books energy technology

Book review: Renewable Energy, by David Elliott

Renewable energy continues to make big strides around the world, but how far can it go? Can it meet 100% of our electricity needs, let alone 100% of our total energy requirements? Numerous studies suggest it can, but sceptical voices remain.

Here to answer some of these questions is David Elliott, professor emeritus of technology policy at the Open University. He has run a newsletter tracking renewable energy and other technologies since 1979, so you’d be hard pressed to find anyone with a deeper working knowledge of the field.

Renewable Energy – Can it deliver? asks those key questions about just how far we can go with renewables, how they can be integrated into the grid, how it will affect global geo-politics, and whether or not it all adds up to a compelling solution to climate solution. And it does so with patient analysis, balancing the arguments for and against with a vast range of sources.

Elliott runs through the various forms of renewable energy, and how falling costs are making them more accessible. There is plenty on incorporating variable renewable energy, managing grids and base load. The chapter on geo-politics is particularly interesting, considering the growing importance of regions that have lithium for example, or which regions might benefit from international grid connections, and which ones will be marginalised. I’ve not given much thought to regional and even global grids, and there’s a good overview here.

As many others have concluded, there’s a consensus here that 100% renewable energy is possible, but “the main constraints are political, not technical.”

Renewable Energy is a book that considers all sides, taking in everything from radical simplicity advocates such as Ted Trainer at one end of the spectrum, to ecomodernists such as Michael Shellenberger at the other. Sentences will often begin with “optimists say”, and are then followed by one starting with ‘pessimists say”. In places it feels like every other paragraph begins with ‘however’, as it discusses arguments for or against. This is not an introductory book. It’s more for those with an active interest who still have questions, or who are hearing competing theories about renewable energy.

Elliott doesn’t shy away from slippery territory, including the question of growth. Can renewable energy really make a difference if economic growth keeps gobbling up the gains? There’s a very even-handed consideration of the de-growth arguments, although ultimately the author doesn’t pick a side.

One of the strengths of the book is that Elliott is a professor of technology policy, and that’s a good base to write from. As he says, “too often policy decisions and public debates are based on a poor understanding of what is technologically possible. Equally, some technologists are prone to dismissing policy issues as, in effect, irritants, getting in the way of technical progress.” This is a book that understands the nuance between possibility and feasibility, and exactly where the complexities lie.

That same strength counts against it in some ways – not as a weakness, but because it makes it a very specific kind of book. It’s deliberately dispassionate, rooted in research, analysis and data. That will inevitably appeal to some readers, while others will want more anecdotes, case studies and opinion.

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