Here on CleanTechnica, we regularly see article after article trumpeting the advances wind power has made (for example, last year, the rate of installation increased by about 20%) or praising the huge installation of photovoltaic power in Germany, Italy, or even the Czech Republic! While Europe may be the clean energy standard that many champion as leading the field, we also see noteworthy advancements in Australia and even in the U.S. Combine these impressive growth statistics with the rapidly advancing technology and lowering costs and it would be a very reasonable question to ask: “Why is it important to pass policies that support Renewable Energy Technologies? Why can’t we simply wait for this exponential growth to take over?”
You may hear arguments about global warming and ocean acidification, or maybe even hear a response about fossil fuel subsidies and externalities if you’re lucky, but I would argue that these responses miss the bigger picture of our world energy profile. While these exponential advancements are great, and absolutely deserve to be publicized, they are not nearly enough to achieve a clean energy society within our lifetime.
Let’s look at the “Clean Energy Standard” set by our neighbors in Europe. In 2011, Europe installed an impressive 9.4 GW of wind power, bringing the total to 94 GW of installed capacity generating energy equivalent to 15.4 Million Tonnes of Oil! (15.4 MTOE)
So, how does the picture change if we include solar, hydro electric, biomass, and geothermal? With all of that, the EU rises to a whopping 162.3 MTOE!
That sounds incredibly impressive! So, where does that leave us? With a mere 14.6% of European energy demand being met by renewable energy. Whoa. Less than 15% of the energy used today in the world’s “Clean Energy Leader” came from renewable sources.
But we’ve heard time and again about the huge growth of renewables all over Europe! How is the continent only hitting 14.6%?
Despite having some of the most fertile renewable energy policies in the world, incredible public support, being economically viable, and being incredibly deployable — massive growth simply takes time!
That is why we have to start now!
Sure, there will be better technology tomorrow, as will always be the case, but we simply can’t sit idly by if we wish to create a clean energy economy. It’s just not practical because of the incredible scale. Even if we cut the price of both solar and wind energy in half tomorrow, it would still likely take decades to completely revolutionize our grid without supporting policies.
It’s like trying to build a country in a day: it’s just not feasible.
But hear this: Hope is not lost. I do not mean to write this to discourage those who are advocating and adopting clean energy, but rather to motivate those who think the market will play itself out and renewable energy will soon win. It will win: despite all of the points above, renewables will be the energy source of the future, but not nearly as soon as we might think, not unless we develop comprehensive policies that allow a fair playing field for all energy technologies.
It’s like trying to play professional baseball with a broom stick instead of a bat. Sure, it could be done by an incredible athlete, but they will never play at the level they are capable of. Fossil fuels get to play with their nice thick bats while renewable energy technologies are left to use their broom handle.
The surprising thing is, renewable energy still has the advantage! At this point in their life cycle, clean energy technologies don’t even need an unfair advantage — they have the technological advantage! They simply need the chance to compete! The opportunity for a clean energy society is laying right in front of us. The question is, will we chose to level the playing field and increase the rate of adoption, or are we content to simply allow renewable energy to grow in the background while we continue business as usual?
Zach is an Electrical Engineer with a keen interest in the Natural Sciences and Advanced Technologies.