What is Renewable Energy?

Renewable energy is derived from natural processes that are replenished constantly. In its various forms, it derives directly from the sun or from heat generated deep within the earth.  Included in the definition are electricity and heat generated from solar, wind, ocean, hydropower, biomass, geothermal resources and biofuels and hydrogen derived from renewable resources.  Renewable Energy replaces conventional fuels in four distinct areas:- power generation, hot water/space heating, transport fuels and rural (off grid) energy services.

During the five years 2004 to 2010, worldwide renewable energy

During the five years 2004 to 2010, worldwide renewable energy capacity grew at rates of 10-60% annually for many technologies, e.g., more wind power capacity was added during 2009 than any other renewable energy technology.

Additionally, a survey conducted by Applied Materials last year revealed that two-thirds of Americans believe solar technology should play a greater role in meeting that country’s energy needs.  Further, “three quarters of Americans feel that increasing renewable energy and decreasing US dependencies on foreign oil, are the country’s top energy priorities.”  According to the survey, “67% of Americans would be willing to pay more for their monthly utility bill if their utility company increased its use of renewable energy.”

Insofar as the use of solar energy is concerned, the Caribbean is a way ahead of the game as Barbados and Antigua and Barbuda have been using solar power for more than two decades.  Given that these Caribbean states are small islands and find great difficulty to pay for oil, it had become necessary to resort to more natural sources of energy to properly manage their economies.

The International Solar Energy argues that renewable energy technologies and economies would improve with time and they are “sufficiently advanced at present to allow for major penetrations of renewable energy into the mainstream energy and societal infrastructures.”

All forms of energy are expensive, but as time progresses; renewable energy would generally get cheaper, while fossil fuels would generally become more expensive. Former US Vice President Al Gore explained that renewable technologies are declining in price for three main reasons:-

  • Once the renewable infrastructure is built, the fuel is forever free.  Unlike carbon-based fuels, the wind and the sun and the earth itself provide fuel that is free, in amounts that are effectively limitless;
  • While fossil fuel technologies technologies are more mature, renewable energy technologies are being rapidly improved, so innovation and ingenuity give us the ability to constantly increase the efficiency of renewable energy and continually reduce the costs; and
  • Once the world makes a clear commitment to shift to renewable energy, the volume of production will itself sharply reduce the cost of each windmill solar panel, while adding yet more incentives for additional research and development to further speed up the innovation process.

According to Wikipedia, markets for second generation technologies have been strong and growing over the past decade and these technologies have gone from being a passion for the dedicated few to a major economic sector in countries like Spain, Germany, Japan and the United States.  Many large industrial companies and financial institutions are involved in the challenge to broaden the market base for continued growth worldwide.

Solar heating systems are a well-known second generation technology and generally consist of solar thermal collectors, a system to move the heat from the collector to its point of usage and a reservoir or tank for heat storage.

The systems can be used to heat domestic water, swimming pools, or homes and businesses.  The heat can also be used for industrial process applications or as an energy input for other uses such as cooling equipment.  In warmer climates, a solar heating system can provide a very high percentage (50-75%) of domestic hot water energy.

Photovoltaic (PV) cells, also called solar cells, convert light into electricity.  As far back as the 1980s and early 90s, most photovoltaic modules were used to provide remote area power supply, but around 1995, industry efforts have focussed more on the development of integrated photovoltaics and photovoltaic power stations for grid connected applications.

At the end of 2008, the cumulative global PV installations reached 15,200MW. Internationally, photovoltaic production has been doubling every two years, increasing by an average of 48% each year since 2002, making it the world’s fastest growing energy technology.

Another second generation renewable is wind power, which has a high potential and has already realised relatively low production costs. Global wind power installations increased by 35,800MW last year, bringing total install capacity up to 194,400MW, a 22.5% increase from 2009. This increase represents investments totalling US $65 billion and for the first time more than half of all new wind power was added outside the traditional markets of Europe and North America.

Wind power now accounts for approximately 19% of electricity generated in Denmark, 9% in Spain and Portugal and 6% in Germany and the Republic of Ireland.  These are some of the largest wind farms in the world as of July 2010.

Global ethanol production for transport fuel tripled between 2000 and 2007 from 17 billion to more than 52 billion litres, while biodiesel expanded more than tenfold from less than one billion to almost 11 billion litres.  Biofuels now provide the world with 1.8% of its transport fuel needs and recent estimates indicate a continued high growth.

Revenues derived globally from solar photovoltaics, wind power and biofuels expanded from US $76 billion to US $115 billion in 2008.  New global investments in clean energy technologies, including venture capital, project finance, public markets and research and development – expanded by 4% from US $148 billion in 2007 to US $155 billion in 2008.

While newer and cleaner technologies may offer social and environmental benefits, utility operators are prone to reject renewable resources because they (operators) are trained to think only in terms of huge conventional power plants. On the other hand, consumers tend to ignore renewable power systems because they are usually not given accurate price signals about electricity consumption.  It would seem therefore, the obstacles to the widespread commercialisation of renewable energy technologies are primarily political and not technical and there have been many studies which have identified a range of non-technical barriers to renewable energy use.

Courtesy Trinidad and Tobago Chamber of Commerce