“The great hope for a quick and sweeping transition to renewable energy is wishful thinking”
– Vaclav Smil
Sustainable energy generation is the need of the hour but the promise of its delivery in the next 20 years, as per popular predictions, is far from a feasible reality. There has been a lot of noise surrounding the transition to renewables. Let us take a look as to why such a shift would require much longer.
The majority of the predictions that are meted out in the renewable sector, particularly solar energy, stems from an observation by Intel co-founder Gordon Moore popularly known as Moore’s Law. Moore’s Law states that “the number of transistors on a chip doubles every year while the costs are halved”. The age of computers and the silicon revolution certainly played out his observation. This has stirred the imaginations of renewable energy aficionados and Moore’s law was adopted by extension to apply to the sector as silicon photovoltaic cells are the main components required for solar energy generation. The comparison, however, is not applicable to solar energy for the simple reason that the technical research, innovation and application in this sector do not follow such a trend as that of doubling microprocessor performance every 18 months (Moore’s Law). This illustrates the inherent flaws in some of the more optimistic predictions that have been laid out.
A Game of Numbers
The figures that are often thrown around to describe the progress in the renewable sector do not do justice to the reality of the phenomenon. For instance, take the case of the data released by the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) stating that renewable energy generation capacity grew by 8.3% in 2017. This percentage seems quite flashy but in actuality, the base value upon which it is calculated is quite low and even a relatively trivial growth from such a small base would yield quite appealing percentages. Therefore, the actual proliferation of renewables is quite low in terms of usable output.
Difficulty of integration
There is a variety of promising research in the renewables arena and we can expect an energy transition somewhere far along in the future. It is important to note here that the integration of renewables in the current scenario is a tad troublesome due to the extensive corporate and government investments that have gone to laying out the infrastructure to facilitate the production and use of fossil fuels. China’s $300 billion investment in its coal sector is a typical example of the above phenomenon and depicts an important factor that has to be accounted for whilst making predictions in this sector.
The transition to renewables is a surety and must happen at some point for humanity to continue their tenure on earth. The pace of this transition, however, has been blown out of proportion by “wishful thinking” and the promise of a fossil fuel free society in the next couple of decade appears to be just that.