TEP-tiedote 2/00


International Trends in Renewable Energy,
Applications and Policies


National Solar Energy Day 2000
Helsinki, Finland
April 10, 2000

Donald W. Aitken, Ph.D.
Senior Staff Scientist
The Union of Concerned Scientists

The developed and industrial world is powered primarily by nonrenewable fossil fuel resources. There is continual conjecture as to when these might be depleted. It is generally agreed that oil will be depleted, at least from an economic standpoint, within the first half of this century, for we shall soon have a meeting of increasing global demand for oil with decreasing oil production capacity. Other fossil resources, however, in particular coal, probably have significantly longer lives.

International pressures to curtail the burning of these fossil fuel resources long before they are depleted, however, are arising from other physical and economic grounds. Fossil fuel burning is the dominant source of "Greenhouse Gas" emissions into the earth's environment, unbalancing the flows of solar and reradiated energy to and from the surface of the earth. The physical result will be an alteration to the global climate, as the earth seeks to redistribute the energy according to changing conditions.

Projections suggest extremely expensive potential consequence from these changes, including possible major loss of low-lying lands and seacoast areas, and likely shifts of rainfall away from many areas presently crucial for the growth of food, especially in developing countries. Projections also suggest possible increases in major atmospheric disturbances, such as storms, hurricanes and floods. The result is growing international pressure to change energy policies away from the use of fossil fuels, well before they are physically "used up". These pressures may also be expressed in direct future economic charges (carbon taxes), which will also alter energy resource economics.

The alternatives that work within the earth's natural balance of energy resources and flows are the so-called "renewable energy resources", consisting of hydroelectric potential, wind flows, radiant and thermal solar energy, geothermal energy, and energy derived from plant matter which itself converts the incident solar energy ("biomass"). Each day the earth converts incident solar energy into these resources (save for geothermal) at a rate that is about 15,000 times greater than the requirements of all nations today, bathing the Earth each day with energy equivalent to ten times the energy stored over all history in the form of fossil resources - and tomorrow these massive resources will again be renewed.

To capitalize on these naturally available energy resources, new technologies for capturing these energies have been developed, and are continuing to be refined. But they are already sufficiently reliable that the real policy task for nations today is to generate ever-growing markets for them, and to use these markets to reduce costs and yield new industries and job creation. Policies differ among nations, but the goal of at least those that are taking the imminent global energy transition seriously is to progressively increase the share of energy and power offered to society from renewable energy resources, often according to long-range strategic timetables.

The potential for achieving an eventual transition away from fossil energy resources to the renewable energy resources is such that it is no longer a technical question, but rather a policy decision for governments. This requires firm goals to be set by governments, along with market inducements such as tax credits or other financial incentives in these early days of large scale application.

This presentation will trace some of the global forces leading to pressures on governments to adopt new renewable energy policies. It will describe the various renewable energy technologies, and show particular kinds of applications for them. A stress will be placed on "building-integrated" renewable energy technologies because of the great convenience and local economic benefit of placing the energy resource at the site of demand and use. Differences between policies will be discussed.