Renewable energy technology has sometimes been seen as a costly luxury item by critics, and affordable only in the affluent developed world. This erroneous view has persisted for many years, but 2015 was the first year when investment in non-hydro renewables, was higher in developing countries, with $156 billion invested, mainly in China, India, and Brazil.
The early development of solar technologies starting in the 1860s was driven by an expectation that coal would soon become scarce. Charles Fritts installed the world's first rooftop photovoltaic solar array, using 1%-efficient selenium cells, on a New York City roof in 1884. However, development of solar technologies stagnated in the early 20th century in the face of the increasing availability, economy, and utility of coal and petroleum. In 1974 it was estimated that only six private homes in all of North America were entirely heated or cooled by functional solar power systems. The 1973 oil embargo and 1979 energy crisis caused a reorganization of energy policies around the world and brought renewed attention to developing solar technologies. Deployment strategies focused on incentive programs such as the Federal Photovoltaic Utilization Program in the US and the Sunshine Program in Japan. Other efforts included the formation of research facilities in the United States (SERI, now NREL), Japan (NEDO), and Germany (Fraunhofer–ISE). Between 1970 and 1983 installations of photovoltaic systems grew rapidly, but falling oil prices in the early 1980s moderated the growth of photovoltaics from 1984 to 1996.
Because one obstacle to adopting wind and solar power is reliability—what happens on calm, cloudy days?—recent improvements in energy-storage technology, a.k.a. batteries, are helping accelerate adoption of renewables. Last May, for example, Tucson Electric Power signed a deal for solar energy with storage, which can mitigate (if not entirely resolve) concerns about how to provide power on gray days. The storage upped the energy cost by $15 per megawatt hour. By the end of the year, the Public Service Company of Colorado had been quoted a storage fee that increased the cost of a megawatt hour by only $3 to $7, a drop of more than 50 percent. In a landmark achievement, Tesla installed the world’s largest lithium-ion battery in South Australia last December, to store wind-generated power. But by then Hyundai Electric was at work in the South Korean metropolis of Ulsan on a battery that was 50 percent bigger.
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Heat pumps and Thermal energy storage are classes of technologies that can enable the utilization of renewable energy sources that would otherwise be inaccessible due to a temperature that is too low for utilization or a time lag between when the energy is available and when it is needed. While enhancing the temperature of available renewable thermal energy, heat pumps have the additional property of leveraging electrical power (or in some cases mechanical or thermal power) by using it to extract additional energy from a low quality source (such as seawater, lake water, the ground, the air, or waste heat from a process).
Commercial concentrating solar power (CSP) plants, also called "solar thermal power stations", were first developed in the 1980s. The 377 MW Ivanpah Solar Power Facility, located in California's Mojave Desert, is the world’s largest solar thermal power plant project. Other large CSP plants include the Solnova Solar Power Station (150 MW), the Andasol solar power station (150 MW), and Extresol Solar Power Station (150 MW), all in Spain. The principal advantage of CSP is the ability to efficiently add thermal storage, allowing the dispatching of electricity over up to a 24-hour period. Since peak electricity demand typically occurs at about 5 pm, many CSP power plants use 3 to 5 hours of thermal storage.
The time will arrive when the industry of Europe will cease to find those natural resources, so necessary for it. Petroleum springs and coal mines are not inexhaustible but are rapidly diminishing in many places. Will man, then, return to the power of water and wind? Or will he emigrate where the most powerful source of heat sends its rays to all? History will show what will come.
A 2014-published life-cycle analysis of land use for various sources of electricity concluded that the large-scale implementation of solar and wind potentially reduces pollution-related environmental impacts. The study found that the land-use footprint, given in square meter-years per megawatt-hour (m2a/MWh), was lowest for wind, natural gas and rooftop PV, with 0.26, 0.49 and 0.59, respectively, and followed by utility-scale solar PV with 7.9. For CSP, the footprint was 9 and 14, using parabolic troughs and solar towers, respectively. The largest footprint had coal-fired power plants with 18 m2a/MWh.