‘Do as I say, not do as I do.’ Political instability in the Middle East, increasingly hard to extract fossil fuels, and fears around global warming mean governments are telling us to save energy, and the planet. But in the next 20 years energy consumption will increase by 60 percent from 2005 levels.
The term ‘renewable’ covers solar, hydro, wind, biomass and geothermal. In 2009 the US generated eight per cent of its energy from these sources . What are their advantages over fossil fuels, and can they ever replace black gold and Old King Coal?
By definition, renewable energy won’t run out – there’s an everlasting supply. The fuel is free or cheap and doesn’t produce harmful by-products. A pretty convincing argument.
The negatives are supply consistency and cost. Solar power is great in sunny climes, but as sure as day turns to night… you get the picture. And wind power is intermittent – ask any sailor. The infrastructure cost for renewables isn’t cheap, whereas it already exists for fossil fuels.
But despite being the (relatively) new kid on the block, the outlook is rosy. The European Commission reported that 62 per cent of the newly installed electricity production capacity in Europe in 2009 was based on renewable sources (up from 57 per cent in 2008). Growth in renewable electricity production across the world remains strong. Hydroelectricity is leading the growth thanks to new hydroelectric dams In Asia. Wind power and biomass electricity output have also had strong growth. Solar power is still a minor player on a global scale (0.6 per cent of the world’s renewable electricity in 2009) but it is the fastest growing of all the electricity generating sectors.
Will we ever break free from fossil fuel’s shackles? One day, yes. It will simply run out, so we’ll have to. Necessity is the mother of invention, and a recent study by PricewaterhouseCoopers, reckons that it will be “technically” possible for renewable electricity to power Europe exclusively by 2050. Political and financial investment is being made – between 2007 and 2009 the US and Europe added more capacity from renewables than from conventional sources. But don’t expect to see the end of fossil fuels just yet; they’ve been around for millions of years and will be around for a few more to come.
 United Nations 2005 Beijing International Energy Conference
 US Energy Information Administration