Technology Assessment Needed: Solar Power

By Julian Dierkes

To: PM Khurelsukh
CC: Minister of Energy Davaasuren; Min of Science Tsogzolmaa; Min of Environment Tserenbat, Officer of Intl Cooperation, Min of Environment, G Tsogtbaatar; Min of Light Industry Batzorig; Dir, External Affairs, Green Climate Fund Oyun

Climate Change – Threat but also Opportunity for Mongolia

On October 10 2018 the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued its “Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C“. It spells out – once again and clearly, even for the most willfully ignorant policy maker – the dire consequences on continued emissions.

Clearly, Mongolia is a small, but growing, player in terms of its direct emissions. And, concerns around climate change implications for Mongolia focus around desertification, extreme weather, droughts, floods, and other climate events and their impact on flora and fauna.

Yet, global attention to climate change may well also present opportunities for Mongolia not only to make a significant contribution to emissions reduction domestically, but to embrace alternative energies as a path to sustainable human development. What am I talking about? Mongolia is rich in two things among other resources, that could become increasingly valuable (in financial as well as global climate terms): sunshine and cold. I have urged a focus on applied research linked to this wealth as early as 2013.

If demands by island nations, young people, realistic governments, nay, actually humans, for reductions in emissions keep growing, it is currently hard to imagine scenarios that do not involve a massive investment into alternative energy sources. Massive deployment of solar power is one of the more obvious possibilities in this regard, and Mongolia is clearly well-positioned. The greatest obstacle to such deployment remains in the creaky Mongolian energy grid as well as in transmission technology that (still) makes it difficult to export energy over longer distances.

Deployment may be far off, but…

At the moment, it seems like the stuff of dreams to think of massive solar arrays distributed across the Gobi to produce alternative energy not only for Mongolia, but also for export. Yet, with the current climate change trajectory, urgency will rise with the sea levels and massive investments will be more and more likely. So, let’s imagine that technology advances to the extent that transmission over long distances will be possible (eg, Asia Super Grid) and solutions for energy storage can be found to allow for a deeper integration of solar power into the energy supply for Mongolia and Northeast Asia.

One of the attractions of some kind of massive deployment would be that it would not only be an export opportunity, but it might prompt the investments needed in Mongolia’s electricity grid that could power a decarbonization effort. Currently, Mongolia has three unconnected grids (Eastern, Central, Western) and smaller grids around unconnected soums often running off diesel generators. With the possibility for alternative energy abundant in Mongolia, an update to the grid prompted by export-oriented deployment of massive solar generation capacity would allow for a switch-over to electric heating in Ulaanbaatar and towns, but might also enable electric transportation or the construction of dedicated infrastructure benefitting from a clean energy supply like hydrogen.

Given Mongolia’s heavy reliance on coal for energy production at the moment, decarbonization powered by alternative energies would be a win-win-win for climate change, air pollution, and economic development.

What would a Mongolia full of solar arrays look like?

Calling for a Technology Assessment Exercise

Even though deployment may be a decade or more off, now would be a good time to start thinking about what it would mean for Mongolia to be the site for a massive rollout for solar panels. Regulatory frameworks could be developed with more foresight and proactively rather than in reaction to sudden (investment) proposals or other developments. Choices in education and training could look ahead to future needs, as could current construction of infrastructure.

At the level of the informed newspaper reader, I am not aware of any projects that look at the social, economic and environmental impacts of a large-scale deployment. There are numerous technical assessments of performance of solar panels, etc., but I do not see pointers to big efforts to assess impact.

Mongolia has already seen one big impact of solar technology, of course, in that the solitary solar panel connected to a car battery, powering a TV, is the most recent addition to ger-living that has become nearly ubiquitous over the past decade.

If the Mongolian government were to convene a conference or a series of meetings to look at the potential impact of solar arrays, I could imagine that funding might be forthcoming from development funds, climate change funds, but also from interested corporate sponsors. If I am right that few such large-scale assessments are under way, this would be a area that Mongolia could be a leader in the international community to examine one aspect of our likely, climate-changed future.

Aspects of TA for Solar Deployment

Note that I am neither a technology assessment specialist, nor do I know all that much about photovoltaics. But, I am happy and proud to disclose that I am the son of a technology assessment pioneer, Meinolf Dierkes, who served on a German parliamentary commission focused on technology assessment in the 1980s (Enquete Kommission “Einschätzung und Bewertung von Technikfolgen”).

The intention behind technology assessment is to consider the myriad consequences, including unintended consequences, that the deployment of specific technology might have, particularly also the social and economic consequences. That broad intention is what I have in mind in the broad sketch below of an initial list of potential consequences that might be assessed. Obviously, such assessment would depend on more detailed models and scenarios of the roll-out of massive solar arrays.

Infrastructure: Solar Arrays

Clearly, in their current incarnation, solar arrays need a lot of space.

In principle, Mongolia has a lot of space, given its sparse population. That is especially true of the Gobi desert which is geographically closest to China, the most obvious potential export destination for solar energy.

Yet, as we know from some of the conflicts around mining projects, just because a space may look empty of humans to the casual observer does not mean that there are no regular uses of that space, never mind the animal and plant life that may exist there. Barring some technological innovation that would make solar arrays look very different, any massive deployment on a scale to actually make a dent in Mongolia’s energy supply, but also global emissions would cover a vast area of space with solar panels.

Some important questions follow:

  • what impact would very large solar arrays have on animals, wild and herding animals?
  • how would herders be compensated for lost pastureland or even for losses in their ability to cross spaces?
  • what happens to the soil when much of the ground is permanently shaded?
  • run-off from rare but powerful rains would have to be considered and what would the implications for ground water be?
  • presumably, most vegetation right beneath solar panels would disappear. That in term has obvious significance for herding

Infrastructure: Transmission

But spaces occupied by solar panels would not be the only infrastructure. Clearly, whatever transmission technology was developed would need corridors for transmission lines. These may be narrow, much like today’s cross-country electricity lines or they may be more like pipelines, requiring the equivalent of pumping stations and a wider diameter closer to the ground. These shapes would determine the nature and number of transmission lines. These in turn would become obstacles for herding and other activities. Depending on transmission technology, these lines might also require more regular maintenance and servicing than current technologies, creating employment and supply opportunities but also potentially demanding infrastructure along with those opportunities.

How would decisions be made on routing transmission lines, especially if multiple corridors were necessary? That is a challenging question in many jurisdictions, so beginning to think about that now would certainly be a benefit in planning for ultimate installations.

Production

If a large number of panels would be deployed in Mongolia, obviously it would be advantageous for Mongolia to also develop its productive capacity in this sector.

Such a desire might be challenged by Chinese producers/supplies, especially since China is the likely customer for energy exports, but even licensed production or Chinese-owned production would be of benefit to Mongolian employees.

Obviously, however, domestic production, complete with R&D capacity would be preferable. Could Mongolia’s proximity to a likely-to-boom Chinese market in this regard be an attraction to European or North American investors? Solar panel production has already gone through an interesting international trade history so this question deserves some attention for Mongolia.

Minerals play a role in the production of current solar panels. Copper is an important ingredient as is a by-product of copper refining, selenide. Gallium is not mined in Mongolia, but its co-occurrence with coal deposits in Inner Mongolia tickles the imagination in terms of any Mongolian deposits.

Waste/Recycling

With increasing deployment of photovoltaics, especially in Europe, there have been demands for a “closed-cycle” economy for solar panels that incorporates recycling into production processes. By the time massive solar deployment might come to Mongolia, these concepts will have advanced even further, so it is to be expected that end-of-life recycling will become a central part of a deployment.

What to Do?

It seems to me that considerable interest in solar power may develop in Mongolia over the next 10-20 years. Presented with this opportunity to develop a new resource as a source for development, this would be an area that would be worth investing into, I posit. Perhaps a conference bringing together technical and social science expertise together in Mongolia as a start? Some seed funding from the Mongolian government to attract more funding from industry?

Acknowledgment

Thanks to Sandeep, co-author of Total Transition – The Human Side of the Renewable Energy Revolution, and UBC PhD student, for joining in an enthusiastic discussion of Mongolia’s potential in solar energy generation.

This entry was posted in China, Climate Change, Countryside, Development, Diversification, Environmental Movements, Geography, Gobi, Infrastructure, Russia, Sovereign Wealth Fund and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

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