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Why renewables won’t solve our energy problems

Why renewables won’t solve our energy problems

Renewable energy is a popular topic. Solar, wind farms, tidal energy, battery storage – they’re all very real and very popular, technologies.

And these technologies are helping to wean us off our addiction to fossil fuels.

But let’s stop fooling ourselves that renewables are going to solve our long term energy problems or help tackle climate change in the short to medium term.

Why not?

Because until we reduce our energy usage, we are fighting a losing battle.

We’ve made the classic mistake of looking at a problem and deciding that in order to solve it, we should create more technology. In other words, build more stuff to generate more energy. In the meantime we’re forgetting (or ignoring) the fact that significant natural resources go into creating and shipping this renewable technology.

Fossil fuel and renewable energy generation side by side

Through group think and constant coverage of renewable energy technologies, we have skipped over the first very simple step to solving this problem – reduce the amount of energy we use. If we did that, we wouldn’t need to burn as much coal, nor build as many new wind or solar farms.

To use a crude analogy, if someone with serious weight problem goes to the doctor seeking help to lose that weight, the doctor doesn’t create new food for them. Instead the patient is given advice on how to better use the food that already exists. In other words, choose healthier and lower calorie foods, and eat less than before.

So why aren’t we doing that with our energy consumption? Why aren’t we focusing first on reducing how much we are using before we start building new ways of creating energy? Why aren’t we choosing existing technology to replace critical high consumption hardware?

I can already hear the counter argument to this - that we need to wean ourselves off fossil fuels altogether and only use renewable energy. And that is a goal I truly hope we reach.

But right now it only exists as a lofty goal, and as a planet we will be a lot closer to achieving that if we weren’t using as much energy on a daily basis.

Thankfully the tide is turning and smart companies have stopped blundering into microgeneration as a first step. Instead, they are setting out a technology roadmap which first reduces their consumption. This then allows them to focus on technologies which will generate renewable energy on site.

The first step on this roadmap is pure data analysis. How much energy is being consumed? And where? What are the big energy eaters and how can that consumption be cut?

For example, the majority of energy consumption in a standard warehouse is via lighting which typically represents around 90% of the energy cost and consumption. So it is logical to switch to energy efficient LED. For many companies, it makes financial sense to install LED lighting via Light as a Service, which removes the need for capex.

However, if you have a refrigerated warehouse, lighting will only be a small proportion of consumption. In this instance the first thing to be examined should be the fridges. Is more energy efficient cooling technology available? And if so, does it make financial sense to install it? (Because let’s face it, no company is going to do anything unless the numbers stack up.)

After reducing your consumption, the next step is to look at battery and solar. Battery storage can make sense if you have a low night rate and use most of your energy during the day. The opportunity exists to take energy from the grid during the night when the cost is low, and store it in batteries on site for use during the day. This reduces pressure on the grid and therefore reduces the need for new power stations to be built.

The UrbanVolt Energy Technology Roadmap

Solar is another form of microgeneration which many companies are now giving serious consideration to thanks to the falling cost and rising efficiency of the panels. However, depending on the local weather, solar will likely meet only a proportion of the energy needs of company.

In the end, there is only one thing which will have a measurable impact on reducing consumption globally - the will to do it.

Improving technology, government incentives, and tales about melting ice caps are all very well.

But until we all make a concerted effort to reduce consumption, renewable energy will remain a sexy but largely ineffectual topic.

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