Is solar power the answer?
The world press is full of articles regarding global warming, and a search on the Internet returns over 400 million references. Some of them predict dire catastrophes if we don't treat it seriously; others say that the earth's climate has warmed and cooled over long periods in the past, so human activities are not the primary cause of recent changes in temperature. The interested layman might well have difficulty understanding what is really happening.
On the other hand, scientists have come to a firm consensus. NASA contends that "Multiple studies published in peer-reviewed scientific journals show that 97 percent or more of actively publishing climate scientists agree: "Climate-warming trends over the past century are extremely likely due to human activities".*
The goal of the Paris Agreement was to get as many nations as possible to work together to ensure that global temperatures will not rise by more than 2 degrees Celsius. Above that point, scientists caution that the world is much more likely to see some of the worst effects of climate change – rising seas, severe drought, longer heat waves, more severe storms, etc. Reducing the generation of CO2 and other greenhouse gases would substantially reduce global warming, thereby preventing some of the worst scenarios.
However, the problem is acutely time-sensitive since doing just the simpler things - using LED lights, buying energy-efficient cars, moving from coal to natural gas to produce energy – will not prevent global warming; it will just move it down the road a few years. Unfortunately, as a leading independent organization of scientists report, "across the globe the past five years have been the hottest five years on record".**
What has changed in the past year?
Recently, two significant changes occurred that hopefully will make the global fight against climate change successful:
1) At the beginning of the year, Spain committed itself to generating 74% of its energy from renewable sources by 2030, and its long-term goal is 100% from renewable sources by 2050.
2) In 2018, the generation of electricity by large-scale solar PV panels (photovoltaic) became cheaper than generating it by natural gas or even by coal. This is true in Israel and in much of the world.
Israel, like Spain a sunny Mediterranean country, has committed itself to generating only 17% of its energy from renewable energy by 2030. In order to prevent global warming, Israel and other sun-blessed countries must adopt a plan similar to that of Spain.
In recent years, many nations have switched their principal fuel for generating electricity from coal to natural gas, because gas generates less air pollution - which is better for people with respiratory diseases - and it produces less carbon-dioxide than coal. But natural gas still generates about 60% of the CO2 of coal. And when one takes into account the growth in world population of 80 million/year and the middle class (big electricity users) of 150 million/year, it becomes clear that natural gas does not solve the problem of climate change – it just delays the problem for a very few years.
For this reason, gas must be seen as a temporary stage in the battle against global warming; it still warms the earth … just slightly more slowly.
The Union of Concerned Scientists (UOCS) believes that the true effect of natural gas on global warming can be much higher than 60% cited: "The drilling and extraction of natural gas from wells and its transportation in pipelines results in the leakage of methane, primary component of natural gas, that is 34 times stronger than CO2 at trapping heat over a 100-year period and 86 times stronger over 20 years. Preliminary studies and field measurements show that these methane emissions range from 1 to 9 percent of total life cycle emissions." This means that when one includes the effects of the methane generated during drilling, extraction and transportation the electricity generated from natural gas will, in some cases, generate even more global warming than coal would have.
Two scenarios for U.S. emissions
UOCS has generated an important chart comparing the United States emissions from electricity production in 2012 and those expected in 2050, based on the actual and projected breakdowns of US electricity production between coal, natural gas and renewables.
This chart assumes that the total electricity generated will increase by only 30% from 2012 to 2050 (less than 1%/year). Note that total heat-trapping emissions for 2050 are only slightly lower than those in 2012. Going from 24% natural gas to 60% as currently planned for 2050 will not solve the problem! The UOCS has a generated an alternative plan for generating electricity in 2050 that would solve the US's emissions problem:
The renewable energy scenario above is based on a 2050 mix of 17% natural gas, 2% nuclear, and 81% renewables, a solution that is expected to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by over 90% in 2050. Note that even in 2025 renewable energy is 34% of the mix while natural gas peaks around 2025 roughly at 35% and goes down to 17% in 2050.
Large-Scale Solar is now the cheapest way to generate electricity
The arguments against the use of renewables take many forms, but perhaps the most dominant one over the years is that renewable energy, and particularly solar energy, is just much more expensive than natural gas for generating electricity. Today this is no longer true; solar PV (on a large scale) is now lower in cost than any other source of power. In order to compare costs fairly over the 25 years or more of the life cycle of a power-generation plant (or asset) the Levelized Cost of Energy (LCOE) is used. The LCOE is the average total lifetime cost to build and operate a power-generating asset divided by the total energy output of that asset over its lifetime.
The Lazard Investment Bank has been producing annual LCOE reports for many years. The table below was prepared from data taken from their 2011 and 2018 reports:
The table shows the cost variations for many projects throughout the world and includes no subsidies. It clearly shows that costs for utility-scale Solar PV have gone down from an average of $130/MWh in 2011 to $40/MWh in 2018 - a reduction of roughly 70% in seven years! (Rooftop solar and smaller solar PV installations have higher costs.) Coal and natural gas are now both clearly more expensive. Israel's Electricity Authority has confirmed that in the set of bids it received in 2018 several proposals were based on long-term costs of $40/MWh.
After the disaster at Fukushima, the cost of nuclear power plants has increased significantly in order to add multiple safety mechanisms. Because of these added costs, even if the reactors are now quite safe, it is unlikely that nuclear power plants will be used in the future as a major alternative for generating energy.
What should Israel Do?
Thanks to its discoveries of huge quantities of offshore natural gas, Israel has been transitioning in recent years from coal to gas. In 2014, 50% of Israel's electricity came from coal and 50% from gas; last year only 27% came from coal and 71% gas. However, Israel's plan for 2030 is 83% from gas, and only 17% (at least) from renewable sources.
Israel had a good medium-term plan when renewable sources were still expensive, but now that PV solar is less expensive than gas, Israel must update its plan and work towards 40% renewables in 2030 and 90% in 2050. This is not pie-in-the-sky. As mentioned above, Spain, a Mediterranean country with a similar climate, has set a much more ambitious goal of 74% renewables by 2030 and 100% by 2050. The sunnier countries of the world must use over 90% renewables by 2050 so that colder countries can use a higher proportion of natural gas without irrevocably changing the world's climate.
Proponents of natural gas in Israel argue that we have huge off-shore gas supplies that we can and should use.
My answer is that in sunny Israel we have a better solution to aid in the fight against global warming. Let the natural gas companies export their gas to northern Europe, a region that has fewer options; the Europeans will benefit and will be less dependent on Russian gas, global emissions will go down, the companies will make just as many profits, and Israel will get just as much in taxes. Win – win – win – win!
Opponents of using significant renewable energy in Israel bring up a few secondary arguments against going heavily into solar and wind in Israel – the variable nature of renewable energy, the large areas they can take up, the need for significant energy storage, etc. There are good, solid technical answers to all of these points, but this is not the forum.
For now, it is best to remember the main messages:
1. Every country has to do its part to prevent global warming.
2. Natural gas is not a long-term solution to climate change; it is only a temporary stage.
3. Large-scale Solar PV is now cheaper than any other energy source for generating electricity.
4. In sun-drenched Israel we have a key role to take.
For the sake of our children and grandchildren, we, the people of Israel, must tell our policymakers that we firmly believe Israel can, and must, do its part in the global struggle against climate change.