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The complexities of alternative energy

25 November 2017 / The Star

THE alternative energy space is heating up, with the development of new technologies and the entry of new players. There is no debate over the need to switch from fossil fuels to alternative energy sources. It is universally agreed that we cannot continue to depend on fossil fuels due to its finite supply, as well as the geopolitical risks linked to oil demand.

In an effort to prolong the life span of our finite supply of fossil fuels, there have been significant technological advances that have given new life to the discovery of fossil fuels. However, these technological advances face their respective challenges from an environmental perspective. There is also a clear threshold level for the production of fossil fuels using this technology.

However, we have seen on our visits that renewable energy faces significant challenges as well. Two of the main alternative energy options have not been able to enter the mainstream energy space as swiftly as is needed because of the teething problems that they face.

The first is wind power. One of the main issues with wind power is that it still has to compete with conventional energy generation sources on a cost basis. Depending on how “energetic” a wind location is, the wind farm may not be price competitive. Although the cost of wind power has reduced significantly in the past decade, the technology still demands a higher initial investment than fossil fuel-powered generators.

Location is another issue with wind power. Good wind sites are often located in remote areas, far from cities where the electricity is most needed.

Transmission lines have to be built to transport the electricity from the wind farm to the city. However, interesting to note is that by building just a few transmission lines significantly reduces the costs of expanding wind energy.

Furthermore, wind resource development might not be the most profitable use of the land. Land suitable for wind-turbine installation must compete with alternative uses for the land, which might be more highly valued than electricity generation.

Another issue about using wind farms is the noise and aesthetic pollution caused by the wind turbines. Although wind power plants have relatively little impact on the environment compared to conventional power plants, the turbine blades are arguably noisy and unappealing within the landscape.

Turbine blades could also damage local wildlife, such as birds that have been killed from flying into spinning turbine blades. This has caused an outcry, not only from the farmers but also from various NGOs that have done an about-turn in their support of renewable energy.

In Malaysia, solar energy is another viable source of alternative power generation, but this sector has had its challenges as well. What is hampering solar power has everything to do with cost. It is still anywhere from five to 11 times more expensive to produce electricity sourced from the sun than it is from coal, hydro or nuclear sources.

The first problem lies in the cost of the technology: Solar panels use pricey semiconductor materials to generate electricity from sunlight. Semiconductor factories need a “clean” manufacturing environment, and thus are expensive to build and maintain.

Solar panels have fallen in prices and support to that industry has been challenging due to the slow take-up. The solar panel industry faces manufacturing cost issues, space issues of hosting the solar panels, and the stability of energy supply from the solar panels.

We were told that “the efficiency of solar cells can range from around 20% up to a top range of around 40%”, although this continues to improve. The rest of the sunlight that strikes the panel is wasted as heat. More “efficient photovoltaic cells have been discovered (up to 43% efficiency), but these are still relatively new” and are expensive to manufacture.

It will likely take years to discover new materials and methods of making solar panels less expensive. How long it takes depends on how much time and money is invested into solar energy research both by the government and private sector.

Apart from wind and solar technology, one other area that is critical for the move away from fossil fuel demand is electric vehicles (EVs). However, after speaking to many industry players, we have walked away sceptical that the way ahead will be smooth sailing for EVs.

Some of the comments revolve around the lobby groups for the automotive sector as well as the oil-producing companies and nations, which are not going to accept the move away from the fossil fuel-hungry automotive sector.

Another pivotal question is whether the energy-producing companies and nations would be willing to accept a new reality where oil is no longer a high-demand commodity. With all the geopolitical risks surrounding the oil-producing nations, the issue of oil prices further adds to the complexity of oil demand and presents a huge challenge for those lobbying to move away from fossil fuel.

Will governments that are hugely dependent on oil to fund their fiscal expenditure be willing to allow a decline in the demand of fossil fuels? These were the other thoughts shared with us – not a insignificant point when looking at the Malaysian context.

Bearing all these challenges in mind, the future still looks muddy for renewables. The oft-repeated saying, “Affordable housing is never affordable, so it can never take off” comes to mind.

Will the move to alternative energy sources suffer the same fate?