Can renewables take the strain without reducing demand?

There is an interesting article in the Guardian this week discussing the findings of a report on the impact that shortages in rare earth metals could have on manufacturing, including the renewable energy sector.

It seems that with supply dominated by China, prices of metals such as terbium, yttrium, dysprosium, europium and neodymium have been fluctuating wildly and have risen to levels 10 times where they were in 2010. These metals play a key role in the manufacture of wind turbines, solar panels and electric car batteries and instability of supply could present significant problems at a time where expansion in renewable energy is demanded. A quote in the article stands out, “The energy sector could face very great problems if the world turns to [renewables] in a big way. In the short term, there will be major supply problems. The availability of these metals will define the growth of these industry sectors.”

This is particularly alarming for two reasons. The quote talks about ‘if’ but current orthodoxy is that a major expansion in renewable energy is essentially going to be the only way that we might to meet carbon targets. It also highlights the ‘short-term’ problem, which is exactly the timescale in which action needs to be taken if we are to have any chance of avoiding very significant temperature rises. The article goes on to talk about the need for more recycling and reuse of resources - a move to more of a circular economy. However, if we are to see a rapid expansion in renewable energy then it seems doubtful that such a strategy could have much impact in the short-term.

At the moment many discussions about climate change get little further than the need for an expansion in renewable energy (seemingly a particular issue in the US). Partly this may be because it is an easy area to link to the promotion of ‘green’ jobs and be a solution to economic woes; but it is also a reflection of a widespread desire to continue as close to business as usual as possible. We can continue to grow our economies and increase our energy use as long as that energy, or a good proportion of it, is coming from renewable sources. This article and report provides another example of the folly of this approach.

We need to be getting far more serious about reducing demand, a point that has been argued in a recent Green Alliance report that suggests we have yet to grapple with the fundamental question of how we use less energy not more. The report talks of the ‘all pervasive’ myth of substitution – the idea that we can switch from high carbon to low carbon, from fossil fuels to renewable, without major impacts on how we live our lives. Progress has been made in improving efficiencies although these have been negated to some extent by increases in products, increases in consumption, greater economic growth. The rebound effect – the idea that improved energy efficiency results in increased use of services that the energy helps provide – looms over energy efficiency measures. Much heralded measures such as the Green Deal may show some impetus, but as others have shown the potential impact is wholly inadequate to make any major inroads into energy demand. As the Green Alliance report suggests, we need to be asking deeper questions about why we use energy? Is it really necessary?

This is an area that I am going to be exploring in more detail over coming months as part of some work that I am doing with the Tyndall Centre. In developing various low carbon scenarios questions such as how far can we push demand reduction, what might be required to bring such changes about, and how demand issues impact on supply, will be central. I look forward to investigating them and hope fully will be able to report back on where those investigations take us.

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