Renewable Energy Continues Rapid Growth Worldwide
Washington, D.C.— Undeterred by a lagging world economy, the use of renewable energy has experienced an unprecedented surge in growth over the past few years and is paving the way for a dramatic transformation of global energy markets in the next decade, according to researchers at the Worldwatch Institute.
Spurred by falling costs and new government policies, global wind energy use has more than tripled since 1998 and provides enough electricity to meet the residential needs of 35 million people—more than equivalent to the number of households in California or Spain. Solar cells are now only nine years behind wind energy in terms of installed capacity, experiencing yearly growth rates averaging almost 24 percent since 1998.
Annual production of solar power systems has grown 150 percent in the past three years, while the production of wind turbines has increased by 78 percent. Sales of wind turbines generated roughly $7 billion in 2002, and support about 100,000 jobs.
"These dynamic growth rates—similar to the recent trend in mobile phone sales—are driving down costs and increasing the political strength of the new industries, which is in turn driving further growth," says Worldwatch president Christopher Flavin. "A decade from now, renewable energy is likely to be an accepted part of the mainstream energy business—and in a position to dominate the market for new electricity generators."
Around the world, renewable energy is being recognized as a means to reduce the threat of global climate change, stimulate development, and create jobs. Out of the World Summit energy debate last August, the new Johannesburg Renewable Energy Coalition emerged. This partnership consisting of more than 80 nations that are committed to increasing their share of energy derived from renewable sources, is led by Europe, Latin America, and a group of small island states concerned about climate change.
Renewables Power Their Way Into U.S. Mainstream
After falling behind Europe in renewable energy during the 1990s, the United States is now moving back into the game, thanks to new state level policies adopted in the last few years. "California, Minnesota, and Texas are among the state leaders, spurred on by everything from high natural gas prices to concern about climate change and the desire for clean air and new jobs," states Worldwatch research associate Janet Sawin.
In June, ten U.S. labor unions, including the steel- and autoworkers unions, called for a ten-year, $300 billion "Apollo Project" to promote energy efficiency and new technologies, including renewables. And out of concern that they remain competitive in the global marketplace, shareholders of major energy companies such as ChevronTexaco and ExxonMobil cast record votes—representing tens of billions of dollars worth of stock—in favor of shareholder resolutions on renewable energy this spring.
Other recent developments in renewable energy in the United States:
- Thirteen U.S. states now require electric utilities to include minimum levels of renewable energy in their generation portfolios. Thirty states also allow owners of rooftop solar systems to receive credit for excess power they feed into the grid. As a result of state policies and falling prices, one of the country's most powerful corporations, General Electric, has invested heavily in wind power over the past year and the U.S. solar power business has grown by 60 percent in 2002 to $500 million.
- In January, New York Republican Governor George Pataki announced an ambitious goal of generating 25 percent of New York's electricity with renewables by 2012.
- On the eastern seaboard, large-scale offshore wind farms, each with enough generating capacity to power a good-sized town, are being planned from Cape Cod to Virginia. A proposed project off Long Island would meet 75 percent of the island's power needs.
Facts and Figures on Renewable Energy
Wind power is the first renewable energy source to enter the mainstream. The global power industry already adds more wind capacity each year than it does nuclear, and wind energy is now closing in rapidly on hydropower.
- According to a study by the European Wind Energy Association and Greenpeace, there exist no technical, economic or resource barriers for the wind to provide 12 percent of the world's electricity by 2020. With strong government policies in place in a growing number of countries, wind power could meet 22 percent of global energy needs by 2040.
- Denmark, Germany, and Spain installed 78 percent of the wind power added worldwide in 2002, and Denmark now generates one-fifth of its electricity with wind power alone.
- Researchers Mark Jacobson and Christina Archer of Stanford University recently discovered that nearly one-quarter of the United States has winds powerful enough to generate electricity as cheaply as natural gas or coal, indicating that wind could reliably provide at bare minimum 30 percent of the country's power.
- Europe is also going full speed ahead with offshore wind projects. Last year, Denmark completed the world's largest offshore wind farm to date, comprised of eighty 2-MW turbines. Thousands of additional megawatts are planned for the waters of northern Europe, including a 520 MW project off the coast of Arklow, Ireland.
-Wind power is also being harnessed in developing countries. India ranks 5th in the world in wind capacity, and during the first three months of 2003 increased its wind capacity by an additional 10 percent. China currently has more than 1,800 MW of wind projects in the pipeline.
Over the long term, solar cells have even greater potential than wind energy because they can be placed almost anywhere.
- In the United States, California is leading the way, propelled by new energy policies that followed a debilitating power crisis two years ago, as well as the desire of homeowners and businesses alike to reduce their vulnerability to fuel price swings and monopoly control.
- Generous subsidies have enabled Japan to build tens of thousands of solar-powered homes in recent years—driving down costs through economies of scale and propelling Japanese companies to a position of global dominance in solar markets.
- Already the cheapest source of power in many remote, off-grid locations, solar cells can help meet the power needs of some of the 2 billion people who now lack access to modern energy services. Having rejected new coal plants for environmental reasons, Thailand will soon host Southeast Asia's largest solar installation and plans to expand capacity in the vicinity to 4.7 MW over the next several years. The Indian government aims to electrify 18,000 villages by 2012, most with solar power.
- Israel plans to build the world's largest solar power station in the Negev; when construction is completed in 2012, the plant will provide 500 MW of power—5 percent of Israel's current generating capacity.
Beyond Solar and Wind
Even as wind and solar power lead the way, other renewable technologies like biodiesel and geothermal energies are expanding rapidly worldwide.
- Made mainly from vegetable oils, biodiesel is now sold at 1,500 pumping stations in Germany and makes up about 5 percent of the diesel fuel sold in France.
- All new European diesel vehicles can now be run on pure biodiesel fuel, which burns up to 70 percent cleaner than conventional diesel oil and can be made from surplus agricultural products and residues.
- Late last month, Berkeley, California became the first city of its size in the United States to switch all its vehicles to pure biodiesel.
- On the geothermal front, new projects are underway from Germany to Nevada, where the state university's new Redfield campus (due to open in 2004) will derive all of its heat and electricity from geothermal energy, with clean affordable energy to spare for much of northern Nevada.
- The oceans' vast energy is also beginning to be tapped, albeit still on a small scale, with plans for wave and tidal projects underway from San Francisco's Golden Gate to the Western Isles of Scotland and the shores of Australia.