Renewables are to be a significant pillar of the global energy balance of tomorrow

Renewables are to be a significant pillar of the global energy balance of tomorrow. This is where the future lies, insist the green lobby, the environmentalists and indeed the peak oil pundits. Most agree, if this crude driven civilization has to keep making strides, then renewables have to make a bigger and significant contribution to the global energy mix over the next decades or so.

And the push is on. The march continues — all around the globe. By 2030, almost 15.7 percent of the world’s energy will be coming from renewable sources. This is significant. And despite hiccups, global renewable spending is projected to hit the $7 trillion mark by then, the Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF) says in a recently unveiled report. It predicts investments in the sector doubling from 2010’s record-breaking $195 billion, to $395 billion in 2020, before reaching $460 billion in 2030.

And interestingly, the big winners in this march, over the next 20 years, are not to be the first world but the energy poor, renewable hubs of Latin America, Asia, the Middle East and Africa. The report underlines that the flourishing economies of Latin America, the Middle East and Africa are set to see growth rates of installed renewable capacity of 10-18 percent a year over the period 2010 to 2020.

Geographically, Europe will remain one of the biggest spender on renewable energy projects for the next three years, but as European Union governments scale back clean energy support in the face of sovereign debt problems, its share is dwindling. China will take over the lead in renewable energy asset finance from Europe in 2014; with an annual expenditure of just under $50 billion. The US and Canada investments in the sector could be hitting $50 billion by 2020.

And the emerging technological advances coupled with cost reductions are expected to spur deployment of solar power throughout the globe. Solar energy technology is to undergo the second-fastest percentage growth of all technologies (after offshore wind energy), from 51 GW in 2010 to 1,137 GW by 2030. And in order to achieve the target, an annual average of $130 billion over 2010-30 compared with $86 billion in 2010 is required, the report insists.

With plenty of solar radiation, Saudi Arabia is also taking a deep plunge into the solar energy sector. Over the next two decades or so, it plans to install roughly 1 GW (1,000 MW) of solar power per year. This means a generation capacity of 20 GW around 2030. In view of the growing domestic energy demand, Saudi Arabia is keen on keeping intact its position as the kingpin among the energy exporters and is taking steps to ensure that. "Saudi Arabia aspires to export as much solar energy in the future as it exports oil now," Minister of Petroleum and Mineral Resources Ali Al-Naimi underlined way back in 2010.

MENA, as a region, is embarking on new renewable projects over the coming decade to meet high power demand growth. A recent report by Meed Insight, ‘Mena Renewable Energy 2012’, says 10 of the 14 Arab states have set renewable energy targets ranging from 5 percent to 42 percent of their total energy mix by 2020.

And others too are also moving into solar energy sector. Its contribution to the global energy mix is growing. The Andasol project in Spain, which became operational a few weeks back, is another candid example of the strides taken by the solar sector. The venture is as big as 210 football pitches and has 600,000 mirrors.

A few weeks back, on an empty mountain plateau in Andalusia, the last of 600,000 parabolic mirrors were connected, and Andasol, the world’s largest concentrating solar power station, became operational.

The bleak, empty flatlands of the Guadix plateau, 30 miles from Granada, were chosen for Andasol concentrating solar thermal power, a joint venture by four German companies, as the location for their €350 million investment because, at 1,100 meters above sea level, Guadix’s atmosphere is clearer and less turbulent than lower altitudes. And they felt that because of that, it captures more solar energy than the entire Saudi Arabian peninsula.

And as the solar energy sector continues to make impressive strides, despite the cost issue, it is still to catch up with the wind energy sector. The wind turbines (on and offshore wind farm) sector is continuing to expand, expecting to attract $140 billion in 2020 and $206 billion per annum by 2030, as compared to $82 billion in 2010. New areas of growth are the European offshore wind turbines and emerging markets in Latin America, Turkey, Africa and Australia.

Interestingly, with the commercialization of second-generation technologies, the bio energy sector is also witnessing renewed activity. Investment in biofuels, biomass and waste-to-energy is projected to increase from $14 billion in 2010 to $80 billion in 2020.

A United Nations Environment Programs annual report also echoes of growing investment in the renewable sector. Investment in renewable energy rose nearly a third in 2010 compared with the previous year, to a record $211 billion on large wind power projects in China and small-scale roof-top solar installations in Europe.

The figure was up on a revised sum of $160 billion for 2009 and $159 billion in 2008. "Renewable energies are expanding both in terms of investment, projects and geographical spread," says UNEP executive director. Developing countries accounted for over $72 billion of "financial new investment" in renewable compared to $70 billion in developed countries.

Last year, China was responsible for $48.9 billion of financial new investment, up 28 percent on 2009, with asset finance of large wind farm plants dominating the figures.

"But the developing world’s advance in renewable is no longer a story of China and little else," the report says. In 2010, financial new investment in renewable energy doubled to $5 billion in the Middle East and Africa region, and by 39 percent to $13.1 billion in South and Central America," the report added.

Meanwhile, in Europe, financial new investment declined 22 percent to $35.2 billion last year due to the recession. But the drop in financial new investment in Europe was more than offset by a surge in small-scale renewable installation, mostly rooftop solar, in Germany, Italy and the Czech Republic spurred by generous government subsidies and a sharp fall in the cost of photovoltaic modules.

However, growing global economic woes are definitely impacting the forward march of the renewable sector. Continuing economic uncertainty is pushing the low-carbon economy further out of reach. Ernst & Young warned in a report that, should the eurozone debt crisis worsen, a climate funding gap of $45 billion worldwide could emerge by 2015.

Even if government cuts do not deepen, which is unlikely, the Ernst & Young report claimed that a gap of $22.5 billion on investment in renewable energy and subsidies is likely to emerge across 10 leading world economies in less than four years.

And this is disastrous – one could say with certainty. For continued growth and prosperity of this world, and to overcome the energy poverty prevalent in a significant percentage of global population, the contribution from the renewable to the global energy mix needs to go up – without fail. Global economies woes are clouding that – despite some significant gains. What a pity indeed!