Worries over global warming to boost
use of renewables
Feb 27, 2007 Alister Doyle, OSLO, Reuters
Three decades after former U.S. President Jimmy Carter
experimented with solar panels on the White House
roof, grim U.N. warnings about climate change may
kick-start wider global use of renewable energy.
"The political willingness to act is now significantly
higher," Achim Steiner, head of the U.N. Environment
Program (UNEP), told Reuters.
Governments from Japan to Germany are already subsidizing
energies such as wind, hydro, biofuels, geothermal,
solar or tidal power, spurred by worries about security
of supply, climate change and high oil prices at about
US$60 a barrel.
Steiner said warnings by the world's top climate
scientists in a Feb. 2 report that blamed mankind
more clearly than ever for causing global warming
-- mainly by emitting greenhouse gases from burning
fossil fuels -- would be a big new spur.
"This will change the variables, renewable energies
will become a more significant part of our energy
mix," he said.
Past waves of optimism for renewables, such as during
an energy crisis in the 1970s under Carter, foundered
on technological barriers and a lack of competitiveness
when oil prices fell below US$10 in the mid-1980s.
Many experts also warn against exaggerated hopes
this time, despite increasing public pressure to act.
"There will be a push for renewable energies, but
they have limitations," said Fatih Birol, chief economist
of the International Energy Agency (IEA), which advises
governments in developed nations. Windmills cannot
generate electricity on still days, for instance,
and solar power doesn't work at night.
"They can be part of the solution but they are not
the magic bullet," Birol said. He said energy efficiency
was the main way both to curb climate change and to
cut energy imports, and renewables and nuclear power
are secondary solutions.
According to the IEA, renewable energies met 13.2
percent of world primary energy demand in 2004 and
their share is likely to edge up to 13.7 percent by
2030, on present trends. Fossil fuels will remain
dominant at about 80 percent.
Most of the total renewable energy used is biomass,
firewood burnt by 2.5 billion people in the Third
World. Even in an alternative scenario with stronger
incentives for renewables, their share would reach
just 16 percent by 2030, the IEA says.
"Anybody who claims that they can make an energy
revolution overnight I think is not being realistic.
Coal, given the deposits around the world, is going
to be part of the energy mix," Steiner said.
Still, he noted that clean energies dominated by
hydropower generated 18 percent of world electricity
in 2004 -- ahead of 16 percent for nuclear. "Renewable
energies are already quite an important part of our
supply system," he said.
Carter, a Democrat, put solar panels on the White
House roof in the late 1970s amid worries that oil
supplies were running out and could be shut off by
more Arab oil embargoes.
He said that the energy crisis was, "apart from
war, the greatest challenge our country will face
during our lifetimes." The panels were ridiculed by
many Republicans -- and taken down by his Republican
successor, Ronald Reagan.
In a sign of changed attitudes, firms such as U.S.
retailer Wal-Mart now win wide praise for installing
solar panels on superstores.
And renewable energy firms are booming.
"Everything happening around climate issues is affecting
the solar industry positively," said Erik Thorsen,
chief executive of Norway's Renewable Energy Corp.,
one of the world's biggest makers of solar energy
REC's share price has roughly doubled since a 2006
listing, giving the firm a market capitalization of
US$12 billion. Trading at around 39 times its forecast
2007 earnings, the firm has a higher valuation than
Internet giant Google. A minority of analysts worry
the boom is a bubble.
Thorsen says solar power could be the prime source
of energy by 2100 -- consigning fossil fuels to an
interlude in human history since the Industrial Revolution
in the 18th century -- even though prices are far
from competitive with fossil fuels.
Birol at the IEA said the world had a chance in the
next decade to shift course -- many power plants built
in western nations after World War Two are up for
renewal, and China is opening coal-fired power plants
at a rate of almost one a week.
"The lifetime of power plants is about 60 years,"
he said. "If trends do not change we cannot ask the
Chinese to close down their power plants."
The U.N. Climate Panel, the bedrock for government
environmental policy-making, said in its Feb. 2 study
that it was "very likely", or at least 90 percent
certain, that human activities were the main cause
of global warming, up from "likely" or a 66 percent
probability, in a 2001 report.
It projected wrenching changes from rising temperatures
including higher seas, more droughts, more powerful
storms and floods.
Industry groups say the IEA projections for renewables
are too pessimistic and environmentalists want to
phase out nuclear power.
"There is a bright future for renewable energy,"
said Christine Lins, Secretary General of the European
Renewable Energy Council (EREC). "Climate change is
getting more and more in the center of the discussion
but we also see that there is still lots to do to
make this happen," she said.
EREC and Greenpeace issued a report this year saying
that 50 percent of all world energy could come from
renewables by 2050. But this hinged on shifts in government
policy, forecasts of rising oil prices and penalties
for emitting greenhouse gases.
Renewable energies have all been around for a long
U.S. Bell Laboratories patented the first solar cell
based on silicon in 1955, and Italian engineers first
generated electricity from geothermal steam in 1904.
"In many cases the technology is there, but hasn't
reached the market," said ex-Swedish Prime Minister
Goran Persson, who introduced tax breaks during his
1996-2006 term to foster everything from biofuels
to cuts in heating with oil.
"The market is not enough to solve this. We also
need political decisions," he said.
Among these, the European Union has a goal of generating
21 percent of its electricity from renewables by 2020,
up from 14 percent in 2005. China plans to spend US$180
billion on renewables.
Even environmentalists have objections to some renewable
energies, such as damage by windmills. Ten white-tailed
eagles have been killed in just over a year by wind
turbines on the remote islands of Smoela off Norway.
"The frequency is as high as from turbines in the
Altamont Pass in California, which is often seen as
a bad example of bird deaths," said Arne Follestad
of the Norwegian Institute for Nature Research.
He said birds seemed less vulnerable in heavily populated
areas where turbines were often sited on harbors,
in fields or near roads. "If you go to a pristine
area you meet species that live there to avoid human
activity," he said.