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Getting to 100% renewable: dream or reality?

Oliver Knight's picture
© Abbie Trayler-Smith Panos Pictures UK Department for International Development via Creative Commons
​Attending the Future of Energy Summit last month, an annual event hosted by Bloomberg New Energy Finance, I was struck – for the second year running – by the rapid pace of cost reductions and innovation happening across the clean energy spectrum. With the news that a recent solar photovoltaics tender in Dubai obtained bids at less than US6c/kWh, to major investments in electricity storage and electric vehicles, to increased interest in demand-side management at the grid and consumer level, the message is clear: clean energy has most likely reached a crucial tipping point that will start to suck in increasing levels of investment. Some commentators also noted the opportune timing: with capital investment in upstream oil production sharply curtailed due to falling global prices, there is potentially a lot of financial capital looking for a home.
 
But perhaps one of the more interesting messages was the one coming from progressive regulators here in the U.S. The head of the California Public Utilities Commission, Michael Picker, noted that with renewable energy already supplying 40% of the state’s electricity a few days last year, the target for 50% renewables by 2030 is “not really a challenge”. Perhaps more interesting, he seemed very relaxed on reaching 100% renewables at some point in the future, on the back of strategic generation placement, transfers to neighboring states, and embedded storage. And note that we’re not talking about large hydropower here, which supplies between 6-12% of California’s electricity and is unlikely to increase.

Updating the renewable energy lexicon

Oliver Knight's picture
Photo by ffennema via iStock
A just-published report by the World Bank’s Energy Sector Management Assistance Program (ESMAP) on the integration of variable renewable energy (VRE) into national grid systems shows once again that adding solar, wind and other forms of VRE does not represent the calamity for grid operators or the high costs that are frequently claimed, particularly in mainstream media. In fact, with proper planning, integrating relatively high levels of renewable energy generation into a large, interconnected grid is feasible at modest incremental cost.

This is important because with the cost of renewable energy continuing to fall, VRE is looking increasingly attractive. Just consider the recent results from South Africa’s renewable energy auctions.

Why then does the discourse around renewable energy continue to view it as a pesky annoyance at best, and a costly gamble at worst? Terms such as “intermittent” and “backup” are often used to pour cold water on the contribution that renewable energy might provide or to question the reliability of solar or wind generation. In addition to the damage they inflict on efforts to promote clean energy, they hint at a very conventional view of electricity systems that is rapidly becoming outdated.

Taking these two particular terms in turn, let us explore them in more detail.

The energy future, as seen from Denmark

Nicholas Keyes's picture
Photo by Blue Square Thing via FlickrDriving across the Danish countryside, they cannot be missed: towering white wind turbines as far as the eye can see, their slow-turning blades providing a 21st century counterpoint against the flat landscape of fields and farmhouses.
 
Denmark has committed to renewable energy further and faster than any country in Europe.  The Scandinavian nation generates a third of its annual electricity demand from wind, and solar capacity is growing as well. For countries that want to green their energy mix, there is no better place to get a glimpse of the future than Denmark. 
 
Its pioneering spirit has brought great benefits, and international acclaim, but like all first movers, Denmark is also learning as it goes. 
 
To tap into this learning, ESMAP—the World Bank’s Energy Sector Management Assistance Program—organized a study tour to Energinet.dk, Denmark’s transmission system operator, as part of its work to help client countries integrate variable renewable energy into their electricity grids. Joining the study tour were 26 participants—representatives from regulators, system operators and utilities from 13 countries, including South Africa, Chile, China, Pakistan, Zambia, and Morocco.

Is Concentrated Solar Thermal Making Progress in Developing Countries?

John Probyn's picture

Concentrated Solar ThermalIt’s no secret that renewable energy development in developing countries is on the rise.  In its most recent report on renewable energy investment, the UN states that investment in renewables in developing countries  has grown over ten-fold – from USD 8 billion to USD 89 billion in the past eight years.  When taking advantage of solar resources, the clear choice – assisted by large recent reductions in capital cost - has been for solar photovoltaic technologies (Solar PV). 

How do Emerging Economies Achieve Economic Growth While Keeping Carbon Emissions Low?

Nicholas Keyes's picture

Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, Mexico, Poland and South Africa are among the world’s largest emerging economies. And in the past five years, all have made substantive shifts towards lower-carbon growth strategies – shifts that are still underway. In 2007, these countries represented 33 percent of global CO2 emissions. By 2010, three of them – Brazil, China and India – accounted for over 40 percent of global investment in renewable energy.