Seven renewable energy applications that shouldn’t be underestimated

This article is available in Bulgarian.

Renewable energy sources are taking an increasingly visible place in the global generation and consumption of energy. Many people believe in a “renewables revolution” and think that these sources can and will replace all other sources of energy in a short amount of time. Since I have the habit of commenting on this utopian idea often in other articles, it might seem like I am pessimistic when it comes to renewables, especially in regards to solar and wind. This is not true.

Seven examples of working renewable energy solutions

We all know that for a long time now photovoltaic panels have been supplying the international space station and various satellites with electricity. We see panels more often on traffic lights, street lighting, cellular stations and on other kinds of infrastructure, including houses in remote locations like fields, forests, mountains and lakes. In recent years the technologies for using renewables and storing electricity with batteries developed significantly and prices fell drastically, which now allows for their wider adoption in many more contexts. Here are seven examples of thoughtful, working applications of solar and wind energy that have a significant role in displacing fossil fuel use on a global scale:    

  1. Water heating: Few people know that up until 2018 the installed solar heating collectors in the world had more combined power than that of all photovoltaic panels, which we normally associate with the renewables revolution. The construction and use of solar heaters has largely taken place naturally – they are simply the most efficient method of using solar power. Perhaps because they are not associated with politics, subsidies and large projects, they have gone largely unnoticed, but they are an increasingly common sight even in Bulgaria, including on my own house. Unfortunately, the large public support for solar electricity is draining resources and the global market for thermal collectors has been shrinking for five years in a row.     
  2. Islands: Renewables are already providing electricity for the consumption of entire islands, where there are no significant industrial users and electricity was until recently being generated entirely by diesel generators. One of the better examples of this transition is from the Hawaiian Islands.
  3. Remote villages: Renewables provide electrical supply to remote villages which are not likely to be connected to centralized power grids anytime soon. This is especially critical for countries in the third world where large numbers of people are able to refrigerate their food and medicine, and access light and the internet thanks to a combination of solar panels and batteries. The improvement in their quality of life thanks to these systems should not be underestimated. Due to the lack of infrastructure and large landmass, Africa is the center for these types of applications
  4. Water desalination: Renewables are on their way to becoming the cheapest source of energy for large water desalination plants. These plants use enormous quantities of electricity – in 2018 they used 200 million kWh per day, with energy making up 55% of their operational costs. Their operations can be adjusted to the fluctuations of solar energy, and the increasing need for fresh water in desert and coastal regions is an excellent match to the large and constant solar irradiance found at those same locations. The scale of some projects is inspiring.    
  5. Agriculture: Biomass and biogas have been providing significant amounts of the agricultural sector’s energy needs. Lately, solar and wind have also made headway. They are excellent solutions for pumping water, powering watering systems for large territories and heating greenhouses. Once again, these renewables are predominantly replacing diesel generators. Powering Agriculture is a massive initiative by charitable organizations, which aims to speed up the rate of implementation of these kinds of solutions.
  6. Metal mining: Renewables are increasingly used by mining companies – especially those that extract metals like gold, copper, lithium and others. Mine sites are often located in remote regions, while the processes for the continuous transport of ores and the need for water supplies both require large quantities of energy, which has traditionally been supplied by diesel generators. Projects for creating autonomous mine site power systems using renewables are growing like mushrooms in countries like Australia and Chile, where these practices are becoming standard.
  7. Oil and gas drilling: Almost 10% of petroleum is used in the process of extraction, transportation and refining activities. Renewables are increasingly saving significant quantities at every step. The supply systems for unconventional oil and gas wells are an excellent example in this regard. These wells are numerous and with short lifespans, which makes building electrical supply grids to them pointless. Another example of using renewables in this sector comes from long oil and gas pipelines, which require series of pumping stations along their length – these can be supplied with decentralized renewable sources. Some of these projects, such as the one in Oman, are enormous.

The incredible success of the Bulgarian company IPS around the world – in Indonesia, Paraguay, the Arab states and the recent announcement of a deal with Saudi Aramco – is predominantly due to the application of the six innovations mentioned above, and especially the last.  Thanks to the sun, wind and batteries, greater quantities of cheaper oil and gas are able to reach us, which once again leads to an increase in carbon emissions.

What is the common link between all of the listed applications?

  1. A lack of a power grid: Often projects that are not linked to a local power grid have the most to gain.
  2. Large solar and wind capital: Almost all projects are being developed at locations with a large renewable resource capital – high solar radiation (Latin America, Australia, Africa, Asia) and constant and predictable wind (islands, coasts).
  3. Pairing with electrical storage systems: The large scale use of renewables in the applications mentioned above is only possible when they are paired with battery storage systems, diesel generators or production of gas or hydrogen. Some of the especially large projects are even linked with pumping and storage stations, which for now remain the most effective technological means of storing large amounts of energy.
  4. Replacing diesel fuel: Large quantities of diesel fuel with high market costs are often saved.
  5. A search for autonomy and energy independence: Often this is the key factor that motivates the use of renewable solutions – fuel deliveries are either difficult or add great upkeep costs to the operations.

The exceptions for the above conditions are countries or regions with perfect conditions for generating electricity using solar and/or wind such as Australia, Germany, Netherlands, Spain and California, where the cost of electricity has increased over the last few years, mainly due to the large amounts of renewable energy used in the grid. An interesting paradox has emerged out of this dynamic: the high quantities of renewable electricity in the grid have forced some companies to invest in building their own renewable capacity to avoid paying large electricity bills. At the end energy becomes so expensive for everyone that energy poverty starts to reemerge – a phenomenon that should have been overcome long ago. 

Figure 1. Countries and regions with the highest electricity prices in the world

The last example clearly shows why I don’t see a playing field for the large scale application of sun and wind power in centralized energy systems. I wrote about this in greater detail two years ago here.

There is no magical formula that can change this

The renewables revolution is actually an evolution – the sun and wind have no way to quickly and completely replace the reliable and controllable sources of high-density energy. The inevitable growth of centralized power grids, which supply regions with high standards of life, is possible only with the growth in consumption of conventional energy. There is no magical formula that can change this, unless we find a method of energy storage that is many times cheaper and less resource intensive when compared to modern batteries. Nevertheless many renewable applications are being implemented on a market basis and without subsidies even today.

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