Alternative & Renewable Energy OVERVIEW
North American consumption increased by a substantial 10.0%. World hydroelectric consumption increased by 2.0% during 2014.
North American hydroelectric consumption decreased by 1.7%, after a 0.3% increase in the U.S. during a below-average year due to droughts. Steady growth does not mean that renewables account for a large amount of the world’s energy.
Instead, non-hydroelectric renewables as a percent of global electricity generation accounted for about 6.0% in 2014, up from 5.3% in 2013.
Coal, natural gas and nuclear energy remain primary sources of electric generation in most parts of the world. U.S.
electric production from renewable sources was 13.2% of total electric power in 2014, up from 12.2% in 2013 and only about 7.6% in 1970.
In this case, “renewable” includes conventional hydroelectric and geothermal, along with solar, wind and biomass.
(In 1970, such production was almost entirely from hydroelectric sources.) Wind power has seen rapid growth worldwide.
Major technological advances in wind turbines (including much larger blades creating very high output per turbine and blades that suffer very little downtime and are thus more efficient), along with massive government incentives encouraging investment in wind generation, have fueled turbine installation.
In the U.S., wind power generation grew dramatically, from 11,187 thousand megawatts in 2003 to 94,652 thousand in 2010 and approximately 107,508 thousand during 2015.
(The 2015 figure
Analysts at BP report that non-hydroelectric
renewable power consumption grew by a respectable 12.0% worldwide during 2014
(the latest year for which data is available).
North American consumption increased by a substantial 10.0%.
World hydroelectric consumption increased by 2.0%
during 2014. North American
hydroelectric consumption decreased by 1.7%, after a 0.3% increase in the U.S.
during a below-average year due to droughts.
Steady growth does not mean that renewables
account for a large amount of the world’s energy. Instead, non-hydroelectric renewables as a
percent of global electricity generation accounted for about 6.0% in 2014, up
from 5.3% in 2013. Coal, natural gas and
nuclear energy remain primary sources of electric generation in most parts of
U.S. electric production from renewable sources
was 13.2% of total electric power in 2014, up from 12.2% in 2013 and only about
7.6% in 1970. In this case, “renewable”
includes conventional hydroelectric and geothermal, along with solar, wind and
biomass. (In 1970, such production was
almost entirely from hydroelectric sources.)
Wind power has seen rapid growth
worldwide. Major technological advances
in wind turbines (including much larger blades creating very high output per
turbine and blades that suffer very little downtime and are thus more
efficient), along with massive government incentives encouraging investment in
wind generation, have fueled turbine installation. In the U.S., wind power generation grew
dramatically, from 11,187 thousand megawatts in 2003 to 94,652 thousand in 2010
and approximately 107,508 thousand during 2015.
(The 2015 figure is for a rolling 12-month period that ended in July.)
The Global Wind Energy Council estimated total
wind generation capacity worldwide at 369,597 megawatts in 2014, and forecast
it to climb to 666,100 megawatts in 2019.
As of October 2015, U.S. wind capacity was 69,471 megawatts, more than
13 times higher than it was in 2000.
Solar power is enjoying significant
technological innovation. The important
factors in solar are the percent of captured solar energy that is converted
into electricity (which is climbing), and the cost per installed watt of
potential output (which is declining).
The use of polymers has led to exciting, flexible solar panels, while
nanotechnology is creating breakthroughs in solar technology as well. Analysts at BP report that installed global
solar photovoltaic capacity was 4,184 megawatts at the end of 2005 within the
IEA Photovoltaic Power System Program Member Countries. By 2011, that number had soared to 71,304
megawatts, and in 2014 it surged ahead to 180,396 megawatts. Biomass energy (including the use of energy
from waste, such as wood chips and landfills, and the production of bioethanol)
has also grown rapidly over the long term, both in the U.S. and elsewhere.
As for nuclear power, both expensive to build
and controversial, the construction of new nuclear generating plants is
accelerating rapidly in China, where demand for electricity is booming and
dozens of new nuclear plants are planned.
Several new plants are also planned or underway in the UAE, India and
South Korea. The UK plans two new plants
as well. Nuclear provides an
emission-free alternative to solar and wind, and is reliable 24 hours-a-day.
It should be noted that the use of renewable
sources does not always mean clean power generation. For example, burning wood or trash for energy
under the wrong conditions can create significant pollution. Also, the clearing of land, such as forests,
for planting of biomass to be used in ethanol or biodiesel refining can be
highly destructive to the environment while creating huge quantities of carbon
emissions. In addition, many types of
renewable energy production require vast quantities of water. These trade-offs continue to create significant
debate and controversy.
In the U.S., emphasis on alternative energy and
conservation has a varied history. The
1973 oil trade embargo staged by Persian Gulf producers greatly limited the
supply of petroleum on the market and created an instant interest in energy
conservation. Thermostats were turned to
more efficient levels, solar water heating systems sprouted on the rooftops of
American homes (including a system that was used for a few years at the White
House) and tax credits were launched by various government agencies to
encourage investment in more efficient systems in buildings and factories that
would utilize less oil, gasoline and electricity. Meanwhile, American motorists crawled through
lengthy lines at filling stations, trying to top off their tanks during the
horrid days of gasoline rationing.
While some consumers maintained a keen, long
term interest in alternative energy from an environmentally friendly point of
view, most Americans quickly forgot about energy conservation when the price of
gasoline plummeted during the 1980s and 1990s.
Gasoline prices as low as 99 cents per gallon were common for many
years. As advancing technology made oil
production and electricity generation much more efficient, a low commodity
price trend kept market prices under control.
As a result, Americans returned to ice-cold air-conditioned rooms and
purchased giant, gas-guzzling SUVs, motor homes and motorboats. The median newly constructed American
single-family home built in 1972 contained 1,520 square feet; by the third
quarter of 2015 it contained 2,445 square feet.
More square footage means more lights, air conditioning and heating
systems to power. Meanwhile, federal and
state regulators made efforts to force automobile engines and industrial plants
to operate in clean-air mode, largely through the use of advanced technologies,
while requiring gasoline refiners to adopt an ever-widening web of additives
and standards that would create cleaner-burning fuels.
Fortunately, the first energy crisis in the
early 1970s did lead to the use of technology to create significant
efficiencies in many areas. For example,
prior to that time, as much as 40% of a typical household’s natural gas
consumption was for pilot lights burning idly in case a stove or furnace was
needed. Today, electric pilots create
spark ignition on demand. Likewise,
today’s refrigerators use about 70% less electricity than models built in
1970. Many other appliances and
electrical devices have become much more efficient, through better design and
engineering, better insulation, more efficient motors, efficient lightning and
smarter building controls. While the
number of electricity-burning personal computers proliferated, computer
equipment makers rapidly adopted energy-saving PC technologies.
Renewable energy sources, cleaner-burning fuels,
fuel-efficient automobiles, as well as homes and buildings that utilize
energy-efficient materials and controls are of great appeal to the large number
of consumers worldwide who have developed a true interest in sustainability or
in protecting the environment. For
example, surveys have shown that many consumers are willing to pay somewhat
more for electricity if they know it is coming from non-polluting, renewable
sources. Nonetheless, the vast, recent
drops in the market prices of oil and natural gas pose a significant challenge
to alternative and renewable energy sources on a purely economic basis.
Hybrid gasoline-electric automobiles made by
Toyota, Honda and others are selling reasonably well in the U.S. and elsewhere. Ford has adopted aluminum as a primary metal
for its popular F150 pickup trucks, savings hundreds of pounds in weight per
truck and dramatically increasing fuel efficiency. Fuel cell-powered automobiles are now coming
on the market in limited quantities.
Meanwhile, many municipalities, such as the
city of Seattle, Washington, have invested in buses and other vehicles that are
hybrids or run on natural gas. Plug-in
hybrid electric vehicles, and fully electric cars, are on the market worldwide,
but sales are relatively slow due to high prices and limited range. Better, cheaper batteries are needed to boost
Alternative energy and energy-efficient
technologies continue to attract strong interest from investors. Likewise, national governments are helping to
fund many energy efficiency projects, ranging from fuel cell research to the
design and development of high-efficiency buildings, although these
government-backed efforts sometimes lead to very costly, very disappointing
Legislation at state and national levels will
continue to boost renewable energy development and conservation technologies on
a global basis. In the U.S., governments
in more than one-half of the 50 states have passed stringent legislation
requiring that an ever-growing percentage of electric generation comes from
Technologies with a reliable return on
investment, such as hydroelectric, remain extremely desirable. Conservation through advanced materials and
technologies, such as retrofitting existing buildings with more efficient
windows, insulation and air conditioning, is growing, and a good return on
investment and an increase in property values are typical results. Alternative oil sources, such as oil sands
and oil shale, harbor vast potential reserves, but they are a challenge to
produce at reasonable prices per barrel of oil equivalent.
Bioethanol and biodiesel, from an economic and
environmental point of view, are questionable at the least, and extremely
misdirected at the worst. Some
production of bioethanol appears very efficient, particularly in Brazil where easily-grown
sugar cane is the feedstock. However, in
the U.S., the diversion of corn and soy from the food chain to the energy chain
for ethanol or biodiesel may be a very bad idea from a wide variety of measures. Advanced technologies that capture carbon
dioxide and utilize it to grow oil-producing algae appear to be a promising
alternative source for oil, but much research and development remains to be
done in this area, and costs remain high.
At least two geothermal energy projects, where
deep holes are drilled to tap the high temperatures of the inner Earth, have
recently been cancelled due to concerns that these activities cause
earthquakes. Tidal energy looks
promising, but both installation costs and maintenance remain huge obstacles. Nonetheless, technologies are advancing
rapidly in this field, and many test projects are underway or in place.
The bottom line is that many types of renewable
energy production simply cannot exist without substantial government
investments, incentives, loans and/or tax breaks. Hydroelectric is a rare exception, as it
produces power at very low cost. In
nearly all other cases, the largest projects (utility-scale) based on solar,
wind or wave power can only be funded through high levels of government
support. Consumers of such power will
pay much higher rates for electricity, either directly through their power
bills or indirectly through their taxes.
It remains to be seen whether technologies in these fields can advance
to the point that these renewable power sources can become economically viable
on a self-sustaining basis.
Smaller-scale, rooftop solar power
installations have become extremely popular in sunny climates in the U.S. and
elsewhere. The cost of solar cells has
plummeted to the point that solar power produced at homes and commercial
buildings is becoming economically viable after government incentives are
factored in. While the solar cells
themselves are now relatively cheap, installation remains costly. Meanwhile, solar cells require regular
maintenance, and their efficiency degrades steadily as they age in place. The exceptionally high investment required,
along with a lack of further federal loan guarantees, means that new projects
for extremely large, utility-scale, solar installations are unlikely to
launched in the U.S.
In late 2015, the City of San Diego, California
made the startling announcement that it hopes to transition to using 100%
renewable energy by 2035, while cutting its greenhouse gas emissions in
half. The city also plans to shift
one-half of its fleet of vehicles to electric power and to recycle 98% of the
methane gas produced by its sewage and water treatment facilities.
The renewable energy sector will continue to
evolve rapidly, as new technologies offer breakthroughs and greater
efficiencies are reached. The biggest
gains will occur when powerful new batteries are finally developed that make it
cost-effective to store solar and wind power where they are produced, for
release as needed even when wind or sunlight are not available.
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