Ray of light amid the nuclear gloom

The United Nations’ latest renewable energy report is a ray of sunshine amid the gloom of Japan’s nuclear disaster. According to the REN21 Renewables 2011 Global Status Report, last year renewable energy accounted for 16 percent of global final energy consumption and close to 20 percent of global electricity production.

All this despite ongoing global economic doldrums, cuts in incentives and low prices for natural gas.

Moreover, 2010 witnessed strong growth in renewable energy, reports REN21. An estimated 30 gigawatts (GW) of hydrowater generating capacity was added, and solar water- and space-heating capacity grew by an estimated 16 percent, or 25 gigawatts-thermal. Last year, 50 percent of added power-generating capacity came from renewable energy sources, and renewable energy now provides about 25 percent of the world’s power-generating capacity.

Wind power accounted for the greatest portion of added renewable-energy capacity, leading hydropower and solar photovoltaic (PV) power.

Global solar PV productions and markets doubled compared with the previous year thanks to government incentives and falling PV module prices. PV markets nearly doubled in Japan and the United States last year. The most impressive growth came in Germany, whose PV installations in 2010 exceeded the global total installed in 2009.

Highlighting the continuing importance of national renewable energy policies, the REN21 report notes that they remain the primary driver of growth in renewable energies. While just 55 countries had such policies in 2005, as of early 2011 at least 119 countries had such policies, with more than half of them in the developing world.

The report also points out that at least 95 nations have enacted policies to support renewable power generation, with feed-in tariffs being the most common type. In 2010, investment in renewable energy reached $211 billion, around 33 percent more than in the previous year. Investments in renewable energy companies, biofuel projects and utility-scale generation projects grew to $143 billion in 2011.

For the first time ever, investments in developing countries surpassed those in developed countries, with China attracting more than one-third of the global investment total at $48.5 billion. Worldwide, the top five ranking of countries employing renewable power capacity were the United States, China, Germany, Spain and India.

Renewable energy accounted for roughly 10.9 percent of U.S. energy domestic energy production in 2010, a 5.6 percent increase from 2009.

The European Union, meanwhile, added more renewable energy in 2010 than ever before; that accounted for an estimated 41 percent of newly installed electric capacity. The EU also exceeded its 2010 targets for wind, solar PV, concentrated solar thermal power and heating pumps.

Efforts by China, the world’s top polluter, to go green are reaping impressive results, reports Ren21. It was the top producer of hydropower last year and installed the most wind turbines and solar thermal systems. It connected 29 GW of renewable energy to the grid, bringing its total to 252 GW — an impressive 13 percent increase over the previous year.

In South America, Brazil not only produces nearly all the world’s sugarcane-derived ethanol but is also adding wind, hydro, and biomass power plants.

Regrettably, Japan is all but absent in the Ren 21 report. While it’s a leader in power conservation — energy-savings efforts have so far allowed it to avoid blackouts this summer despite only 17 of its 54 nuclear reactors being in operation — Japan currently produces just 1 percent of its power from renewable sources (not including hydropower). Germany, in contrast, produces 18 percent of its energy from renewables.

This situation reflects a lack of policy efforts in this direction rather than a shortage of renewable energy resources. Home to 10 percent of the world’s active volcanoes, Japan ranks third in the world in geothermal potential with an estimated 23.5 GW — reportedly enough to replace all its nuclear power plants — and is a leader in geothermal plant technology.

Surrounded by seas and oceans, Japan ranks sixth in the world in wave-energy potential and scientists say waves could generate more than 40,000 megawatts (MW) of power.

Solar energy also has enormous potential, with the Environment Ministry estimating that enough sites are available to install a minimum 100,000 to 150,000 MW worth of solar panels — about half the nation’s present power capacity. Wind power also has enormous promise, with offshore and onshore potential estimated at 1.6 million MW and 300,000 MW, respectively, according to the Environment Ministry.

As astonishing as it is in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear disaster, powerful critics of renewable energy still exist and they usually focus on its higher costs. Power generated by nuclear reactors is widely reported to cost an estimated ¥4.8 to ¥6.2 per kilowatt hour (kWh), while solar- and wind-generated power costs ¥49 and ¥9 to ¥14, respectively, per kWh.

But the estimated cost of nuclear-generated power does not take into account either the enormous subsidies paid to the nuclear industry (about ¥430 billion in 2010 alone) or the tremendous costs associated with the March 11 nuclear plant disaster.

Roughly the size of California with about 127 million people crammed into just 20 percent of its seismically active land, Japan cannot afford another major nuclear disaster. It must develop alternatives to nuclear power.

To this end, the government should make the development of renewable energy a national strategic priority, just as it did for nuclear energy during the 1973 oil crisis.

A significant first step toward this goal would be passage of the clean energy bill now before the Diet, which would get the power companies to buy all the electricity from renewable power sources at fixed prices, thus giving impetus to green energy generation.