From Energy Hunting to Desert Business

By Conrad Roedern

10000 years ago a major revolution occurred: suddenly there was an abundance of food. Man went from hunter-gatherer to farmer. But in one area we are still hunter-gatherers: in the area of energy! We still gather wood, coal, oil gas and uranium on vast global hunting grounds. The whole world has been combed in our quest for energy. Even our feeding grounds are no longer safe! But the hunt causes problems! Huge problems! Climate change, health issues, shortages…the price is high in all respects. Fortunately the search for fossil fuels looses ground to a new revolution: the large-scale harvesting of sunshine. (adapted from Rob van Hattum’s “Here comes the Sun”)

Once this message has spread to the world’s poor and arid countries it must come to them like the prince’s wake-up kiss in the fairy tale of sleeping beauty. Sunshine is not anymore synonymous with the curse of drought but with an abundant stream of energy income.

The cost for renewable energy (RE) like Solar and wind can only go down because there are – with the exception of biomass – only costs for the harvesting technology. For common goods there is no cost for fuel and no cost for the transportation of primary energy with its costly infrastructure like tankers, pipelines and refineries. The technology cost for RE can only go down, driven by the cost-volume cycle of mass production and technical improvements. The margin for improvements is much larger for modern renewable technologies than for old conventional technologies. (Hermann Scheer) If developing countries do not listen to this message but continue to invest in large conventional generation infrastructure they will end up with stranded investments on a big scale.

Desert land on the other hand can become a source of sustainable income: Once the “fishing rod” is in place, countries can catch their own fish. Compared with rougher ways of exploitation like Uranium mining, the impact on land ecology is minimal. PV Solar does not require land area if it is part of the roof that people live or work under: energy supply at the point of use. Thus the need for transmission lines with dividing servitudes can be minimized or even avoided. The same holds true for transmission losses. RE is almost CO2 – neutral, thus avoiding the route course of climate change and land degradation.

Utility companies will have to adopt new tasks in that they are not primarily selling energy but rendering the service of keeping the grid stable; net-working in the true sense of the word. The old topdown structure from importing/generating via whole-selling to retailing is becoming a thing of the past. Once every traditional consumer becomes a potential supplier of energy the old game is changing completely and an innovative transformation of the utility business is required.

But RE is not immune against failure and “stranded investments” and one has to test decisions for environmental, social and financial soundness. This also means that we can only enjoy a change in paradigm once the foundation is laid in terms of both technical and business skills and balanced information to the wider public. Basically the public has to be empowered to help make the decision whether we live in a caring world or in a world of vested interests of a few.

Living in Namibia we become aware of many examples of profitable desert businesses: harvesting sunshine has started not only off-grid at Gobabeb, NaDEET and Tsumkwe but on the roofs of many grid-connected buildings throughout the country. Even much earlier Namibia and other African countries have seen the use of the Sun for the commercial production of “solar” sea salt by using evaporation ponds along the ocean coast line. Large wind parks exist for many years in Egypt while South Africa now tries to catch up on wind power. There are large solar parks from Upington and elsewhere in South Africa (1450 MW of PV approved in three bidding rounds!) to Kramer Junction in the California’s Mojave Desert. (354 MW of Solar thermal generation since 1985).

What was just a trickle contributor will swell to main-stream in due course. No government can hinder this tipping point termed “Energiewende”. Turning away from fossil energy means replacing monopolistic power supply with a democratic counterpart. The wisdom lies in how well we prepare ourselves!

Suggested pictures: Solar Thermal Plants in California

solar-farm

cartoon

comparison

REIAoN

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