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renewable energy > overview > the coming energy revolution

The coming energy revolution

Posted: 20 May 2005

"This (solar) technology is the future...If we do not switch to green energy, then our whole future as a human race is in jeopardy, or even more simply, we are doomed."

Peter Hain, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. July 2, 2004

By 2030, global energy consumption is projected to be two-thirds higher than it is today due to population growth, continued urbanisation, and economic expansion. The largest share of this growth will almost certainly occur in the developing world, with most of the additional energy currently projected to come from fossil fuels. But renewable energy technologies are now ready for use on a large scale and have the potential to meet world energy demand many times over, as Janet Sawin reports in this specially commissioned Overview.

For five years, people in the Philippine province of Negros fought a proposal to build a 50-MW coal-fired power plant out of concern for environmental and health threats to local residents. In August 2002, the Philippine Department of Energy revoked an environmental compliance certificate previously issued for the plant. Negros will now get 100 per cent of its energy from sources that won't pollute, will never run out, and won't need to be imported - renewable energy.

Wind farm at sunset, Palm Springs, California. Photo: Warren Gretz/NREL
Wind farm at sunset, Palm Springs, California
© Warren Gretz/NREL
The following month, the state legislature in California passed a groundbreaking law that sets a target of generating 20 per cent of electricity from new renewable sources by 2017. From Southeast Asia to California, leaders in business, government, and civil society are calling for a transition to a renewable energy economy.

By some estimates, "new renewables" (which excludes large-scale hydropower and traditional biomass) already supply the equivalent of the residential electricity needs of more than 300 million people. Wind and solar power are the fastest-growing energy sources in the world, experiencing rates of growth and technology advancement comparable to the electronics industry (see figure 1).

Average annual growth rates of wind, solar PV, Natural Gas, Oil, Coal and Nuclear, 1993-2003

It has been nearly a century since the world has had a comparable opportunity to change its energy system. Much of the system now in place was created in an explosion of invention that began around 1890, and was largely finished by 1910. Cities the world over were transformed as horse-drawn carriages and gas lamps were replaced with automobiles and electric lights. Technologies that had prevailed for centuries became obsolete in a matter of years, and the 20th century emerged as the age of fossil fuels.

Advantages of renewables

Today new renewable resources provide only a small share of global energy production (see Figures 2a and 2b). Yet the advantages of shifting away from fossil fuels and nuclear energy and toward greater reliance on renewables are numerous and enormous. Our fossil fuel based energy system represents one of the central vulnerabilities of modern civilization, and the environmental, health and security costs associated with our current energy system are immense.

Figures 2a and 2b: New Renewable Energy Share of Global Energy Consumption and of Net Global Electricity Generation

Source: Worldwatch Institute

World Net Electricity Generation by Type, 2001. Sources: Worldwatch with data from IEA, World Energy Outlook 2002

Sources: Worldwatch with data from IEA, World Energy Outlook 2002 (Paris: 2002).

Global production of oil, the world's dominant energy source, is expected to peak in the next 10 to 20 years. But of greater concern to many is not when or if economically recoverable fossil fuel reserves will be depleted, but the fact that the world cannot afford to use all the conventional energy resources that remain.

Global climate change is perhaps the costliest impact. UK Prime Minister Tony Blair has called global warming part of a cycle of degradation, poverty and bitterness that makes the world a less secure place. Worldwide, there is a growing realization that climate change, caused primarily by the burning of fossil fuels, is a more serious threat to the international community than terrorism. Global economic losses due to natural disasters, which are in line with events anticipated to result from global warming, appear to be doubling with each decade, and annual losses from such events are expected to approach $150 billion over the next 10 years.

Scientists have concluded that global carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions must be reduced at least 70 per cent over the next century to avoid catastrophic change. Such reductions are not possible without significant and rapid improvements in energy efficiency and a shift to renewable energy.

Renewable energy can generate electricity, can heat and cool space, can do mechanical work such as water pumping, and can produce fuels-in other words, everything that conventional energy does. Renewable resources are generally domestic, pose no fuel or transport hazards, and are far less vulnerable to terrorist attack than conventional energy sources. They can be installed rapidly and in dispersed applications-getting power quickly to areas where it is urgently needed, delaying investment in expensive new electric plants or power lines, and reducing investment risk. All renewables except biomass energy avoid fuel costs and the risks associated with future fuel price fluctuations.

solar telephone
Solar-powered telephone, USA
© John Miles/Panos Pictures

Using renewables stimulates local economies by attracting investment money and by creating employment. Renewable energy provides more jobs per unit of output and per dollar spent than conventional energies do. Economic woes and high unemployment rates influenced Spain's 1994 decision to invest in renewable energy. In developing countries, where an estimated 2 billion people lack access to electricity, renewables can provide power more cheaply and quickly than the extension of transmission lines and construction of new plants, and can aid in economic development, while avoiding the need to spend precious export earnings on imported fuels.

State of technologies

Technical progress of many renewables-particularly wind power-has been faster than was anticipated even a few years ago, and this trend is expected to continue. At 3-5 cents/kWh in good sites, wind power is now cost-competitive with most conventional sources of electricity, even without incorporating external costs.

Costs of other technologies are falling rapidly with technological advances, learning by doing, automated manufacturing, and economies of scale through increased production volumes. Solar photovoltaic (PV) costs, for example, have dropped 20 per cent for every doubling of installed capacity since 1976, or about 5 percent annually. PVs, which generate electricity directly from the sun's light, are now the cheapest option for many remote or off-grid functions, and are now competitive on-grid at all times in Japan and at peak demand times in California.

Global wind capacity has grown an average of nearly 30 per cent annually during the past decade, with more than 40,000 MW of turbines now spinning worldwide-enough to meet the needs of 19 million European homes (or about 9 million in the US). Wind power now meets 20 per cent of electricity demand in Denmark and more than 6 per cent in Germany. While Europe accounts for about 70 per cent of total capacity, wind is now generating electricity in at least 48 countries.

Experts estimate that onshore wind resources could provide more than four times global electricity consumption. According to the American Wind Energy Association, US winds alone could generate more electricity in 15 years than all the oil in Saudi Arabia, without being depleted. Global offshore resources are substantial as well. While some of that potential is too costly to exploit today, the promise of large amounts of wind power at competitive prices is enormous.

Solar energy power plant, Mojave Desert USA. Photo: Warren Gretz/NREL
Solar energy power plant, Mojave Desert USA. Solar panels super-heat oil to power steam turbine generators.
© Warren Gretz/NREL
Solar PVs have the "potential to become one of the world's most important industries," according to the US National Renewable Energy Laboratory. PV market options range from consumer products (such as calculators and watches) and remote stand-alone systems for electricity and water pumping to grid-connected systems on buildings and large-scale power plants.

While PVs account for a small share of global electricity generation, global PV production has increased at an average annual rate exceeding 28 per cent since 1993, with growth rates rising almost every year. More than a million households in the developing world now have electricity for the first time from solar PVs, while more than 100,000 households in industrial countries supplement their utility power with PV systems.

Geothermal heat is found deep in the earth, and new technologies allow it to be used directly or tapped for electricity generation by channeling the steam to drive a turbine. Geothermal energy already heats most of Iceland's buildings.

As Denmark has shown, biomass provides another ready source of energy. Agricultural wastes ranging from sugar cane to rice hulls, can be burned directly or gasified and turned into electricity or combustible fuels. In Brazil, ethanol displaces some 220,000 barrels of oil per day, saving the country about $52 billion in avoided fuel imports�many times the total investments in ethanol production over the past 27 years.

Industrial and developing countries alike, from Austria to Nepal, are increasingly focusing their hydropower development on smaller-scale projects. Small-scale hydropower plants (up to 10 MW), if responsibly implemented, create relatively small social and environmental impacts, while providing people with power and related economic benefits.

The energy embodied in the oceans' tides, waves, currents and temperature differentials can also be tapped. While most such technologies are still at the experimental stage, two sizable tidal power installations are already in place, and Scotland and Australia are among a growing list of countries investing in ocean energy technologies.

The key to a reliable, diversified energy system that depends heavily on renewable power supplies is to deploy hydrogen as a major energy carrier and storage medium. Not only will this eliminate challenges posed by the intermittent nature of some renewable sources, but it might also answer the question of how to provide renewable energy when and where it is needed-how do you get wind or sunshine into a fuel tank, for example, on a still, dark night?

Major automobile manufacturers around the world are developing hydrogen fuel cell-powered cars that will emit only water from their tailpipes. DaimlerChrysler, Honda, Toyota, and GM now expect to have their first commercial fuel-cell cars available by 2010. The hydrogen for those initial fuel cells will probably be derived from natural gas, since splitting water through electrolysis is currently more expensive. This would allow a hydrogen pipeline system to be developed gradually, piggy-backing on the natural gas system already in place. Eventually, renewable hydrogen could be the fuel of choice-produced from renewable energy, stored underground, and carried to our cities and factories by pipeline.

Expanding global markets

Both the US Energy Information Administration (EIA) and the International Energy Agency project that, while renewable energy use will continue to grow over the coming decades, the global share of renewable energy will actually decline between now and 2030. Under their scenarios, global carbon emissions could rise by 70 per cent over this period, dramatically increasing the threat of catastrophic climate change. But such projections assume that the world will continue with business as usual.

If, on the other hand, a range of new energy and environmental policies are widely implemented, the share of renewables will increase significantly. This is highly possible as political support for renewables is rising worldwide in response to rising demand for energy, increasing concerns about fuel supplies and global security, growing threats of climate change and other environmental crises, and significant advances in renewable energy and understanding of the benefits they offer.

Mandated targets, fair access to the electric grid, standard pricing for renewably-produced electricity, investment and production incentives, and public awareness programmes are some of the policies that have already led to dramatic growth in renewable energy markets in a handful of countries such as Germany and Japan. Such policies are most successful when they are consistent and sustained over the long-term. And a growing number of countries around the world are setting ambitious targets for renewables (see Table 1).

Table 1. Renewable Energy Targets and Recent Totals in Selected Countries
Country/Region Targets for Renewable Energy Recent Totals
California, U.S. 20% electricity from new renewables by 2017 12% (2002)
European Union 22.1% electricity by 2010;
12% total energy by 2010
14% electricity (1999);
6% energy (1997)
Germany 20% electricity by 2020;
50% total energy by 2050
6.8% electricity (2002)
Japan 4,830 MW of PV by 2010 887 MW (2003)
Latin America, Caribbean 10% total energy from new renewables by 2010 -
Navarra, Spain 97% electricity by 2005 55% (2002)
Thailand 21.2% total energy by 2011 19.8% (2001)
Notes: Values are for all types of renewables unless otherwise noted. For California, RPS mandate for investor-owned utilities only; credit for existing but not new small hydropower plants. For Latin America and Caribbean countries above target must maintain their current share.

The European Union aims for renewables to provide 22 per cent of Europe's electricity and 12 per cent of total energy by 2010. In early 2003, Tony Blair announced that the UK will reduce its CO2 emissions 60 per cent by 2050, while calling on the rest of Europe to follow suit. Renewable energy will play a major role in reaching these targets. Developing countries such as China and India have recently strengthened their renewable energy policies, with China making significant new commitments in June 2004 at the International Conference on Renewable Energies in Bonn, Germany. Brazil is leading the way in Latin America with an ambitious renewable energy law.

Even in the United States, despite an oil-oriented White House, nearly half the members of Congress have joined the Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Caucus. Although this political support has not yet translated into the needed federal legislation, many states�including Arizona, California, Nevada, New York, and Texas--have enacted pioneering laws, and more and more governors are professing the benefits of renewable energy for their states, from energy security and jobs to reduced dependence on imported oil.

Blyth Offshore Windfarm
Blyth, the UK's first offshore windfarm.
© AMEC Border Wind
Renewable energy has come of age. After more than a decade of double-digit growth, renewable energy is a multibillion-dollar global business, with wind power leading the way. As a result of technological advances and strong, consistent government policies to drive markets, renewable technologies are now attracting the funds of venture capitalists and multinational corporations alike. Major corporations-including Royal Dutch/Shell, BP, Mitsubishi, and General Electric-are investing hundreds of millions of dollars in renewable energy development. Worldwide investment in new renewable energy technologies is expected to increase more than four-fold between 2003 and 2012, to $85 billion annually.

If current growth rates continue, economies of scale and additional private investments in research and development (R&D) and manufacturing capability will achieve further dramatic cost reductions, making renewable energy even more affordable. A classic example of the impacts of scale economies and learning is Ford's Model T car, which declined in price by two-thirds between 1909 and 1923 as production increased from 34,000 to 2.7 million.

Global markets for renewables such as solar and wind power are only just beginning a dramatic expansion, starting from relatively low levels. It is useful to point out, however, that despite increasing concerns regarding safety and high costs, it took fewer than 30 years for nuclear power to develop into an industry that supplies 17 percent of global electricity demand. The same can happen with renewable technologies. In fact, since 1993 the nuclear power industry has added only 59 percent as much capacity to the world�s electric grid as the wind industry. If the average annual market growth rates of PV (37 per cent) and wind (26 per cent) over the past five years were to continue to 2020, the world would have about 570,000 MW of installed solar PV capacity and more than 2 million MW of wind. Wind alone could supply one-fifth the electricity projected to be used worldwide in 2020. Such continued growth is unlikely, but recent industry reports have concluded that if the necessary institutional framework is put in place, it is feasible for wind to meet 12 percent of global electricity demand by 2020 and for PVs to meet 26 percent by 2040.

The Group of Eight Renewable Energy Task Force projects that in the next decade up to a billion people could be served with renewable energy. BP and Shell have predicted that renewable sources could account for 33 to 50 per cent of world energy production by 2050, with strong and stable regulatory frameworks. And David Jones of Shell has forecast that renewables could emulate the rise of oil a century ago, when it surpassed coal and wood as the primary source of energy.

Unlocking our energy future

PV panels power the Mars rover allowing it to explore the Red Planet. Photo: NASA
PV panels power the Mars rover allowing it to explore the Red Planet.
In early January 2004, the U.S. unmanned rover Spirit touched down on the surface of Mars and within days began relaying to Earth dramatic photographs of a red, rock-strewn surface, distant hills, and a rust-colored sky from 170 million kilometers (106 million miles) away. Humanity has clearly established a presence on two planets-and one of them is powered primarily by renewable energy.

PV modules enable Spirit and its twin, Opportunity, to roll across the planet�s surface, operate sophisticated equipment, analyze material, and send valuable data and photographs back to Earth. In fact, without energy from the sun and high-tech, reliable renewable technologies such as PV, space exploration would be impossible.

It will be a long time before renewables achieve the penetration level on Earth that they currently enjoy on Mars, but renewable energy is coming of age even on our planet.
solar-powered tv
TV powered by solar-charged batteries, Niger
© Mark Edwards/Still Pictures

Despite the substantial strides being made in technology, investment, and policy, many people remain unconvinced that renewable energy could one day be harnessed on a scale that would meet most of the world's energy needs. But, in the words of Paul Appleby of BP's solar division, "the natural flows of energy are so large relative to human needs for energy services that renewable energy sources have the technical potential to meet those needs indefinitely."

Not only is renewable energy alone sufficiently abundant to meet all of today's energy needs thousands of times over (see Table 2), harnessing it is not particularly land- or resource-intensive. All U.S. electricity could be provided by wind turbines in just three states-Kansas, North Dakota, and South Dakota. Farming under the wind turbines could continue as before, while farmers enjoyed the supplementary revenues from spinning wind into electricity. In cities around the world, much of the local power needs could be met by covering existing roofs with solar cells-requiring no land at all. Additional energy will be provided by wind and ocean energy installations located several kilometres offshore, where the energy flows are abundant.

Table 2. Global Renewable Resource Base (Exajoules/year
Resource Current Use Technical Potential
Hydropower 10 50
Biomass 50 >250
Solar 0.2 >1,600
Wind 0.2 600
Geothermal 2 5,000
Ocean - -
Total Renewables 62.4 >7,500
Total Global Energy Use, 2000 422.41 -
Notes: All renewables data are for late 1990s. Total includes traditional biomass. Technical potential is based on available technologies and will increase as technologies improve.

Although many economists argue that it will be difficult or expensive to find an alternative to oil and coal, and that we should delay the transition for as long as possible, their position ignores the high costs of the current energy system and is based on a technological pessimism that seems out of place today. The first automobiles and computers were difficult to use and expensive, but pioneers persevered and ultimately triumphed in the marketplace. A century ago, petroleum represented 2 per cent of the world's energy supply-the same share that new renewables provide today.

Just as automobiles followed horses, electric lights replaced gas lamps and, more recently, computers displaced typewriters, so can technological advances make today's smokestacks and cars look primitive, inefficient, and uneconomical. The challenge of the next decade is to accelerate this emerging energy revolution, and the key is ambitious, forward-looking and consistent government policies that drive demand for renewable energy, and create a self-reinforcing market.

We have a brief window of opportunity to start down the path to a more sustainable world-one in which rising demand for energy is met without sacrificing the needs of current and future generations and the natural environment. If the world is to achieve this goal-which it must-countries need to begin today, not tomorrow, to make the transition to a renewable, sustainable energy future.

The world moved one step closer to this goal in June of 2004, during the International Conference on Renewable Energies (Renewables 2004) in Bonn, Germany. The conference concluded with a strong declaration by 154 governments that renewable energy should play a major role in the energy economy of the 21st century.

In addition, governments, international financial institutions, non-governmental organizations, major corporations and civil society groups pledged to carry out nearly 200 actions to expand the use of renewable energy worldwide. While contributions to this �Action Programme� were voluntary, governments and other participants are now committed to tangible progress, and all targets will be monitored within the formal framework of the UN Commission on Sustainable Development. A high-level follow-up conference will take place in 2-3 years in a developing country, perhaps in China, to ensure continued progress.

Janet L. Sawin is Director of the Energy and Climate Change Program at the Worldwatch Institute. She recently received a doctorate in international energy and environmental policy from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and currently writes about energy and climate change issues.

This article is based on Mainstreaming Renewable Energy in the 21st Century, Worldwatch Paper 169, Washington, D.C., May 2004, and Charting a New Energy Future, in State of the World 2003 (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2003), both available at www.worldwatch.org/pubs.

Storing carbon

Once upon a time, industries would freely belch, spew and dump hazardous wastes, despoiling the human and natural environment. But that all came to an end years ago, didn't it? In modern industrialised countries, anyway? Think again.

As the main gas responsible for global climate change, carbon dioxide is
definitely a hazardous waste. And Kyoto and Buenos Aires agreements notwithstanding, CO2 emissions remain uncontrolled throughout the world.

"People are used to the idea that waste has to be managed," says Mike Mason, director of the UK-based Carbon Storage Trust. "But somehow CO2 got left out, and that's what we need to change. We are in business to manage people's CO2 emissions in return for a fee - to see that it is safely and responsibly dealt with."

The CST has two principal carbon offset strategies. The first is to absorb CO2 emissions through afforestation projects - taking care to use native species on deforested, agriculturally marginal landscapes, working with local people to generate collateral social and biodiversity benefits.
The second is to support energy efficiency and renewable energy projects which would not take place without such support, so reducing CO2 emissions from fossil fuels. Products whose associated CO2 has been offset by CST can then carry its "Climate Care" logo.

After initial suspicions environmental groups such as the World Wide Fund for Nature, Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth are warming to CST's ideas. But they insist that while appropriate afforestation is desirable, it offers only a finite opportunity for carbon sequestration and should be accompanied by efforts to minimise CO2 emissions at source.

Oliver Tickell

© People & the Planet 2000 - 2007
Solar panels provide homes with electricity, In Cacimbas, Ceara, Brazil. Photo: Roger Taylor/NREL
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