Renewable energy comes from resources with the ability to replenish such as sunlight, wind, rain, tides, waves and geothermal heat making up about 16% of global final energy consumption, while 10% comes from traditional biomass mainly heating and 3.4% from hydroelectricity. As the Renewables 2011: Global Status Report explains, new renewables make up 3% and continues to grow contributing to shares of renewables in electricity generation which make up 19% and 16% of electricity coming from hydroelectricity and 3% from new renewables. These include small hydro, modern biomass, wind, solar, geothermal and biofuels. Several global reports on renewable energy demonstrate a great effort and shift toward renewable energy with many countries already making great leaps forward in securing the power grid for the future. The Wikipedia article, renewable energy, summarizes this movement toward sustainability as follows:
“Wind power is growing at the rate of 30% annually, with a worldwide installed capacity of 282,482 (MW) at the end of 2012, and is widely used in Europe, Asia, and the United States. At the end of 2012 the photovoltaic (PV) capacity worldwide was 100,000 MW, and PV power stations are popular in Germany and Italy. Solar thermal power stations operate in the USA and Spain, and the largest of these is the 354 MW SEGS power plant in the Mojave Desert. The world’s largest geothermal power installation is The Geysers in California, with a rated capacity of 750 MW. Brazil has one of the largest renewable energy programs in the world, involving production of ethanol fuel from sugar cane, and ethanol now provides 18% of the country’s automotive fuel. Ethanol fuel is also widely available in the USA.
While many renewable energy projects are large-scale, renewable technologies are also suited to rural and remote areas, where energy is often crucial in human development. As of 2011, small solar PV systems provide electricity to a few million households, and micro-hydro configured into mini-grids serves many more. Over 44 million households use biogas made in household-scale digesters for lighting and/or cooking, and more than 166 million households rely on a new generation of more-efficient biomass cook stoves. United Nations’ Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has said that renewable energy has the ability to lift the poorest nations to new levels of prosperity.
Climate change concerns, coupled with high oil prices, peak oil, and increasing government support, are driving increasing renewable energy legislation, incentives and commercialization. New government spending, regulation and policies helped the industry weather the global financial crisis better than many other sectors. According to a 2011 projection by the International Energy Agency, solar power generators may produce most of the world’s electricity within 50 years, dramatically reducing the emissions of greenhouse gases that harm the environment.”
Renewable energy resources offer many economic benefits as well as an opportunity to provide energy in geographically diverse regions of the world where traditional energy may not be feasible, thus, lending a hand in making energy poor countries more energy secure. In the way of economic benefits, renewable energy will create more opportunities in the field as the need for rapid deployment and energy efficiency increases and the technology becomes more diversified due to numerous energy sources. According to the Renewable Global Status Report for 2006-2012, renewable energy replaces conventional fuels in four distinct areas: electricity generation, hot waterspace heating, motor fuels, and rural (off-grid) energy services:
- Power generation. “Renewable energy provides 19% of electricity generation worldwide. Renewable power generators are spread across many countries, and wind power alone already provides a significant share of electricity in some areas: for example, 14% in the U.S. state of Iowa, 40% in the northern German state of Schleswig-Holstein, and 49% in Denmark. Some countries get most of their power from renewables, including Iceland (100%), Norway (98%), Brazil (86%), Austria (62%), New Zealand (65%), and Sweden (54%).”
- Heating. “Solar hot water makes an important contribution to renewable heat in many countries, most notably in China, which now has 70% of the global total (180 GWth). Most of these systems are installed on multi-family apartment buildings and meet a portion of the hot water needs of an estimated 50–60 million households in China. Worldwide, total installed solar water heating systems meet a portion of the water heating needs of over 70 million households. The use of biomass for heating continues to grow as well. In Sweden, national use of biomass energy has surpassed that of oil. Direct geothermal for heating is also growing rapidly.”
- Transport fuels. “Renewable biofuels have contributed to a significant decline in oil consumption in the United States since 2006. The 93 billion liters of biofuels produced worldwide in 2009 displaced the equivalent of an estimated 68 billion liters of gasoline, equal to about 5% of world gasoline production.”
Renewable energy is not going any time soon as more and more countries are committing to the effort backed by strong public support. IEA Renewable Energy Working Party, Renewable Energy… into the mainstream published in 2002, states that at the national level at least 30 countries globally have 20% of their energy supply coming from renewable sources with a projected increase in the coming decades as 120 countries now have policy targets for the long term e.g. the European Union has a binding 20% by 2020 target, some have targets up to a 100% renewables and outside Europe, 20 or so countries, have targets 10% to 50% renewable energy shares by 2020-2030. The International Energy Agency, Energy Technology Perspectives 2012, found a strong positive reception for renewable sources like solar and wind indicated by international public opinion surveys, in addition, to support for requiring utilities to use more renewable energy even with an increased cost and providing tax incentives to encourage development and use.
Renewable energy has a long history dating back and pre-dating the use of coal in the mid-19th century in the form of traditional biomass to fuel fires about 790,000 years ago. The actual use of biomass for fire became commonplace around 200,000 and 400,000 years ago, while the second oldest use of renewable energy coming from wind to drive ships over water, a practice used 7,000 years ago on the Nile. Moving through history, the primary sources of traditional renewables were human labor, animal power, water power and firewood or traditional biomass. According to Wikipedia, a graph of energy use in the United Sates up until 1900 shoes oil and natural gas with the same importance in 1900 as wind and solar power in 2010. As fear grew of a coal shortage, in 1873 experimentation began with solar energy and continued with the development of solar engines until World War I. In a 1911 Scientific American article explains the importance of solar energy: “in the far distant future, natural fuels having been exhausted [solar power] will remain as the only means of existence of the human race”. The 1970s saw a push by environmentalists for renewable energy to replace the depleted oil supply and escape oil dependency leading to the first wind turbines. Solar has been used for heating and cooling well before the first solar panel and not until 1980 due to cost did solar farms begin to pop up. By 2008, renewable energy ceased to be an alternative and became a focus for many countries adding more renewable sources to their arsenal in the United Sates and Europe.
As far as the economic aspect of renewable energy, the technology continues to become cheaper as advances are made and mass production becomes increasingly prevalent leading to more market competition. According to Wikipedia, a 2011 IEA report said: “A portfolio of renewable energy technologies is becoming cost-competitive in an increasingly broad range of circumstances, in some cases providing investment opportunities without the need for specific economic support,” and added that “cost reductions in critical technologies, such as wind and solar, are set to continue.” An analysis, Opinion of the EEA Scientific Committee on Greenhouse Gas Accounting in Relation to Bioenergy, determined that hydroelectricity and geothermal electricity produced at favorable sites would be the cheapest way to generate electricity, however due to renewable energy costs on a steady decline, the cost of electricity is declining for wind power, solar photovoltaic, concentrated solar power and some biomass technologies. As the cost for renewable power falls, the economic viability of its applications increases become the most economic solution for new generating capacity. As the report states: “oil-fired generation is the predominant power generation source (e.g. on islands, off-grid and in some countries) a lower-cost renewable solution almost always exists today”.
Shifting toward the developing world, renewable energy may be suitable for rural and remote areas where transmission and distribution of energy generated from fossil fuels can be difficult and expensive. Various reports indicate the potential viability and economic benefits of renewables in the developing world (Wikipedia, renewable energy):
“Technology advances are opening up a huge new market for solar power: the approximately 1.3 billion people around the world who don’t have access to grid electricity. Even though they are typically very poor, these people have to pay far more for lighting than people in rich countries because they use inefficient kerosene lamps. Solar power costs half as much as lighting with kerosene. An estimated 3 million households get power from small solar PV systems. Kenya is the world leader in the number of solar power systems installed per capita. More than 30,000 very small solar panels, each producing 12 to 30 watts, are sold in Kenya annually. Some Small Island Developing States (SIDS) are also turning to solar power to reduce their costs and increase their sustainability.
Micro-hydro configured into mini-grids also provide power. Over 44 million households use biogas made in household-scale digesters for lighting and/or cooking, and more than 166 million households rely on a new generation of more-efficient biomass cookstoves. Clean liquid fuel sourced from renewable feedstocks are used for cooking and lighting in energy-poor areas of the developing world. Alcohol fuels (ethanol and methanol) can be produced sustainably from non-food sugary, starchy, and cellulostic feedstocks. Project Gaia, Inc. and CleanStar Mozambique are implementing clean cooking programs with liquid ethanol stoves in Ethiopia, Kenya, Nigeria and Mozambique.
Renewable energy projects in many developing countries have demonstrated that renewable energy can directly contribute to poverty alleviation by providing the energy needed for creating businesses and employment. Renewable energy technologies can also make indirect contributions to alleviating poverty by providing energy for cooking, space heating, and lighting. Renewable energy can also contribute to education, by providing electricity to schools.”
Policy trends point to a strong positive reaction from international and governmental bodies who strongly support the shift to renewables. In the United States, Barack Obama’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 included more than $70 billion in direct spending and tax credits for clean energy and associated transportation programs. The hope is that the commercialization of clean energy will pull many countries globally out of the current economic downturn. Leading companies include First Solar, Gamesa, GE Energy, Q-Cells, Sharp Solar, Siemens, SunOpta, Suntech Power, and Vestas. The military has also take an interest in renewable fuels for military vehicles due to the fact these fuels can be produced almost anywhere and do not have the same restrictive implications as fossil fuel do making it a strategic advantage. The U.S. military has committed to 50% renewable energy consumption, the Center for Solar Energy and Hydrogen Research reported on July 24, 2012. The International Renewable Energy Agency, formed in January of 2009 by 75 charter signing countries, has 143 member states promoting the adoption of renewable energy worldwide by providing policy advice and facilitating capacity building as well as technology transfer, as both Doty Windfuels and CoolPlanet Energy Systems reports. As of 2011, 119 countries have national renewable energy policy targets or support policy with 98 countries having national targets in place even state/provincial and local level targets, the Union of Concerned Scientists note. According to Air Fuel Synthesis Ltd., United Nations’ General Secretary General Ban Ki-moon saw renewable energy as a way out of poverty and a move toward prosperity for poor nations announcing in October 2011 “the creation of a high-level group to drum up support for energy access, energy efficiency and greater use of renewable energy. The group is to be co-chaired by Kandeh Yumkella, the chair of UN Energy and director general of the UN Industrial Development Organization, and Charles Holliday, chairman of Bank of America.” With regards to climate change:
“In 2011, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the world’s leading climate scientists convened by the United Nations, said ‘as infrastructure and energy systems develop, in spite of the complexities, there are few, if any, fundamental technological limits to integrating a portfolio of renewable energy technologies to meet a majority share of total energy demand in locations where suitable renewable resources exist or can be supplied.’ IPCC scenarios ‘generally indicate that growth in renewable energy will be widespread around the world.’ The IPCC said that if governments were supportive, and the full range of renewable technologies were deployed, renewable energy could account for almost 80% of the world’s energy supply within four decades. Rajendra Pachauri, chairman of the IPCC, said the necessary investment in renewables would cost only about 1% of global GDP annually. This approach could keep greenhouse gas concentrations to less than 450 parts per million, the safe level beyond which climate change becomes catastrophic and irreversible. ” (Wikipedia, renewable energy)
Environmental technology, green technology or clean technology encompasses environmental science, green chemistry, environmental monitoring and electronic devices ro monitor model and conserve the natural environment and reources in order to curb the negative impacts of human involvemment, according to a Wikipedia article on environmental technology. The term also refers to the technology used in the field such as photovoltaics, wind turbines, bioreactors, etc. and a class of electronic devices that promote sustainable management of resources. Sustainable develop is the core of environmental technologies. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory defines Renewable energy as, ” energy that can be replenished easily. For years we have been using sources like wood, sun, water, etc. for means for producing energy. Energy that can be produced by natural objects like wood, sun, wind, etc. is considered to be renewable.” Some ways environmental technology has been used includes recycling, biofiltration, bioreactor, biosphere technology, bioremediation, desalination, double fed electric machine, energy conservation, energy saving modules, electric vehicles, wave energy, green computing, hydroelectricity, wind power, wind turbine, hydrogen fuel cell, ocean thermal energy conversion, solar power, photovoltaic, thermal depolymerization, composting toilets, water purification, air purification, sewage treatment, environmental remediation, solid waste management, eGain forecasting, and energy conservation. Scientist continue to search and discover clean energy alternative to current power production methods such as anaerobic digestion producing renewable energy from waste materials. The goal of greenhouse gas reduction globally depends on the use of energy conservation technology and generation at the industrial level including unleaded gasoline, solar energy and alternative fuel vehicles such as plug in hybrids and hybrid electric. With regards to industrial usage of energy (Wikipedia, environmental technology):
“Since industrial use of energy accounts for 51% of worldwide energy usage improving energy efficiency in this field is a top priority for environmental technology companies around the globe. Advanced energy efficient electric motor (and electric generator) technology that are cost effective to encourage their application, such as the brushless wound-rotor doubly fed electric machine and energy saving module, can reduce the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) and sulfur dioxide (SO2) that would otherwise be introduced to the atmosphere, if electricity is generated using fossil fuels. Greasestock is an event held yearly in Yorktown Heights, New York which is one of the largest showcases of environmental technology in the United States.”
The need for graduates with specific skills in environmental systems or environmental technology has led to the development of course in three broad areas: environmental engineering or environmental systems, environmental chemistry or sustainable chemistry or environmental chemical engineering and environmental technology. Many extreme radical environmentalists, found in the Green Anarchy publication, see environmental technology as an ill attempt to reform the current exploitative practices:
“Technology, accordingly, requires the exploitation of the environment through the creation and extraction of resources, and the exploitation of people through labor, specialization and the division of labor. Thus, no “neutral” form of technology; things are always created in a certain context with certain aims and functions. Green technology is rejected as an attempt to reform this exploitative system, merely changing it on the surface to make it seem environmentally friendly, despite continued unsustainable levels of human and natural exploitation.” (Huesemann, M.H., and J.A. Huesemann (2011). Technofix: Why Technology Won’t Save Us or the Environment)
Renewable energy commercialization entails the deployment of three generations of renewable energy technologies covering a 100 years of history. First generation technology has already become mature and economically competitive cover biomass, hydroelectricity, geothermal power and heat. Second generation technology are market ready and are now being deployed presently including solar heating, photovoltaics, wind power, solar thermal power stations and modern forms of bioenergy. Third generation technology at present needs more research and development in order to contribute on a large global scale such as advanced biomass gasification, biorefinery technology, hot-dry-rock geothermal power and ocean energy, according to the International Energy Agency. Total investment has reached $257 billion in 2011 higher than 2010 at $211 billion with top countries for investments in 2011 being China, Germany, United States, Italy and Brazil, the Renewable Global Status Report of 2011 and 2012 note. Due to growth, the renewable energy sector and promotional policies helped the industry grow and thrive during the 2009 economic crisis better than others. As of 2012, the International Renewable Energy Agency, Renewable Power Generation Costs in 2012: An Overview, reports that renewables account for almost half new electricity capacity installed as costs continue to fall. Public policy and political leadership continue to aid in “leveling the playing field” and drive the wider acceptance of these technologies. Economic analysts see a growth and gain in this market and efficient energy use due to the 2011 Japanese nuclear accident. The State of the Union Address for 2012 renewed President Barack Obama’s commitment to renewable energy, while mentioning the long standing Interior Department commitment to permit 10,000 MW of renewable energy projects on public land in 2012. Globally, an estimated 3 million direct jobs in the industry have been created with half being in the biofuels industry. Lester Brown of the Earth Policy Institute, Plan B 4.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization, recognizes that many of the climate disrupting fossil fuels are being replaced with clean, stable, non-depleting sources of energies:
“…the transition from coal, oil, and gas to wind, solar, and geothermal energy is well under way. In the old economy, energy was produced by burning something — oil, coal, or natural gas — leading to the carbon emissions that have come to define our economy. The new energy economy harnesses the energy in wind, the energy coming from the sun, and heat from within the earth itself.”
As previously mentioned, renewable energy falls into three generations of technology dating back 100 years with varying sources and technologies at different stages of commercialization. The International Energy Agency (IEA) has defined each generation as follows:
- “First-generation technologies emerged from the industrial revolution at the end of the 19th century and include hydropower, biomass combustion, geothermal power and heat. These technologies are quite widely used.
“First-generation technologies are most competitive in locations with abundant resources. Their future use depends on the exploration of the available resource potential, particularly in developing countries, and on overcoming challenges related to the environment and social acceptance.” -International Energy Agency, Renewables in Global Energy Supply, An IEA Fact Sheet
- Second-generation technologies include solar heating and cooling, wind power, modern forms of bioenergy, and solar photovoltaics. These are now entering markets as a result of research, development and demonstration (RD&D) investments since the 1980s. Initial investment was prompted by energy security concerns linked to the oil crises of the 1970s but the enduring appeal of these technologies is due, at least in part, to environmental benefits. Many of the technologies reflect significant advancements in materials.
“Markets for second-generation technologies are strong and growing, but only in a few countries. The challenge is to broaden the market base for continued growth worldwide. Strategic deployment in one country not only reduces technology costs for users there, but also for those in other countries, contributing to overall cost reductions and performance improvement.” –International Energy Agency, Renewables In Global Energy Supply,An IEA Fact Sheet
- Third-generation technologies are still under development and include advanced biomass gasification, biorefinery technologies, concentrating solar thermal power, hot-dry-rock geothermal power, and ocean energy. Advances in nanotechnology may also play a major role”. First-generation technologies are well established, second-generation technologies are entering markets, and third-generation technologies heavily depend on long-term research and development commitments, where the public sector has a role to play.”
“Third-generation technologies are not yet widely demonstrated or commercialized. They are on the horizon and may have potential comparable to other renewable energy technologies, but still depend on attracting sufficient attention and RD&D funding. These newest technologies include advanced biomass gasification, biorefinery technologies, solar thermal power stations, hot dry rock geothermal energy, and ocean energy.” –International Energy Agency, Renewables In Global Energy Supply, An IEA Fact Sheet
The barriers for commercialization and entry into the energy market cover mostly political barriers rather than technical problems. The current market supports the traditional non-renewable energy on the market namely fossil fuels. While newer and cleaner energy offers social and environmental benefits, utility operator are use to thinking in terms of the big conventional power plants rejecting renewable resources. In addition, consumers ignore renewable power systems due to a lack of knowledge about price signals involving electricity consumption as the National Renewable Energy Laboratory points out. Like many situations, there is no single solution to a smooth transition into renewables thus a multi-policy approach working together can help to overcome many of the barriers in the market. Brown argues, Plan B 2.0 Rescuing a Planet Under Stress and a Civilization in Trouble published in 2006: “A policy framework must be created that will level the playing field and redress the imbalance of traditional approaches associated with fossil fuels. The policy landscape must keep pace with broad trends within the energy sector, as well as reflecting specific social, economic and environmental priorities.” These barriers put renewable energy at a marketing, institutional, or policy disadvantage relative to other forms of energy. Key barriers include (Wikipedia, renewable energy commercialization):
- “Difficulty overcoming established energy systems, which includes difficulty introducing innovative energy systems, particularly for distributed generation such as photovoltaics, because of technological lock-in, electricity markets designed for centralized power plants, and market control by established operators. As the Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change points out:
- “National grids are usually tailored towards the operation of centralized power plants and thus favor their performance. Technologies that do not easily fit into these networks may struggle to enter the market, even if the technology itself is commercially viable. This applies to distributed generation as most grids are not suited to receive electricity from many small sources. Large-scale renewables may also encounter problems if they are sited in areas far from existing grids.”
- Lack of government policy support, which includes the lack of policies and regulations supporting deployment of renewable energy technologies and the presence of policies and regulations hindering renewable energy development and supporting conventional energy development. Examples include subsidies for fossil-fuels, insufficient consumer-based renewable energy incentives, government underwriting for nuclear plant accidents, and complex zoning and permitting processes for renewable energy.
- Lack of information dissemination and consumer awareness.
- Higher capital cost of renewable energy technologies compared with conventional energy technologies.
- Inadequate financing options for renewable energy projects, including insufficient access to affordable financing for project developers, entrepreneurs and consumers.
- Imperfect capital markets, which includes failure to internalize all costs of conventional energy (e.g., effects of air pollution, risk of supply disruption) and failure to internalize all benefits of renewable energy (e.g., cleaner air, energy security).
- Inadequate workforce skills and training, which includes lack of adequate scientific, technical, and manufacturing skills required for renewable energy production; lack of reliable installation, maintenance, and inspection services; and failure of the educational system to provide adequate training in new technologies.
- Lack of adequate codes, standards, utility interconnection, and net-metering guidelines.
- Poor public perception of renewable energy system aesthetics.
- Lack of stakeholder/community participation and co-operation in energy choices and renewable energy projects.”
In the discussion of renewable energy, it is important to discuss the many myths and facts related to this topic. Type renewable resources into any search engine and it will spit out millions of results, so here is a taste of what is out there. From the the Oceana website, Renewable Energy: Myth vs. Fact:
- Myth: Offshore wind power isn’t a viable renewable energy option.
Fact: “Offshore wind has existed for about 20 years, and has become an important part of Europe’s energy mix. Europe’s total installed offshore wind capacity was about 2 gigawatts in 2009 – or about the size of a very large nuclear power plant, with an additional 100 gigawatts of proposed or developing projects. Some of the United States’ best wind resources lie off the coasts – which have the added benefit of being near large population centers where the electricity is needed.”
- Myth: Offshore wind power is too expensive.
Fact: “Offshore wind can supply electricity at competitive prices today. According to a 2007 Black & Veatch report, the cost of electricity from offshore wind power could range between 8.3 cents to 13.1 cents per kilowatt hour, or a similar price to that which residential consumers now pay. As the offshore wind industry matures, the cost of energy will continue to fall; the same cannot be said of non-renewables and nuclear power plants.”
- Myth: Environmental organizations and local residents oppose offshore wind farms.
Fact: “There is substantial support for offshore wind energy. A recent survey found 82% of Mid-Atlantic residents are in favor of offshore wind farms, and 67% would support the placement of turbines even if they could be seen from land. Perhaps the most contentious offshore wind farm – Cape Wind, which is proposed off Massachusetts’s Nantucket Sound – has significant support locally. In 2009, a University of Delaware poll found 57% of Cape Cod residents now support Cape Wind, up from 44% in 2005.”
- Myth: Offshore wind farms will hurt recreational and commercial fishermen.
Fact: “Offshore wind turbines cause minimal impacts to commercial and recreational fishing, and the wind industry is working actively with the fishing industry to ensure this continues. The proposed Cape Wind Farm will place turbines far apart to allow trawlers to navigate in a relatively straight line. Research also suggests that offshore wind farms may actually improve fish stocks by providing habitat – similar to artificial reefs.”
- Myth: We can’t rely on wind power, because the wind doesn’t always blow.
Fact: “Wind power is a reliable if imperfect energy resource. The smart thing to do is to diversify investments in a variety of renewable energy resources. Wind, combined with other renewables and a smart-grid, will be more reliable and emit zero carbon. This will stabilize energy prices and increase energy security all the while mitigating climate change. (Fossil fuels are just as unreliable: in 2008, Hurricanes Gustav and Ike inflicted significant damage to the nation’s oil and natural gas infrastructure, affecting production into December 2008.)”
- Myth: Wind power needs “back up” power, like natural gas.
Fact: “As more renewable energy is developed, the nation’s electricity supply will balance renewable energy supplies with regional demands. Studies have shown that significant investment in offshore wind on the Atlantic Coast would virtually always be producing electricity – so if the wind stops blowing in Massachusetts, South Carolina’s offshore resource may supply power to the Northeast. Additionally, diversifying our energy portfolio to include other renewable energies like solar, biomass, geothermal and fuel cell technologies, as well as employing efficiency, will guarantee the lights stay on. Finally, if all else fails and back-up power from natural gas power plants is necessary, we would be that much less exposed to the price volatility of natural gas, as well as its environmental and climate change impacts, if the natural gas was supplemented with renewable energy.”
- Myth: Wind turbines are bad for the environment because they kill so many birds and bats.
Fact: “Compared to other factors, such as buildings and domesticated cats, wind turbines kill minimal amounts of birds. A 2007 National Academy of Sciences report estimated wind energy is responsible for less than 0.003% birth deaths caused by human (and feline) activities. There is no evidence that fatalities caused by wind turbines result in measurable demographic changes to bird populations in the United States.
Numerous studies on European offshore wind farms confirm these developments have a minimal risk for avian life. Furthermore, wildlife will be more negatively impacted by climate change, unless our society moves away from the burning of fossil fuels. Fossil fuels are much worse for birds than wind turbines. A recent study showed that fossil fuel power plants can kill 17 times as many birds as wind energy on a per-energy-unit basis.”
- Myth: Wind turbines will harm the earth’s climate by changing/slowing down the planet’s winds.
Fact: “In comparison with other anthropogenic activities, the climate impact of wind power is negligible. The continued burning of fossil fuels and unsustainable development inflicts the greatest harm on the earth’s climate. If wind energy generated enough electricity to meet current electricity usage, this would amount to about 6% of all other wind disturbances, like reforestation efforts and tall buildings. This would have no significant impact on global wind patterns. Additionally, wind turbines could have a side benefit of decreasing temperatures at higher latitudes, offsetting the anticipated warming caused by greenhouse gases.”
- Myth: Unlike other renewable energies, future offshore wind costs will not decrease dramatically.
Fact: “Even though total world offshore wind capacity is more than 2 gigawatts, offshore wind is still a relatively new industry. New technological breakthroughs, such as higher capacity turbines using direct drive generators, and floating turbine technologies, will help to decrease the cost of energy generated. On the East coast, offshore wind energy will be price competitively with other renewables transmitted across the country, and even locally sited conventional generation like natural gas power plants.”
- Myth: Offshore wind farms won’t be able to withstand a hurricane.
Fact: “Turbines are designed to shut down in excessive wind (often 50-60 miles per hour) by “feathering” blades so they don’t catch wind, and applying breaks. Wind farms located in hurricane prone areas can be designed to withstand winds in excess of 150 mph (67.056 m/sec) – or a Category 4 hurricane.”
- Myth: In order to tap renewable energy, hundreds of billions of dollars are needed to build thousands of miles of new transmission lines to upgrade the “grid”.
Fact: “While it’s true that most of the onshore wind resources are in the middle of the country, offshore wind farms can be built near major urban (demand) centers, without the need for transnational transmission lines. Offshore wind power does not need to wait for a whole scale replacement of the country’s transmissions system. Regardless of renewable energy, we need to invest in upgrading electricity transmission lines and to build new electricity facilities to meet rising energy demand. Transmission lines are antiquated and are based on technology from the 19th century. These lines must be upgraded to increase transmission efficiencies, reduce electricity costs for consumers, and increase grid reliability.”
- Myth: Renewable energy isn’t cost competitive even with government subsidies.
Fact: “All forms of energy, including fossil fuels and nuclear, receive subsidies. In 2007, $5.5 billion was spent on Federal energy subsidies to support the fossil fuel industries. Additionally the use of fossil fuels exacts hidden costs to society, namely, in negatively impacting human health and the environment – costs that are not incorporated in the final price to consumers. A National Academies of Science report highlighted non-climate damages, such as premature death, from fossil-fuels totaled more than $120 billion in 2005. The study monetized non-climate damages at $32 per megawatt hour of electricity from coal, and $16 per megawatt hour for natural gas, and zero for renewables.”
- Myth: Renewable energy can’t supply significant amounts of reliable energy.
Fact: “According to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s most recent renewable energy maps, the U.S. has 228,081 gigawatts in theoretical potential for renewable energy. This figure represents more than 200 times the current installed electrical capacity in the United States. We’re only using a small sliver of our potential. As such, renewables can meet our current electricity consumption several times over.”
- Myth: Switching to renewable energy will not create U.S. jobs.
Fact: “The green energy revolution is creating a whole range of jobs from engineers, contractors, manufacturers, and suppliers. As of 2008, 85,000 people are employed in the wind industry. Of the wind turbines installed in the United States in 2008, nearly half of the components of these turbines are sourced domestically. If we were to get 20% of our electricity from wind power by 2030, this would create 258,755 construction jobs per year and 216,578 operations-related jobs per year.”
- Myth: Developing countries like China and India should cut their carbon emissions before the United States does.
Fact: “Both China and India have pledged to reduce their carbon emissions. The U.S. risks falling behind in global competition for renewable energy technology, like offshore wind turbines; China is making a massive investment in renewable energies and has even built its first offshore wind farm while the U.S. has yet to do so.”
- Myth: Renewable energy, like solar and wind power, use too much space and cause “energy sprawl”.
Fact: “This supposed ‘energy sprawl’ pales in comparison to the potential damages of climate change. Some renewable energy technologies, such as wind, allow for mixed use of the land. For example, the proposed Cape Wind farm would occupy 0.12 percent of the total project area (19.41 acres) of 25 square miles. (The diameter of these wind turbines will range from 16.75 ft to 18 ft.) This area would also allow the wind park to act as an artificial reef to promote marine life growth while still preserving recreational sailing and fishing.”
- Myth: Our energy policy should take an “all of the above” approach – including oil, coal, gas, nuclear, renewable energy and energy efficiency.
Fact: “Taking an ‘all of the above’ approach would lead to the construction of natural gas and coal plants with life spans of 30 and 60 years, respectively. This would serve to delay greenhouse gas mitigation efforts and would make such efforts more expensive in the long run. The best way to mitigate climate change and ocean acidification, and to also strengthen our energy security, is to take action today by investing in renewable energies and energy efficiencies.”
- Myth: Coal is cheap and carbon sequestration is a better option for cutting carbon emissions.
Fact: “Coal’s market price does not reflect its true cost to society. A 2009 National Academies of Science report monetized non-climate damages from using coal at $62 billion annually. More than 90% of the costs were associated with pre-mature death. Taking into account coal’s steep cost for society, coal is actually one of the most expensive energy sources! While the idea of carbon capture and storage (CCS) is appealing, clean coal is going nowhere fast. The main hindrance to CCS is cost. A carbon price of $58-$66 is needed to make CCS viable. To reduce carbon dioxide emissions via CCS by 20% by 2050 will cost $100 billion dollars per year for 40 years. For $4 trillion, we’re better off investing in renewables to make an even bigger emissions reduction.”
- Myth: Nuclear power is a better option for cutting carbon emissions.
Fact: “While nuclear generates zero carbon emissions, it has a whole set of environment problems. Constructing nuclear power plants is very carbon-intensive, uses vast amounts of concrete for construction, and requires a long lead time of 10 years or more. Nuclear is also dependent on a non-renewable fuel source, uranium. Based on 2006 nuclear electricity generation and current technology, there is enough fuel for 100 years. However, with the global nuclear renaissance, we’re going to run out of fuel much sooner. And there are no long-term storage facilities in the U.S. for spent fuel rods, which means nuclear waste is being stored at power plants without the adequate facilities. All these factors show that nuclear power is a carbon intensive endeavor that exposes us to unnecessary risks.”
- Myth: Energy efficiency is the best way to cut carbon emissions.
Fact: “Greenhouse gas emissions are a result of energy production and consumption. Energy efficiency reduces energy used, but doesn’t eliminate the need for energy. A combination of energy efficiency and clean energy technologies is the only option to reduce carbon emissions to zero.”
- Myth: Natural gas should be considered as a stop-gap solution for the near future.
Fact: “Natural gas is a non-renewable energy resource that emits greenhouse gases, and is subject to price volatility. Over the last ten years, there have been five instances of price spikes, most recently in 2008. Unconventional gas, which has doubled U.S. natural gas reserves, is seen as a boon. However, extracting unconventional natural gas requires fracking, which could pollute groundwater and/or cause other environmental damage.”
In 2009, when the push for renewables over oil was at its peak and President Obama threw his political clout behind the new energy revolution with stimulus packs, oil companies began to pull out some support for renewables falling back into the more conventional energy generation system like fossil fuels. As Jad Mouawad explains, Oil Giants Loath to Follow Obama’s Green Lead, the Obama administration set forth the most ambitious plan in generations by asking for a reduction oil consumption, increase renewables and cut carbon dioxide emissions. The reaction from the oil companies: Royal Dutch Shell decided to freeze investment in wind, solar and hydrogen power and put its efforts into biofuels. As is well documented, most oil company investments are in traditional fossil fuel resources such as carbon intensive energy resources like tar sand and natural gas from shale. The world’s oil giants at the time were not convinced the plan would working causing many to stay on the sidelines, unwilling to invest in new technologies or straying from commitments already made to renewables. Royal Dutch in March of 2009 froze its research and investments in wind, solar and hydrogen power as mentioned with much of its solar business sold and puled out of a project the previous year to build the largest offshore wind farm near London. BP, who for nine years claimed to be moving beyond petroleum, re-entered the oil game in 2007 and cut back on its renewable programs. After President Obama was elected in 2008, Rex W. Tillerson, chief executive of Exxon Mobil, commented:“In my view, nothing has really changed. We don’t oppose alternative energy sources and the development of those. But to hang the future of the country’s energy on those alternatives alone belies reality of their size and scale.” The oil companies have frequently run advertising campaigns expressing an interest in new forms of energy with little follow through and actual investment. Nathanael Greene, senior policy analyst at the Natural Resrouce Defense Council, said: “The scale of their alternative investments is so mind-numbingly small that it’s hard to find them. These companies don’t feel they have to be on the leading edge of this stuff.” The oil companies only make up 10 percent of the $50 billion funneled into the clean energy sector, according to Michael Eckhart, president of the American Council on Renewable Energy. The long term forecast for Exxon sees that by 2050 hydrocarbons will make up 80 percent of the world’s energy supply much like today with oil, gas and coal.
Despite the push from Washington to continue the green revolution, industry executive criticize that renewables will take decades to replace their conventional counterparts. According to the International Energy Agency, to keep up with demand for conventional sources of energy, producers must invest more than $1 trillion each year from 2009 to 2030. David J. O’Reilly, chief executive of Chevron, in a November 2008 speech said: “Renewable energy is very real. We need it. It will be an essential part of the future I envision. But it’s not realistic to suppose we can replace conventional energy in a time frame that some suggest.” Daniel Yergin, the chairman of Cambridge Energy Research Associates and an industry historian, notes that “many of these companies see the world is changing. But the challenge for a very large company is to get critical scale. People tend to forget the scale of the energy business.” To increase supplies, many companies want to use tar sands in Canada or convert coal or natural gas into liquid fuel which emit far more carbon dioxide than conventional oil does. John M. Deutch, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and former director of central intelligence, notes: “What role will oil companies play in the future in alternatives to conventional hydrocarbon? The correct answer is nobody knows. The important thing is for the government to establish a carbon policy. You can be absolutely confident that oil companies will pursue that, as will any other companies.” The areas of focus for many oil companies has become liquid fuel from plants or biofuels, technologies to capture carbon dioxide emission and store them underground and energy efficiency programs especially in the transportation sector. Many analysts believe the oil companies are waiting for a clear winner to emerge in technology. Alan Shaw, the chief executive of the biotechnology company Codexis who works with Shell, remarks: “Don’t lose heart with Big Oil. They aren’t at a point where they are ready to invest yet, but they are getting there. I think in the next 10 years, they will invest hundreds of times more than they have in the past 10 years.”
In 2013, the attitudes of big oil and now many politicians has taken a huge step back when it comes to renewable energy sources as the price of natural gas plunges due to the technology that boosted the supply. Christopher Martin explains, U.S. States Turn Against Renewable Energy as Gas Plunges (4/23/13), 16 of the 29 states with renewable portfolio standards are deciding whether or not legislation should be passed to reduce the need for wind and solar power due to research backed by the U.S. Energy Department. North Carolina may be the first followed by Colorado and Connecticut. Duke Energy Corp (DUK). and PG&E Corp (PCG). as well as Exxon Mobil Corp (XOM)., the biggest U.S. oil producer, and Peabody Energy Corp (BTU)., the largest U.S. coal mining company, contributed to at least one of the lobbying groups pushing for the change due to the fact these U.S. utilities would benefit the most from these efforts, according to the Center for Media and Democracy, a Madison, Wisconsin-based non-profit group. The consequences of such a move would hurt wind turbine maker, Vestas Wind Systems A/S (VWS) and First Solar Inc (FSLR)., which develops solar farms. As Todd Wynn, task force director of the American Legislative Exchange Council, a lobby group inolved in the push, explains: “We’re opposed to these mandates, and 2013 will be the most active year ever in terms of efforts to repeal them. Natural gas is a clean fuel, and regulators and policy makers are seeing how it’s much more affordable than renewable energy.” Due to the opening of aging reservoirs for natural gas drilling, the price has come down 72 percent from a record high in 2005 making it less expensive than wind and solar power projects thus harder for utilities regulators to justify the investment, according to ALEC and its allies such as the Heritage Foundation. U.S. investment in renewable power and energy efficiency dropped 54 percent in 2012 to $4.5 billion as government support decreased according to data compiled by Bloomberg. The level is predicts to slip even further if states dilute their requirements which push utilities to contract power from renewable providers and scale back use of coal and natural gas fired generation. ALEC wants to repeal state mandates arguing that the free market should dictate the most cost effective source of power, while the Heartland Institute pushes to repeal clean-energy goals that it says increases power prices, cost jobs and do little to improve the environment according to their website.
Meanwhile, all eyes are set on North Carolina lawmakers who are debating a bill this month to cap utilities’ required purchases of renewable energy at 6 percent of demand in 2015 which is half the current target and eliminate the requirement in 2021. According to an interview with Wynn, “North Carolina is leading the nation in protecting consumers from the mandates for high-cost energy. It will show other states how to follow suit. A House committee already approved the legislation and it is expected to pass this year. The man who introduced the bill is General Assembly Majority Whip Mike Hager who introduced the bill in March and just so happens his largest campaign donors include Duke Energy and the Charlotte, North Carolina based utility owner’s Progress Energy, the National Institute on Money in State Politics reports. Hager in an interview pointed out, “We could never have imagined in 2007 such an abundance of domestic natural gas We need that Marcellus shale gas to offset the high cost of renewables and prevent electricity prices from rising further. It’s like raising children: they need to grow up learn to live in the real world.” Hager a Republican himself, sees the bill passing through the GOP controlled legislature and Governor Pat McCrory, Republican, signing it as well. Colorado and Connecticut have both adopted similar strategies to get around renewable resource restrictions by broadening their definitions to include non-renewable resources making it easier to meet state goals. Other states considering similar policies include Missouri, Ohio and Kansas. ALEC’s Wynn claims that six additional states have groups planning attacks on renewable energy policies. The wind and solar industries have started to fight back with their own lobby, according to Carrie Hitt, vice president of state affairs at the Washington based Solar Energy Industry Association. In an interview, Hitt declared, “This is a deliberate campaign by conservative think- tanks, the Heartland Institute and ALEC to overturn renewable energy policy that threatens the fossil industry.”
Meanwhile, in Europe, due to skyrocketing costs, major infrastructure challenges and harsh austerity measures brought on by the debt crisis, many question why Europe continues to promise so much green so soon. Those who produce wind and solar energy like British entrepreneur Timothy Porter and millions of other Europeans receive government subsidies for the energy produced at higher than the market rate for electricity and are able to use what they generate for themselves, according to Sumi Somaskanda’s USA Today article, Renewable energy losing its shine in Europe. Subsidies like this are widespread in Europe where policy makers believe that energy from the sun and wind will hinder global temperature increases due to the use of fossil fuels like oil and coal. However, the European debt crisis has many countries worried more about the economy than climate change. According to the English Channel, German consumers as of January 2013 are paying 11% more for electricity than last year as a result of a government plan to replace nuclear plants with wind and solar power requiring significant and constant public money to be cost effective. The desire to move toward renewables comes from the desire to become energy independent from Russia who sometimes used natural gas as a political weapon to pressure nations and the cost was unpredictable, while renewable energy was viewed as a job and income creator. In Germany, the clean energy plan has been ambitious with the aim to have the entire country running on 80% renewables by 2050 and fast tracked by Japan’s Fukushima reactor in March 2011 and lingering memories of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster two decades ago in the former Soviet Union. Chancellor Angela Merkel announced that all of Germany’s 17 nuclear plants would be shutdown by 2022 which is 14 years ahead of schedule and eight were closed immediately. The move to green has been a logistical and financial nightmare for Berlin as nuclear power makes up one fifth of the country’s energy supply as Environment Minister Peter Altmaier estimated the shift could total up to $1.3. trillion by 2030, Somaskanda reports. Analysts say that Germans are willing to pay the higher costs as a result of the concern for the environment and climate change. Brigitte Knopf, head of the Sustainable Solutions groups at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research near Berlin, points out, “It’s taken so seriously because we see that climate change is already happening, that CO2 emissions are already causing some droughts, floods and melting of the ice sheets.” While consumers are willing to pay for now, the government worries that the people will not remain tolerate of the price hikes especially as the election looms with Germany’s energy transition a hot topic.
While Germany has tried to maintain its green theme, many countries have had to abandon or cut back due to austerity measures. Austerity measures have taken hold from Spain to the Netherlands forcing governments to cut subsidies to green energy which helped to grow the sector and spur an unsustainable, artificial boom in solar,wind and other renewables forcing some to believe that the financial meltdown had something to do with this frenzy. Similar policies have spread to 50 countries worldwide with 16 of 27 E.U. members jumping on board resulting in the boom in renewables. Sebastian Mariz, managing partner at EPPA consultancy firm in Madrid, argues: “It’s government subsidized electricity prices that have given rise to the current problems in Europe, not renewable energy. [Subsidies] are just one of the external costs which increase this electricity deficit.” Madrid due to overwhelming debt owed to the Spanish utility companies is verging on economic collapse with $35 billion bill to pay accumulated over a decade of government regulated electricity prices. Many governments have now realized that the growth was out of control as the U.K. and Czech Republic have cut subsidies in half, Italy imposed a cap on new renewable energy providers and Germany cute subsidies by 30% and announced a major overhaul. Matthias Lang, an attorney with Bird and Bird in Dusseldorf who specializes in energy, now sees the problem in filling the gap in electricity that the shutdown nuclear reactors once filled. The technology and upgrade to the grid needed are not in place yet in Germany causing a difficult transition to renewable energy. With an aging power infrastructure, regardless of austerity, will need to be replaced in the next ten years whether renewables or conventional energies are pursued. According to Frauke Thies, E.U. energy policy advisor at Greenpeace, concludes that, “Investment will have to happen, there is little choice. The question is where these investments happen and which technologies Europe invests in.” However, analysts believe due to the rapid improvements in technology and infrastructure that the expense will shrink and Europeans will only shoulder the immediate future costs. According to Somaskanda’s article: “Their price has already begun to fall over the past few years and they have other advantages, says Raffaele Piria, the program director of the Smart Energy for Europe Platform (SEFEP). ‘(Fossil fuels) are scarcer sources and the gas that is burned today can’t be burned again tomorrow, whereas the wind that blows today will blow tomorrow again in the same place. Renewables in the long term have the advantage because they are not finite.'”
Back in the United States, a new approach to renewables has garnered bipartisan support and non-governmental support that has the potential to recapture some of the enthusiasm lost in Washington as well as clear a path toward growth of renewables in the U.S. The Master Limited Partnerships Parity Act or MLP Parity Act is a 600 word bill aimed at addressing Congress for permission to define renewable energy companies in the same way as coal, oil and gas companies from a capital cost perspective, according to Kristopher Settle, MLP Parity Act: Enormous Benefits for Renewable Energy Industry. A Master Limited Partnership provides the taxation of a limited partnership with the ability to offer and sell stock publicly like a corporation. Settle sees this as ideal for developing companies within the renewable sector as it has drawn significant public interest and funding, but whose investors want to get bet the most bang for their buck. The bill would make finance costs much less expensive for renewable energy companies, somewhere around 50% less, Fierce Energy reports. U.S. Senator Chris Coons (D-DE) released a statement after reintroducing the bill to the Senate after the original draft in 2012 was denied and reworked. Settle summarizes the new bill and its benefits as follows:
- “An MLP is a business structure that is taxed as a partnership, but whose ownership interests are traded like corporate stock on a market. Whereas profit from publicly traded C-corporations is taxed at both the corporate level and the shareholder level, income from MLPs is taxed only at the shareholder level because it is treated as a partnership for tax purposes.
- The MLP Parity Act simply expands the definition of “qualified” sources to include clean energy resources and infrastructure projects. Specifically included are those energy technologies…including wind, closed and open loop biomass, geothermal, solar, municipal solid waste, hydropower, marine and hydrokinetic, fuel cells, and combined heat and power.
- An MLP consists of limited partners (investors) and general partners (managers). The limited partners – who can number in the thousands – provide capital and receive quarterly required distributions generally equivalent to shareholder dividends in a C-corporation.
- The National Association of Publicly Traded Partnerships estimates there are more than 100 MLPs currently being traded on major exchanges…[O]f the estimated $445 billion in MLP capital currently in the market, approximately $400 billion has gone into qualifying energy and natural resources. Of that, just under 80 percent has gone into midstream oil and gas pipeline projects.”
Besides the contribution of Senator Coons, Senators Jerry Moran (R-KS), Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), along with Representatives Ted Poe (R-TX), Mike Thompson (D-CA), and Chris Gibson (R-NY) are all original co-sponsors of the bill. In addition, as an article from thinkprogress.org points out, 236 unions, private companies, environmental groups, financiers, and other advocates for clean energy across the country sent their support for the bill in a letter to Congress in May of 2013. Settle sums up the argument put forth:
“Supplementing successful energy tax credits with access to MLPs for renewables and other clean energy technologies would enhance the sources of capital for the industry and increase investors’ opportunities to take ownership in America’s clean energy future. It has worked for traditional energy technologies and would work for clean energy.”
Even with the imposed limitations of the bill, according to Settle, the benefits still outweigh the negatives:
“It’s worth noting that not every renewable energy company will be eligible to qualify for MLP status, even if the bill is ratified. The primary criterion to qualify is that a company must generate at least 90 percent of its income from ‘qualifying resources,’ as defined by the IRS. In terms of the current standards within the coal, oil and gas industries, this includes the production, processing, or transportation of their product. But for the sake of the renewable energy industry as a whole, the benefits still far outweigh the limitations of the bill.”