Renewables: energy reality or science fiction?
Land of fire and ice. An island famous for glaciers, hot springs, geysers and volcanic eruptions. Iceland. A country that has fully exploited its potential to become one of the leaders in the use of renewable energy. Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Austria, Germany. Other leaders embarking on a low-emission path. Because they want (to be number one). Because they have to, it's time.
And what about other countries, when will they follow suit? What about the Czech Republic? Can our transmission grid handle the shutdown of coal-fired power plants?
We grew up in the coal and nuclear age, and some of us and our elected representatives still have it in us. Not to mention those who make money in this area, and in politically shaky locations at that, in a country where we are still facing a severe shortage of politicians willing to trade preferences for the right decisions. Hopefully, the next generation will help move towards renewables faster and we won't still be stuck with coal production. After all, cleaner air inherently can't hurt, no matter how much anyone cares or doesn't care about the climate crisis. But let's be honest about the future of “green” energy. It's never going to happen in our country in a big way unless somebody makes money from it. That is the reality of the world today. And speaking of reality – vision is a beautiful thing, but if it remains just words, it's itself blind. Vision, strategy, execution. Easy to say, but... We have a different mentality than, say, the Germans, everything always takes us a long time.
If we don't stop the further growth of CO2, large areas of the Earth will become uninhabitable.
The climate is changing and we must change too. Industrial societies built on the consumption of fossil fuels are having a major impact on the functioning of the planet. They are fundamentally worsening the conditions for life. We see the effects not only in extreme weather fluctuations but in the future the negative effects will intensify in agriculture, food security, forestry, human health and tourism. We are already suffering.
The burning of fossil fuels releases carbon dioxide, the effects of which can be devastating. It absorbs infrared radiation and contributes to the greenhouse effect. Rising levels of greenhouse gases are warming the Earth's surface. Ice melts and sea levels rise. The air deteriorates, the planet is damaged. If we don't stop their further growth (especially CO2), large areas of the Earth will become uninhabitable. In 2020, the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere reached a record level – 417 ppm (parts-per-million, the number of units per million total units). Human activity is responsible for 40 billion tonnes of pollution each year. Even though plants and the ocean absorb about half of this, the growth of CO2 in the atmosphere is still accelerating. In the 1960s it was averaging 0.8 ppm per year, by the 1980s we are talking about double that, and in the last decade we are in the mode of about 2.4 ppm per year.
The face of the coal Czechia
In 2020, the EU is going green for the first time. Renewable sources generated 38% of Europe's electricity, fossil fuels one percent less. Wind (up 9%) and photovoltaic (up 15%) plants reported the biggest year-on-year increases. Biomass grew marginally, water fluctuated. The Czech Republic didn't shine. We contributed more to the final balance of fossil fuels. Only less than 5% comes from renewable sources in our country. The main role is still played by the aforementioned coal. Although it's declining (minus 6 TWh compared to last year), it still has a majority 53% share.
We are to move away from coal in 2038, so that is the recommendation of the Coal Commission. In addition to the loud response that this is too late, the issue of grid stability and the security of electricity supply is becoming a much-debated topic. Won't weather-dependent production threaten us? Decentralized sources obviously have fluctuations that may not correspond to peak consumption. This will certainly be a big topic in the coming years because these are the arguments of individuals pushing coal. Objectively, it's probably true that we need some sort of permanent basis alongside decentralized renewable policy. We can't rely on hydropower; our rivers are less predatory than the mountain ones in Norway or Austria. Even though the sun comes out every morning, we aren't in California, where it shines non-stop. Peak photovoltaic output is therefore about as "reliable" as the weather forecast in the temperate zone over the long term. And there sure are a lot of us who prefer to carry that umbrella around at all times. Even the wind just doesn't blow as hard for us as it does for coastal regions, plus building wind farms isn't yet very financially rewarding for entrepreneurs, and it's said to often spoil the view or the peace of mind for potential "neighbours".
You simply store the electricity in your battery for a rainy day. Accumulation is the way of the future. However, Elon Musk is already building huge battery complexes.
However, we do have two nuclear power plants that are stable, low-emission sources capable of delivering large amounts of power regardless of the weather or time of day. Important footnote. While nuclear power doesn't emit bad fumes into the air and the plants are certainly safe, they have a useful life, non-negligible operating costs, the need to buy fuel, and to put the burnt fuel in the ground. And who actually wants the catastrophic-looking panorama of a nuclear power station behind their house instead of solar panels? Anyway, there are downsides, but the power plants are already standing, and to deal with renewable energy shortfalls it's a good idea to hold them. But the emphasis should be on a rational approach; politicizing the issue in an attempt to gloss over the economic downsides isn't the solution. Incidentally, some companies are trying to develop a product where every household could have its own small decentralized nuclear power plant. Look at NuScale, a commercial reactor is planned by this company for 2027. It's a matter for the (near) future, but it's being worked on today. Potential? If they are proportionally small and safe enough that we don't blow up half the globe with it while watching TV in the evening, they can certainly have it. Because you just can't deny the power of the atom.
The overall situation is also greatly influenced by the EU. By 2030, 32% of the EU's energy consumption must come from renewable sources, so that is a commitment for us as a Member State. We have an obligation to switch to renewables. There is a lot of money flowing in from the EU, so the new support in the Czech Republic will be provided in larger volumes, perhaps in a much more transparent regime than in the past. If you are energy and environmental start-up or an established company, you are in for a golden time. If your products or services are truly efficient, the rest of us can look forward to really green times.
“People are at the core of the European Green Deal, our vision to make Europe climate-neutral by 2050. The transformation ahead of us is unprecedented. And it will only work if it is just – and if it works for all. We will support our people and our regions that need to make bigger efforts in this transformation, to make sure that we leave no one behind. The Green Deal comes with important investment needs, which we will turn into investment opportunities. The plan that we present today, to mobilise at least €1 trillion, will show the direction and unleash a green investment wave.”
The President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen
In the context of the EU, an addition to potential shortfalls in green energy sources. The EU wants interconnected European markets and transmission systems. This means pushing for countries to trade with each other, exchange electricity, and thus protect themselves. Some people may not like the dependence on neighbouring countries, but cooperation is the EU's goal. We are a Member State, so let us also be an open partner.
Apart from nuclear power and purchases from foreign countries, there is another way to ride out shortfalls or surpluses. Accumulation. Batteries, for example. Simply store electricity in a battery for a rainy (or in the case of solar, darker) time. When this system rolls out on a large scale, the fluctuations won't be such a problem. This is the way of the future. However, Elon Musk is already building huge battery complexes.
How many shades of green?
Each country has different geology, geography and history, so each transition will be unique. There is no universal scenario. The Germans are shutting down nuclear and coal plants, going hard after their own, renewable energy plants are playing a major role. It's challenging, but they are Germans, so they are going to do it. They want to be number one, and with their spirit, they already are. Other countries are then taking advantage of their geographical position. Norway and Austria rivers. The coastal states the wind. There are even plans for wind farms standing right on the sea, far from the coast, which will go big and supply the mainland. Denmark, for example, recently announced this.
The introduction of more sustainable solutions is inevitable. And the energy sector is the first to be hit. Iceland has also been able to tell an inspiring story in this area, where today almost 100% of the electricity consumed comes from renewable sources – 73% from hydropower, 26.8% from geothermal energy. This green power fuels family homes and energy-intensive industries. Nine out of ten households heat with geothermal. Hot water is piped directly from boreholes into buildings. The rest runs off electricity from other renewable sources. Evolving technologies, changing legal and social frameworks, abundant renewable energy, and a favourable business environment are attracting investors to reduce the carbon footprint of energy-intensive facilities. The only exception is transport, which still drives, flies and swims in a fossil fuel way. Here too, however, we can see the effort. The growing number of electric car owners, investment in charging infrastructure or more efficient ships, quota systems and overall government policy tending to reduce the country's dependence on imported fossil fuels.
A transformation that has helped Iceland become one of the richest nations in Europe. Yet until the 1970s, the United Nations Development Programme classified it as a developing country. Poverty, poor basic infrastructure, poor knowledge of resource potential, zero experience in implementing large energy projects. Most energies came from imported fossil fuels. For hundreds of years, Icelanders used geothermal resources only for washing and bathing; hydroelectric power generation of only a few megawatts only began in the 20th century. A very bad background for such a spectacular achievement.
The Icelandic model can't be applied to other countries, but there are studies confirming that the green transition makes sense and is viable in a number of countries.
Motive? No environmental crisis, but oil price fluctuations. Iceland needed a more stable and economically logical solution. In the early 20th century, a local farmer began using hot water seeping out of the ground and a crude geothermal system to heat his farm. He had success. Other households, businesses and communities caught on, leading to a more systematic exploration of the resource. The government set up a fund that provided money for research and test drilling and ensured cost recovery for failed projects. The legal framework in place motivated households to connect to the new geothermal district heating network rather than traditional fossil fuels. In parallel, the share of hydropower increased. Iceland wanted to recruit new industries, diversify the economy, create jobs and build a national energy system.
Key factors? The need for energy security. Availability of resources. Coherence between municipalities, government and the public. The Icelandic model can't be applied to other countries, but there are studies confirming that the green transition makes sense and is viable in a number of countries. Even in the Czech Republic. Even though we don't have volcanoes and hot springs. So which species are ideal for us? Photovoltaics, wind, biomass? Biomass is fine, but locally. We can't burn everything around us to power the whole country (which doesn't even sound environmentally friendly unless you have a modern plant). Although some may think otherwise, we don't even have enough of that shit to make enough biogas. Photovoltaics has already found a place, hopefully, it will – sensibly – develop further (most of the lucky ones of us have a roof over our heads, after all). The wind is blowing here too and hopefully, someone will finally realize this. And then there is going to be big promotion of biogas in the Czech Republic. It should be produced to be of the same quality as natural gas, it will be piped in and the worse residue will be used to power transport, public transport, etc. Well, let's see, hopefully, in all senses, we won't feel negative about this line of support.
By the way, gas is also being considered at a higher level. Gas-fired power plants should replace coal-fired ones. This is a very sensitive geopolitical issue because it entails dependence on Russia. However, there are loud debates about LNG (liquefied natural gas) imports. Here the market is already wider – the US, northern Europe, the Middle East. There is no need to build pipelines, the liquid is transported in tankers. The extracted gas is liquefied in America, for example, and then gassed on land after crossing the ocean and piped into the EU and the Czech Republic. However, there is a sense of caution from the EU in considering gas as an environmental resource. It may be low-emission, but the extraction itself is far from ecological.
But what's in it for me?
In addition to a lower environmental impact, the decentralization of renewable sources plays in their favour. You build a house in the middle of a meadow, put photovoltaics next door and you don't care about coal or nuclear. As well as the price rises. You don't have to have thirty pylons around you, defacing our fabulous landscape, to bring you electricity from Temelin.
You can also team up with other individuals around the country and eventually create one big power plant with perhaps a thousand small photovoltaic plants.
Shared energy could push this further. EU regulations require it and Czech regulations are now changing to explicitly allow it. This means more flexibility. If you get a photovoltaic plant, you can sell the unused electricity to someone else. Either directly wire it to your neighbour, or virtually to your grandmother on the other side of the country. You can also team up with other individuals around the country and eventually create one big power plant with perhaps a thousand small photovoltaic plants.
This can have a positive local aspect. The municipality decides to be self-sufficient, acquires a solar park and a biogas plant, and starts producing electricity and hot water for its inhabitants. The acquisition costs and benefits will be shared equally. The conventional grid then provides for any fluctuations in bad weather. Such an energy self-sufficient municipality can be found in Kněžice. And you assume correctly, there are many more such villages and communities in Germany and Austria.
There are quite a lot of opportunities for households to go green today. The ideal would be to reduce overall consumption, but this is unrealistic. We need something to charge those laptops and appliances. Less electricity isn't going to be produced globally, so at least let's not produce it unnecessarily and use it efficiently. Getting a decentralized source, preferably renewable, is definitely a great way to go. Then smart meters that regulate your operation online. When electricity is cheap (there is a lot of it) interconnected household appliances turn on. Conversely, when it's expensive (it isn't enough), you put off laundry and other necessities. You can already work towards a green home through energy efficiency. There are new rules. For new construction and renovations, the law requires a gradual increase in energy standards. Passive houses, that is the magic. Better technical solutions with less need for heating, insulating old buildings, these are already available options. What next? Energy-saving appliances. When you are shopping around, keep an eye on the official labels for better guidance.
Photovoltaics are different, but geothermal, nuclear, coal and gas technologies work the same way – steam, nuclear, coal, gas spin a turbine that produces electricity. So you just have to find something that spins the turbine as ecologically as possible. Like wind.
We have to want
Of course, there will always be critics who will highlight the negatives of renewables. Let's not lie, there would be some. Even for such photovoltaic panels and batteries, precious metals have to be mined, and there aren't many of them. They are often mined in third-world countries that aren't as ecologically far away as the EU wants to be. Then there is the substantive issue of the modern consumer world – waste, recycling. We have to take into account the limited lifespan of solar panels, windmills and other components, which is linked to the generation of harmful waste, its removal, disposal, etc. In short, not everything is 100% eco-bio-organic. This makes it all the more necessary to look for the ideal solution.
We have everything in our own hands. We are largely responsible for where we are right now. If we want to hand over the planet to the next generation in some sort of decent condition, we need to act now. We live in a technological age that allows us to take innovative steps. Let us make them. Iceland shows that it can be done. If the will is there. We can learn valuable lessons from its story – cooperation between municipalities, government and the public is essential. We need to have a constructive dialogue that deepens people's trust, ensures engagement, involvement and understanding of the problem. Share know-how and experience. Build effective government incentives and a favourable legal and regulatory framework to reduce risks and accelerate development. Set a long-term strategy. We have to want.