A Brief History of Everything Wireless

How Invisible Waves Have Changed the World

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Spain: from atoms to photons

2024-01-30 [Petri]

Remember when Russia bet 25 to 35% of its GDP on an open blackmail and shut off the gas supply to Europe, only to witness how one of the warmest winters on record, together with the unprecedented collaboration between the European countries, foiled their plans?

As a response to this attempt to freeze all Europeans, the EU did not only whip up new continent-wide energy sharing schemes and rapidly switch to liquefied natural gas instead of the Russian supply: it also boosted the transition to renewable energy with well over 100 billion euros.

All this is dramatically speeding up the switch away from fossil energy sources. Not only in Europe, but also globally.

Solar is seeing the greatest increase, and with the continually growing demand, the incredible cheapening of solar energy infrastructure keeps on chugging along: even though the prices have already fallen by well over 90% only between 2005 and today, the downward trend just keeps on going.

At CES this year, very easy, "plug-and-play" solar panel and energy storage solutions for individual homes were presented. So the potential of adding solar energy to a "traditional" house is also moving towards mainstream, where you just buy a standardized kit off-the-shelf, install it in "IKEA style", and enjoy the results.

Somewhat surprisingly, Spain, one of the sunniest countries in Europe, has gone through a major flip-flop in its energy policy over the past couple of decades.

About 20 years ago, the Spanish government started subsidizing heavily both the solar and wind energy sectors, and tens of thousands of Spaniards jumped on this possibility. Solar farms were funded by the banks and popped up all over the sunny areas of southern Spain.

But when the economic downturn hit some ten years later, the government's pendulum swung to the opposite direction: subsidies were lowered drastically, and even an "impuesto al sol" or "solar tax" was applied to self-consumed, self-generated energy in Spain.

Your read that correctly: you had to pay for renewable energy in a country that has vast areas on almost optimal latitudes, with over 250 sunny days per year.

One part of the problem was hurriedly done, shoddy designs of the grid connections at some of the solar plants, putting strain on the power grid that was initially designed only to one-directional electricity distribution. But main part was just about money - the government took a short-term view on the cost and put a major brake on any further advancements in this area.

As the subsidies died out, several bankruptcies followed. Even the banking system was close to a collapse due to all of the "solar loans" that suddenly went sour.

The ridiculous tax died in a couple of years, and recently Spain seems to have convinced itself that it makes absolute sense to extract all that “free” energy. Especially as a lot of the sunniest area of Spain is very sparsely populated, arid, and thus not suitable for agriculture.

All the bits and pieces are there, with little environmental issues to worry about.

Spain has also some very windy locations: for example on the train ride from Barcelona to Madrid, you can see row after row of wind turbines around Zaragoza, the "windy city of Spain".

Similarly, several windy mountain ranges are available for exploitation: big wind farms are clearly visible on mountain tops as you approach the Madrid airport from the north.

Still, in the long term, the choice between moving huge, somewhat noisy, inherently mechanical fiberglass blades round and round vs. moving just electrons 100% silently inside a block of stationary silicon is, at least in my mind, an easy decision to make.

So there is a new solar boom in the works, and as kind of the last nail in the “traditional energy” coffin, the government has just confirmed their goal of shutting down all seven nuclear reactors in the country by 2035 (sites marked in red in the adjoining picture.)

In general, although you could see the traditional fission-based nuclear power as a “clean” alternative to oil, gas and coal, even that will not thrive after the latest, Russia-induced boost for renewables.

The reputation of nuclear power as an alternative has been wrought by cases like Fukushima and especially the issue of the very, very, very long-term nuclear waste.

It is hard to think that the solutions would be effective for the 100,000 plus years needed, when the written history of humanity is counted in thousands of years.

Therefore, for understandable reasons, the large amount of “not in my backyard” attitude keeps on delaying any long-term storage projects. Most famous of these is the US Yucca Mountain project, which is still dead in the water after heavy political skirmishing.

Moreover, the nuclear industry also took a major reputational hit as the Europe's only new nuclear power plant after the Chernobyl accident, the Finnish Olkiluoto 3, went almost 400% over its initial three billion euro budget.

Olkiluoto 3 finally started full-scale production in 2023. It was supposed to be ready in 2009.

This one case alone shows the fundamental difference between renewables and traditional alternative “clean” energy sources:

Whereas nuclear plants are one-off megaprojects costing billions and taking decades to complete, solar and wind can be harnessed by multiple, parallel efforts that have their costs counted in millions of euros or even less, and that can be up and running within a year or two, even including the necessary time to cover the bureaucracy.

And as the solar tech is "off the shelf" and installation is just traditional assembly and wiring work, it is hard to end up with any cost overruns. The price of all components and necessary installation procedures is well-known in advance.

Removing the risk of a huge single point of failure is also something worth taking into account: knock one solar plant off the grid, and nothing happens, knock one nuclear plant off the grid, and energy prices on the spot market soar.

In the area of nuclear waste management, Olkiluoto is also an exception, as the long-term storage facility "Onkalo" is getting finalized as the nationwide Finnish solution to this problem.

Elsewhere, the fusion-based nuclear energy finally appears to be shedding its “ready in 25 years”-syndrome that has been ongoing for the past 70 years or so, but even those solutions are still very expensive one-offs, and far from mass-deployment.

It remains to be seen if fusion ever becomes a widely applied alternative, as the energy production becomes more and more local and distributed in nature.

But lets not forget that the main problem for renewables still remains: wind does not blow all the time, and Sun very reliably goes away for about half a day, every day, if you don't count in the polar regions.

So the final necessary component that will solidify this transformation to renewables is the battery technology: the excess energy must be stored for up to a couple of days while the production fluctuates, and as a side requirement, the national grids must be integrated so that the energy can flow easily between countries, balancing the available supply.

Unlike with the electrification of vehicles, this technology area is not bound with the physical limitations of weight and volume: whether the stationary battery array takes ten or thirty cubic meters, or weighs ten tons instead of five does not count.

Price and reliability and are the key factors.

Therefore some old, known technologies, like flow batteries, are getting their fair share of the new R&D funding, and we can expect major balancing capacity to emerge, balancing the daily supply of renewable energy.

Spain also has mountains, so using artificial reservoirs with pumped-up water and respective electricity generation in the opposite direction of flow is also feasible in large scales.

As a Finn, I understand the decision to make yet another nuclear reactor at Olkiluoto: Finland, due to its northern latitudes, would need a buffering technology that spans over several months, and the country has a lot of industry that needs megawatts of non-stop electricity.

But the technology of energy storage is inevitably moving into that direction, for example by storing the almost 24-hour solar production of summer into hydrogen. Therefore most likely there won’t be “Olkiluoto 4” or any other European nuclear power plant project any time soon, if ever again. Renewables will not only eat fossil fuels' lunch, but nuclear will take a major hit as well. Could actually turn lethal to the whole nuclear industry in a couple of decades, as older sites must be decomissioned.

Finland does not have mountains suitable for reservoirs, and the massive fights around the two artificial lakes, Lokka and Porttipahta, are well ingrained in the politicians' memory, leading to the demise of similar projects at Vuotos and Kollaja in the past. So in the mean time, Finland needed more nuclear energy.

Russia’s attack to Ukraine is having an unprecedented effect on more ways than one: it has consolidated Europe, strengthened NATO and considerably sped up the worldwide weaning off of fossil fuels.

The country that was the catalyst of it all through its own, evil reasons is going to be hit most by this transition. Many of the other major oil and gas producers residing in areas of "sunlight-a-plenty" have now also sped up their plans of providing alternate energy sources. They have the money and the right latitudes, whereas Russia spends its money on a pointless conquest attempt and resides far away from optimal latitudes.

The old saying of "don't bite the hand that feeds you" is still alive and well.

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The existing sites of the Spanish nuclear reactors [Google Earth]

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You can purchase A Brief History of Everything Wireless: How Invisible Waves Have Changed the World from Springer or from Amazon US, CA, UK, BR, DE, ES, FR, IT, AU, IN, JP. For a more complete list of verified on-line bookstores by country, please click here.

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