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Global Renewable Energy Trends

Renewable energy has come a long way from the early days, when most people thought global warming was nothing more than scaremongering and when the fossil fuel giants used their power and influence to block research and silence anyone who dared question the feasibility of our continued reliance on oil, gas and coal. Climate change (the new and more accurate term for global warming, and peak oil is now accepted as fact by most if not all governments, even the United States which has traditionally denied any link between carbon emissions and climate change.

There is still a long way to go, but the fact that the problem has been widely recognised has allowed for the creation of whole new industries, focussing on how best to shift away from traditional energy sources to cleaner, more sustainable alternatives. At a time when the global economy is struggling to emerge from the worst recession in decades, the renewables industry appears to be booming.

Why Bother With Renewable Energy?

There are three reasons for the drive toward renewable energy – the environment, energy security and economics. Burning fossil fuels releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere acts like insulation in that it prevents heat from escaping back into space. Once the rate of release of carbon dioxide exceeded the rate at which the Earth could reabsorb it, the Earth was obviously going to heat up, causing draught, flooding and many other damaging environmental effects. That point has passed and we are seeing the predicted effects now.

As well as the environmental issues, fossil fuels are clearly a finite resource. Experts argue about how long reserves might last but noone can deny that they will run out eventually. Such is our reliance on fuel for every aspect of our daily lives that it is difficult to see how society as we know it could continue without it. Imagine if you could only travel as far as you could walk. You had to grow your food, find your own water, make fired for heat and light, make your own clothes. There are no hospitals or doctors, no teachers or schools. No police and no courts. We would be cast back into the Stone Age but the vast majority would lack all of the essential skills to survive in that environment.

Since its invention, money has always been a driving force for technological advancement. Well before the oil eventually runs out, any economy which relies solely on it will collapse because of spiralling prices. Already, many experts say that the current global recession has been made deeper and longer as a result of record oil prices. As demand increases and supply decreases the major oil producing nations, most of whose ideologies are at odds with Western culture and politics, will become more and more powerful.

Why Not Just Use Nuclear Power?

At one time, nuclear power seemed to be the answer. To many it still is. After all a small amount of fuel can produce an incredible amount of energy with no harmful emissions. The problems though are threefold. First, there is the potential for another Chernobyl. Nuclear accidents are relatively rare but when they do occur the potential consequences are unthinkable. Second, uranium itself is a finite resource, so nuclear can never be the final solution since uranium will eventually run out. Third, if nuclear power were to replace fossil fuels as the world’s major energy source then no longer could certain countries be prevented from developing their own nuclear technology. This in turn would mean it would be only a matter of time before an unstable regime developed a nuclear weapon. Imagine if Hussein or Gadaffi had had nuclear weapons? The threat to the security of the rest of the world would simply be too great to tolerate.

Who are the World’s Leading Producers of Renewable Electricity?

Perhaps surprisingly, in terms of kilowatt hours of electricity produced, the world’s largest producer is China. Historically criticised for its spiralling carbon emissions as its industrial sector boomed, China has clearly realised the potential of the renewable energy sector and now produces 576.1 terrawatt hours of renewable electricity per year, which equates to 17.88% of total consumption. Brazil, another recently industrialised nation that has been accused of not pulling its weight in the battle against climate change, is 3rd in the global list, with the United States 2nd.

These countries are however also among the largest consumers, so this only half the story. In terms of the percentage of total electricity consumed coming from renewable sources, most African nations are in the high eighties or nineties. This is probably more to do with the fact that many of these are third world countries and do not have a mature electricity network. Of the industrialised nations, Interestingly Albania, which produces all of its electricity from renewables, leads the way. Of the major global economies, Brazil is streets ahead of the rest with 88.88% of its electricity coming from renewable sources. China is on 17.88%, India manages 14.58%, the USA just 10.05% and the UK lags behind most of the world on a pretty poor 6.18%.

Which are the Leading Renewable Energy Technologies?

Hydro electricity accounts for the vast majority of the renewable energy produced by 9 out of the top ten renewable energy producing countries. The only exception is Germany. Hydro electricity accounts for around 20% of its production, with wind power (approx. 36%) and biomass (approx. 33%) accounting for the majority of its production. It also produces around 12% from solar power.

Hydro electricity is often criticised for the dramatic and often adverse effect it has on the local environment and on the natural habitat of the wildlife in the area. It is however one of the most reliable alternatives to fossil fuels. Unlike solar or wind power electricity production can continue at a stable rate irrespective of any prevailing weather conditions and whether it is night or day. Unlike biomass it does not require fuel to be grown and transported. There will always be water and water and water will always flow so barring a burst dam or similar catastrophe hydro power can be relied upon indefinitely.

Wind power is the next most prolific. Solar power ranks quite low, however this may have plenty to do with the fact that the countries best placed to exploit it, those on the equator and in or around the Sahara desert, are least able to summon the necessary resources. Expect that to change over the next decade or so as international consortia begin to invest in solar farms in these countries.

Global Trends in Renewable Energy Investments

The majority of the new money in the renewable energy sector is being invested in wind and solar power. China leads the world, with $54.4 billion invested in 2010, an increase of 39% on 2009. The majority, $45 billion, was invested in wind, with $4.7 billion spent on solar energy. Germany is the world’s second largest investor with $41.2 billion, a 100% increase for 2010. $36.1 billion was channelled into solar power projects.

The USA, despite increasing investment by 51%, moved down to third in the 2010 list with $36 billion worth of investment mostly in biofuels and wind. Brazil, with $7.6 billion, ranked 6th, also splitting its money between biofuels (40%) and wind (31%). The UK dropped to 13th, with investment totalling $3.3 billion, a 70% decrease in investment. The majority, 52%, was spent on offshore wind farms. Uncertainty around government energy policies has been blamed for the decrease in investment.

2 Comments to Global Renewable Energy Trends

  1. September 14, 2011 at 12:04 am | Permalink

    The figures quoted are impressive and even mind-boggling.But there is a much cheaper way of installing solar power. Do it Yourself syastems cost as little as $200.

    Check them out at http://www.mygreenenergysources.info/create-your-own-green-energy/

  2. September 12, 2013 at 11:29 am | Permalink

    Great article on renewable energy. I particularly liked your list on the most popular/used forms of renewable energy. China is a really interesting market and it is good to see that they have strongly improved their output. By it becoming profitable and showing promise, it will encourage other countries to do the same. Germany are a great example for this.

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