Monday, September 11, 2006

Wind and solar: ready to meet global energy needs?

September 7, 2006
In Short:

Electricity produced from wind and solar energy could meet a substantially larger chunk of global demand by 2020-2025 if the right policies are put in place, trade associations claim.


Current forecasts by the International Energy Agency (IEA) indicate that global energy demand will rise by more than 50% by 2030, with 60% of that increase covered by oil and gas (80% if coal is included).

Under the baseline scenario, the share of renewable energy grows from 8% in 2003 to 9% in 2030 while that of nuclear declines marginally, below renewables (EurActiv 8 Nov. 2005).

Even under its most optimistic scenario, in which energy-importing countries take strong action to cut demand and promote alternative energies, the IEA still forecasts continued heavy world reliance on oil and gas by 2030.

Under this so-called Alternative Policy Scenario, global CO2 emissions would still increase by around 30% by 2030, fuelled in large part by booming demand for oil and gas in Asia and an ever-increasing world population. Under the baseline scenario, CO2 emissions will be 52% higher in 2030 than they are today.

World energy forecasts published on 5 September by GWEC, the global wind industry trade association, predict "a serious shortfall between demand and supply could become evident soon after 2010".

The report, entitled "Plugging the Gap", says the combined oil and gas supply shortfall could reach 10% by 2020 and climb to 18% by 2030.

"Eventually, this gap will be filled by a mix of technologies ranging from renewables, coal and nuclear," says GWEC. But it believes that wind power, as a "safe, carbon-neutral, economic and indigenous energy resource, is the best choice to fill the electricity generation gap".

Whatever the energy mix countries eventually opt for - the balance between oil, gas, nuclear, coal and renewables - one thing seems to be clear: massive investments will be necessary to meet the world's booming energy demands.

In its 2005 World Energy Outlook, the IEA forecasted that $17 trillion investments in infrastructure would be necessary to meet demand by 2030. This would represent around $56 billion investment every year, assuming that fossil fuels continue to account for more than 80% of the energy mix.

But according to GWEC, the IEA's forecasts of world oil and gas reserves are wildly overestimated. "These mainstream energy-outlook studies are based on a questionably optimistic assessment by the US Geological Survey (USGS), which does not appear to align with detailed records of actual worldwide discoveries," it says.

According to GWEC, the "combined gap" in oil and gas "are likely to represent 10% of the primary energy demand in 2020 and 18% by 2030". And at current consumption rates, world coal reserves, which are currently plentiful, "will be exhausted by around the end of the 21st century".

To fill this looming energy gap, the Global Wind Energy Council (GWEC) says wind energy is a better investment since reserves are unlimited, can be produced locally and are pollution-free. In particular, GWEC feels wind energy is particularly well suited to replace gas as a source of electricity. "Market dynamics will end up raising gas prices in a way that will make wind energy cost-competitive," the trade association predicts, because gas carries high transportation costs and, unlike oil, world markets are imperfect.

GWEC says it expects global wind generation capacity to double by 2010 (from 60 gigawatts to 135 GW). But it says the figure could be boosted to 1,000 GW in 2020. "This potential is technically realisable", says GWEC, "if significant policy changes are implemented".

In a report published on 6 September, the European Photovoltaic Industry Association (EPIA) and Greenpeace say solar power is "ready to dominate the consumer energy market" and bring electricity to "more than 2 billion people" by 2025. This, Greenpeace said, would come at an annual price of €113 billion, or around twice the cost foreseen under the IEA's 2005 baseline forecast. Greenpeace and EPIA "are urging governments to secure those investments with support programmes" and renewable energy targets for 2015 and 2020.

However, some energy experts doubt whether renewable energies such as wind and solar will ever be able to fill the ever-growing demand for energy, because of a lack of credible alternatives to fossil fuels, particularly in transport.

"Far more radical policy action and technology breakthroughs would be needed to reverse these trends," said the IEA in its 2005 Energy Outlook.

"Whether these [technology breakthroughs] will come in time to avoid an energy crunch depends in part on how high a priority we give energy research and development," write Donald Kennedy and Colin Norman in Science Magazine.

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