Renewable energy is an important approach to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Most renewable energy technologies produce no net greenhouse gas emissions. Some renewable energy technologies are well established and have been cost competitive for years. Many renewable energy technologies are still evolving and should be even more attractive in the near future.
The long-term potential of renewable energy is vast - annual production could some day exceed the total amount of global energy consumed today. IPCC figures show a potential for renewable energy 21 times as great as global energy use now.
Deployment of renewable energy thus far, with the exception of large hydropower, has been quite modest. Photovoltaic production, for example, is such a small industry that it could experience 25% annual growth for 30 years and still amount to only 12% of today's coal capacity. Many other renewable energy technologies are even less developed.
Growth in renewable energy continues to be inhibited by a number of factors. The higher capital cost and other factors make financing difficult. The small project size translates into lower levels of absolute profits and high proportions of transaction costs, which discourages private developers. Technical factors having to do with the value of intermittent resources and their integration with an electric system also work against renewable energy. Institutional barriers may be the most imposing of all.
Barriers could be overcome more easily if the true value of renewable energy in terms of environmental benefits, advantages to local economies, and national security advantages could be quantified and credited to renewables in all investment decisions. Such a blanket internalization of currently external costs and benefits is conceivable using a number of means, including tax credits, subsidies, and other forms of transfer payments. Each of these would require substantial intervention by government. Even if government was willing, it is not possible to accurately estimate the full value of externalities -and the results can be extremely sensitive to the estimate. If the externalities are underestimated, the benefit value may inappropriately exclude significant amounts of renewables from the market and increase social costs. If they are overestimated, society is disadvantaged by bringing on more costly renewables at unjustified levels.
The environmental benefits of renewable energy have spurred many attempts to encourage development using a plethora of different instruments, such as those shown by Table 5.11 for the OECD countries. Governments have sponsored direct research and development. Many forms of direct financial incentives have been tried. Voluntary efforts have been encouraged. Demonstrations and training programs have been undertaken to ensure the public is aware of the advantages. More recently, distinct targets for market penetration levels have been implemented, such as the British Non-Fossil-Fuel Obligation, or the Renewable Portfolio Standard considered by the US government and implemented by many states.
Table 5.11 would suggest that a wide range of strong sincere efforts to encourage renewables is under way. However, it is instructive to consider whether the resources being committed to the development of renewables are commensurate with the role renewables might be called on to play in addressing global climate change, much less with the multiple environmental, economic, and security benefits that renewables provide. Figure 5.10 shows the recent expenditures of OECD governments on renewable energy programs as a percentage of GDP. These are certainly well below the levels one would expect for a priority effort.
What more can be done? First, an international effort should be conducted to identify the full potential of renewables in the long term under a mandate to reduce carbon emissions to sustainable climate levels. We have made a brief attempt here to give some insight into this problem, but we had to rely on existing inconsistent sources that don't cover the entire spectrum of possibilities, either regionally, technologically, or over time. Such an analysis should include scenarios that consider alternative climate change solutions other than renew-ables, that compute the cost of energy imputed by the scenario, and that quantify the uncertainties as far as possible.
Second, renewable energy R&D efforts should be expanded and coordinated more on a worldwide basis. As shown by Figure 5.7 of the supply curve for carbon reductions in the US through renewables, the cost to reduce carbon through renewables will depend strongly on research success in the future. There is every reason to believe that, with a continuing coordinated effort, the R&D successes of the past will continue into the future.
Third, R&D should be expended on supporting technologies consistent with the findings of the analysis recommended in step 1 above. This could include
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Global warming is a huge problem which will significantly affect every country in the world. Many people all over the world are trying to do whatever they can to help combat the effects of global warming. One of the ways that people can fight global warming is to reduce their dependence on non-renewable energy sources like oil and petroleum based products.