2012 had all the ingredients for a bummer year in renewable energy, but instead it gave us a lot to be optimistic about for 2013 and beyond.
Sure, the renewable energy and conservation grants in the stimulus bill are going away. Consumer demand for alternative energy systems dropped. A glut of solar photovoltaic equipment on the international market helped fuel a trade dispute between the U.S. and China. That dispute raised uncertainty about solar’s long-term prospects as free trade collided with low prices.
Solar energy companies, some backed by government loans and grants, scaled back operations or shut down. Critics in Congress derided each failure as a waste of tax money. Some tried to prevent the military from investing in biofuels.
In the end, Congress restored the military’s freedom to explore alternative energy sources. That was emblematic of what happened in the U.S. and the world in renewable energy. It didn’t look good for a while, but by the end of 2012, there were a lot of positives on the scoreboard.
Germany again showed what a developed nation with a large, complex economy can accomplish in renewable energy. The country’s renewable energy output rose to 25 percent of its total energy production in the first half of 2012. Wind led the way at 9.2 percent, followed by solar at 5.3 percent. When the final numbers from 2012 are in, Germany expects to beat its 2011 clean energy output by 15 percent.
China, the world’s largest energy consumer, erected 36 wind turbines per day in 2012. One of its provinces alone generates as much electricity through wind power as the entire United Kingdom does from all fossil-fueled and renewable sources. The Chinese government quadrupled the amount of solar power it wants to generate by 2015 to 21 gigawatts.
In the U.S., total renewable energy output dropped slightly in 2012 because of lower water levels in the Pacific Northwest that cut hydroelectric energy production. However, renewable output is forecast to rebound to 2011 levels in 2013.
As of Nov. 30, 2012, new wind power installations in the U.S. outpaced natural gas and coal with 6,519 megawatts of new capacity. Natural gas was at 6,335 megawatts and coal was less than half of the wind power total. Wind power electric generation increased 15 percent in 2012.
As good as 2012’s lagging indicators were, the signs of what’s coming in 2013 and beyond were even more encouraging.
Investor Warren Buffet bought the 579-megawatt Antelope Valley Solar Project in California for somewhere between $2 and $2.5 billion. It’s the world’s largest solar photovoltaic development. When a guy like Buffet puts that much down on a venture, he’s clearly not afraid of government subsidies drying up, or market peaks and valleys.
On the technology front, there are encouraging signs that companies are plugging away at the limitations holding renewable energy back from mass acceptance. A U.S.-based company has applied for a patent on a wind turbine design that stores energy as heat instead of immediately converting it to electricity. The heat generates steam to drive turbines when the wind isn’t blowing, a stubborn drawback of wind power.
In solar photovoltaics, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and partner Solar Junction announced a solar cell that converts 44 percent of the light that hits it into energy. Efficiency has been a drag on solar photovoltaic; most panels only convert somewhere around 20-25 percent of available light into electricity. At the same time, the government research agency DARPA is experimenting with nano materials that can boost solar cell efficiency to 50 percent.
Politicians and economists are still guarded in their predictions about renewable energy. Even so, there’s a feeling of inevitability building around it. The feeling ebbs from time to time, but even during slack tides like 2012, the trend is for better and smarter renewable energy technology and a bigger renewable energy market.
2012 had all the ingredients for a bummer year in renewable energy, but instead it gave us a lot to be optimistic about for 2013 and beyond.
Today's blog is posted by guest blogger, Ed Marshall, a senior account manager at Beaupre. Check out his bio in our "About Authors" section.
Hey, want to buy a bridge? How about a bridge fuel? It burns cleaner than coal for generating electricity, can heat homes and power a truck or a car. Best of all, we’ve got an embarrassing surplus of the stuff priced so low it’s sinful. It’s natural gas from shale, and it’s the answer to our energy problem for the next 100 years while we figure out this alternative energy stuff.
The rosy assessments above are based on current consumption levels and an overly optimistic estimate of what we can get out of the ground at anything resembling a reasonable cost. In addition, the dollars don’t add up. The fracking that produces shale gas is expensive and when successful yields a short gusher of gas followed by a steep drop off, requiring a re-frack and repeat. It’s “an unprofitable treadmill.” The sheer number of wells drilled in the fracking frenzy has created a gas glut on the domestic market and, in turn, low prices that cannot support the expensive production model. Most companies producing shale gas are relying on steady inflows of investment cash to support their profit-challenged efforts.
Already used for cooking, heating homes and hot water as well as generate electricity and to provide feedstock for industry, expanding these uses of natural gas and creating new ones – such as in fleet trucking and even personal vehicles – is usually cited as a key way to put the shale gas glut to good use; lowering our national carbon footprint and increasing our energy independence. The big hope for producers, however, is in export. Clearing a few political and regulatory hurdles and building new facilities would allow for natural gas export in liquid form to foreign markets like Great Britain, Northern Europe and even Asia.
All of which would raise consumption levels well above current levels, reducing, in turn, the projected years of supply. Some estimates suggest shale may provide fewer than 30 years of additional natural gas supply when all is said and done. And as the glut diminishes, users will begin to be exposed to the true dollar costs of fracking extraction.
As this process plays out, a major concern is the effect on alternative energy. Another three decades of embracing the fossilized status quo aren’t going to help us achieve energy sustainability. People are fundamentally change-averse. Tales of “100 years of cheap energy under our feet” will resonate. And if the hype lures investment capital to shale companies, what does that do to the attractiveness of investment in green tech companies? Will cheaper natural-gas-fired electricity generation put further funding pressure on large-scale solar and wind projects?
If markets pick winners, then it’s hard to understand how an embrace of shale gas creates a bridge to a new energy regime, rather than to a familiar dead end. It’s time to stop digging for scraps in the past and find a new way forward.
You're honoring the Earth today. This just in: her reply:
My maternal grandfather was an old-line doctor who said the same thing every time a patient asked him about diets: they’re all gimmicks. The only way to lose weight is to eat less and exercise more.
I’m adapting my grandfather’s diet advice to Earth Day. Want to make your morbidly obese environmental footprint into an Earth-friendly hardbody? Then screw planting trees and cleaning beaches on April 22 and do something really hard, especially for an American.
All the conservation areas we build and the light bulbs we replace on Earth Day are spitting in the ocean compared to the good we can do for the planet by buying, using and discarding less. In my grandfather’s parlance, it’s the gimmick of a diet versus the reality of shoving less into your pie hole at the dinner table, tearing yourself away from the flat screen and getting on the bike.
Consider what environmental journalist Marc Gunther discovered by analyzing the most recent sustainability report from Walmart.
Gunther recognized Walmart’s accomplishments in waste reduction, energy conservation, and creating markets for locally grown produce as the substantial progress that they are. Yet in spite of its sustainability accomplishments, Walmart’s CO2 emissions are growing. That’s because of the brand of consumption that Walmart promotes, according to Gunther.
“(Walmart) sells lots of efficient light bulbs and compact laundry detergent,” he writes. “What if it tried to sell more durable clothes and shoes? Or less meat? Or fewer crappy toys?”
Gunther isn’t picking on Walmart and neither am I. Walmart does more in sustainability than most companies. The point is that Walmart is us and we’re Walmart, and we both need to change.
If Walmart (and Target and JC Penney and Sears and Kmart et al) have the market clout to make manufacturers reduce wasteful packaging, then they can also get them to produce more durable products. When they do, it falls to retailers to sell those products at accessible prices instead of charging a premium for clothes that won’t go out of style in one year or appliances that won’t break in five and can’t be fixed. At that point, it’s all of our responsibility to ask ourselves that dreaded question before buying: “do I really need this?”
Senator Gaylord Nelson created Earth Day in 1970 to focus public attention on his era’s most important pollution threats, which were industrial facilities, wastewater systems and internal combustion engines. The environmental legislation of the ‘70s helped turn the tide on those polluters. Now it’s time for us to tackle this generation’s environmental culprits: you, me, Walmart, and our debit cards. Legislation isn’t going to do it this time. It’s up to us.
If you need more convincing about why we need to curb our hyperactive consumption, and you haven’t done it already, go to the post above this one and listen to a birthday message from the Earth Mother herself. The old girl makes a good case for keeping that debit card at parade rest as often as possible. Happy Earth Day 2012!
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.
Germany, which has never had a nuclear accident on the magnitude of a Chernobyl or Three Mile Island, plans to phase out nuclear power by 2022. At the same time in Japan, which is still trying to control one of history’s worst nuclear accidents, there is no serious opposition to nuclear power. The New York Times reports that a plan for expanding Japan’s nuclear industry, shelved as the crisis with the Fukushima reactors continues, will very likely be revived in the future because of the local economic benefits a nuclear plant offers.
The contrast between Germany and Japan’s nuclear attitudes invokes two recurring story lines in the larger environmental debate. The first is the inherent contradiction of nuclear power, and the second is growing faith in renewables.
Nuclear energy has always been a problem for us non-doctrinaire environmental types – environmental practicality and environmental disaster rolled into one. Go looking for opinions on what’s more environmentally sound, nuclear or fossil fuels, and you’re going to strike an emotionally charged mother lode. Some point to the respective death rates attributed to fossil versus nuclear. Some highlight the pollutants and greenhouse gasses fossil fuel plants emit. Others say it’s a false choice between two unacceptable solutions that draws attention from renewable energy development.
If you look at it from a day-in, day-out perspective, it’s hard to argue against nuclear. A nuclear plant does not emit pollutants during normal operation the way fossil-fuel-powered facilities do. Uranium enrichment is less environmentally damaging than coal mining, and much safer. Nuke plants operate for years on a complement of fuel rods. Fossil fuel plants need coal and oil shipped in constantly by rail or ship, which expends fuel and emits pollutants.
As Fukushima has demonstrated, though, when you go nuclear you’re entering a high-stakes game. Nuclear waste is arguably the most toxic material that humans produce, and it stays toxic for thousands of years. Nuclear accidents like Chernobyl and Kashima have huge social and economic costs. Five million people live in regions still contaminated with radionuclides from Chernobyl. The then-Soviet government of Russia had to move 350,000 people a safe distance from the ruined reactor. The town is deserted. The surrounding exclusion zone, where no residences or businesses are allowed, covers almost 300 square miles once occupied by 120,000 people. The reactor itself is still a danger. Nuclear experts are concerned that its concrete enclosure is decaying enough to raise the risk of radioactive dust.
Even when a nuclear accident occurs, it doesn’t take the familiar refrain of “if not nuclear, what?” to appear. I didn’t have an answer myself until this week. Germany provided it: renewables. Germany’s plan to get out of the nuke business does not include falling back on fossil-fuel-generated power. It’s based on the country’s long-term plan to go heavily into renewables.
This is Germany we’re talking about. Eighy-five million people. Europe’s largest economy. Source of some of the world’s finest science and engineering. Not a country or a people prone to irrational decisions made in the heat of passion. About 70 percent of Germans expect electrical rates to rise as nuclear is phased out, and they’re willing to pay the price. If they believe renewables can support a heavily industrialized economy, I’m sold. Germany is setting a goal that the rest of the world should aim for as well. Every major technological development in history looked crazy at one time. (A week’s worth of music on a credit card, anyone? How about guiding a rover around Mars from Earth like it was a radio-controlled car?) With the pace of renewable energy technology development, Germany’s goal looks less crazy than it does savvy.
This blog post is from our colleague, Ed Marshall
In New England where I'm writing this, insulation is typically thought of as a way to keep the cold out and heating costs down. In hot climates, however, it's a way to keep the air conditioned cold in and the hot out. Think of your beach cooler keeping the ice from melting and, in turn, your beer cold. Same concept.
A recent Reuters story notes that the Saudi government is undertaking an ambitious program to cut energy use by some 40 percent, “largely by enforcing investment in insulation”. So, why the Saudi push to insulate? They need the money - specifically, the money made selling oil. The Reuters story quotes a Saudi official noting that 70-80 percent of their energy use goes to air conditioning and they use oil to generate the majority of their electricity. With a growing population and an extreme dependence on fossil fuels to subsidize the amenities of a comfortable life (cheap electricity, plentiful food, cars, roads, etc), the Saudis are staring at a classic export land problem.
Almost half of Saudi Arabia's GDP is directly related to oil exports. Some 75 percent of its government revenue comes from the oil industry. The more oil the Saudis use, the less is available for export, even as production from their aging oil fields slowly declines. The reduction in exports helps push up prices on the open market, increasing cash flow which encourages domestic economic growth and energy use. Eventually, this domestic demand increases enough to materially reduce revenue from oil exports, squeezing subsidies that support things like cheap and plentiful food and fuel. Exposing the national population to unsubsidized prices is politically perilous. Hello Cairo.
According to the World Wildlife Fund's Living Planet Report, we're currently consuming 50% more natural resources than the earth can sustain, which means we'll require the resources of at least two whole earths by 2030 to avoid humanity's version of bee colony collapse.
Chicken Little hyperbole? Perhaps.
But Aussie cartoonist Stuart McMillen provokes chilling thought on the matter when he asks and illustrates "What happens when you introduce a couple dozen or so reindeer to an isolated island of untouched natural resources?"