Green energy is the term used to describe sources of energy that are considered to be environmentally friendly and non-polluting, such as geothermal, wind, solar, and hydro. Sometimes nuclear power is also considered a green energy source. Green energy sources are often considered "green" because they are perceived to lower carbon emissions and create less pollution.
The political purpose of incentive policies for PV is to facilitate an initial small-scale deployment to begin to grow the industry, even where the cost of PV is significantly above grid parity, to allow the industry to achieve the economies of scale necessary to reach grid parity. The policies are implemented to promote national energy independence, high tech job creation and reduction of CO2 emissions. Three incentive mechanisms are often used in combination as investment subsidies: the authorities refund part of the cost of installation of the system, the electricity utility buys PV electricity from the producer under a multiyear contract at a guaranteed rate, and Solar Renewable Energy Certificates (SRECs)
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.
Renewable energy power plants do provide a steady flow of energy. For example, hydropower plants, ocean thermal plants, osmotic power plants all provide power at a regulated pace, and are thus available power sources at any given moment (even at night, windstill moments etc.). At present however, the number of steady-flow renewable energy plants alone is still too small to meet energy demands at the times of the day when the irregular producing renewable energy plants cannot produce power.
Some people, including Greenpeace founder and first member Patrick Moore, George Monbiot, Bill Gates and James Lovelock have specifically classified nuclear power as green energy. Others, including Greenpeace's Phil Radford disagree, claiming that the problems associated with radioactive waste and the risk of nuclear accidents (such as the Chernobyl disaster) pose an unacceptable risk to the environment and to humanity. However, newer nuclear reactor designs are capable of utilizing what is now deemed "nuclear waste" until it is no longer (or dramatically less) dangerous, and have design features that greatly minimize the possibility of a nuclear accident. These designs have yet to be commercialized. (See: Molten salt reactor)
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%.
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Renewable electricity production, from sources such as wind power and solar power, is sometimes criticized for being variable or intermittent, but is not true for concentrated solar, geothermal and biofuels, that have continuity. In any case, the International Energy Agency has stated that deployment of renewable technologies usually increases the diversity of electricity sources and, through local generation, contributes to the flexibility of the system and its resistance to central shocks.
A solar power tower uses an array of tracking reflectors (heliostats) to concentrate light on a central receiver atop a tower. Power towers can achieve higher (thermal-to-electricity conversion) efficiency than linear tracking CSP schemes and better energy storage capability than dish stirling technologies. The PS10 Solar Power Plant and PS20 solar power plant are examples of this technology.