Professor Christian Breyer is Professor of Solar Economy at the Lappeenranta University of Technology’s School of Energy Systems in Finland. He recently raised eyebrows in energy circles when he claimed, in a paper, that there are no scientific roadblocks on the way to a fully renewable future.
“Building a new coal-fired power plant today is not a good proactive investment if we are to survive as a civilian society. It is a no brainer if you put all the facts on the table,” says a typically energetic Breyer, who as an academic has the self-claimed luxury of being able to say outrageous things sometimes, and who has authored over academic 200 papers about solar energy and renewables. “Big fossil fuel-based energy players are going the way big tobacco did 20 years ago.”
By debunking myths related to costs, lack of wind and cloudy days, which sceptics of renewable energy have raised for years, Breyer is championing a 100% renewable future in energy generation by 2050(-ish).
Breyer’s seminal paper, titled ‘Response to ‘Burden of proof: A comprehensive review of the feasibility of 100% renewable-electricity systems,’ was published in May 2018 in the Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews, a scientific journal, and is already one of its most downloaded articles.
The article, written together with academic colleagues from other universities in South Africa, the Netherlands, Germany, and Denmark, was, as its title suggests, a point-by-point rebuttal to critical voices in an earlier paper claiming that environmental alternatives like wind and solar are too expensive and unwieldy for the world economy, and would require a complete restructuring of the energy sector.
But Breyer’s paper states: “Critics have challenged studies for purportedly not taking sufficient account of the variability of wind and solar, the scalability of some storage technologies, all aspects of system costs, resource constraints, social acceptance constraints, energy consumption beyond the electricity sector, limits to the rate of change of the energy intensity of the economy, and limits on capacity deployment rates. Many of these criticisms have been rebutted either directly or are addressed elsewhere in the literature.”
And the paper continues: “As we demonstrated, 100% renewable systems that meet the energy needs of all citizens at all times are cost-competitive with fossil fuel-based systems, even before externalities such as global warming, water usage, and environmental pollution are taken into account. The authors [of the previous study] claim that a 100% renewable world will require a ‘reinvention’ of the power system; we have shown here that this claim is exaggerated: only a directed evolution of the current system is required to guarantee affordability, reliability, and sustainability.”
In his day job at the Lappeenranta University of Technology, Breyer works with a team of about 20 academics from all over the world pouring over wind/solar datasets mapped out in the 50 kilometre increments and in full hourly resolution for more than 20 years across the world, and country-by-country, to prove their point that powering the world with 100% renewables is indeed possible.
“It is challenging for the renewable energy deniers to argue against us,” claims Breyer.
Breyer’s argument is long-winded and rich in detail to say the least, yet very pragmatic.
To paraphrase his point, many of the world’s economies taken together have reached a tipping point where renewable energy sources are starting to make economic sense. For instance, 25% of the world’s total PV capacity was added to the market in the last year alone as prices have dropped continuously and wind is already big business. Petrochemical-dependent countries like Norway and Saudi Arabia are starting to see the writing on the wall when it comes to their fossil fuel resources and are starting to invest heavily in alternatives to become environmental leaders in their own right.
Another example, among many, is how Germany powered 100% of its whole national grid demand on 1 May, 2018 with renewable energy from wind and solar. Other countries like Denmark, Portugal, Spain, Costa Rica, and the UAE have run similar tests.
“It is happening very fast,” says Breyer. “Renewable energy no longer costs more to produce than conventional sources. It is an increasingly common narrative around the world.”
But sceptics would counter how there is still a need for fossil-fueled engines and generators to take up the slack if the winds were to die down in the North Sea, for example.
“That is simply not true,” claims Breyer, explaining how it is now possible to replace fossil fuels with a mix of flexibility options, such as controllable bioenergy and hydro reservoirs, storage solutions, grid flexibility, and progressive demand side management with heat pumps, electrolysers for the future hydrogen demand, battery electric vehicles, and biofuels. However, the grids still have a long way to go to be fully optimised.
Part of this solution had some star appeal in June 2017 when Jamie Hyneman, of Mythbuster television show, helped inaugurate the Soletair system on the campus of the Lappeenranta University of Technology, which essentially turns hydrogen and CO2 (from air) with the help of catalytic synthesis into hydrocarbons suitable for fuel and plastics production.
Wärtsilä is all ears.
“The energy landscape is in transition towards more flexible and sustainable energy systems. We envision a 100% renewable energy future,” says Saara Kujala, General Manager, Business Development, Energy Solutions, Wärtsilä.
Wärtsilä particularly welcomes the academic research around biofuels and other alternative energy systems because the company is staking its future on them.
“We really aim to create a common voice across the industry when we speak about renewables with customers, utilities, and other stakeholders. And in most cases, as Breyer explains, it is apparent that it is no longer a sensible investment to invest in coal or other inflexible baseload generation. Wind and solar, together with the flexible capacity, lead the transition to high renewable energy systems. The last step to fully 100% renewable systems will be offered by synthetic and biofuels to replace fossil ones,” says Kujala.
Disclaimer: Breyer’s claims only apply to the power generation sector. Heating, transport and industrial uses are a separate field of study.