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An inconvenient truth

The global growth of renewable energy over the last few years cannot be disputed, but can it really play a major role in the world of large-scale electricity generation? Some would say it already is. Wind power is the obvious example.

“If anybody had said we would be here talking about wind producing 15% of US electricity in 2020, no-one would have believed it,” concludes Christian Kjaer, outgoing CEO of the European Wind Energy Association in my indepth interview with him, starting on page 12 of the January/February 2013 issue of Renewable Energy Focus (cover pictured below).

As he says: 

REFocus Jan/Feb 2013 cover

“Fundamentally the technology [onshore] is very affordable, it’s extremely competitive, and you don’t have to worry about what fuel prices are twenty years from now.”

Solar energy has also made major inroads. It has already begun to challenge onshore wind power on price and its lead in the renewables sector. Moreover, according to firms like Trina Solar, 2013 is set to be the year of the solar farm.

As we report on page 38, new developments in concentrated solar power (CSP), such as Yara’s new grade of molten salt, also have the potential to slash CSP costs significantly, bringing the reality of this technology providing large quantities of baseload electricity generation ever nearer.

Even the International Energy Agency (IEA) in its World Energy Outlook 2012, published last November, suggests renewables will become the world’s second-largest source of power generation by 2015. It will “close in on coal as the primary source by 2035”, according to the IEA in fact.

And yet, writing on page 16 of this issue, former IEA Executive Director Nobuo Tanaka urges Japan to reinstate its nuclear power generation instead of looking to renewables.

“Technological limits and high costs currently make them unsuitable for large-scale electricity generation,” he says. For Japan, this leads to an “awkward truth”. Its plan to compensate for the loss of nuclear with renewables (filling a 27% electricity supply gap) “is unsustainable”.

To be fair Japan’s topography and the fact it is prone to earthquakes and typhoons does make it a tricky customer for renewables, but as Tanaka concedes “Japan is unique in Asia”.

Tanaka does make some excellent points in his article calling for Asia to “watch, learn, and act” – developments in North America and Europe will have an undoubted impact on it. As the WEO finds, the extraordinary growth in oil and natural gas output in the United States will mean a sea-change in global energy flows.

But it also states fossil fuels will remain dominant, supported by subsidies that, in 2011, jumped by almost 30% to $523bn. Compare this to subsidies for renewables, which in 2011, amounted to $88bn.

But as Christian Kjaer says noone seems to be debating the subsidies for oil, gas, and coal.

So can renewables really play a major role in the world of large-scale electricity generation? I truly believe it can – as long as there is long term visibility and stability in policy terms and the infrastructure needs (of all energy industries) are met. As Kjaer says, these are the biggest obstacles facing the industry. If these are addressed, the rest will take care of itself. Alternatively, maybe leveling up the playing field on subsidies would help - be it upping support to match that of fossil fuels or withdrawing subsidies for all.

This is my Editorial Leader from the January/February 2013 issue of Renewable Energy Focus. To read the articles mentioned, subscribe now to ensure you get your copy of this and future issues of the magazine.

Check out more Renewable Energy Focus blogs, including guest posts, here.

Posted 23/01/2013 by Gail Rajgor

Tagged under: renewable energy , blog , wind energy , solar energy , CSP , EWEA , alternative energy

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