approach. Fuel stations should offer fully renewable fuel to those who wish to contribute to the combat against climate change.

Even older cars can now run on domestic biogas, producing very little emissions and at a lower cost than fossil fuels. Finns can subscribe to electricity produced from wind power or hydropower, which is an immediate climate action in itself. If the price of renewable electricity keeps declining and electricity-based fuels are produced more efficiently, their prices will become more competitive. This trend should be encourage through political decision-making.

Electric car technology is also developing. Once we have access to energy and material efficient electric vehicles that have a small battery (e.g. 10 kWh) and a chemical energy storage, the fuel consumption of private cars may decrease to an extent that compensates for the higher price of climate neutral fuel. Journeys will start with low-cost grid electricity stored in the battery and the remainder will run on the chemical energy storage with good efficiency. This will eliminate the range issues of electric cars resource efficiently.

Decision-makers fear the economy will crumble beneath a comprehensive energy reform

Why, then, is the world not embracing low-cost solar or wind power? The answer often lies in the fact that they are not continuously available. Nevertheless, storing solar electricity as hydrogen or methane is an efficient and functional solution to the intermittence of availability.

When a significant share of solar electricity is transformed to hydrogen or heavier fuels for the energy system, industry and transport, the intermittence will no longer be an issue. The lights will stay on even in Finland despite a lack of wind and sunshine.

To make up for the limited solar and wind power, Finland can also rely on nuclear power in addition to the conventional solar economy resources – hydropower and bioenergy. By combining these resources wisely, we can transition to a carbon-neutral way of life within one generation. Meanwhile, we can learn from Germany's mistake and not abandon nuclear power, which in Germany resulted

in a catastrophic increase in brown coal consumption and peat combustion. In Finland, it is also a question of how well we are able to navigate the energy technology framework required for combatting climate change.

Authorities and complaints by citizens have slowed down or hindered the construction of emission-free wind power. Usually, the values behind these decisions are distorted.

Many decision-makers are also afraid that the economy will not be able to withstand a comprehensive energy reform. A significant share of energy consumption is still based on fossil coal, oil and natural gas, which are artificially low-cost. For example, consumers currently pay the same price for methane pumped from Siberia as they do for the least expensive solar electricity. Consumers of fossil fuels pay far too little for the emissions they release.

Everyday decisions promote a solar economy

The yellow vest protests in France provide an example of a lack of interest in environmental protection. People feel entitled to pay as little for fuels as they have before. In other words, we are not prepared to pay the price for transitioning to a solar economy.

This is how we damage our environment, alter the climate, trigger massive migration waves and climate wars, and end up paying an exceedingly high price.

The cost of the old energy system is high because it threatens our living environment and ultimately life on Earth. An energy system based on fossil energy sources is therefore extremely expensive. When we dare to define the actual price of fossil energy, it will be easier to make consumers understand their obligation to invest in clean energy.

Instead of climate pessimism, we can – through our contributions and purchase decisions – pursue a solar economy. We need to call for new climate decisions that enable a rapid transition to a solar economy. When we agree to pay the price, we can ensure that our beautiful world will be safe for our children.

Written by Professor Juha Pyrhönen and Associate Professor Julia Vauterin-Pyrhönen, LUT School of Energy Systems. First published (in Finnish) in the Kanava journal in April 2019.

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