2014 Renewable Energy Recap: Stepping Backward, Crawling Forward

Illustration: iStockphoto

If we want to stay positive, 2014 was the year when solar power started making the sort of noise in global energy markets that experts have long predicted. If we allow some cynicism to creep in, 2014 was a year when big ideas stalled out, when falling oil prices left renewable energy’s immediate future in limbo, and when international climate deals seem both hopeful and far too timid.

Half full, half empty—take your pick!

Let’s start with the empty side. As has become tradition in these year-end posts, a quick look at the U.S. offshore wind industry: nope, still nothing. The miniature test turbine up in Maine remains the lone offshore turbine; the big projects gunning for the real first-in-water prize, meanwhile, do seem to be getting close. Star-crossed Cape Wind is finally through its legal and permitting hurdles, has made financing progress including $150 million from the Department of Energy, and plans to start construction in 2015; Deepwater Wind’s Block Island Wind Farm is also on track, with permitting completed and steps like naming its turbine foundation fabricator. Progress, perhaps, until we look at Europe and it’s 7000-plus megawatts of installed offshore capacity.

Another branch of marine-based renewable energy had a particularly disappointing year: wave power, long hyped as a great untapped source, seems to be taking steps backward all the time. Ocean Power Technologies, among the theoretical leaders in developing viable wave power tech, has scaled back or cancelled several plans this year, and the world still has no grid-connected wave power at all. In fact, we don’t even really know what wave energy should look like; designs abound, and research continues, but even a few megawatts of wave energy by decade’s end would be impressive.

Moving to the full part of the glass, solar power is really starting to explode. In the U.S., a big third quarter brought the country up to 16.1 gigawatts of installed photovoltaic capacity, with another 1.4 GW of concentrating solar power. According to the Solar Energy Industries Association, the growth through three quarters represented 36 percent of all new electricity capacity; in 2012, solar represented only 9.6 percent of new growth.

Around the world as well, solar made headlines this year. Germany produced half of its electricity from solar power on one particularly sunny day in June, and even the gloomy weather of the United Kingdom set records.

But wait, don’t get too excited: oil prices are dropping with remarkable speed. Though opinions differ about the consequence. Some—like Richard Branson—say this drop in dirty energy prices will have a severely limiting effect on solar power. Others argue that the markets are different, with oil prices affecting transportation fuels far more than the electricity generation markets where solar has been growing. Exactly how $50-per-barrel or lower oil will affect clean energy uptake will be a big story in 2015.

The other major driver of renewables moving forward is national and international climate policy. This year saw an historic deal between China and the United States, far and away the world’s two biggest emitters. It would cut U.S. emissions 26-28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025, and China commited to a peak emissions date of 2030. There are varying opinions on just how great this deal really is, but it undoubtedly changed the international, um, climate, surrounding emissions cuts. The Lima COP20 talks did produce something, though it is little more than a guideline for what might happen next year in Paris. A truly strong, binding, international climate deal, of the type we had all hoped for back in 2009 in Copenhagen and that some do hold out hope for in Paris in 2015, would have an immediate effect on renewable energy development.

Crawl forward, step back, leap forward, fall down flat. Renewable energy progress has never been particularly linear, and this year was no exception. Let’s check back in 12 months to see if these bumpy lines can all start pointing in the right direction.

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