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Biomass January New Energy Capacity All Renewable in US

Published on February 26th, 2013 | by Zach P.

23

Renewable Energy Adoption — Not Fast Enough

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February 26th, 2013 by  

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?

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About the Author

Zach is an Electrical Engineer with a keen interest in the Natural Sciences and Advanced Technologies.



  • rtcdmc

    The article mentions the need for policies to support renewables, but doesn’t provide an example of such a policy. Given that many European nations have cut back on renewable subsidies, what does that tell us about cost effectiveness? To be clear, I do not disagree about the need for renewables or policies to support them, but this article does not make a case for its premise.

    • http://zacharyshahan.com/ Zachary Shahan

      Feed-in tariffs (which many don’t call subsides, just btw) have been cut in many places in Europe because:

      1- that was the plan all along. as prices for renewables dropped, FiTs were supposed to drop.
      2- conservative legislators who took over office in some places did what they do everywhere — fought against renewables in favor of rich, entrenched competitors (despite all logic related to societal net benefit/loss).
      3- the economic crisis in Europe has resulted in cuts to just about everything, even policies that boost the European economy.

      none of these are reasons not to pursue FiTs in the US.

      • rtcdmc

        All true. Why weren’t they in article?

        • http://zacharyshahan.com/ Zachary Shahan

          I didn’t write the article. :D

          And that wasn’t the focus of the author’s piece.

  • Grant Klokeid

    I have read that average consumer electric rates in Germany are 250% that found here in the US. Is it worth the additional cost and what do the high costs do to national competitiveness?

    • http://zacharyshahan.com/ Zachary Shahan

      You’re going to have to provide a source for such a stat. Bt even so, they’re much higher for many other reasons, not because of renewables.

      • Grant Klokeid

        This information is not hard to find on the Internet. But if you need assistance check the two links below, both government sources.
        But in summary from my quick search, Germany rates are 214% that of the US. Neither link provides an explanation but another quick Google query provides a Boston Globe article that discusses a German minister warning of rising electricity rates. It is not only because of the higher cost of renewable energy but also because of the phase out of cheaper nuclear power. I would also add Europe’s higher cost of natural gas, they don’t Frack. The article ends with: “Subsidies and investment incentives for renewable energies are mostly financed through a special tax on electricity prices paid for by all households …”

        But for some strange reason I suspect this information will not sway your opinion. You have already made up your mind.

        German residential electricity rates = 25.3 cents/kWh
        US residential electricity rates = 11.8 cents/kWh

        http://epp.eurostat.ec.europa.eu/statistics_explained/index.php/Energy_price_statistics

        http://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/index.cfm?page=electricity_factors_affecting_prices

        http://www.boston.com/business/articles/2012/06/05/german_minister_warns_of_rising_electricity_prices/

        • ThomasGerke

          Please understand:
          Electricity prices not the same as cost.

          Germany is heading into an election year and prices always make for a great theme in such a campaign.

          There is a systemic conflict raging on. Renewables owned by households, farmers and SMEs are making the electricity generation business of investor owned utilities unprofitable.

          Just imagine how wild the energy industry lobby would spread disinformation in your country, when regular people would destroy the business model of the most profitable corperations?

          What is happening in Germany is big and has implications across the German borders. That’s why you are made to believe all sorts of smart & logical sounding tales… that simply don’t add up:

          For example, question one thing:
          IF shuting down a few outdated nuclear reactors in 2011 would be the reason for higher electricity prices, why are wholesale electricity rates as low as they are right now?
          7-15% below French wholesale market prices?

          Does that make sense to you, based on the information that is provided to you?

          http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/02/18/energy-power-germany-idUSL5N0BF94820130218

          EEX – Check out German & French Month – Quarter – Year- ahead prices.
          http://www.eex.com/en/

          The truth is, what is happening in Germany is complex and there are massive vested interesst that don’t want you to understand it… because every home owner / business being able to provide 40-100++% of their energy demand on site, below grid-prices…. that is a killshot for the entire fossil-energy-industry… Especially in the age of EV commercialisation.

          Efficency & Renewable energy leads to a very different market structure (lots of individual autonomy/ regional independence).

          • Grant Klokeid

            Thanks for the response. You make many good points and provide links I will have to review. I agree, life is complicated.

        • http://zacharyshahan.com/ Zachary Shahan

          Germans pay more for electricity for several reasons — one big one is they’d rather pay the full cost of the electricity they get rather than one subsidized by lack of pricing of externalities.

          Yes, new power plants (no matter what the source) bring the price of electricity up. No matter what Germany’s replaces its old nuclear power plants with, it’s going to bring up the price of electricity.

          We’ve got German writers who cover the renewable energy FiTs. I’ve also read a ton about them and written a lot about them. One of the big issues there is that most industry is off the hook for contributing to the coverage of the (citizen-supported) renewable energy feed-in tariffs. As a result, they are getting subsidized while households have to pay more. The reason for this is not grounded in good logic / research, but big industry has money and friends in the currently powerful conservative wing of German politics.

          I could give you much more info. Are you interested in learning more?

    • Ronald Brakels

      If you think that fossil fuels are cheaper than solar I don’t think you have taken externalities into proper account. There are costs to fossil fuels that don’t appear on people’s electricity bills. Also, you may not appreciate cheap renewables are. At German installation costs rooftop solar would become the cheapest source of electricity available to most Americans.

      • Grant Klokeid

        The statistics I provide Zachary below are simple facts. Direct cost of Green Energy is more costly. As for the indirect costs, that is where things get more murky. How important is it to control CO2? What technological advancements in alternative energy are coming down the road? What will be the availability of fossil fuels and at what cost? No one has these answers. Many people have different opinions and many know a lot of related facts, but in truth we really don’t know the answers. You I assume would have a hunch that it is more important to control CO2 than do I.

        As for German rooftop solar being the cheapest source of electricity to most Americans, are you including what some would consider inflated indirect costs in your equation? If so, you could be correct. As for cheapest direct costs, I would be interested in hearing more. But the fact that Germany has a much higher cost for residential electricity doesn’t back up your claim. As Zach below asked of me, I ask of you, provide a source for such a stat. I would expect the cheapest would be natural gas powered power generating plants. And you know what, here is my source: the US Dept of Energy.

        http://www.eia.gov/forecasts/aeo/er/electricity_generation.cfm

        Your source please?

        • Ronald Brakels

          Do you know your source is for utility scale solar and has a cost per watt of around $2.70 or so? Take about 75% of their levelized capital cost to get the cost of rooftop solar at German prices and compare that to retail prices, since that’s what rooftop solar competes with.

      • http://zacharyshahan.com/ Zachary Shahan

        Great point, Ronald. Yes, if the price of unsubsidized solar in German were the same as in the U.S., U.S. solar would be at grid parity in much if not most of the U.S. (barring the high costs of fossil fuel externalities), and it would be getting installed even much faster than it already is.

    • ThomasGerke

      Grant, you are right about the average rate.

      But two things are very important to keep in mind:
      1-Only 20% of the consumer electricity rate is determined by the renewable energy surcharge.
      2-Germany has had a high energy price policy for decades, that lead to one of the most energy efficent economies of the world.

      At the end of the day, the average German households pay about the same when it comes to monthly bills than the average American household.

      You asked very good questions: Is the additional cost worth it?
      Germany is switching from a fuel-market based energy system towards a technology-based energy system. This transition requires upfront investments in the real economy that lead to jobs, industrial demand and a significant reduction in fossil-fuel expenditure. All of this translates into economic growth.

      National competativeness is a regular talking point spread by industry lobbying groups. The truth is however:
      A. Household rates got little to do with industrial electricity rates
      B. For most industries electricity cost are a tiny fraction of the value chain. Energy intensive industries (steel, chemicals,…) have been excluded from the renewable surcharge to prevent distortion from the get go. Additionally energy intensive companies are able to benefit from the Merrit-Order effect by buying electricity directly on the wholesale market ( Renewables push wholesale prices on a 7 year low despite high cost of fossil fuels)
      C. Apparently the German Economy is more competative than ever, with exports on a record high (on par with the 4x bigger US economy). That should be proof enough.

      Besides:
      One big reason why average household rates are that high, is the fact that most house don’t give a damn about their rates, since electricity cost makes up just 2-3% of the average household consumer spending.

      In Germany every household is able to choose his electricity supplier freely and despite the fact that a 20% cost reduction is possible by switching suppliers (a matter of a few clicks online), 40% of all households have never switched suppliers.

      For example, I have switched to an independent 100% renewable supplier that charges me 1-extra cent / kWh to support community power projects, and I still pay significantly less than those 40% of households that never switched suppliers. ;-)

      • Grant Klokeid

        Thanks for the thoughtful reply. I hope in the long run Germany is successful with their transformational approach to the generation of energy. It is good to see someone try it at least, even if fraught with such uncertainties. But it is also good to be grounded in the practical. We need to hear both voices.

  • Thor Russell

    Can you do an article on what I regard as a very important milestone, that is when growth in renewables worldwide cause a decrease in usage of fossil fuels. (for electricity generation) As we know demand for coal and gas is still growing, hence the rise in CO2 emissions. (oil is a different story) However when their yearly deployment exceeds the yearly increase in energy demand, the yearly usage of coal/gas will go into a permanent decline, as well their price. Many countries are already there, e.g. US for coal, but in spite of massive growth of renewables China isn’t yet. It still uses an ever increasing amount of fossil fuels as well as renewables.

    • http://zacharyshahan.com/ Zachary Shahan

      That would be a tough one to forecast.

  • http://www.facebook.com/ondrej.pikna.3 Ondrej Pikna

    The EU does not count nuclear and large hydroelectric power plants as renewables… And guess what we have many of them within the EU… So renewables will make up 20-25% of energy output while those so called non-renewables large hydro and nuclear create over 70% of electricity in many EU countries without releasing any CO2 !

    • Otis11

      Large Hydro is actually included in that 14.6%. If we include Nuclear energy as well we jump up to 43.9% from carbon free sources, but that still leaves 21.9% thermal coal, 19.4% natural gas and 13.4% oil. That’s 54.7% from carbon intensive sources.

      Unfortunately this will not be changing very soon without a shift in policy as many European countries have elected to replace Nuclear before coal. While both approaches have merit, this means we will have significant FF demand for the foreseeable future unless, like I said, policies change.

  • Marshall Harris

    What about energy efficiency? Couldn’t we lower the goal post some with broad energy efficiency measures?

    • Otis11

      Absolutely! Energy efficiency is a great way to decrease our energy demand and thereby decrease the amount of FFs we need!

      The only unfortunate part is that Energy Efficiency is incredibly hard to quantify reliably on a national scale, so it’s hard to include in articles that use numbers as their basis.

      • mk1313

        Efficiency gains also tend, in part at least, to be offset by additional energy use. For example though new houses are more energy efficient they are also larger which uses at least some of those gains up.

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