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Sign of the times

As we enter 2012 with more talk of funding problems and reduced financial incentives, it is apparent how the dynamics – and drivers – for renewable energy have changed, and relatively quickly at that.

When I first took this job a few years ago “climate change” was the buzz phrase. Report after report predicted a planet in dire need of help, and renewable energy being the answer to all our energy needs. Yes, we talked about energy security (better to generate energy at home than buy it from “unstable” regimes); and about how oil was running out too, so we had better find some other sources of fuel; and there was talk of how renewable energy would make us all more responsible with our own energy consumption too.

But in the main the tidal shift in momentum really seemed to have been driven by the idea (and fear) of climate change. And how that made our politicians act and do things like pass the EU's ground breaking Renewable Energy Act of 2009 (I wonder whether that piece of legislation would have passed in today's climate for example)?

Slowly but surely though, the landscape the energy debate inhabits seems to have shifted. After a major financial repositioning of the world over the past few years, nowadays it all seems to be about economics: Is renewable energy worth the money? How much is it going to cost compared to conventional sources? Where can we even find funding for it? How can we make it cheaper? And how should we measure this cost? (Even we're at it – see our article in the latest issue which looks at the difficulty of calculating transparent costs for different types of power generation; page 30).

Of course the environmental issues don't go away. Let's not forget Lord Stern, who in his ground breaking report talked of it being more expensive “not” to implement new sources of clean energy in terms of the resultant increased cost of climate “adaptation” in such a scenario. But these issues seem rather more in the background now – as we continue to prioritise “austerity” over renewables spending.

In some ways, it could be argued that returning the focus back to the economics gives the renewable energy industry a different kind of legitimacy, and this is important if the technologies want to continue to scale up and flourish – when times are tough. Now, technologies are being taken very seriously; compared to each other, and compared to the other lot. Renewable energy is not a cottage industry anymore. Innovation and R&D are absolutely legitimised. Costs are in focus – more and more professional research institutes add their expertise to the technology's development. More start ups form. Companies from other industries come into the sector to add their own cost-saving expertise.

With all this in mind – my first editorial of the year poses a rhetorical question: Has “climate change” now become a bit, well, unfashionable to the mainstream audience? Sitting in the kitchen at the party, while the fashionable talk is of levelised cost of energy, payback times, renewable energy jobs, and economic development?

And with that one final thought – is there a further irony in this situation? The likes of China, which was castigated for being a “climate destroyer” a few years back; in reality was keeping its head down and becoming the renewable energy powerhouse it is today.

Posted 27/02/2012 by David Hopwood

Tagged under: renewable energy cost

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