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A 2012 renewables progress report

By Dave Elliott

2012 saw renewable energy being taken increasingly seriously as a major new energy option, if not the major new nergy option. There is now 238GW(e) of wind capacity in place globally, 245GW(th) of solar thermal heating and 70GW of solar PV and rapid expansion continues, despite the global recession, with wind capacity expected to double over the next five year and PV solar perhaps treble.

‘The share of renewable energy in global primary energy could increase from the current 17% to between 30% to 75%, and in some regions exceed 90%, by 2050.’ So said the Global Energy Assessment (GEA) produced by an international team led by the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis. The report (which I mentioned in an earlier blog post) is now online at: http://www.iiasa.ac.at/web/home/research/researchPrograms/Energy/Home-GEA.en.html

The International Energy Agency also saw renewables as likely to boom They could “become the world’s second-largest source of power generation by 2015 and close in on coal as the primary source by 2035”, according to the 2012 edition of the IEA World Energy Outlook . It says that global nuclear capacity will reach some 580 GWe in 2035- 10% less than the IEA forecast in 2011. And with demand for power rising, the global share of nuclear in total generation will fall from 13% to 12%. By contrast it says renewables’ share of electricity generation will grow from 20% in 2010 to 31% by 2035.

Even so, overall it felt much more needed to be done to face up to climate change,

So how is this paying out in practice? Germany is the obvious test case, given its aim to get 80% of its electricity from renewables by 2050. It is sometimes said that Germany’s attempt to phase out nuclear and replace it with renewables will in fact just lead to more use of fossil fuels- imported gas and indigenous coal. So carbon emissions will rise. In reality however, emissions have actually continued to fall. In 2011, GHG emissions were 26.5% down from 1990, with a 2.1% year on year decline, and that has continued into 2012, despite the closure of eight nuclear plants: http://www.reuters.com/ article/2012/04/12/germany-emissions-idUSL6E8FC53420120412

German use of coal to generate electricity declined steadily from 56.7% in 1990 to 43.5% in 2011, a decrease of more than 10% despite an increase in total electricity generation during the same period of about 10%. Coal use went up slightly in late 2011 early 2012 (during an exceptionally cold winter), but the emission reductions seem likely to continue in part because the share of renewable energy in the electricity mix has increased from 3.6% to 19.9%, mostly due to the rapid development of wind energy and PV solar, plus biomass. Wind and PV and now both at 30GW! The current renewables target has now been expanded from 35% of electricity by 2020 to 40%.

As energy analyst Paul Gipe (see his Wind Works website) has noted, German renewable generation now exceeds generation from hard coal and generation from nuclear. Although total renewable generation was less than brown coal in 2011, on present form, renewable generation may exceed that from brown coal by 2015. Gas is more of a problem, but wind and gas seem to be running about equal and there are ambitious plans for wind-to-gas projects, converting excess wind derived electricity into storable hydrogen and then into a range of synfuels, this providing a way to deal with the variability of wind and replace fossil gas and oil use in key sectors: http://www.ise.fraunhofer.de/en/downloads-englisch/pdf-files-englisch/news/electricity-production-from-solar-and-wind-in-germany-in-2012.pdf

There is no doubting that it will be hard to expand renewables fast enough to keep emissions down, while closing the rest of the nuclear plants by 2022, and there is no shortage of negative views about the how the cost will be distributed. However on current form, good progress is being made, not least due to the reduce costs of the key technologies. That has meant that the level of Feed-In Tariff (FiT) support for wind has now be reduced, as had already be done for PV solar. Obviously if the tariffs had remained high, then more capacity would emerged faster, and some see the cut backs as having been too harsh, and as a retreat in the face of political challenges and concerns about the cost to consumers, already faced with large increases in fuel costs. However they can also be seen as a refection of the fact that the FiT system have worked in getting prices down, so that FiT levels can now be reduced.

What happens next? Well, much of the rest of the EU is also pushing ahead with renewables like Germany, while Japan is in some ways following the same route as Germany, although starting from a lower level, aiming to phase out nuclear in the 2030s and backing an ambitious 25 GW renewables programme, using FiTs. As I reported previously, the USA is also a major force, but China leads the pack, with 62GW of wind already in place and ambitious plans for expansion across the board. The Chinese government recently increased its target for solar energy by 40%, pledging to deploy 21GW of capacity by 2015.

Overall, a study reported in the Springer journal Sustainability Science (Volume 7, Number 2 / July 2012) on ‘Socio technological transitions towards sustainable energy and climate stabilization’, suggest that it is possible to cut global Greenhouse gas emissions by 50% by 2050, with renewables playing a major role. In one scenarios solar, wind, biomass power generation, and biofuels, along with CCS, together account for 64 % of the total GHG emission reduction in 2050.

For overviews see http://www.springerlink.com/content/304tm19u714x6267 and http://www.springerlink.com/content/b4r5m2ut9g54k31l

And for the technological feasibility and costs, see http://www.springerlink.com/content/l7w9716270306602

A 50% emissions cut back would be good, but its conceivable that more could be achieved, given a proper commitment to renewables and energy saving- the later being highlighted recently by the IEA as something that needed a lot more extra effort. So, as a new years resolution, in my 2013 coverage, as well as renewables, I will be looking at energy efficiency more, starting as soon as I get chance, with the situation in the UK.

Parts of the above were submitted as a guest editorial for a forthcoming issue of the International Journal of Ambient Energy, of which I am a editorial board member: www.tandfonline.com/taen

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