In an electricity system without grid energy storage, generation from stored fuels (coal, biomass, natural gas, nuclear) must be go up and down in reaction to the rise and fall of solar electricity (see load following power plant). While hydroelectric and natural gas plants can quickly follow solar being intermittent due to the weather, coal, biomass and nuclear plants usually take considerable time to respond to load and can only be scheduled to follow the predictable variation. Depending on local circumstances, beyond about 20–40% of total generation, grid-connected intermittent sources like solar tend to require investment in some combination of grid interconnections, energy storage or demand side management. Integrating large amounts of solar power with existing generation equipment has caused issues in some cases. For example, in Germany, California and Hawaii, electricity prices have been known to go negative when solar is generating a lot of power, displacing existing baseload generation contracts.
Prior to the development of coal in the mid 19th century, nearly all energy used was renewable. Almost without a doubt the oldest known use of renewable energy, in the form of traditional biomass to fuel fires, dates from 790,000 years ago. Use of biomass for fire did not become commonplace until many hundreds of thousands of years later, sometime between 200,000 and 400,000 years ago. Probably the second oldest usage of renewable energy is harnessing the wind in order to drive ships over water. This practice can be traced back some 7000 years, to ships in the Persian Gulf and on the Nile. Moving into the time of recorded history, the primary sources of traditional renewable energy were human labor, animal power, water power, wind, in grain crushing windmills, and firewood, a traditional biomass. A graph of energy use in the United States up until 1900 shows oil and natural gas with about the same importance in 1900 as wind and solar played in 2010.
Large national and regional research projects on artificial photosynthesis are designing nanotechnology-based systems that use solar energy to split water into hydrogen fuel. and a proposal has been made for a Global Artificial Photosynthesis project In 2011, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) developed what they are calling an "Artificial Leaf", which is capable of splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen directly from solar power when dropped into a glass of water. One side of the "Artificial Leaf" produces bubbles of hydrogen, while the other side produces bubbles of oxygen.
U.S. President Barack Obama's American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 includes more than $70 billion in direct spending and tax credits for clean energy and associated transportation programs. Leading renewable energy companies include First Solar, Gamesa, GE Energy, Hanwha Q Cells, Sharp Solar, Siemens, SunOpta, Suntech Power, and Vestas.
Biomass is biological material derived from living, or recently living organisms. It most often refers to plants or plant-derived materials which are specifically called lignocellulosic biomass. As an energy source, biomass can either be used directly via combustion to produce heat, or indirectly after converting it to various forms of biofuel. Conversion of biomass to biofuel can be achieved by different methods which are broadly classified into: thermal, chemical, and biochemical methods. Wood remains the largest biomass energy source today; examples include forest residues – such as dead trees, branches and tree stumps –, yard clippings, wood chips and even municipal solid waste. In the second sense, biomass includes plant or animal matter that can be converted into fibers or other industrial chemicals, including biofuels. Industrial biomass can be grown from numerous types of plants, including miscanthus, switchgrass, hemp, corn, poplar, willow, sorghum, sugarcane, bamboo, and a variety of tree species, ranging from eucalyptus to oil palm (palm oil).
Only a quarter of the worlds estimated hydroelectric potential of 14,000 TWh/year has been developed, the regional potentials for the growth of hydropower around the world are, 71% Europe, 75% North America, 79% South America, 95% Africa, 95% Middle East, 82% Asia Pacific. However, the political realities of new reservoirs in western countries, economic limitations in the third world and the lack of a transmission system in undeveloped areas, result in the possibility of developing 25% of the remaining potential before 2050, with the bulk of that being in the Asia Pacific area. There is slow growth taking place in Western counties, but not in the conventional dam and reservoir style of the past. New projects take the form of run-of-the-river and small hydro, neither using large reservoirs. It is popular to repower old dams thereby increasing their efficiency and capacity as well as quicker responsiveness on the grid. Where circumstances permit existing dams such as the Russell Dam built in 1985 may be updated with "pump back" facilities for pumped-storage which is useful for peak loads or to support intermittent wind and solar power. Countries with large hydroelectric developments such as Canada and Norway are spending billions to expand their grids to trade with neighboring countries having limited hydro.
Those not satisfied with the third-party grid approach to green energy via the power grid can install their own locally based renewable energy system. Renewable energy electrical systems from solar to wind to even local hydro-power in some cases, are some of the many types of renewable energy systems available locally. Additionally, for those interested in heating and cooling their dwelling via renewable energy, geothermal heat pump systems that tap the constant temperature of the earth, which is around 7 to 15 degrees Celsius a few feet underground and increases dramatically at greater depths, are an option over conventional natural gas and petroleum-fueled heat approaches. Also, in geographic locations where the Earth's Crust is especially thin, or near volcanoes (as is the case in Iceland) there exists the potential to generate even more electricity than would be possible at other sites, thanks to a more significant temperature gradient at these locales.
In 2007, General Electric's Chief Engineer predicted grid parity without subsidies in sunny parts of the United States by around 2015; other companies predicted an earlier date: the cost of solar power will be below grid parity for more than half of residential customers and 10% of commercial customers in the OECD, as long as grid electricity prices do not decrease through 2010.
Biofuels include a wide range of fuels which are derived from biomass. The term covers solid, liquid, and gaseous fuels. Liquid biofuels include bioalcohols, such as bioethanol, and oils, such as biodiesel. Gaseous biofuels include biogas, landfill gas and synthetic gas. Bioethanol is an alcohol made by fermenting the sugar components of plant materials and it is made mostly from sugar and starch crops. These include maize, sugarcane and, more recently, sweet sorghum. The latter crop is particularly suitable for growing in dryland conditions, and is being investigated by International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics for its potential to provide fuel, along with food and animal feed, in arid parts of Asia and Africa.
As of 2011, small solar PV systems provide electricity to a few million households, and micro-hydro configured into mini-grids serves many more. Over 44 million households use biogas made in household-scale digesters for lighting and/or cooking, and more than 166 million households rely on a new generation of more-efficient biomass cookstoves. United Nations' Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has said that renewable energy has the ability to lift the poorest nations to new levels of prosperity. At the national level, at least 30 nations around the world already have renewable energy contributing more than 20% of energy supply. National renewable energy markets are projected to continue to grow strongly in the coming decade and beyond, and some 120 countries have various policy targets for longer-term shares of renewable energy, including a 20% target of all electricity generated for the European Union by 2020. Some countries have much higher long-term policy targets of up to 100% renewables. Outside Europe, a diverse group of 20 or more other countries target renewable energy shares in the 2020–2030 time frame that range from 10% to 50%.
A parabolic trough consists of a linear parabolic reflector that concentrates light onto a receiver positioned along the reflector's focal line. The receiver is a tube positioned along the focal points of the linear parabolic mirror and is filled with a working fluid. The reflector is made to follow the sun during daylight hours by tracking along a single axis. Parabolic trough systems provide the best land-use factor of any solar technology. The SEGS plants in California and Acciona's Nevada Solar One near Boulder City, Nevada are representatives of this technology.