Renewable Energy

An overiew of options for renewable energy.

As of early 2011, energy from renewable sources accounted for about 16% of global final energy consumptions. The year 2010 represented huge increases in renewable energy capacity, investment, and research and development, as well as the decrease in technology costs associated with renewable energy (particularly in solar technology and wind turbines). According to Ren21's Renewables 2011 Global Status Report, by early 2011 more than 118 countries had renewable policy targets or support place in place at the national level- a big improvement on the 50 countries that had such policies in place in 2005. China led the way in 2010 as the number one installer of wind turbines and the leader in solar thermal and hydroelectric energy production. Solar PV has been the fastest growing renewable energy sector, with total solar PV capacity growing by 72% from 2009 to 2010, dominated by the European Union. Research and development in renewable energy reached $9 billion USD in 2010, $3.6 billion of which went toward research into solar power.

Engineers and environmental researchers like Mark Z. Jacobson of Stanford University and March Delucchi of the University of California- Davis say that the capacity of renewable sources of energy is large enough to abandon fossil fuels, forget going nuclear, and still be able to provide the world's energy needs even as these needs increase with population rises into the future. They also think that the switch would be cost-effective. In their study, Jacobson and Delucchi concentrate on wind, solar, and water energy options, based on Jacobson's research findings that these were the three best sources of renewable energy. So how do wind, solar, and water energy sources stand up against fossil fuels? And what other options for renewable energy exist?

Here's a simple breakdown of he attributes of some of the main sources of renewable energy that are big right now- concentrated solar power, solar-photovoltaics, wind turbines, geothermal energy, wave power, and hydroelectric power:

What makes all six of these energy options more attractive than fossil fuels and biomass combustion is that they create zero CO2 emissions in their operation (except for the case of geothermal energy, which may create some emissions due to evaporation of diluted CO2 in some types of geothermal plants, though it is minimal compared to more traditional energy sources). Additionally, all of these energy types arise from resources which are already very abundant; that is, the sun, the ocean, the wind, and the heat of the earth, all of which we can use to create energy without using the resources up. And if they we used these renewable sources of energy to their potential, they would be able to create more energy than the world is even using currently, in a way that is less harmful to the environment and the health of current and future generations. WIth the exception of hydroelectric power, all of the other sources require only a fairly small amount of land. Geothermal plants can be configured so that they are largely underground, solar photovoltaic panels are mainly placed on rooftops, and much of the space below wind turbines can be utilized for other purposes.

The increased investment and support from government and development organizations for research into and expansion of renewable energy sources even in the wake of global financial depression is a hopeful sign that governments and companies are serious about the move away from fossil fuels to more sustainable forms of energy production. Technological advancements are improving the cost efficiency of renewable energy as well, making options like wind, solar, wave, geothermal, and hydroelectric more competitive with traditional energy production. This makes the goal of energy independence a real possibility for many countries in the future.

-Natalie Giggy

See Ren21's Renewables 2011 Global Status Report for more about market trends and investment data:
Check out Jacobson and Delucchi's November 2009 paper from Scientific American: 
“A Path to Sustainable Energy by 2030”