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Can Renewable Energy Grow Fast Enough to Make a Difference?

Alternative Energy

Across much of the globe, there is an insatiable hunger for energy to fuel growing economies. While the U.S. and Europe could see relatively flat-lined energy use in coming decades, it will rise considerably in non-Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (non-OECD) countries between now and 2040, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA).

Asia, and particularly China and India, will lead the charge toward a 56 percent increase in energy consumption by 2040. Although renewables and nuclear are growing at the fastest rates in the electricity sector, it will not be enough to dethrone coal, according to the EIA.

EIA’s forecast shows non-hydropower renewables as still just a small piece of the electricity generation mix in 2020, with coal still trailed by natural gas. Nearly 80 percent of the world’s energy use, for both transportation and electricity, will be fossil fuels through 2040.

But many forecasts have underestimated renewable growth. The International Energy Agency recently revised its projected installation for global renewables upward. In 2003, the IEA projected that non-hydro renewables would represent about 4 percent of global generation by 2030 under an aggressive policy scenario, but the industry reached that figure in 2011.

The EIA found that half of the increase in the world’s energy use will come from China and India. And while China is building every type of generation as fast as it can, including coal, gas, nuclear and renewables, India’s mix could be very different.

A report earlier this year from HSBC found that wind is already cost-competitive with coal in India, and solar is not far behind. Part of the competitiveness is because wind and solar PV energy production do not require a lot of water.

The EIA noted many uncertainties, including long-term economic issues in the U.S., Europe and China; social unrest in the Middle East and North Africa; shale gas production; OPEC market decisions; and climate policies. But there is one other issue that could severely impact energy choices in the next 30 years that EIA left off the list: water.

For the first time ever, India has identified water as a scare natural resource in its most recent five-year plan. Last year, India curbed some thermal plants’ output during droughts because of lack of water for cooling.

Chris Nelder noted in an article that a recent study found that conservative renewable estimates, such as those by the EIA, were consistently too low compared to more optimistic outlooks.

For other developing nations, adopting renewables paired with smaller grids may make more sense in places where there is no reliable electricity and people pay high prices for electricity from diesel generators. More than 1.3 billion people live without regular access to electricity.

China is still the 800-pound gorilla in the room, as it consumes nearly as much coal as the rest of the world combined. And while China is reportedly changing its taxation policy on greenhouse gases, it’s unclear whether any changes will temper its appetite for fossil fuels in coming decades.

green tech media

12 Comments on "Can Renewable Energy Grow Fast Enough to Make a Difference?"

  1. GregT on Sat, 27th Jul 2013 8:40 pm 

    If you gave a 4 year old boy, 4 different colored crayons, he could probably draw a graph as realistic as this one. Maybe even better.

  2. GregT on Sat, 27th Jul 2013 8:40 pm 

    If you gave a 4 year old boy, 4 different colored crayons, he could probably draw a graph as realistic as this one. Maybe even better.

  3. J-Gav on Sat, 27th Jul 2013 10:19 pm 

    GregT – Ha-ha, Greentech are not known for their wunderbar graphics, are they?
    Nevertheless, there’s a point here, in the second-to-last paragraph. What they don’t get is that “renewables paired with smaller grids” will be coming to “developed” nations as well down the road … before “renewables” are revealed to be what they really are, that is, i.e. non-renewable without fossil fuels.

  4. Kenz300 on Sat, 27th Jul 2013 11:00 pm 

    “It would take only 2% of the Sahara desert’s land area to supply the worlds electricity needs” …………
    Solar energy is safe, clean and gets cheaper and more productive every year.

    IBM solar collector magnifies sun by 2,000x |

  5. Keith on Sun, 28th Jul 2013 12:12 am 

    Solar panels have to be local. You can not place all of them in the sahara and expect to provide energy to the world. Aluminium wiring has a 50% resistance. It kills 50% of the energy to pass it down the line. And if the power supply is interrupted, how long will it take to restart on the other side of the planet?

  6. BillT on Sun, 28th Jul 2013 1:03 am 

    Shhhh, Keith. You’ll shake up the dreamers that we can keep BAU for the rest of their lives. Reality hurts.

    Some will come back and say that we can use copper instead of aluminum but … those power lines would cost about $100 per linear foot at today’s copper prices and need roughly 40 TONS of copper to replace ONE mile of tower, overhead transmission line. At today’s copper price ($4), that would be $320,000.00 per mile plus installation. Say a cool $400,000. per mile. As there are at least 100,000 miles of tower lines in the US, replacing them would cost at least $40 billion dollars using 2,000,000 TONS of copper or 2 years US production. NOT going to happen.

    Yes, solar is practical for home use or small commercial use, but they will never run steel mills or refineries putting out serious quantities of anything, so much production is just going to disappear. We will make absolute necessities, and nothing else, IF we even have the system to get resources by then.

  7. dashster on Sun, 28th Jul 2013 4:46 am 

    @J-Gav “non-renewable without fossil fuels.”

    Can you be more specific – what irreplaceable function do fossil fuels do in the production of renewable energy?

  8. dashster on Sun, 28th Jul 2013 5:28 am 

    @Keith “It kills 50% of the energy to pass it down the line.”

    50% loss per inch, foot, yard, mile? What is the distance in which you say the transmission will have dissipated 50% of the power?

  9. Arthur on Sun, 28th Jul 2013 8:17 am 

    The graphs shown mask the huge regional differences in adopting renewable energy. First and foremost it is a matter of political choice. The second graph shows a renewable energy target of 15% in 2040. In the EU that target is set for 2020 and is going to be met and likely surpassed.

  10. Arthur on Sun, 28th Jul 2013 8:29 am 

    “Aluminium wiring has a 50% resistance. It kills 50% of the energy to pass it down the line. And if the power supply is interrupted, how long will it take to restart on the other side of the planet?”

    Kenz merely used it to illustrate how little surface is in fact needed to replace the currents worls energy consumption with renewable energy generation.

    And what backward country uses aluminium for transport of electricity where you can use copper to transport it over thousands of miles with little losses.

    But generating electricity is a bad idea for political reasons and completely unnecessary. This Bavarian villages produces four times the amount of energy it needs for itself and sells the rest with a profit. There is nothing spectacular about it, just go to the retailer and install these damned panels, nothing to it.

  11. Arthur on Sun, 28th Jul 2013 8:37 am 

    “But generating electricity is a bad idea” should be “But generating electricity IN THE SAHARA is a bad idea”.

    About this silly aluminium idea: in Europe there are several subsea COPPER cables installed to even out regional differences in supply and demand. All lead to Norway which has 18 days worth of hydro storage capacity for the entire EU, which is enough to even out intermittent supply of wind and solar.

    A roundtrip costs 20% of energy loss, not 50%.

    Norway has the ambition of becoming Europe’s battery pack, so to speak.

  12. BillT on Mon, 29th Jul 2013 1:31 am 

    Arthur, you dance all around the fact that ‘renewables’ are NOT going to replace even a significant percentage of our energy supply . That 15-20% in Europe may be the max, ever.

    dashter…think. Where does the metals, plastics, rare earths, and even the labor come from to make them? OIL power. From the mines to your hand is a thousand steps and many materials from all over the world. ALL mined, refined, transported and manufactured using huge amounts of hydrocarbon energy.

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