By: Edgar Ocampo Téllez.
There is a widespread perception in public opinion that “the world is moving towards clean energy”. However, the trend behavior of energy production and consumption in the world indicates the opposite. The energy that has most increased its contribution in recent years is coal and not renewable sources. According to the French energy agency Carbone 4, which specializes in the carbon balance of Europe’s multinational companies, coal has increased its contribution six times more than the combined contribution of wind and solar energy in that period (see graphic “World energy demand”)
According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), the rise in the world’s energy consumption in 2017 was 2%; 70% was covered by fossil fuels (oil, gas, and coal), and the other 30% by renewable sources. Regarding the world’s electrical generation, in 2017 coal-fired electric generation was 9,550 TWh and wind power generation was 1,000 TWh.
The difficulty of renewable resources’ future expansion is very notorious in some developed countries such as Germany, and, in many others, a clear return to coal consumption is observed, as is the case in Japan.
Germany has spent 20 years developing a renewable energy model called “Energiewende”; more than $250 billion dollars have been invested in clean sources and, despite the efforts, wind energy only contributes 3.2% of the primary energy consumption and, even worse, solar contributes 1.5% (see graphic “Germany, primary energy consumption 2018”).
Furthermore, wind energy in Germany will not be able to continue growing as it has so far because the maximum capacity of territory occupation is saturated; there are already more than 30,000 wind turbines installed with a capacity of 56 GW of power. There are very few suitable areas left for the construction of new wind farms. The generation of electricity with German wind power is currently at 110 TWh per year and, at best, will grow to around 140 TWh.
The electricity generated by coal in Germany is 230 TWh per year, which is twice as much as wind power. Also, they will close all nuclear power plants by 2022 and will lose 70 TWh per year provided by this energy source, which will hardly be replaced with renewables.
Japan, for its part, has inaugurated eight coal-fired power plants and is currently building around 36 more. The United States has considerably decreased generation with coal, but still produces around 1,200 TWh annually, and the substitution of this source does not appear to be with renewables, they are mostly replacing it with abundant natural gas from shale farms.
Renewables have demonstrated to lack the availability and capacity to supply industrialized countries. The technical limitations like irregularity, sudden power fluctuations with the variations of wind gusts, or the passage of clouds over solar panels, and the synchronization between production and consumption have shown that it is a huge challenge to rely more than 10% on renewable sources.
In the year 2017, I had the opportunity to develop the study “Activos Energéticos de México y Desarrollo”, for the College of Mexico and the UNAM in the book “Mexico 2018”, where I carried out the foresight of the Mexican energy model towards 2050 (1). The specific case of Mexico is very complex due to the existence of a severe imbalance towards gas. Close to 330 TWh are consumed in the country annually, 177 Wh of which are generated almost entirely with imported gas from the United States, and this tends to increase.
Generating more electricity each time with imported gas, to take advantage of the low prices of the American market, compromises the sovereignty and energy security of Mexico in the long run. Our country must decrease the progressive gas consumption to generate electricity; otherwise, we could face scheduled outages.
Gas imports from the United States are the result of a unique circumstance of the exploitation characteristics of the Eagle Ford and Permian fields in Texas, which target crude oil rather than gas. In some regions of the Permian field, the gas at the wellhead has a negative price, which is why gas in the border between Mexico and the United States has the lowest price in the world. Nevertheless, the gas market dynamic in the United States could change abruptly in a few years; gas excess is increasingly being used to push the plastic and fertilizer industries forward, and for export to Asian and European markets.
Mexico must build a backup electric generation capacity to substitute gas, in the event of difficulties in imports from the United States. Currently, said relief capacity does not exist for when gas electricity fails. The country has few options of local resources to go with the high annual increase of electricity demand, which is 3%, on average, and progressively create an emergency backup, in case of shortage of gas.
At present, more than 50% of the country’s electricity is generated with imported gas, the rest with four big categories: the first is with fuel oil stations 42 TWh per year, the second with hydroelectric stations with around 32 TWh per year; the third with coalfired plants 30 TWh per year and, finally, close to 67 TWh per year are generated with various types of technologies, like nuclear, wind, geothermal, internal combustion, fluidized bed, cogeneration, and bioenergy.
Renewable energies still cannot withstand a significant burden in the country, as its contribution is discontinuous. The largest part comes from hydraulic energy with 32 TWh annually, followed by wind with 10 TWh, geothermal with six TWh and biomass with two TWh; in sum, renewables contribute 50 TWh per year. Its deployment is slow and presents strong social resistance for its expansion, as is happening in Yucatan.
No source has the capacity to grow at such an accelerated rate as required by the rise in annual electricity demand. Hydraulic energy in Mexico has saturated all the hydrological basins, geothermal has occupied all the main conventional thermal deposits, so there will only be marginal growth, and nuclear is an extremely expensive option for our country; so the only renewable sources that can continue to develop are solar and wind, but its growth is very slow.
The new Mexican Energy Model must consider the trend behavior of world energy consumption and the problems experienced by other nations in the implementation of renewable energies, so as not to make the same mistakes and put at risk the energy supply that the country requires.
Mexico’s National Energy Plan and Public Energy Policy must consider a rigorous inventory of the potential and future capacity of each of the energy sources in the national territory, and favor the energy generation with its own sources.