Now and then I see something on social media to the effect that some country has become carbon neutral or gotten off fossil fuels, or some other happy, necessary milestone. It’s not generally true, but I wanted to see what is true. We need some good news. We need to hear who is having success and how, and also how those successes reflect on the larger struggle–which is to get our species off of fossil fuels while there is still something left of our future to save.
Figuring out whether a country is close to getting off fossil fuel is hard. Economies are complicated, energy comes in lots of different flavors, and coming up with a single overall figure involves a lot of apples-to-oranges comparisons. What we can do is look at different sectors of a country’s energy use one by one. Electricity is an easy one to start with, and in fact it’s usually electricity generation, not energy as a whole, that these memes I see mean.
An Important Caveat
Information about a country’s energy use can be stated in several different ways, not all of which are especially helpful. Let’s look at some hypotheticals:
- A country boasts of getting 54% of its “energy” from renewables. Great! But since “energy” is sometimes erroneously used as a synonym for electricity, if we can’t tell how the word is being used, we don’t actually know what the boast means.
- A country boats of getting 40% of its electricity from a big new wind farm. Great! But since wind is not the only form of renewable electricity generation, we still don’t have the whole picture.
- “Renewables” can include burning wood, which can be carbon neutral or not depending on many factors that one really has to be an expert to assess. And the experts argue.
- Nuclear power could be counted as a low-carbon energy source, depending on the wording of the statement. Whether it should be is a separate question, one that probably can’t be answered except by experts who, again, argue. So what is the energy status of a country that uses nuclear power?
Perhaps the most important source of unclarity to notice involves statements that include the word “enough.” As in “Country X produced enough electricity to power all its homes last month.” The problem is that when it comes to electricity there is no enough. Strictly speaking, humans don’t need electricity at all–we existed for tens of thousands of years without it. We invented our various demands for electricity, and we can always invent more if we want to. So when Country X brings on more renewable generation capacity, that doesn’t necessarily mean it decreased its non-renewable use by the same amount–it could just be using more electricity.
What we need to know is not how much renewable electricity is being generated, but of the electricity that is generated, what portion is renewable?
I suspect that figure is publicly available in most cases, but it may take some digging and some math to find it. The less-useful figures may be the easier ones to get, either because they look better or because they answer different questions than the one we’re asking.
Most of the countries busy meme-boasting have not actually gotten fossil fuels out of their electric grid entirely, so where are these claims coming from?
While it’s wise to at least consider lying as a possible explanation, the issue is more likely that renewable energy generation varies. A windy month means more wind power. A rainy month means more hydroelectric power. And generation plants can come and go quickly as start-ups start up and then fail. Then, too, the total amount of electricity used can also vary, meaning that the proportion that comes from renewables changes even if renewable capacity doesn’t. So a country can be all-renewable, at least by some definitions, for short periods, even if it hasn’t turned the fossils off yet.
For example, one headline (that probably generated one of the memes I saw) shouts “IN MARCH, PORTUGAL MADE MORE THAN ENOUGH RENEWABLE ENERGY TO POWER THE COUNTRY.” This was March, 2018, by the way.
A close reading of the article shows that while the headline is accurate and is good news, it doesn’t mean the country went off fossil fuel for a month. First, “energy” here does mean only electricity, so Portugal was presumably still using fossil fuels for cars, home heating, industrial applications, and so forth. Second, there were periods during the month when renewable energy dropped and fossil fuel-powered plants had to step in to fill the gap. Since there were also periods when renewables provided more than enough, on average the country met 103.6% of demand for electricity from renewables. And that’s great.
Except were the fossils going only when renewable production flagged, or were they on all the time, just in case? I don’t know, but my guess is the latter. That renewables met more than 100% of demand is itself a clue that Portugal can and does produce more electricity than it uses, and I’m under the impression that power plants take time to turn on and off. A coal-fired plant can’t be switched on at a moment’s notice if demand spikes or the wind drops for a while, it has to be on all the time so its power is available when needed. How much back-up power is available? Where does the excess power go? Were any fossil-fuel plants turned off anywhere because of that remarkable March? We don’t know.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s still good news that Portugal has a lot of renewable capacity, but this sort of thing explains the apparent paradox of a country boasting 100% renewable energy and still not being off fossil fuel. Portugal expects to actually get fossil fuel out of its electrical grid by 2040.
Costa Rica has also had extended periods of 100% renewable power. Denmark has had a few days of meeting demand with wind power alone (what other forms of renewable power it has wasn’t mentioned). Iceland and Norway get “essentially all” of their electricity from hydroelectric and geothermal, though what “essentially” means here is not clear to me. Other countries have renewable-energy bragging rights on other grounds, such as ambitious goals or big jumps in capacity. Some islands have gone all-renewable. All of it is worth celebrating, even if the situation on the ground is slightly different than that implied by the memes.
The Rest of the Story?
There is so much else to talk about on this topic–what individual countries have to rightly boast about, how the transition away from fossil fuels looks for sectors other than electricity, and so on, but all that will have to wait for another post.