Biomass, biogas and biofuels are burned to produce heat/power and in doing so harm the environment. Pollutants such as sulphurous oxides (SOx), nitrous oxides (NOx), and particulate matter (PM) are produced from this combustion; the World Health Organisation estimates that 7 million premature deaths are caused each year by air pollution. Biomass combustion is a major contributor.
A more recent concept for improving our electrical grid is to beam microwaves from Earth-orbiting satellites or the moon to directly when and where there is demand. The power would be generated from solar energy captured on the lunar surface In this system, the receivers would be "broad, translucent tent-like structures that would receive microwaves and convert them to electricity". NASA said in 2000 that the technology was worth pursuing but it is still too soon to say if the technology will be cost-effective.
The solar thermal power industry is growing rapidly with 1.3 GW under construction in 2012 and more planned. Spain is the epicenter of solar thermal power development with 873 MW under construction, and a further 271 MW under development. In the United States, 5,600 MW of solar thermal power projects have been announced. Several power plants have been constructed in the Mojave Desert, Southwestern United States. The Ivanpah Solar Power Facility being the most recent. In developing countries, three World Bank projects for integrated solar thermal/combined-cycle gas-turbine power plants in Egypt, Mexico, and Morocco have been approved.
Usually however, renewable energy is derived from the mains electricity grid. This means that energy storage is mostly not used, as the mains electricity grid is organised to produce the exact amount of energy being consumed at that particular moment. Energy production on the mains electricity grid is always set up as a combination of (large-scale) renewable energy plants, as well as other power plants as fossil-fuel power plants and nuclear power. This combination however, which is essential for this type of energy supply (as e.g. wind turbines, solar power plants etc.) can only produce when the wind blows and the sun shines. This is also one of the main drawbacks of the system as fossil fuel powerplants are polluting and are a main cause of global warming (nuclear power being an exception). Although fossil fuel power plants too can be made emissionless (through carbon capture and storage), as well as renewable (if the plants are converted to e.g. biomass) the best solution is still to phase out the latter power plants over time. Nuclear power plants too can be more or less eliminated from their problem of nuclear waste through the use of nuclear reprocessing and newer plants as fast breeder and nuclear fusion plants.
Second-generation technologies include solar heating and cooling, wind power, modern forms of bioenergy and solar photovoltaics. These are now entering markets as a result of research, development and demonstration (RD&D) investments since the 1980s. The initial investment was prompted by energy security concerns linked to the oil crises (1973 and 1979) of the 1970s but the continuing appeal of these renewables is due, at least in part, to environmental benefits. Many of the technologies reflect significant advancements in materials.
Renewable energy technologies are getting cheaper, through technological change and through the benefits of mass production and market competition. A 2011 IEA report said: "A portfolio of renewable energy technologies is becoming cost-competitive in an increasingly broad range of circumstances, in some cases providing investment opportunities without the need for specific economic support," and added that "cost reductions in critical technologies, such as wind and solar, are set to continue."
This solar resource map provides a summary of the estimated solar energy available for power generation and other energy applications. It represents the average daily/yearly sum of electricity production from a 1 kW-peak grid-connected solar PV power plant covering the period from 1994/1999/2007 (depending on the geographical region) to 2015. Source: Global Solar Atlas]