6,000 sq.km of California are suitable for this 'concentrating solar power' approach shown here at the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System (ISEGS) in California’s Mojave Desert. Photo: Jan Maguire via Flickr.
Investors pile in as renewables rise to record level
Tim Radford & Oliver Tickell
16th April 2015
The world's smart money is piling into renewable energy, solar power in particular, write Tim Radford & Oliver Tickell, as renewables pull away from fossil fuels in terms of both investment and new generation capacity added each year.
Despite the change in oil and gas prices there is going to be a substantial buildout of renewable energy that is likely to be an order of magnitude larger than the buildout of coal and gas.
Carbon dioxide levels might be soaring, and governments might be slow to reduce fossil fuel emissions and contain climate change.
But there is a silver lining to these fossil-fuelled clouds - smart money is piling into renewable sources such as wind and solar power.
The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) says green energy investments rose by 17% in 2014 to reach a total of $270bn - the first annual increase in three years, and just 3% behind the all-time record set in 2011 of $279bn.
In 2014, renewable energies added 103 GW (gigawatts) to global capacity. This is roughly equal to the output of all 158 nuclear power reactors in the US.
Wind, solar, biomass, waste-to-power, geothermal, small hydro and marine power contributed an estimated 9.1% of world electricity generation in 2014. This also represents a notional saving in carbon dioxide emissions of 1.3 Gt (gigatonnes), which is about twice what pours from the exhausts of the world airlines.
Renewables' importance 'will only increase as markets mature'
"Once again in 2014, renewable made up nearly half the power capacity added worldwide", said Achim Steiner, executive director of UNEP.
"These climate-friendly energy technologies are now an indispensable component of the global energy mix and their importance will only increase as markets mature, technology prices continue to fall and the need to rein in carbon emissions becomes ever more urgent."
But, according to scientists backed by the Carnegie Institution, there is much more that could be done. A team led by Earth system scientists Rebecca Hernandez, now of the University of California Berkeley, reported in Nature Climate Change that solar energy alone could meet the demands of the state of California in the US up to five times over.
Solar power systems based on photovoltaics could generate up to 15,000 terawatts of energy a year. And mirror-driven concentrating systems could add another 6,000 terawatt hours.
California - now in the grip of a calamitous drought that has been tentatively linked to climate change triggered by human investment in fossil fuels - is the most populous state in the US.
The researchers calculated that more than 27,000 square kilometres of land would be fit for photovoltaic solar construction, and more than 6,000 square kilometres for concentrating solar power.
So if California's water-guzzling farms are no longer viable in future due to water shortages, at least there's another way for their owners to earn a living.
'Beginning of the end' for fossil fuels
The world is now adding more capacity for renewable power each year than coal, natural gas, and oil combined, according to an analysis presented at this week's Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF) annual summit in New York.
Delegates heard that the shift occurred in 2013, when the world added 143GW of renewable electricity capacity, compared with 141GW in new fossil-fuelled plants- and by 2030 more than four times as much renewable capacity will be added.
"The electricity system is shifting to clean", Michael Liebreich, founder of BNEF, said in his keynote address. "Despite the change in oil and gas prices there is going to be a substantial buildout of renewable energy that is likely to be an order of magnitude larger than the buildout of coal and gas."
The price of wind and solar power continues to plummet, and is now on par or cheaper than grid electricity in many areas of the world, he continued, cuting the International Energy Agency's finding that while solar generates less than 1% of the world's electricity today, it could be the world's biggest single source by 2050.
Are biofuels 'renewable'?
But there is a darker side to the story of renewable energy. On the other side of the Rocky Mountains, scientists have been working on the much more complex carbon budget of biofuels, which deliver supposedly 'green energy' like automotive fuels brewed from corn, and electricity fired by wood chips.
They count as renewable energy because, although they emit carbon dioxide when burned, they do not, overall, in principle, add to the levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. That's because biofuel crops take carbon dioxide from the air to grow their tissues for conversion to fuel, and return the gas through engine exhausts.
But the approach remains carbon neutral only as long as farmers exploit existing cropland. And in reality, farmers around the world are razing existing forests and ploughing up grasslands, in the process adding to global warming by releasing carbon stored in soils and living biomass to the atmosphere.
And even if biofuel farmers don't do that themselves, farmers elsewhere certainly will in order to maintain food supplies to an increasingly hungry world.
In the US alone, 7 million acres bloughed up for biofuels
Environmental scientist Tyler Lark and colleagues at the University of Wisconsin-Madison report in Environmental Research Letters that, between 2008 and 2012, US farmers ploughed seven million acres of new land for corn and soy for conversion to biofuels intended as renewable energy for motor transport.
In the course of doing so, they could have emitted as much carbon to the atmosphere as 34 coal-burning power stations in one year - or 28 million new cars on the road.
Nearly a quarter of the land converted came from long-standing prairies and ranges, much of it within the Central Plains, from North Dakota to Texas. And much of this was planted with corn intended for conversion to biofuels.
"It mimics the extreme land-use change that led to the Dust Bowl in the 1930s", Lark says. "We could be, in a sense, ploughing up prairies with each mile we drive."
Tim Radford writes for Climate News Network.
Oliver Tickell edits The Ecologist.
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