In a 1931 meeting with Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, the creator of the light bulb, is reported as having remarked on the power of the sun as a potential source of energy: “I’d put my money on the sun and solar energy. What a source of power! I hope we don’t have to wait ‘til oil and coal run out before we tackle that”. The quote seems extraordinarily prescient, and as the impact of CO2 emissions on the environment are becoming increasingly hard to ignore, there has been a surge in interest in clean, renewable energy sources. While the market is growing rapidly and 2015’s Paris climate agreement bolsters support for the green energy movement, it is worth asking how far we actually are from a fully renewable world.
The term “renewables” covers any energy source which is technically infinite. In contrast with today’s more common sources such as coal, gas and oil which will eventually run out, sources such as wind, solar, hydro or nuclear, can potentially keep providing energy forever. And ways to maximise these sources has been on the agenda for some time.
In 2015, global investment in renewable energy reached $286bn, according to a report prepared by the Frankfurt School-UNEP Collaborating Centre and Bloomberg New Energy Finance. This beats the previous global record in renewables investment from 2011, which has been rising steadily from just $47bn in 2004 when UNEP’s analysis began. Interestingly, investment is being largely led by developing nations, with China and India leading the way.
The global collapse in oil prices since 2014 did briefly dampen the renewables energy market. With fuel so cheap, would renewables energy plants, which can be costly to build, lose their appeal? The answer seems to be a resounding “no”. Speaking at the UN Investor Summit on Climate Risk in January, former US presidential candidate, Al Gore, explained that solar power has been dropping by 10% every year, meaning its price will soon drop “significantly below the price of electricity from burning any kind of fossil fuel in a few short years”.
On 4 February 2016, Morocco’s King Mohammed VI opened the Noor 1 CSP plant, the first phase of a project that will become the world’s largest solar energy powered plant. Built on the edge of the Sahara Desert, the plant will eventually provide electricity to over 1 million people by 2018 and will go a long way towards the north African country’s aim to produce 42% of its energy from renewable sources by 2020.
There is a sense of optimism around the renewable energy sector. Charlie Blair, founder of CWB Energy and a consultant who has worked with the Carbon Trust, Solarcentury and other major UK players, notes significant changes in the industry this century: “When I began my career in 2002 it was pretty depressing, less than 1% of energy was created from renewable sources, if that”. However, this has changed dramatically in a short period of time: “The big story of my career has been wind which has grown enormously. Second is solar, which has grown enormously too. The bottom line is that this technology works and that a world where renewables make a major part of the energy mix is feasible within a generation, seeing how far it has grown in just 15 years or so.”
Still a long way to go
While there has clearly been significant growth in the renewable energy sector, this needs to be tempered with some perspective. Figure 1 shows that the global energy mix hasn’t changed enormously from 1973 to 2013 – a period over which global energy usage has risen astronomically.
While it is positive that there has been some growth in renewable energy sources, the clean energy most often discussed in the media – wind, solar and geothermal – currently account for less than 2% of the energy mix. More broadly, if we take biofuels, nuclear and hydro power into account, renewables still produce less than a quarter of our energy today.
Criticism of renewable energy sources are well known. Wind depends on, well, wind, meaning as a source it can never be fully dependable. Again, solar power depends on the sun, and while developments, such as Morocco’s Noor CSP plant will be able to store electricity up to three hours after the sun has set in molten salt, a more dependable solution is required.
There are also charges of naivety levelled at the renewables industry. For example, plans for a greater reliance on wind energy ignores the fact that manufacturing wind turbines uses a huge amount of energy; energy that has to come from somewhere. We also have the question of the electricity grid. The grid is a finely balanced instrument, designed to provide the right amount of power at the right time. Too little provision results in blackouts, too much results in waste. Bringing unpredictable sources, such as wind or solar into that mix could cause havoc.
It can be tempting to dismiss such criticism as simply a resistance to change. Nonetheless, they carry weight, but can be countered with a growing body of evidence which indicate a greener future is in fact possible.
Mr Blair of CWB Energy described the growing potential of a renewable energy mix: “We know for sure that hydro power definitely works. Hydro tends to be seen as just big Three Gorges Dam style projects, but hydro can in fact be a much smaller and less environmentally disruptive option, providing for local needs on a smaller scale.
“Secondly wind just works, there’s no doubt about it, that’s the bottom line. And, offshore [wind] farms are also becoming more feasible and could provide a huge source of energy. We’re also seeing solar come forward in leaps and bounds, it’s grown massively and is highly successful and becoming much cheaper, even in places like the UK where there isn’t a constant supply of direct sunlight.”
Mr Blair also sees expansion in nuclear as a viable option, while recognising that there isn’t a great hunger for investment in nuclear plants at present. He also notes that there are many innovations in batteries and energy storage solutions, which are increasingly making renewables a more feasible option. “People who say renewables can’t work just aren’t aware of the tools and technology available today – there are so many exciting things happening with batteries, making it possible to store energy for longer.” He is working on a mechanical energy storage technology himself, Gravitricity, which he sees as an enabling technology for more renewable energy on the grid.
A change in priorities
Central to the future of clean energy is investment and support in R&D. However, many countries continue to (or in the case of the UK, increase) subsidise for fossil fuel exploration, while failing to support the nascent renewables industry, according to a 2014 report by the think tank Overseas Development Institute. To support the industry, there is a growing clamour for governments to begin providing more support. According to Seb Berry head of Public Affairs for Solarcentury, a solar energy company: “The main impediment to successful commercial R&D and innovation in the UK solar sector is the same today as it has always been, namely political uncertainty. After a period of sustained growth since 2011, the unnecessary u-turns in UK solar policy since the General Election, inevitably now raise questions about the size of our home market in the short-term.”
While Solarcentury is growing internationally, it is struggling to do so in the UK largely down to an unsupportive political environment. “We are innovating despite – rather than because of – UK government policy”. Mr Berry also cautioned that “it’s also important that politicians don’t use general support for ‘R&D’ and ‘the next breakthrough’ as an excuse for curtailing or restricting market-building measures such as feed-in tariffs for proven technologies. There’s been an element of that in recent government announcements, a surprising development given the cost-effectiveness of solar and its proven track-record in the UK context”.
Few sectors have the clout and importance of energy, and governments have always recognised this. For instance, the traditional non-renewable sources such as oil, gas and coal have long been supported by government subsidies worldwide and this support continues today, thereby contributing to their continued dominance. There is no inherent reason that one form of energy should dominate the energy mix however, and it remains in the hands of governments and society to make choices about which energy sources they want to support most. As with the Noor complex in Morocco, the success or failure of green energy will ultimately depend on how governments choose to engage with the industry.
Further findings from the Frankfurt School-UNEP Collaborating Centre/Bloomberg New Energy Finance report are overleaf.