Myth 2. The intermittency of renewables will prevent the transition
This is the second of the Energy Transition Myth Busters series, written by our New Energy Strategist, Kingsmill Bond.
Given that the sun does not shine at night, and the wind does not always blow, solar and wind will always play a small role in electricity provision, and there can be no energy transition.
The tipping point is much sooner. You don’t need 100% renewables for there to be an energy transition. The tipping point for the existing electricity providers comes much sooner, when solar and wind provide under 15% of electricity supply.
The technology already exists to get to this tipping point. Electricity grids already handle a lot of variability. The IEA notes that it is possible to get to 15% solar and wind ‘quite easily’ by ‘upgrading some operational practices’. Better grid codes, better forecasting, better scheduling and so on are not capital intensive.
Plenty of countries have already passed the tipping point. From the US to Chile, Italy to Romania, the tipping point has been passed and the electricity transition has started.
Some nations are already in the next phase. Countries like Germany and the UK are taking the solar and wind share to 25% and beyond. Solutions include: making existing power plants more flexible; enhancing the grid; demand side management; and selective use of new storage technologies.
Maximum integration levels keep increasing. Denmark has already gone beyond 50%, and aspires to 75%. New developments continue to expand the realms of what is possible. Examples include: lower battery costs and wider deployment; system integration with transport and heat; the use of electricity to make hydrogen through electrolysis.
The global tipping point will come in the 2020s. Solar and wind in 2017 supplied 6% of global electricity and are still growing at 20% a year. Assuming they remain on S curves of growth, global fossil fuel demand for electricity will peak in the early 2020s when solar and wind are 14% of global electricity supply.
The technology already exists to enable variable renewable sources to become large enough to kick off an energy transition in the electricity sector, in country after country. Variability is simply an issue to be managed, not an insoluble impediment.