Renewable energy

Page - July 14, 2010
Nature offers a variety of freely available options for producing energy. Their exploitation is mainly a question of how to convert sunlight, wind, biomass or water into electricity, heat or power as efficiently, sustainably and cost-effectively as possible.

Greenpeace Energy Revolution table 7.3

On average, the energy in the sunshine that reaches the earth is about one kilowatt per square metre worldwide. According to the Research Association for Solar Power, power is gushing from renewable energy sources at a rate of 2,850 times more energy than is needed in the world. In one day, the sunlight which reaches the earth produces enough energy to satisfy the world’s current power requirements for eight years. Even though only a percentage of that potential is technically accessible, this is still enough to provide just under six times more power than the world currently requires.

Before looking at the part renewable energies can play in the range of scenarios in this report, however, it is worth understanding the upper limits of their potential. To start with, the overall technical potential of renewable energy – the amount that can be produced taking into account the primary resources, the socio-geographical constraints and the technical losses in the conversion process – is huge and several times higher than current total energy demand. Assessments of the global technical potential vary significantly from 2,477 Exajoules per annum (EJ/a) (Nitsch 2004) up to 15,857 EJ/a (UBA 2009). Based on the global primary energy demand in 2007 (IEA 2009) of 503 EJ/a, the total technical potential of renewable energy sources at the upper limit would exceed demand by a factor of 32. However, barriers to the growth of renewable energy technologies may come from economical, political and infrastructural constraints. That is why the technical potential will never be realised in total.

Assessing long term technical potentials is subject to various uncertainties. The distribution of the theoretical resources, such as the global wind speed or the productivity of energy crops, is not always well analysed. The geographical availability is subject to variations such as land use change, future planning decisions on where certain technologies are allowed, and accessibility of resources, for example underground geothermal energy. Technical performance may take longer to achieve than expected. There are also uncertainties in terms of the consistency of the data provided in studies, and underlying assumptions are often not explained in detail.

The meta study by the DLR (German Aerospace Agency), Wuppertal Institute and Ecofys, commissioned by the German Federal Environment Agency, provides a comprehensive overview of the technical renewable energy potential by technologies and world region.54 This survey analysed ten major studies of global and regional potentials by organisations such as the United Nations Development Programme and a range of academic institutions. Each of the major renewable energy sources was assessed, with special attention paid to the effect of environmental constraints on their overall potential. The study provides data for the years 2020, 2030 and 2050 (see Table 7.3).

The complexity of calculating renewable energy potentials is particularly great because these technologies are comparatively young and their exploitation involves changes to the way in which energy is both generated and distributed. Whilst a calculation of the theoretical and geographical potentials has only a few dynamic parameters, the technical potential is dependent on a number of uncertainties.

A technology breakthrough, for example, could have a dramatic impact, changing the technical potential assessment within a very short time frame. Considering the huge dynamic of technology development, many existing studies are based on out of date information. The estimates in the DLR study could therefore be updated using more recent data, for example significantly increased average wind turbine capacity and output, which would increase the technical potentials still further.

Given the large unexploited resources which exist, even without having reached the full development limits of the various technologies, it can be concluded that the technical potential is not a limiting factor to expansion of renewable energy generation.

It will not be necessary to exploit the entire technical potential, however, nor would this be unproblematic. Implementation of renewable energies has to respect sustainability criteria in order to achieve a sound future energy supply. Public acceptance is crucial, especially bearing in mind that the decentralised character of many renewable energy technologies will move their operation closer to consumers. Without public acceptance, market expansion will be difficult or even impossible. The use of biomass, for example, has become controversial in recent years as it is seen as competing with other land uses, food production or nature conservation. Sustainability criteria will have a huge influence on whether bioenergy in particular can play a central role in future energy supply.

As important as the technical potential of worldwide renewable energy sources is their market potential. This term is often used in different ways. The general understanding is that market potential means the total amount of renewable energy that can be implemented in the market taking into account the demand for energy, competing technologies, any subsidies available as well as the current and future costs of renewable energy sources. The market potential may therefore in theory be larger than the economic potential. To be realistic, however, market potential analyses have to take into account the behaviour of private economic agents under specific prevailing conditions, which are of course partly shaped by public authorities. The energy policy framework in a particular country or region will have a profound impact on the expansion of renewable energies.