Review: The Promise of an Affordable Transition to a Fossil Fuel Free Economy

While offering solutions and hope, Prem Shankar Jha’s book 'Dawn of the Solar Age: An End to Global Warming and to Fear' is a timely overview of the alarming consequences of global warming.

When the Paris climate summit concluded in 2015, there was a sense of achievement and relief. At last, all nations had agreed to take measures to mitigate climate change. Even then, experts had felt that this was too little and, perhaps, too late.

When the Paris Agreement came into effect on October 5, 2016, then US president Barack Obama admitted as much, saying:

“Even if we meet every target…we will only get to part of where we need to go.”

Since then, President Donald Trump has announced the withdrawal of the United States from the Paris Agreement. Today, even after 195 countries at the just-concluded United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP24) in Poland have agreed and adopted the Katowice Rulebook that lays down a roadmap for the implementation of the Paris Agreement for controlling emissions after 2020, the prognosis keeps getting bleaker.

Also read: We Can Limit Human-Induced Global Warming to 1.5℃, but It Will Be Painful

According to studies reported in the magazine Nature (August 2017), none of the major industrialised countries had met their pledged commitments and the sum of national pledges was not enough to keep global temperature rise to “well below 2 degrees C” which was the Paris Agreement target. The just-released findings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report calls for keeping the global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees C and the reduction of global emissions by 45 per cent by 2030.

Dawn of the Solar Age: An End to Global Warming and to Fear
Prem Shankar Jha
Sage Publications India, 2018

Prem Shankar Jha’s book, Dawn of the Solar Age: An End to Global Warming and to Fear, is the culmination of over 30 years of his engagement with this vital issue. It is extraordinary and timely as it not only gives a comprehensive overview in simple and lucid language of the disaster that is looming but also offers hope that we could actually enter into an era where the sun provides  all our electricity and transport energy needs. Jha makes a compelling case for the use of technologies which are proven and affordable and which  can drive the transition to a fossil fuel free economy and that too in the limited time available to mankind.

Jha illustrates the alarming consequences of global warming and climate change vividly. On December 22, 2016, the temperature at the North Pole was +0.4 degrees Celsius when it should have been lower than -25 degrees Celsius.

The melting of the polar ice cap is one of two “tipping points” according to British scientist James Lovelock, which is the point “beyond which global warming will set off a succession of changes in the earth’s biosphere which will make global warming self-reinforcing and take it out of human control”.

Half of the extreme weather events, such as hurricanes, severe floods, intense heat waves between 2011 and 2016 are, in the assessment of the World Meteorological Organization, due to the global warming that has already occurred. The planet needs to keep the concentration of carbon dioxide to below 450 ppm. This had crossed 400 ppm by 2012 and over 2 ppm are being added every year, making the 450 ppm target appear simply unattainable.

A neighborhood in the Philippines devastated by Typhoon Haiyan. Credit: Reuters/John Javellana

Since the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports began making the danger to mankind from climate change both imminent and stark, the puzzling question has been why industrialised nations with their enormous scientific and technical prowess had been doing so little to develop technologies and solutions which would enable the replacement of fossil fuels. Why has there been no grand project like the ones in the US to make the atom bomb during World War II, or, for the mission to send man to the moon? Here, Jha provides a genuine insight:

It lies in the enslavement of the human mind to a specific ideology — an enslavement that is so complete that few people are conscious of it. This is the ideology of the Free Market…Applied to the realm of energy, the sanctity of the Free Market virtually mandates leaving the choice of technologies that will succeed fossil fuels to the market. … and therefore the preserve of private enterprise. It was therefore a no-go area for governments.

Also read: Is Global Warming Making Us Sicker?

Jha asserts that the state, preferably a consortium of states, needs to take responsibility and assume leadership to push renewable energy technologies that can deliver.

The real breakthroughs in renewable energy in recent years have been in harnessing electricity from wind and solar photo voltaic (SPV) panels. These were initiated by aggressive state policy, primarily by Germany. Both have now become competitive vis-à-vis electricity from fossil fuels. Wind power as a result is growing rapidly in the world.

The temperature of water in the Arctic has changed very little so far because most of the sun’s heat has been absorbed by the melting of the ice. But this cushion will disappear the moment the last of the ice is gone. Credit: Reuters

But the total estimated feasible wind power potential on the planet is limited and can provide only a modest fraction of what is needed. SPVs have experienced a remarkable reduction in costs and are now being seen as a possible panacea.  The well-known limitation of SPVs is that it generates electricity only when the sun shines. If the electricity needs outside day time are to be met then fossil fuels would continue to be used, unless it is possible to store electricity generated in the day for use at night. Storage technology is a global buzz word these days. The challenge is to increase storage capacity and to lower its costs.

Jha strikes the right word of caution in drawing attention to the fact that all present storage battery technologies use lithium and other rare earth minerals. The supply of rare earth minerals on the planet is limited and there is no way that it can provide storage capacity on the scale needed to meet all the night-time needs of electricity in the world.

Also read: Policy Confusion, Cost Issues Cast a Shadow on India’s National Solar Mission Target

Jha zeroes in on two key technologies that hold out the promise of an affordable transition to a fossil fuel free economy: concentrated solar power (CSP) and biomass gasification.

CSP plants have the potential of bringing about a “solar thermal revolution” as they are able to use the sun’s energy to generate electricity when the sun is no longer shining. Mirrors are used to concentrate the sun’s rays to heat molten salt that can store heat for long periods. This heat is then used to generate electricity through conventional steam turbines.

As CSP plants do not use rare earth minerals, there are no constraints for them being scaled up to replace all fossil fuel usage for generating electricity in the world. Since only a few plants have been built in the world, there is considerable potential to improve the design of the mirrors, the heating system, to reduce costs and ensure trouble-free operation. Tariffs of some recent plants have come down to below 20 US cents per unit.  Jha argues that as these plants use conventional materials, if they were to be built in India, their tariffs should come down dramatically to 8 to 9 US cents per unit making it fully competitive to new coal-based power plants.

A solar thermal power plant. Credit: Facebook/Solar Reserve

Transportation is the largest user of petroleum.  Jha is right in drawing attention to the rare earths constraint limiting the extent to which electric vehicles can replace all automobiles. He sees the way forward through biomass gasification, using waste biomass in the form of crop residue and municipal solid waste to get liquid fuel for transportation. A research report concluded that “almost all types of biomass with less than 50% moisture content can be gasified…to produce a fairly uniform-in-quality fuel that could readily substitute for fossil fuels and fossil fuel derived products”. 

These would be methanol as a substitute for petrol and dimethyl ether (DME) for diesel and bio fuel for airplanes. Rough calculations show that there is enough crop residue waste, other biomass and urban municipal waste to fully meet the transport fuel needs of the world. There are a few frontier technologies for this which are proven. Large-scale competitive deployment would bring costs down and these may turn out to be cost competitive with present prices of crude oil. This thrust would have to be led by the state.

Also read: Karnataka’s Days in the Sun: The Paradox of Expanding Solar Parks

With proven technologies being available which could effectively avert the consequences of climate change, Jha wonders what is preventing the state from assuming leadership and acting decisively. He suspects that the enormous stakes of the global fossil fuel industry in preserving the status quo with, at best, modest progress in the use of renewables is a factor that needs to be understood and confronted in the industrialised countries. The faith in the market obscures understanding of the power of incumbents and their ability to delay or even derail disruptive change. The US is a good example of how even complete denial can become politically dominant.

India has the late mover’s advantage. With smart state policy and action it can leapfrog into a global leadership role in the solar age. By creating value and hence a price for crop waste and other biomass, it can increase incomes of farmers and create jobs in rural areas, thus revolutionising agriculture by making it the supplier of energy for transport and industry. Further, by ending the burning of crop waste, the air pollution crisis faced by northern India every winter would be reduced. As biofuels replace petrol and diesel, air pollution from automobiles would cease to be an issue. India could stop using fossil fuels altogether surprising itself and the world.

This review was first published in Biblio: A Review of Books. Read the original here

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