A decade ago, the power sector was responsible for 29 percent of the anthropogenic CO2 emissions. If left unchecked, this statistic could rise to 38 percent by 2030. But adding more capacity with the traditional utility business model only contributes to excessive CO2 emissions and other pollutants.
The renewables movement accelerates
The good news: current consumption trends are encouraging the development of wind, solar, hydro power, biomass energy, geothermal energy, wave power and CCS (carbon capture and storage). Policymakers in the U.S. have a goal to derive 30 percent of the country’s energy needs from renewable sources by 2025 and to reduce CO2 emissions by 80 percent by 2050. In the European Union, a plan has been announced to reduce CO2 emissions by 20 percent and to garner 20 percent of energy consumption from renewable sources.
Renewables emerge as demand grows at unprecedented rates
Diversification in the utility sector comes at a time when demand for power is unprecedented. Today, the U.S. consumes 25 percent of the current global energy supply. Add China (which is four times the size of the U.S.) and its addition of 100 million middle-class citizens per year, and the combined usage of these two countries alone could equal today’s global energy consumption. Progress is advancing across all types of renewable energy sources, albeit at uneven rates. The future scenario, however, grows more promising with each day. The following descriptions provide a high-level overview of several alternate energy sources that are being actively developed, including, but not limited to:
Wind and solar
The largest percentage of renewable sources is still wind power, having risen to about 318 gigawatts worldwide (forecast to double by the end of 2018). But growth in utility-scale solar is also on the rise. The U.S., for example, had a total of 17.5 gigawatts of solar at the end of 2014 and in 2015 joined Germany and Australia in the “million installation club.” Countries as diverse as Brazil and Japan are starting to deploy floating solar panel arrays. The sunbaked Southwest region of the U.S. offers a prime spot for such floatovoltaic projects, where they could produce clean energy and prevent evaporation in major man-made reservoirs. Nations decommissioning nuclear generation assets are also turning to solar and wind at increasing rates (e.g., Japan, China and Germany).
Wave and tidal techniques have the potential to contribute massive amounts of power to an energy-hungry future. But while the industry has made huge progress, it remains decades behind other forms of renewables, with large amounts of money and research required for it to catch up. A promising proof of concept was launched on the Portuguese coast in 2008, and in the U.S., Lockheed Martin announced its intent to create the world’s biggest wave energy project, a 62.5-megawatt installation slated for the coast of Australia that would produce enough power for 10,000 homes. Scotland’s location along the Atlantic and North Sea have also made it a promising source of wave energy. In 2015, its government approved a 40-megawatt wave energy installation in the Shetland Islands.
Carbon capture and storage (CCS)
Although CCS technologies have existed for years (Norway’s CCS program dates back to 1996), recent advances offer a more mature set of techniques for the viable capture of CO2 from fuel combustion and industrial processes. Once acquired, CO2 is transported via pipelines or ships. The International Energy Agency reports CCS could account for one-sixth of required emissions reductions by 2050. CCS projects are underway in Australia, Canada, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and the United States, bringing the world toward the threshold of 10 million tonnes of CO2 captured and verified as stored every year.
Geothermal energy procures heat beneath the Earth’s surface through underground circulation of water. The steam from the resulting cavities is used to power an electrical generator. The Northwest region of the U.S. promises to generate more than 2,600 average megawatts of electricity from geothermal power (enough renewable energy to power 2 million average homes). California continues to host its geothermal energy event that brings key players in policy, technology and industry together. The event attracts at least 1,200 representatives from 25 countries spanning six continents. Given the organization’s rapid progress in creating actionable insight for policy makers and technology providers, an even larger and more diverse crowd is anticipated next year.
Consumers accelerate the renewable movement’s pace
New sources of clean energy, along with increasing awareness of consumer involvement, can only help today’s battle cry to move to a low-carbon energy future. Environmentally conscious consumers, for example, are participating in energy efficiency programs and deploying their own renewable distributed energy resources. By the end of 2015, 35 percent of new residences and 15 percent of those that already exist had participated in efficiency programs. The SmartGrid is partly responsible for fueling this trend, with its innovation and support of several operational and energy measures, such as smart meters, smart appliances, renewable energy sources and energy efficiency techniques.