Renewable Energy Technologies need tolerance
Why the delay? After all, the computer revolution has shown how rapidly new innovations can be imagined, developed, brought to market and have an impact. But new energy technologies don’t work that way, they can take years to gain just a toehold in the market, and 20 to 30 years to push aside existing products or techniques.
That’s partly because of the sheer size of the energy market. Global power consumption is estimated to total 150 trillion kilowatt-hours in 2010. The utility industry in the US the most energy-hungry nation on the planet, produced an estimated 3.7 trillion kilowatt-hours of electricity in 2009. Nearly half of that was produced by coal, while solar power contributed less than 0.1%.
Wind power is one of the fastest-growing sources of renewable energy in the world. But by the end of 2008, there were still only 121.2 gigawatts of generated capacity representing around 1.5% of global electricity consumption.
Of course, no single technology needs to replace all that carbon-producing power. Researchers planning for future energy supplies are working on several technologies simultaneously, including carbon capture to produce electricity, and next-generation biofuels and electric-powered cars to move us around.
They talk about the need for ‘silver buckshot,’ instead of a silver bullet.
Researchers also agree that policy makers can speed or delay these developments at least up to a point.
A price on carbon, either through a tax or a carbon-trading mechanism, would make new technologies competitive with cheap oil or coal more quickly, spurring investment in and adoption of alternatives. Governments can also spend money on research, development and pilot projects, speeding the move from the drawing board to the market.
Higher oil prices also make all the energy alternatives more attractive to investors and consumers. But even if you combine all the current alternatives, they aren’t likely to make much of a dent for quite a few years.
To better understand why, below is a closer look at two of the most-promising clean-energy alternatives, and the reasons they’ll be a long time coming.
(TO BE CONTINUED NEXT WEEK)
THE TECHNOLOGY: Energy from the sun can be used to make electricity directly with photovoltaic panels or indirectly using concentrated sunlight to heat a liquid, which produces steam to turn electrical turbines. Concentrating solar plants can be built to store heat and deliver power for several hours without sunlight.
CURRENT STATUS: Total capacity the amount of power that could be produced if the sun shone constantly of solar photovoltaic systems has been nearly doubling every two years in both the U.S. and Europe, and the pace of increase is expected to rise further.
In the U.S., the estimated 2,000 megawatts of solar capacity in 2009 was nearly 45% higher than in 2008. That includes about 980 megawatts of concentrating-solar projects; an additional 81 megawatts are under construction. In the EU, there was an estimated 9,530 megawatts of solar capacity in 2008, up from 4,940 megawatts in 2007.
WHY IT’S GOING TO TAKE SO LONG: Even at that rate of growth, solar power is still minuscule: Solar generation in 2009 accounted for less than 0.1% of total electricity production in the U.S. Solar capacity remains less than 1% of the total.
In Europe, nearly 92% of total solar power capacity is accounted for by just Germany and Spain. Spain alone more than quadrupled its photovoltaic capacity between 2007 and 2008. This surge has been driven by government incentives that have yet to be matched in the rest of Europe.
The cost of solar installations has fallen in recent years, but remains high, partly because demand continues to keep pace with supply. And like wind farms, utility-scale solar photovoltaic and concentrated solar projects also require additional transmission connections.
THE TECHNOLOGY: In theory, electric vehicles could replace most gasoline-powered cars and light trucks. They can run entirely on battery power, or in the case of plug-in hybrids, on batteries that can be charged by a separate gasoline engine when needed as a backup.
CURRENT STATUS: About 56,000 electric vehicles are in use world-wide, but the numbers are deceiving—most are limited to low-speed driving and have limited range. So far, Tesla Motors Inc.’s Roadster is the only open-road electric vehicle in the U.S., but a handful of other all-electric cars, including Nissan Motor Co.’s Leaf, are expected to come to market in 2010. The first commercial plug-in hybrids, led by General Motors Co.’s Chevy Volt, also are slated to be available soon.
WHY IT’S GOING TO TAKE SO LONG: The biggest obstacle is cost. The advanced lithium-ion battery pack that powers the Volt, which can travel 40 miles (64 kilometers) on a charge, can cost as much as $10,000, though prices are expected to fall as production ramps up. The U.S. Energy Information Administration predicts that in 2030, the added cost of a plug-in hybrid will be higher than fuel savings unless gasoline costs around $6 a gallon (3.78 liters).
Public charging spots are less important for plug-in hybrids, which are more likely to be recharged at home. Still, owners may need to upgrade their existing outlets to recharge more quickly. A 240-volt outlet, which can charge an electric vehicle in about three to six hours, generally requires adding a circuit to the home’s electric system to handle the additional load.