We celebrate the massive find of petroleum in Guyana and envisage that Guyana could become one of the richest countries in the region based on the rents left by the international energy companies. However, I am on record as saying that Guyana should leave the petroleum in the ground and use its human resources to build its economy given the future damage the exploitation of such a resource will do to the planet. The Waorani people of the Amazon are of the same view as they block such exploitation in their lands.
The concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is approaching 410 parts per million. This has already driven the global temperature to nearly one degree centigrade above pre-industrial levels and has intensified drought, damaged vineyards, encouraged wild fires, sea level rise, hurricanes and cyclones and other natural disasters. We are betting on cutting emissions by the use of renewables, i.e. reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
However, this alone will not be enough to prevent sharp increases in global temperatures. It is also becoming evident that we also need to remove vast amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, which will not only be very expensive to achieve but will present the huge problem of what to do with it. Though some of it could be used in the production of synthetic fuels, polymers, carbon fibre, concrete, what is needed is a cheap way to store the carbon dioxide we need to extract from the air.
Renewables like wind and solar energy are being touted as the saviour of the planet since they do not emit carbon dioxide. Though they are becoming cheaper to deploy they do not provide electricity when the sun is not shining or the wind is not blowing. This constrains how much energy these sources can supply and importantly, how quickly we can move away from the steady, dispatchable, sources like coal and natural gas.
The cost of providing batteries to back up the traditional grids when these sources flag—no wind, no sunshine—will be astronomical. Surely engineers and scientists are working, say, on storage using tanks of molten salt, but we need cheaper and more efficient ways to store vast amounts of energy. (MIT, Technology Review, March/April 2019).
Dr Anthony Bryan as reported in the local press tells us that: “… though renewables could account for some 64 per cent of electricity generation worldwide by 2050 … they will never take the place of fossil fuels completely.”
To date fossil fuel plants are being used to back up renewables. Dr Bryan also sees that the traditional oil exporters like Venezuela and the Gulf Cooperation Council states and regional exporters like T&T and eventually Guyana could be among the countries hardest hit by the gradual transition away from fossil fuels unless they embrace the clean energy transition now. This could disrupt major oil and gas producing countries with consequences for supply security and living standards. This is indeed a plea for us in T&T and Guyana to move our economic development accent on to diversification based on innovation and become globally competitive exporters.
The drawback of renewables—solar, wind, hydro—is that they are not dispatchable and depend on when the fundamental resource is available, and the ability to store the energy for use at a later time.
Many years ago I wrote that the obvious replacement for fossil fuels was nuclear energy. Today in certain circles this option is back on the table, though at the moment the conventional fission plants are expensive. The new and much safer fusion plants need more research and the general population fear the concept of nuclear energy, associating it with the disaster that would occur by the deployment of nuclear weapons. It is thought today that the new fusion plants that mimic the sun’s generation of energy, may be harder to build but they would be more acceptable since the do not present the hazards associated with fission plants.
There are two aspects of this energy transition that will affect us in T&T—what should we do when there are no more petroleum rents to support the economy; how should we move our energy demands away from fossil fuels?
Many envision every house having solar panels on their roofs and becoming, hopefully, self-sufficient in their energy demands, even exporting the excess to others. However, the main fossil fuel power station interconnected to the grid that serves consumers was/is the most efficient model for electrical generation and distribution.
Will renewables change this model given that renewables are not dispatchable and will require energy storage devices, though nuclear energy would require a central grid and can be dispatched based on demand? As potential users of the renewables’ with even nuclear technologies and given our need to earn foreign exchange to survive, coupled with our expensive and depleting natural gas resource, economic diversification should become the major emphasis today.
—Mary King is an economist