Will Reality Follow Projections? Renewable Energy Reports Highlight Enormous Potential

Estimates of offshore wind's potential and solar's immediate future paint hopeful picture.

2 min read
Will Reality Follow Projections? Renewable Energy Reports Highlight Enormous Potential

As we've mentioned here before, a big part of the renewable energy field seems to involve reports and estimates with less forward progress toward realizing some of that potential than one might like. Some recent additions to the report field highlight the fact that though much of the possibilities do remain just that -- possibilities -- for the moment, we may be on the cusp of truly breathtaking advances in renewable energy development.

One report from the industry group Solar Energy Industries Association presented at the COP16 climate summit in Cancun estimates that global solar capacity could reach 980 gigawatts by 2020. If true, this would represent a truly amazing jump from present: after a record year in 2009, the global solar capacity was only about 20 gigawatts.

As one maker of solar photovoltaic cells told BusinessWeek, that huge leap isn't exactly an easy thing to accomplish. “The capital needed to manufacture that much capacity is staggering,” said Nancy Hartsoch, vice president of marketing at SolFocus Inc. in California. The report most likely includes completion of huge projects like the DeserTec plants in the Sahara.

Moving to the wind sector, a report from the non-profit Environment New Hampshire highlights the lack of real aggression on the part of the United States when it comes to offshore wind. With more than 2 gigawatts already spinning off Europe, and China's first offshore wind farm (102 MW) now online, the paltry goals for the turbine-less US seem all the more weak. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory's report from earlier this year showed the enormous existing potential around US shores, and the east coast alone holds more than 200 gigawatts of offshore wind potential (after taking locations and socioeconomic factors into account). Even still, Europe aims to have 40 gigawatts of offshore wind by 2020, compared to only 10 gigawatts in the US. There is hope, though, that the Interior Department's recent announcement of an improved permitting process might kickstart the industry.

Ten gigawatts of offshore wind in the US would add only about 30 percent to the existing wind capacity overall (which accounts for about two percent of the total US electricity generation capacity). To make a dent in emissions reductions goals, that number will have to grow.

(Image via Environment New Hampshire)

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This photograph shows a car with the words “We Drive Solar” on the door, connected to a charging station. A windmill can be seen in the background.

The Dutch city of Utrecht is embracing vehicle-to-grid technology, an example of which is shown here—an EV connected to a bidirectional charger. The historic Rijn en Zon windmill provides a fitting background for this scene.

We Drive Solar

Hundreds of charging stations for electric vehicles dot Utrecht’s urban landscape in the Netherlands like little electric mushrooms. Unlike those you may have grown accustomed to seeing, many of these stations don’t just charge electric cars—they can also send power from vehicle batteries to the local utility grid for use by homes and businesses.

Debates over the feasibility and value of such vehicle-to-grid technology go back decades. Those arguments are not yet settled. But big automakers like Volkswagen, Nissan, and Hyundai have moved to produce the kinds of cars that can use such bidirectional chargers—alongside similar vehicle-to-home technology, whereby your car can power your house, say, during a blackout, as promoted by Ford with its new F-150 Lightning. Given the rapid uptake of electric vehicles, many people are thinking hard about how to make the best use of all that rolling battery power.

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