The Outlook for Renewable Energy

To date, market adoption of most renewable technologies has been limited. But due to factors negatively impacting the economy, businesses and the environment, that seems to be changing. Let's look at the state of renewable energy, then focus on those that are gaining the most momentum: wind and solar.

Oil prices threaten the buoyancy of our national economy. We're facing more issues regarding our continued reliance on the Middle East for energy, not the least of which is a nuclear Iran. And then there are the growing environmental constraints we are facing.

In reality, one would think the United States would be the poster child for renewable energy. We aren't. At least, we aren't yet. In 1850, about 90 percent of the energy consumed in the U.S. was from renewable energy resources, according to the Energy Information Administration (EIA). Now the U.S. is heavily reliant on the nonrenewable fossil fuels: coal, natural gas and oil. In 2004, about six percent of all energy consumed and about nine percent of total electricity production was from renewable energy resources.

But as skyrocketing energy prices now squeeze businesses' profits, businesses in fact are looking for alternatives.

Industrial use accounts for about a third of energy consumed in the United States, according to the Energy Department's estimates. But by cutting back on merely 20 percent of that consumption, American businesses could save close to $19 billion a year at 2004 prices, according to a recent report by the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM).

It's quite simple to understand that the price escalation and potential savings are causing a bit of a feeding frenzy in growth of energy alternatives. Indeed, developing renewable energy sources — which generate electricity with nearly none of the emissions that typify fossil-fueled power plants — has gained a heightened sense of urgency in industry.

Of the five renewable energies — hydro, biomass, solar, wind and geothermal — which are gaining the most momentum?

The EIA says hydropower is the most successful renewable generation technology. More than 160 million tons of carbon emissions were avoided in the U.S. in 2004 when 268 million megawatt (MW)-hours of hydropower were generated. Meanwhile, biomass has actually been declining gradually, while geothermal output has shown little change.

Currently, though, wind and solar are dominating as far as growth.

wind turbine, via Associated Press.jpg Though it makes up only half a percent of U.S. energy consumption, wind is the fastest-growing source of renewable energy in terms of usage and capacity. Improvements in wind turbine technology, as well as tax breaks, make wind energy "one of the most economically viable forms of renewable energy," says the Energy & Power Systems Group. Perhaps the biggest reason for such rapid growth is the dramatic cost per kilowatt (KW) of producing electricity with wind, thus making it much more competitive with fossil fuels. Wind-generated electricity is already cheaper than that of nuclear power stations and new coal technologies, Frost & Sullivan reports via FacilitiesNet.

The global wind energy sector experienced a record year in 2005. According to the Global Wind Energy Council (GWEC), the year saw the installation of 11,531 megawatts, a 40.5 percent increase in annual additions to the global market. The total value of new generating equipment installed was more than $14 billion. The total installed wind power capacity in February 2006 stood at 59,084 MW worldwide, an increase of 24 percent compared to 2004.

Further, the U.S. wind energy industry is on track to installing a record-breaking 3,000 MW this year — "generating enough electricity to power approximately 600,000 homes" — the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) reported earlier this month in its First Quarter Market Report.

However, there is a barrier to completion of some of the several planned projects due to concerns with potential effects on civilian or military radar says Renewable Energy Access. In addition, controversies rage over winds farms to be built in Vermont, off the coast of Massachusetts and in upstate New York. Another problem, of course, is that winds don't always blow, so wind power cannot be relied upon to produce a constant source of electricity. There is also concern that wind farms could affect local weather in ways that are yet to be fully understood.

Despite these issues, America's wind farm fleet is currently saving an estimated half a billion cubic feet of natural gas per day (Bcf/day), alleviating a portion of the tight supply pressure that is driving up prices and imports of the fuel.

As for the second dominant renewable energy, solar energy requires no additional fuel to run and is pollution free. Sunlight can be captured as usable heat or converted into electricity using solar, or photoelectric, cells or through synchronized mirrors known as heliostats that track the sun's movement across the sky, according to LiveScience.

Some experts say the U.S. — once the world leader — is now lagging behind the rest of the world in the application of such technology. But that is changing.

According to Rhone Resch, president of the Solar Industries Association, "Ten gigawatts of new solar capacity will be installed in the next decade, the equivalent of 10 nuclear power plants." Such quick growth includes the installation of large-scale "solar farms" now being built by utility companies throughout the country, as well as smaller photovoltaic panels, installed on the rooftops of houses and buildings.

Solar power is unlike wind power, which typically requires large farms of wind turbines, notes Assistant U.S. Secretary of Energy for Renewable Energy Andy Karsner.

voltaic solar panel.jpg "I anticipate that the solar market will be a distributed model, where it is about rooftops, commercial facilities rooftops, specific applications," Kasner told Voice of America earlier this month. "It will be a very long time before you see large scale load generation based on photovoltaic."

John Benner, with the Colorado-based National Center for Photovoltaics, says the key to solar power is increasing the efficiency of the photovoltaic cells as they turn light into energy: "We are designing materials at the atomic levels and assembling them in a way that is able to essentially quadruple the efficiency relative to what's commercially available today."

Drawbacks of solar energy include high initial cost, and the need for large spaces. Also, for most solar energy alternatives, productivity is subject to the whims of air pollution and weather, which can block sunlight. Karsner adds that overall solar growth has been slowed by a shortage of silicon, an essential ingredient of solar panels that has contributed to the relative high cost of solar power. Yet government subsidies have helped to make solar power more competitive. According to Resch, eventually solar will truly be the best form of energy.

Scientists and experts expect about a 50 percent reduction in the cost of solar energy in the next 10 years.

The EIA points out that while wind and solar photovoltaics are booming, "their share of the total is so small that this growth has not affected the renewable industry trend significantly."

To date, however, market adoption of most renewable technologies has been limited by the significant capital expense of capturing and concentrating the often diffuse energy fluxes of wind, solar, ocean and other renewable resources. The challenge for emerging technologies, as well as those on the horizon, will be to minimize both the monetary and environmental costs of collecting and converting renewable energy fuels to more portable and useful forms.


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Rapidly Growing Wind Power Market is Economically Viable, Analyst Says

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Record year for wind energy: Global wind power market increased by 40.5% in 2005

Global Wind Energy Council, Feb. 17, 2006


American Wind Energy Association, May 3, 2006

U.S. Wind Energy on Track for Another Record Year, May 8, 2006

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