Power to the people

June 23, 2009

Renewable energy has seen a big buy-in over the last decade. Factors like high oil prices and carbon emissions commitments have had a major role to play in the mainstreaming of what were once seen as ‘new toys on the energy block’. They finally arrived as Cinderellas of the ball this year when the U.N announced that for the first time ever, green energy overtook their ugly fossil fuel sisters in attracting investment. Wind, solar and other green tech collectively garnered $ 140 billion while coal & gas could only manage $110 billion.

Wind energy comprises a big chunk of the pie with $51.8 billion of investment. A new study by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (yes, stuffy name = more academic cred.) say that theoretically wind energy could provide 40 times the electricity and 5 times the total energy the world is currently consuming. That is if all the windy areas on the planet (mean annual wind speed ≥ 25 Km/h) were covered with wind turbines. Excluding forests, permanent snow/ice, wetlands and urban areas, this would amount to roughly 13% of the global land area. Now if only planting wind turbines were as easy as planting saplings.

Solar energy is not far behind with $33.5 billion. If you want to get theoretical about solar, try this for size; the total solar energy absorbed by the earth in 2002 in one hour was sufficient to power the world for one full year. On a more practical level, the world’s largest solar power plant PS20 in Spain, has a capacity of 20 megawatts. Compared to the world’s biggest coal fired Kendal power plant in South Africa with a monster capacity of 4116 megawatts, this may seem insignificant. But the best bit about solar is that it is growing at 50% every year (the PS20 solar plant has double the capacity of its predecessor, the PS10)

But the biggest paradigm shift is not just about the use of renewable energy itself but also more about the way we use it. The future of renewable energy possibly lies not in scaling them up into mega power plants but in scaling them down to individual households. Each household would eventually have its own renewable energy production unit that will feed into intelligent grids. Consumers will adapt their lifestyles based on the capacity of their renewable energy units to avoid burdening them with demand peaks. As of now (discounting their obvious lower carbon emissions benefits) scaled-down renewable energy options are more expensive over a 20 year period than connecting to the main grid. However, with advances in technology and lowering of infrastructure costs, it might soon be a realistic option. Around 1.7 billion people are currently living off-grid as they have no access to it in the first place. Imagine the environment benefits of keeping them off-grid without condemming them to darkness and poverty.

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