The cheapest sources of energy will always be the preferred choice. History has proved it over and over.
The future belongs to renewables because they are progressively cheaper than new fossil fuel power and nuclear.
Oil, gas and coal will lose market share but still remain significant in some sectors.
Up to the industrial revolution and for hundreds of years, if not millennia, wood was burned for heat, cooking and light. Bee’s wax was used for candles, and some vegetable oils extracted for lamps.
Hydropower goes back to before Christ. The Romans used watermills. Their use grew rapidly across Europe to an estimated 20,000 units by the 1800’s. The power was used for milling, grinding and stamping, for multiple materials like flour, paper, metals, etc. Both river and tidal mills were used.
At the same time water was used for irrigation. Small channels were built including viaducts, and progressively over time canals started to be built for transportation of heavier loads. The large growth of canals across Europe arrived with the industrial revolution, as the roads were inadequate.
Using wind for power goes back to even earlier times. Sail was used and the early use of wind to power machines goes back to the 1st century AD. Throughout the early and middle ages windmills were used for milling, pumping water, salt pans, and multiple other uses. Electricity was first generated from windmills in the late 1800’s.
Renewables in the form of water and wind dominated energy until the industrial revolution.
Coal, steam, iron and transportation all fed off each other and their use changed the course of history and energy.
While renewables continued, coal became progressively cheaper with the use of steam, enabling pumps to remove water in coal mines, engines to be developed to manufacture textiles, and iron to be produced to enable the railways to be developed.
Steam railway engines accelerated transportation and progressively canal transportation fell away.
With the continual advances in all technology, coal and steam changed everything enabling industrial and social progress at a rate that had never been seen before.
While coal has continued to be the cheapest fossil fuel in many parts of the world, in particular for electricity generation, the development of oil and gas from the 1850’s, and in particular from the early 1900’s brought, the next stage of cheap energy.
The limitations of steam for transportation in cars and in aviation needed an alternative fuel source. During the 1800’s when steam was at it’s height, many engineers and scientists had been developing since the mid 1800’s experimental combustion engines, including Rudolf Diesel, Karl Benz, Gottlieb Daimler, Wilhelm Maybach, Robert Bosch, amongst others. However, it was really Henry Ford in the USA who can be credited with both the growth of the motor car, and gasoline taking over from steam.
The model ‘T’ introduced in 1908 changed road transportation for America, being cheap and the first example of the modern assembly line. By 2014 sales had surpassed 250,000 units and by 1918 over half the cars sold in the USA were black ‘T’ models. (Why black? because the paint dried quicker!)
From the early 1900’s oil and gas exploration expanded across the globe. The insatiable lust for cheap energy was driven by the growth of combustion engines for motorcars, rail transportation, industrial processes and aircraft.
Electricity generation during the same period remained predominantly powered by coal. But renewables in the equation were not forgotten.
Hydropower had been operating since the early 1900’s at Niagara. Significant growth occurred from the 1930’s with a storage plant, then the Hoover Dam came on line in 1936.
Over the following decades hydro power was developed across the globe, Kariba in 1959, and many others in Russia, Brazil, Paraguay and the largest today being the Three Gorges Dam in China in 2008 with an output of 22,500MW, or approx. 60% of Eskom’s total power output in South Africa.
Nuclear power remains a constant contentious subject for electricity power generation.
From its early days for electricity generation in the early 1950’s, over 95 nuclear accidents have occurred (all of which are attributable one way or another to human error).
Most notable are Chernobyl in 1986, where the after affects are still being felt. Although only 40 people died, the indirect consequences remain, with today 1 in 3 people in western Ireland being affected by cancer, attributed to the wind radiation fall out.
Fukushima in 2011 remains a catastrophe today, with radiation still being pumped into the Pacific Ocean, and incalculable consequential costs. Direct clean up costs are still estimated at over $40billion over the next 20 years.
Prior to 1900 it was a question as to whether electric power or petrol and diesel engines would dominate the future of road transportation.
The problem with electric cars, that had a more efficient drivetrain than petrol or combustion engines mated to a gearbox, was the batteries. Over a hundred years later the same problems persist.
Hybrid cars have been developed with electric engines, (Toyota, Nissan, BMW, Mercedes, and others) with batteries being topped by small engines run on diesel or petrol.
At 2017 the all battery car lead by Tesla is achieving not only staggering performance, but also acceptable range as more sophisticated batteries become developed.
In pursuit of the zero emission vehicles hydrogen cell technology is playing a catch up game.
The platinum industry is to a certain extent hanging its hat on this, but until costs can be reduced, the role of hydrogen, potentially an ultimate renewable clean energy, is uncertain.
Wind power as a source of energy for electricity generation started to take off in the 1970’s. The price over the last decade has fallen dramatically. During 2016 capacity continued to grow by some 12,5% with 486GW in place by the end of the year.
Solar electric photovoltaic can trace its routes back to the industrial revolution 1830’s. Grid tied systems started in the 1990’s and since 2000 large scale PV expansion has been rapid and is now installed in over 110 countries worldwide. Prices have fallen dramatically with growth and about 227GW capacity worldwide at 2015. By 2030 some estimates are for 9% of the world’s electricity consumption to be provided by PV and 20% by 2050.
After wind, photovoltaic and hydro power, other potential renewable sources such as wave power and tidal power have failed to make any real impact, due partly to the high costs involved, but also the harsh environments they operate in. Investment research has also been limited in comparison.
Bio energy has met with some success in Europe where gas is used to run engines and generators, but in South Africa due to higher costs than wind or PV, combined with additional cost for transportation of suitable biodegradable material, the progress is limited to a few plants.
Behind the meter renewables being solar water heaters (solar thermal) and rooftop solar photovoltaic (electric generation) have expanded massively around the world since 2000. South Africa is lagging behind, despite having the perfect conditions for both technologies.
All energy technology takes a long time to mature to a point where it is economically viable or market demand drives it.
As well as the numerous examples above, in the case of solar water heaters there are examples of advertisements for solar water heaters in 1903, and yet in South Africa less than 2% market penetration has been achieved in a country that uses coal to generate electricity to heat water.
However as the price of electricity escalates, the time when solar becomes cheaper than electricity, as a result of higher performance through technology, combined with lower prices for products, will progressively result in people switching to solar because it is cheaper.
That time has already arrived for solar water heaters without any incentive or rebates, and will within a few years also be the case for home electricity generation.
Energy sustainability will of course involve multiple fuel choices and technologies.
Around the world the acceleration of renewables is taking hold, not only because it is cheaper, but because of the environmental benefits. As before the industrial revolution, renewables are back in favour, and history is repeating itself.
South Africa, despite some early adoption of large scale renewables, and very limited after the meter technology, will become a pariah maintaining a preference for coal and foolhardy ambitions in nuclear.
However while the government pursues policies that are nonsensical (with corruption opportunities), the consumer has a choice, go green and save money, or stay with coal, waste money and pollute.
Ubersolar is passionate about renewables and in particular solar water heaters. Why? Because they are the one renewable technology that benefits the end user and pays itself off in as little as 2 years and provides financial savings giving extraordinary financial returns. With hot water electrical heating consuming 35% to 60% of the monthly electricity bill, the time has come for everyone to ‘Get a Quote’, go solar, save money and the environment.