Al Gore says the reason is innovation. “The cost-reduction curve that came to technologies like computers, smartphones and flat-panel televisions has come to solar energy, wind energy and battery storage,” he says. “I remember being startled decades ago when people first started to explain to me that the cost of computing was being cut in half every 18 to 24 months. And now this dramatic economic change has begun to utterly transform the electricity markets.”
Some of the second-generation renewables, such as wind power, have high potential and have already realised relatively low production costs. At the end of 2008, worldwide wind farm capacity was 120,791 megawatts (MW), representing an increase of 28.8 percent during the year, and wind power produced some 1.3% of global electricity consumption. Wind power accounts for approximately 20% of electricity use in Denmark, 9% in Spain, and 7% in Germany. However, it may be difficult to site wind turbines in some areas for aesthetic or environmental reasons, and it may be difficult to integrate wind power into electricity grids in some cases.
As of 2018, American electric utility companies are planning new or extra renewable energy investments. These investments are particularly aimed at solar energy, thanks to the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 being signed into law. The law retained incentives for renewable energy development. Utility companies are taking advantage of the federal solar investment tax credit before it permanently goes down to 10% after 2021. According to the March 28 S&P Global Market Intelligence report summary, "NextEra Energy Inc., Duke Energy Corp., and Dominion Energy Inc.’s utilities are among a number of companies in the sector contemplating significant solar investments in the near-term. Other companies, including Xcel Energy Inc. and Alliant Energy Corp., are undertaking large wind projects in the near-term, but are considering ramping up solar investments in the coming years."
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).
Although many older thermoelectric power plants with once-through cooling or cooling ponds use more water than CSP, meaning that more water passes through their systems, most of the cooling water returns to the water body available for other uses, and they consume less water by evaporation. For instance, the median coal power plant in the US with once-through cooling uses 36,350 gal/MWhr, but only 250 gal/MWhr (less than one percent) is lost through evaporation. Since the 1970s, the majority of US power plants have used recirculating systems such as cooling towers rather than once-through systems.
By participating in a green energy program a consumer may be having an effect on the energy sources used and ultimately might be helping to promote and expand the use of green energy. They are also making a statement to policy makers that they are willing to pay a price premium to support renewable energy. Green energy consumers either obligate the utility companies to increase the amount of green energy that they purchase from the pool (so decreasing the amount of non-green energy they purchase), or directly fund the green energy through a green power provider. If insufficient green energy sources are available, the utility must develop new ones or contract with a third party energy supplier to provide green energy, causing more to be built. However, there is no way the consumer can check whether or not the electricity bought is "green" or otherwise.
“Five New State Governors Aim for 100% Renewables” • Five governors-elect in Colorado, Illinois, Nevada, Connecticut, and Maine, states with a combined population of 26 million, put forth campaign goals of 100% renewable electricity. Currently, only California and Hawaii have a deadline to move to 100% zero-carbon electricity. [pv magazine International]
Coal is our dirtiest source of energy. It releases more harmful pollutants into the atmosphere than any other energy source and produces a quarter of the nation’s global warming emissions. If we are going to effectively reduce air pollution and address global warming, we need to shut down the oldest, dirtiest coal plants—and not build new ones to replace them.
Shi Zhengrong has said that, as of 2012, unsubsidised solar power is already competitive with fossil fuels in India, Hawaii, Italy and Spain. He said "We are at a tipping point. No longer are renewable power sources like solar and wind a luxury of the rich. They are now starting to compete in the real world without subsidies". "Solar power will be able to compete without subsidies against conventional power sources in half the world by 2015".
Most small wind turbines do not perform quite as well as their manufacturers want you to believe. That should come as no surprise at this point. What may be surprising is that even the turbines of the more honourable manufacturers that are honest about performance fall short, more often than not. The likely cause is turbulence and improper site selection.
Concentrating solar power plants with wet-cooling systems, on the other hand, have the highest water-consumption intensities of any conventional type of electric power plant; only fossil-fuel plants with carbon-capture and storage may have higher water intensities. A 2013 study comparing various sources of electricity found that the median water consumption during operations of concentrating solar power plants with wet cooling was 810 ga/MWhr for power tower plants and 890 gal/MWhr for trough plants. This was higher than the operational water consumption (with cooling towers) for nuclear (720 gal/MWhr), coal (530 gal/MWhr), or natural gas (210). A 2011 study by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory came to similar conclusions: for power plants with cooling towers, water consumption during operations was 865 gal/MWhr for CSP trough, 786 gal/MWhr for CSP tower, 687 gal/MWhr for coal, 672 gal/MWhr for nuclear, and 198 gal/MWhr for natural gas. The Solar Energy Industries Association noted that the Nevada Solar One trough CSP plant consumes 850 gal/MWhr. The issue of water consumption is heightened because CSP plants are often located in arid environments where water is scarce.
A study of the material consumption trends and requirements for wind energy in Europe found that bigger turbines have a higher consumption of precious metals but lower material input per kW generated. The current material consumption and stock was compared to input materials for various onshore system sizes. In all EU countries the estimates for 2020 exceeded and doubled the values consumed in 2009. These countries would need to expand their resources to be able to meet the estimated demand for 2020. For example, currently the EU has 3% of world supply of fluorspar and it requires 14% by 2020. Globally, the main exporting countries are South Africa, Mexico and China. This is similar with other critical and valuable materials required for energy systems such as magnesium, silver and indium. In addition, the levels of recycling of these materials is very low and focusing on that could alleviate issues with supply in the future. It is important to note that since most of these valuable materials are also used in other emerging technologies, like LEDs, PVs and LCDs, it is projected that demand for them will continue to increase.
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.
There are numerous organizations within the academic, federal, and commercial sectors conducting large scale advanced research in the field of sustainable energy. This research spans several areas of focus across the sustainable energy spectrum. Most of the research is targeted at improving efficiency and increasing overall energy yields. Multiple federally supported research organizations have focused on sustainable energy in recent years. Two of the most prominent of these labs are Sandia National Laboratories and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), both of which are funded by the United States Department of Energy and supported by various corporate partners. Sandia has a total budget of $2.4 billion  while NREL has a budget of $375 million.
The Solar updraft tower is a renewable-energy power plant for generating electricity from low temperature solar heat. Sunshine heats the air beneath a very wide greenhouse-like roofed collector structure surrounding the central base of a very tall chimney tower. The resulting convection causes a hot air updraft in the tower by the chimney effect. This airflow drives wind turbines placed in the chimney updraft or around the chimney base to produce electricity. Plans for scaled-up versions of demonstration models will allow significant power generation, and may allow development of other applications, such as water extraction or distillation, and agriculture or horticulture. A more advanced version of a similarly themed technology is the Vortex engine which aims to replace large physical chimneys with a vortex of air created by a shorter, less-expensive structure.
While renewables have been very successful in their ever-growing contribution to electrical power there are no countries dominated by fossil fuels who have a plan to stop and get that power from renwables. Only Scotland and Ontario have stopped burning coal, largely due to good natural gas supplies. In the area of transportation, fossil fuels are even more entrenched and solutions harder to find. It's unclear if there are failures with policy or renewable energy, but twenty years after the Kyoto Protocol fossil fuels are still our primary energy source and consumption continues to grow.
At the end of 2006, the Ontario Power Authority (OPA, Canada) began its Standard Offer Program, a precursor to the Green Energy Act, and the first in North America for distributed renewable projects of less than 10 MW. The feed-in tariff guaranteed a fixed price of $0.42 CDN per kWh over a period of twenty years. Unlike net metering, all the electricity produced was sold to the OPA at the given rate.
Julia Pyper is a Senior Editor at Greentech Media covering clean energy policy, the solar industry, grid edge technologies and electric mobility. She previously reported for E&E Publishing, and has covered clean energy and climate change issues across the U.S. and abroad, including in Haiti, Israel and the Maldives. Julia holds degrees from McGill and Columbia Universities. Find her on Twitter @JMPyper.
According to the International Energy Agency, new bioenergy (biofuel) technologies being developed today, notably cellulosic ethanol biorefineries, could allow biofuels to play a much bigger role in the future than previously thought. Cellulosic ethanol can be made from plant matter composed primarily of inedible cellulose fibers that form the stems and branches of most plants. Crop residues (such as corn stalks, wheat straw and rice straw), wood waste and municipal solid waste are potential sources of cellulosic biomass. Dedicated energy crops, such as switchgrass, are also promising cellulose sources that can be sustainably produced in many regions of the United States.
Other cities won’t have it so easy. Take Atlanta. Residents buy energy from Georgia Power, which is owned by investors. As things stand, Atlantans have no control over how their power is generated, though that may change. In 2019, Georgia Power, by state law, has to update its energy plan. Ted Terry, director of the Georgia chapter of the Sierra Club, says the nonprofit is working with Atlanta officials to incorporate renewables, primarily solar, into the state’s plan. Developing such energy sources on a scale that can power a metro area with 5.8 million people, as in Atlanta, or 7.68 million in the San Francisco Bay Area, or 3.3 million in San Diego, will prove challenging. But it doesn’t seem impossible. In 2015, California set a goal of deriving 50 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2030. Its three investor-owned utilities—Pacific Gas & Electric, Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas & Electric—are poised to achieve that goal just two years from now, or ten years early.
While a single dramatic victory against something like the dirty Keystone XL pipeline can be nice to imagine, the truth is this is how we’re going to win: fighting at every level and with every tool we’ve got. We can’t stop until governments and fossil fuel corporations finally get the message that we need to put our dirty past behind us and fully commit to a clean future that works for all of us moving forward.
In 2004, the German government introduced the first large-scale feed-in tariff system, under the German Renewable Energy Act, which resulted in explosive growth of PV installations in Germany. At the outset the FIT was over 3x the retail price or 8x the industrial price. The principle behind the German system is a 20-year flat rate contract. The value of new contracts is programmed to decrease each year, in order to encourage the industry to pass on lower costs to the end users. The programme has been more successful than expected with over 1GW installed in 2006, and political pressure is mounting to decrease the tariff to lessen the future burden on consumers.
Solar water heating makes an important contribution to renewable heat in many countries, most notably in China, which now has 70% of the global total (180 GWth). Most of these systems are installed on multi-family apartment buildings and meet a portion of the hot water needs of an estimated 50–60 million households in China. Worldwide, total installed solar water heating systems meet a portion of the water heating needs of over 70 million households. The use of biomass for heating continues to grow as well. In Sweden, national use of biomass energy has surpassed that of oil. Direct geothermal for heating is also growing rapidly. The newest addition to Heating is from Geothermal Heat Pumps which provide both heating and cooling, and also flatten the electric demand curve and are thus an increasing national priority (see also Renewable thermal energy).
One- to 10-kW turbines can be used in applications such as pumping water. Wind energy has been used for centuries to pump water and grind grain. Although mechanical windmills still provide a sensible, low-cost option for pumping water in low-wind areas, farmers and ranchers are finding that wind-electric pumping is more versatile and they can pump twice the volume for the same initial investment. In addition, mechanical windmills must be placed directly above the well, which may not take advantage of available wind resources. Wind-electric pumping systems can be placed where the wind resource is the best and connected to the pump motor with an electric cable. However, in areas with a low wind resource, mechanical windmills can provide more efficient water pumping.
There are potentially two sources of nuclear power. Fission is used in all current nuclear power plants. Fusion is the reaction that exists in stars, including the sun, and remains impractical for use on Earth, as fusion reactors are not yet available. However nuclear power is controversial politically and scientifically due to concerns about radioactive waste disposal, safety, the risks of a severe accident, and technical and economical problems in dismantling of old power plants.
The PV industry is beginning to adopt levelized cost of electricity (LCOE) as the unit of cost. The electrical energy generated is sold in units of kilowatt-hours (kWh). As a rule of thumb, and depending on the local insolation, 1 watt-peak of installed solar PV capacity generates about 1 to 2 kWh of electricity per year. This corresponds to a capacity factor of around 10–20%. The product of the local cost of electricity and the insolation determines the break even point for solar power. The International Conference on Solar Photovoltaic Investments, organized by EPIA, has estimated that PV systems will pay back their investors in 8 to 12 years. As a result, since 2006 it has been economical for investors to install photovoltaics for free in return for a long term power purchase agreement. Fifty percent of commercial systems in the United States were installed in this manner in 2007 and over 90% by 2009.