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Does Norway lack political commitment to renewables?

Posted on 12 March 2013 by gws

NOTE: The article below first appeared in the University of Oslo's quarterly research magazine Apollon, written by Trine Nickelsen, and published online 21 February 2013. It was translated with the help of Google Translator, corrected for grammar, and adjusted for clarity by gws. Links inserted by gws. It is posted here with permission of Apollon and the author. Link to original posting in Norwegian is here.

Weak political commitment to renewable energy sources

Norway spends nearly half a billion to conduct research on renewable energy sources. However, its politicians are not putting the results to good use


Illustration by Hanne Utigard: The Norwegian parliament, called Stortinget


For the first time in world history, the global community has come together and said that the basis of energy production should be changed - and that this huge restructuring process has to be driven by politics. Today, less than 15 percent of world energy consumption comes from from renewable sources, about 85 percent from fossil fuels – the latter producing large emissions of greenhouse gases and causing warming the world may not be able to cope with.

- The core of the necessary restructuring is to significantly reduce or completely eliminate the production and use of fossil energy. Since we know that the global demand for energy will increase dramatically over the next 30 years, we are going to have to produce renewable energy in new, effective ways. The political challenge, thus, if we are to make such a transition, is to make new technologies competitive in a commercial market, says Professor Olav Wicken from the Center for Technology, Innovation and Culture (TIK-center), University of Oslo.

He and research colleagues Jens Hanson from TIK-center and Shur Kasa from Hedmark University College are concerned with Norway's place in the international process of moving from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources.  Norway has invested heavily in renewable energy research. The question is whether it is sufficient if we want to be involved in developing the new technologies, say the three researchers.

Research, but no transfer

Our country is better positioned to produce electricity from renewable energy sources such as hydro, wind, waves, biomass, tide-water and under-water currents than most other countries in Europe. It has put emphasis on strengthening research on renewable energy, and it has built up strong institutions with technical expertise. Much of the research is focused on creating technological breakthroughs though. But the development and use of new technologies is as much a social learning process as it is purely a technical development.

- In the ongoing public debate about renewable energy the focus is on research; major research programs on offshore wind power and other new renewable technologies have been established. But in the innovation process – when new technologies develop and spread – it turns out that it is the experience of using the yet inefficient technologies that is critical to future success. As it is, there are no forums of exchange between users and producers, which in time could lead to efficient technologies, says Kasa.

Lack of political will

Norway has not increased its production of renewable energy in the last 20 years; that is, in the period that climate change has been on the international agenda.
Unlike in many other countries, Norway has not introduced any policies to create new markets that can ensure that yet immature technologies are adopted. - We have excess electricity. There is no specific policy regarding the need to urgently develop some new, alternative energy sources and industries. Thus, there are no drivers, and this is a major challenge for Norway, said Kasa.

When new technologies are competing with established ones, usually the established technology wins, often simply by virtue of being the oldest around.
- Technologies require long training periods to be effective and thus competitive, and this benefits the well-established technologies. The market can therefore act as a barrier for new, renewable energy technologies being put to good use, said Wicken. He thinks it is difficult to predict which technological processes will become important over time.

- When short-term cost minimization is the basic principle of policy, such as in Norway, one may disenfranchise technologies that are not yet mature and therefore not as effective as compared to the most prevalent technologies. However, all existing energy technologies have had a period when they were not yet cost effective. Even the steam engine was at first not competitive when it was faced with muscle power, says Wicken.

Solar energy - a Revolution

The development of solar energy has a long history, too.
- The physics of transforming solar energy into electrical energy was already being studied in the mid-1800s. But it took over a century to develop a solar cell that was efficient enough that it could actually drive something, says Hanson. 

Researchers emphasize how important it is to establish a niche market where a new technology can have a chance to develop.
- Efforts to improve solar technology were terribly expensive. The first small niche for solar technology was on satellites. Money was not the limitation when conducting experiments to find what was a safe and efficient power for satellites. The sun could provide power for many years and it outperformed other energy sources, such as nuclear power.

It is only fairly recently that solar technology has become competitive on a larger market. Within only the last four years costs dropped by 80 percent. Power from solar cells is now almost as cheap as nuclear power. What has happened?

- The turnaround came when the use and development of solar technology became a politically motivated project, a deliberate step away from a fossil society. Over the past ten to twenty years there has been an extreme overturning in the solar cell manufacturing industry. Germany is a prime example: In the early 1990s, four per cent of its [electrical] energy came from renewable energy, nowadays it accounts for 20 percent. When markets such the German one become subsidized, we talk about large volumes. This draws in new players with new skills, creating interest in the financial community to invest, and it provides a wider legitimacy. These dynamic drivers seem to bring about improvements that make the technology more efficient. This shows the role that politics can play in the innovation process - as the technology is used, says Hanson.

Norway putting on the brakes

The three scientists are concerned about what they call the technological regimes - established technologies that are supported by research institutions, influential actors and societal norms.

- The Norwegian economy is closely linked to the fossil energy industry through the large production of oil and gas. The industry consists of powerful businesses and interest groups, and is supported by normative behavior widespread in society. An efficient infrastructure for this form of energy is established, and the industry has built a system of education and research, said Wicken.
He believes the system is also about mental structures: - There is an understanding among us of what the world looks like and how we expect it to be. The system thus enjoys a self-reinforcing position in society, and it is therefore difficult to challenge.

Also, the fossil energy system is heavily subsidized: - There are many beneficial schemes for those who are looking for, produce and consume fossil fuels, states Kasa.

Many believe that it is in Norway's best interest to maximize the value of oil and gas wealth.

- We can imagine a future competition between Norwegian gas versus renewable energy on the continent. Indeed, Norway may become one of the players that actively limit the growth of new, renewable energy sources, fear the three researchers.

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Comments 1 to 10:

  1. I will need to chase some references, but I think that if the Norwegian hydro system was upgraded to a pumped system there would be sufficient pumped storage to back up the entirety of the EU electricity load for over a week. Of course this would need an EU supergrid.  Should this not be a major Norwegian priority?

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  2. The article in Apollon did not mention the magnitude of the hydropower production in Norway and the green certificates that Norway and Sweden have agreed on. The Apollon article could have done so to be more balanced.

    The production of hydropower varies from year to year depending on the precipitation. The last years have been wet, and the years to come are also expected to be wet due to climate change. According to SSB the Norwegian hydropower production in the last 12 months was 142.0 TWh, and the total consumption was 130.9 TWh. The surplus was exported to other countries in Europe. Thermal power plants produced 3.4 TWh in the same period. In dry years the production of hydropower is less, but on average Norway exports more electricity than it imports. According to Statnett Norway exported on average 3.8 TWh each year between 2000 and 2011.

    Norway and Sweden have agreed on green certificates to support the production of renewable energy. It started in january 2012, and the goal is to stimulate the development of 26.4 TWh of new renewable power within 2020. Nortrade informs about it here in english. The green certificates are disputed in Norway. Some fear that this production of new renewable energy will further destroy the nature, and some argue that Norway does not need this extra energy and that it may lead to more waste of energy.

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  3. For those of you wondering about this post, as it is seemingly not in line with what SkS "usually" posts about, here some background:

    • we want to occasionally expand from the slightly US-AUS-UK-centric focus of SkS
    • we do not necessarily endorse any opinions expressed in the article (it is a translation only)
    • two posts on Norway within 2 weeks was coincidental
    • we welcome any feedback that helps in understanding the topic better

    Thus, the first two comments here are obviously productive. Norway is a special case: while producing virtually all its own electricity from hydropower, a renewable energy source, its relatively low population alongside a large oil&gas industry make it the largest per-capita CO2 emitter in the world (when counting fossil fuel exports in the Norwegian budget, instead of where they are burned). Norway is a major fuel supplier to the rest of Europe, recently visited again by Germany for talks about long-term energy planning. So, I guess, whatever direction Norway goes is quite relevant for the climate.

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  4. Since we know that the global demand for energy will increase dramatically over the next 30 years

    Is that certain beyond doubt? Should we be accepting it as certain beyond doubt?

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  5. OPatrick

    I think it is important to make a clear difference between demand and supply. That demand will increase is clear when you look at your typical developing country. During the developing phase and decades beyond there is a clear correlation between growth and energy use (the decoupling occurred late in the western world). China and India are prime recent examples. As long as such development is fed by fossil fuels, as it largely is at this point in time, the fossil fuel industry promotes such growth.

    The sentence in question is therefore one I have heard mostly from industry representatives. It seems a bit odd to see it in this article, but keep in mind that the defining adjective here is "global". Then, the answer to your question is likely "yes".

    What we should not accept though is that the demand is supposed to satisfied by fossil fuels. Much (all?) of the demand can instead be satisfied by renewables and efficiency as has been pointed out in many monographs. But that takes political and societal will, as it entails a major shift away from the current fossil fuel infrastructure we are so content with ...

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  6. StBarnabas comment #1 inspired me to look more into the possibilities for power exchange between Norway and Europe.

    A report from a seminar arranged by CEDREN gives a good overview of how Norway, Germany and the UK may balance power using the hydro reservoirs in Norway. The report states that "Demand for Norwegian pumped-storage hydropower is rising." The UK has signalled a long-term demand for balancing power in the range of 15–20 GW. Germany has indicated a substantially greater need (20-60 GW). The Norwegian Statnet states that a balancing power regime of up to 20–25 GW is obtainable from a Norwegian technical standpoint. There are more details in the report.

    A report form Zero states that "With hydro reservoirs of 84 TWh, Norway holds about 50 percent of  Europe’s hydro power storage capacity." The report focuses on balancing power between Germany and Norway. Today Germany has 30 hydro power pump storage stations with a total capacity of 6.8 GW. When the magazines are fully loaded, they can run for 4-8 hours and produce a total of 0.04 TWh. A totally 100% renewable electricity system in Germany in 2050 will require 76 TWh of reimport each year, which corresponds to almost the total storage potential of the Norwegian hydro power magazines. A maximum capacity of 50 GW in- and output is required. To obtain the approximately 50 GW input and output capacity, the turbine capacity of Norwegian power plants would have to be expanded, apart from stepping up pumping capacity. Current installed hydropower capacity in Norway is 28 GW (The numbers in the report vary a little). Statkraft carefully indicates a potential from everything between 30 to 85 GW, but an interim report states that Norway could supply up to 20 GW of balancing hydropower. 

    The Zero report states that "The construction of new hydro reservoirs in new areas in Norway for electricity export is highly unlikely. The most discussed solutions in recent reports on balancing options are pump storage and expansion of existing hydro power plants". The report also discusses the opposition among people in Norway against new power lines due to visibility in the landscape.

    I have played with some numbers to set 20 GW balancing power in perspective. The 500 million people in the EU countries consume approximately 2600 TWh each year, which is approximately 300 GW on average. The energy capacity in the Norwegian hydro reservoirs is 84 TWh, which corresponds to 20 GW power for 4200 hours, i.e. for almost half a year.

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  7. 99% of Norway's electricity comes from Hydro

    How does this translate into "lack of commitment to renewables"?

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  8. Furthermore, Norway is not in the EU, and has no commitment to be in any kind of EU supergrid.

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  9. As AndyS points out nearly all of Norway's electricity production is from hydro. I'm not sure what the point of the article is - it's all very vague. It's hard to imagine why Norway would have any motivation to build for example off shore wind.

    As Norway already has a low emission electricity supply, what would be more interesting is learning about how that might be put to good use by electrification in for example transport, heating and industry. In particular a look at space heating by the numbers and what prospects there are for large scale deployment of heat pumps would seem very relevant. Heating must surely be a big energy consumer.

    What the paragraphs on PV have to do with this escapes me entirely. It's hard to see the relevance. 

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  10. I have mentioned this on another thread on Norway, but Oslo has one of the best urban electric tram systems in the world. Their housing stock is also world class - many homes triple glazed.

    If you point of the article is that Norway should provide a giant battery or load balancer for the fickle nature of wind and solar energy in Germany and elsewhere, then it can only be a win for Norway as they will get to dictate costs.

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