Nothing like cool, refreshing facts to support the desperate hope for a renewable energy revolution.
New investment in green energy was up nearly one-third globally in 2010 to a record US$211 billion. That’s 32 percent above the 2009 level and more than five times that of 2004, says the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).
Other facts from UNEP’s new report:
- Wind farms in China and rooftop solar panels in Europe were key drivers in the investment increase.
- China was the world leader in “financial new investment” – i.e., investment in utility-scale renewable projects and equity capital for renewable energy companies. The nation's tally was US$48.9 billion, up 28 percent this year.
- Developing economies (which invested US$72 billion this year) overtook developed ones (US$70 billion) in financial new investment.
- Investments in small distributed capacity, e.g., rooftop solar, rose 132 percent in Germany to US$34 billion.
- Costs for renewable technologies are falling.
- Wind dominated financial new investment in large-scale renewable energy.
- Biggest percentage jumps in overall investment were in small-scale projects, up 91 percent to US$60 billion, and in government funded R&D, up 121 percent to US$5.3 billion.
"The finance industry is still recovering from the recent financial crisis," Udo Steffens, president of the Frankfurt School of Finance and Management, said in a UNEP news release. "The fact that the industry remains heavily committed to renewables demonstrates its strong belief in the prospects of sustainable energy investments."
So there’s hope. And now facts.
The goats are clever, but what’s really important about Google is its uncanny ability to execute. Google wasn’t the first search engine, but it was the first to actually find what you were looking for. That prompted the world to rebrand the generic verb search (look it up).
Google is the company that put a chink in the armor of the Microsoft Office juggernaut with Google Docs. This is the company that lets you fly to anyplace on their planet (Google Earth) without a plane ticket (you might want to lower your window shades). Then there’s that kooky little site that plays videos.
I don’t really know if Google can save the world. I do know the planet isn’t out of the woods yet, and harvesting wind energy on a continental scale would sure be a nice start.
Maine may be next for offshore wind. The state just announced three offshore wind test sites.
A couple other developments in the wind arena:
Endangered bat concerns stall another wind farm
Source: Wind Energy
CNET sums it all up perfectly, saying, a “new breed of NIMBY (not in my backyard) is emerging: opponents of wind or solar installations who generally support renewable energy, just as long as they are built somewhere else.”
I’ll keep this wind energy post as short as my last one was long. I’m speechless and inspired by the story I just read of a self-educated African boy from Malawi who in 2002 cobbled together bike parts, gum tree wood, an old shock absorber and other junk to bring the first sparks of electric power to his village. Fourteen-year-old William Kamkwamba of Masitala had spent so much time tinkering and dump-picking in preparing his wind turbine that his neighbors thought he was smoking pot. But when he scaled the rickety 16-foot tower and sparked up a car light bulb, he became a village sensation. He has since created the village’s first water supply and irrigation system. Read the BBC article. There’s a video, too. And a book.
- Identify all the potential benefits of a project, not just those in your market segment or locale. Include the benefits of wind to the planet.
- Talking points promoting your project are just a start. You need data, and there is plenty of it out there. As you can see by the links in this blog, the American Wind Energy Association is a great place to start.
- Develop content up front that documents all of the benefits. Main audiences include the public, planners and regulators.
- Connect with advocacy organizations, politicians, utilities, business groups, landowners, conservationists and educators who are likely to favor your project.
- Anticipate all potential concerns and prepare to address them squarely. Avoid defensiveness or reactivity. Listen and talk rather than argue. Some skeptics just need to be informed.
- Depending on what you’re proposing, you could end up with a lot of energized opposition. Make sure you have the arms, legs and content to swiftly and effectively address the concerns.
- If you believe in your project, stay the course.
Cap-and-trade, clean energy standards, cash for clunkers and smart grids are the headline grabbers and fight-starters in the climate and energy bill. These stars of the American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009 aren’t, however, going to save the U.S. from also-ran status in the renewable energy economy. Nothing in those provisions – or at least nothing obvious – confronts the very real possibility of China emerging as the superpower of renewable energy in the short term. Out of the limelight, in the bill’s back roads and side streets, lie the gems of hope for America’s future as a player in renewable energy, providing the U.S. can weather the Chinese onslaught. And it’s going to be a hummer of an onslaught.
The Chinese government is going after the top spot in renewable energy with a vengeance, and by employing their unique brew of free market talk and authoritarian action, they’re probably going to get it. If that makes you queasy, it should. The U.S., already a secondary player in renewable energy behind China and the European Union, is staring at yet another possibility of its energy future being tied to a foreign nation. Specifically, a foreign nation that’s also holding much of America’s debt.
There’s plenty afoot to bear out that pessimistic view. China has targeted wind and solar, the two most promising renewable technologies of the moment. The Chinese government has already created the world’s largest domestic wind power market, and they’re using it as a base to conquer the international export market for wind turbines. Using its success in textiles, food processing, electronics and consumer goods as a model, China has erected mazes of regulations specifically aimed at screwing foreign companies out of Chinese business. That gives Chinese companies a chance to flourish without competition on their home turf, subsidizing their push into export markets.
Having flashbacks to the Japan Inc. of the 1980s? The gradual demise of GM, Ford and Chrysler at the hands of Toyota and Honda? Well this is worse. Unlike democratic Japan, China doesn’t even pretend to play by free market rules. The New York Times reported last week that companies who built manufacturing plants inside China to satisfy domestic content requirements were aced out of the turbine market when the government outlawed turbines of less than 1,000 KW capacity. With tactics like that, it won’t be long before Chinese companies are the Honda and Toyota of the renewable energy industry. Next step, a wind farm near you. And solar is next on the agenda.
Even if China didn’t have a head start in renewable energy technology production, the U.S. wouldn’t be able to compete in volume manufacturing of renewable energy products any more than it could in apparel or consumer goods. China has a lower cost structure based on indentured servitude wages and light regulatory burdens. The U.S.’s winning game is not volume manufacturing of wind turbines or anything else. It’s innovation.
That brings us back to the climate and energy bill. There is $190 billion in the bill to fund renewable energy research. From the Apollo program to the Internet, the U.S. government has proven itself a great engine of new technology. That is the real secret weapon in the American renewable energy arsenal – a constant stream of new and better ideas.
The U.S. is the Saudi Arabia of innovation. No country has a better record of new technology development than this one. American universities and research institutes still attract the world’s best minds. The bill calls for establishing national centers of excellence in renewable energy technology across the country. Massachusetts took a similar approach in the 1980s under Gov. Michael Dukakis, funding centers of excellence in biotechnology, photovoltaics, nanotechnology and micro processing. Supplementing its disproportionately large share of world-class universities, the centers of excellence helped keep Massachusetts a technology leader. North Carolina had similar success with Research Triangle Park, which isn’t a center of excellence per se, but shows how government can effectively prime the private research pump.
China is gearing up to produce today’s state-of-the-art wind and solar technology. Let them. There is plenty of profit in developing tomorrow’s state of the art. Today’s solar and wind technology, for example, isn’t all that efficient. Most solar cells convert only 30 percent of the light that hits them into electricity. Wind turbines can’t turn light breezes into energy. There are no technologies for large-scale energy storage to even out the production peaks and valleys that make wind and solar unreliable in much of the world. Here’s betting the answers to those conundrums are going to come out of American laboratories.
A post script: Lest there seem to be a smack of jingoism in this post, I’ll say for the record that I’m all for China turning into a renewable energy superpower. The country is industrializing at a breakneck pace, creating a gargantuan demand for energy. Burning coal and oil to satisfy the demands of 1.3 million consumers portends a dismal future for the environment. Every wind turbine in the Gobi Desert or the South China Sea is an investment in a better world for everyone. As an American and a believer in democratic principles, I’d still like to think that we have a better way of developing a renewable energy economy than China. But as a father and potential grandfather, here’s hoping that both countries get there one way or the other.
Agree with it or not, Sarah Palin’s hymn to the oil industry, “drill baby drill” was one of the 2009 election’s catchiest mantras. Surprising to find, then, that Palin is a fan of renewable energy, according to a recent New York Times report. Furthermore, Alaska, the second-largest oil producing state after Texas, is fertile ground for renewable energy. Fuel prices there are high. Strong winds support a growing wind power industry. Palin wants 50 percent of the state’s electricity to come from hydro power by 2025.
This doesn’t actually jibe with Alaska’s image as the oil and gas industry’s treasured love child, but there’s more to this story than irony. It speaks to why renewable energy’s time might actually have arrived. For real, this time, and not like the giant renewable energy head fake of the 1970s.
That was the era when the Gulf oil states started flicking the spigot on and off according to how many tricked out 747s the Saudi royal family needed, or how mad they were at Washington over U.S. Middle East policy. Gas efficient cars went mainstream. The first roof-mounted solar arrays appeared. Utilities invested in fuel cell development. Jimmy Carter put solar panels on the White House roof. Schools and other public buildings were designed using passive solar heating and cooling techniques. Then the price of sweet crude dropped into the cellar, Ronald Reagan ripped out the White House solar panels, and the renewable energy industry turned back into a hippie pipe dream.
So renewable energy is hot again, but why won’t it suffer the same fate it did when bell bottoms were in style? After all, we live in a market economy. No matter how good an idea renewable energy is, the market still favors fossil fuels. When the price of oil falls, the power that renewable energy sources produce is too expensive to compete.
The difference between now and the ‘70s is that the oil’s cost dynamics are changing permanently. China, India, and a host of developing economies are competing with the U.S. in international oil markets. Barring a complete collapse of those countries’ industrialization programs, that competition will keep oil prices at steadily higher levels. Also, the era of cheaply extracted oil is waning. An increasingly large percentage of oil reserves are hard to get out of the ground, and the prices will reflect the greater effort and new technology to bring it to market.
Rural Alaska is a laboratory for this dynamic. Market forces, acting through the price of shipping and the per-gallon price of the fuel, conspire to make fuel-generated electricity outrageously expensive in rural Alaska - five to ten times higher than in the lower 48. If the price of oil were lower, the market might be able to absorb the high delivery costs. But the price isn’t low enough, and here’s betting that it never will be. That means the local market conditions in rural Alaska will permanently favor renewables. “Despite high installation costs and the need for cold-weather engineering,” the Times reported, “wind turbines can often produce power at a lower cost than diesel generators by eliminating the need for fuel.”
How long before the base price of oil rises enough to make wind and solar the economic choice in rural Wyoming, the Dakotas, Texas, California, etc.? A long time off, maybe. But the fact that it is already happening in Alaska is not an isolated fluke. It’s the first sign that the economic case for renewable energy is growing strong enough to endure the next temporary decline in oil prices.