Q&A Series, Part-Two: Christian Breyer Discusses Future of Renewables Around the World

Christian Breyer is a Professor for Solar Economy at LUT University, Finland. His expertise is the research of technological and economic characteristics of renewable energy systems specializing for highly renewable energy systems, on a local but also global scale. The research includes integrated sector analyses with power, heat, transport, desalination, industry, NETs, CCU and Power-to-X. He worked previously for Reiner Lemoine Institut, Berlin, and Q-Cells (now: Hanwha Q Cells). He is a member of ETIP PV, IEA-PVPS, the scientific committee of the EU PVSEC and IRES, chairman at the Energy Watch Group and reviewer for the IPCC.

 

Q: Which renewables technologies would you say hold the greatest growth potential for wide-scale electricity production?

Breyer: Solar photovoltaics and wind turbines for serving more than 80% of all our energy needs.

Q: Talk about the future of dispatchable, controllable energy generation through renewables. How and why does this technology development hold such potential for low-carbon societies of the future?

Breyer: We should not bet much on dispatchable wind and solar electricity since we cannot control wind flows and solar radiation. However, all technologies to link this variable electricity generation to our energy demand are most valuable. This is the reason for the bright future of batteries, electrolysis, various Power-to-X technologies, power grids and flexible power generation using sustainable fuels.

Q: Are there particular renewable models you can point to, whether in Nordic countries like your own or in developing regions like India, Latin America or elsewhere, which stand out for their economic potential?

Breyer: In Nordic regions, the combination of wind and hydropower can already cover much demand. Since wind availability is lower in the summer in the entire Northern hemisphere, solar is the highest value so that wind and solar balance each other also seasonally. Most of the rest of the world enjoys very good solar conditions so that solar energy will emerge to the dominating source of energy. Already Thomas Edison had been aware of this by saying “I’d put my money on the sun and solar energy. What a source of power!” Solar energy will be complemented by excellent local resources if available, such as geothermal energy (e.g. in Sumatra), hydropower (e.g. along the Nile), and bioenergy residues (e.g. Brazil or Finland). Some parts in India face the challenge of the monsoon, which reduces the solar resource for about two months with many clouds, but luckily during these two months it’s also a windy season and there is rainfall so that wind energy and hydropower can support, and last but not least with longer distance power lines regions in India without monsoon can become the highest value for solar electricity exports. Flexible power supply from dispatchable renewables or storage (including engines and gas turbines) is necessary to balance the system in any case.

Q: You’ve talked about power-to-gas technology, which is converting wind and solar electricity into methane. Can you explain why this holds such potential, and why we should want emissions-free energy to turn into methane for burning?

Breyer: The more details of the energy transition towards 100% renewables are understood, the less relevant methane becomes. One reason is the very high global warming potential of leaked methane, which is by a factor of 30-80 higher than that of CO2, the other key reason is that hydrogen is simply cheaper in many cases. Therefore, an increasing number of traditional customers of gas turbines and engines ask for fuel flexibility so that they can switch from methane to hydrogen during the technical life of their investment. This demand is increasingly served by the industry. Engines and gas turbines will be needed for balancing the energy system so that demand can be always covered. The utilization of these plants will go down compared to today, but the provided electricity will be of a much higher value in the future when these plants are needed. Non-fossil methane and non-fossil hydrogen will be used as a very valuable seasonal storage.

Q: What about neo-carbon, which you’ve done work with. Can you explain what it is and how it factors into the clean energy technology future?

Breyer: Many people forget that we will not phase out carbon in our society, but we must phase out fossil carbon. Neo-carbon shall express this shift. The chemical industry will be still based on hydrocarbons, but not anymore on fossil carbons, the same will be true for synthetic fuels for marine and aviation transportation. Seasonal storage can be done in the form of hydrogen and synthetic methane.

Q: You said at one point that Brazil and Canada have renewable energy levels of more than 65 to 70%. Is this really true? Why hasn’t the world found out about this yet?

Breyer: This is true for the power sector, which is the basis for a 100% renewable energy system in all sectors. Both countries are blessed with very good hydropower resources. But take Belize, Costa Rica, Uruguay, Iceland, Norway, Tokelau; they all are around 100% renewables in the power system. More countries will reach this target with wind and solar electricity in the years to come, for which Uruguay and Tokelau are excellent examples. The more stakeholders study such success cases, the more they will light the path for others to follow.

Q: In your view and the view of clean energy experts around the world, it’s both technologically and economically possible to get to 100% renewables. Why do you feel it’s hard to effectively communicate that position and get governments and industry to act on it?

Breyer: New ideas have typically hard times. This seems to be our human nature. Mahatma Gandhi once said, “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.” We are now between phases 3 and 4, so we should not be that skeptical. But we should not forget the strong vested interests, which slow down the process. The two grandfathers of the 100% renewables community, Bent Sørensen in Denmark and Amory Lovins in the US published their fundamental insights in the 1970s, and they had very hard times. Bent Sørensen had been even forgotten in the 100% renewables community since he had been 30 years ahead the time. Governments very often follow the progress in society, so they are very often not among the first stakeholders, but their role is most important to set the right rules for efficient execution of the energy transition. There are more and more examples that industry push governments for 100% renewable targets, which is a very important signal.

Q: In terms of creating jobs and remaking the global economy, what scale of a role do you see renewable technologies playing over the next 30 to 50 years?

Breyer: Renewables are a key lever for economic growth and sustainable jobs, all around the world and for the decades to come. An entire new energy infrastructure needs to be built. Energy has been for a long time most important for the economic competitiveness of entire economies. This will not change, but today renewables keep energy cost low and thus form the basis for strong economic competitiveness. Take the IT companies, which have very energy-intensive data centers around the world. Not by accident these companies strongly push for contracting wind and solar electricity. It is the least cost solution for their business, and their customers and investors expect overall sustainable solutions. We found strong job growth due to renewables, which overcompensates losses of jobs linked to conventional fuels.

Q: As more economies get on the path to 100% renewable energy, what do you see giving you the most hope? And what’s your advice to cities or national governments that haven’t yet committed themselves to the journey?

Breyer: The young generation does not accept any more excuses. Millions regularly demonstrate on the streets on all continents. All decision-makers, in policy, business, or society should take this global voice of the youth very seriously. It starts to boost carriers of the willing and end carriers of the unwillingness for the change to a sustainable society, which will be built on 100% renewables.