Latvia must prepare for general electrification

  • 2023-06-29

The transition towards green energy and the use of renewable resources has been on the global agenda for several years now. This issue became particularly pertinent after Russia's invasion of Ukraine. Finding itself next to such an aggressive neighbor, it is crucial for Latvia to realize and understand how to generate green energy, and a safe and sustainable energy supply system. Latvian scientists from all over the globe will discuss this in greater detail at the 5th World Congress of Latvian Scientists, before sitting down at the round table they outlined ideas for the green transition.

The key to the green transformation is resources and energy," says Gatis Bažbauers, Professor at the Faculty of Electrical and Environmental Engineering of Riga Technical University (RTU). "With fossil resources, we were afraid they would run out. At the moment, we are probably more concerned about the pollution caused by the use of these resources, such as CO2 emissions into the atmosphere. The fossil scarce resource is a stock. The alternative is renewable resources, which are flow. If we are clever enough to adapt our energy consumption, we can utilize this flow indefinitely. It is vital that we take action now, while we still have enough resources, time, and knowledge. If we don't take action, we could find ourselves under tremendous pressure in a situation where we are out of time and resources." Professor Bažbauers stresses that transformation is one of the keywords in the context of the green transition, "This means that we must radically change the way in which we use our energy resources, operate our economy, and how we live as a society."

Too complicated for the ordinary user

According to Professor Andra Blumberga of the Institute of Energy Systems and Environment of the Faculty of Electrical and Environmental Engineering of Riga Technical University (RTU), nowhere in the world is saving energy a priority for people. She explains that "There are several reasons for this. The more complicated the problem to be solved, the more challenging it is for people to understand it. Accordingly, the greater the number of obstacles, the lower the likelihood that people will take action. Everything concerning and related to energy conservation and renewables is complicated. Especially in the absence of corresponding education. Consequently, people decide not to tackle such complicated problems. As a result, with the help of politics, we must try to reduce these obstacles." 

There's plenty of sun

Despite the fact that the sun does not shine all the time, it is an efficient means of generating energy, which is underlined by the huge demand for solar panels. "The volume of solar panel production has risen by 30% annually over the past decade," says physicist Professor Pauls Stradiņš, who is currently working in the USA and has been involved in developing solar panel technology. "At the end of 2022, we reached the point where the total installed capacity of solar panels is over one TW. Globally, an average of 2.8 TW of electricity is generated continually. One TW equals 1000 GW. In turn, one GW is the volume that Latvia continually generates and consumes on average. More precisely – 0.8 GW. One large power plant can generate one GW of energy. If we divide up the aforementioned amount per capita, then one person in Latvia consumes about 400 W of power in continuous mode. This is just a little more than the world average. So, if the total amount of energy generated is 2.8 TW on average, once concludes that a third of it is already provided by solar energy. However, this is not the whole story. This is the maximum output when the sun shines directly onto the panels. If we want to get the average, then we need to divide the volume by approximately five. Or in Latvia's case – by seven or eight."

Global electrification awaits us

The world is going to have to devote an increasing degree of thought to how to continually generate more electricity. "The green transition involves moving away from fossil fuels. The alternative is to turn everything into electricity, which is a much more efficient form of energy and far more efficient than fossil fuels. For example, the efficiency factor of an electric car is 85-91%, whereas the efficiency of an internal combustion engine is just 24%. The difference is huge. It is a similar story with heating buildings. Of course, if we simply connect power and use it to get heat from radiators, it is costly. However, if we manufacture a heat pump instead of radiators, then instead of converting electricity into heat, we use it to pump heat from outside and inside our building. In doing so, we use three times less energy to generate the same heat than we would if we used radiators. If we were to massively electrify the whole global economy, then we would have to at least double, if not triple, electricity production," believes Professor Stradiņš.

In order for Latvia to feel secure in such conditions, the professor stressed that it would need to produce about another GW of energy, which is a feasible objective. "A coordinated approach is required. Including at the level of the human mind – we need to accept this and install the system ourselves. Or merely support its installation. We cannot build more hydroelectric power plants. Ideally, we would even get rid of them at some stage. This would leave us with the sun and the wind. The wind is a very good resource. Especially in the Baltic Sea. It is a cheap form of energy. Of course, there is another option in the form of nuclear energy, which is very controversial. In principle, it is not considered to be renewable. Its only advantage is no CO2 emissions, but we have limited resources with which to obtain nuclear fuel. And then there is the problem of waste and safety. The principal advantages of solar and wind energy are that they are dispersed or decentralized. In other words, in the event of a disaster, this infrastructure would be very difficult to destroy. If there is only one power plant and it is destroyed, everything comes to a halt. However, if every small town and village has solar power, then it's a highly decentralized network that is almost impossible to raze or damage. Moreover, if something breaks down, you can get a replacement from somewhere else," says Professor Stradiņš, illustrating the situation.

Nuclear energy has its supporters

Although nuclear power generation is definitely the most controversial form of power generation, it too has its supporters. For example, Andris Šternbergs, who will propose that the role of nuclear energy in Latvia's energy supply should be discussed at the World Congress of Latvian Scientists believes that, "We must consider the energy generation menu as a whole. It is vital for each country to ensure this. Thus, the existence of nuclear power is no bad thing. It is the kind of energy that we can obtain anywhere on Earth, regardless of the sun and wind. It is green and sustainable." However, he adds that it would be unfeasibly expensive for Latvia to go it alone in building a nuclear reactor. The solution is to create one at Baltic level, which is an idea that has been discussed before. It was initiated by the Estonians. "This would be a massive project, preparations for which should start now. Infrastructure has to be built and waste storage has to be considered. If we could our act together and secure the funding, the nuclear reactor could be ready by about 2045," believes Šternbergs.