Scaling Up Renewables

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Some analysts conclude that only very large facilities such as nuclear power, large-scale hydro, or large coal plants with carbon capture and storage can meet the world's rapidly growing energy needs. Renewable energy, it is argued, is too small-scale and too dispersed to make more than a modest contribution. But experiences with renewables in Germany and elsewhere prove otherwise, as described in the next section.

Furthermore, large projects cannot produce any power until construction is completed, which can take a very long time. C o n s i d e r, fo r e x a m p l e , t h a t a 1 , 0 0 0 -megawatt power facility takes approximately 10 years to complete. If all goes well and it operates at full power in year 11, it will produce almost 8.8 million megawatt-hours of electricity that year. Now consider starting at the same time construction of a modular unit that can produce one tenth as much electricity per year as the single large unit but that begins producing power at the end of year one. This process is repeated each year until 10 modular units have been built and come online in each of 10 years. If each one operates at full capacity, by the end of the eleventh year the modular units will have produced nearly five times as much power as the large unit produces in its first year of operation, and after that the two facilities will produce the same amount annually.

There are demonstrated advantages to modularity when it comes to scaling up production, even with fossil fuels. Most of the thermal electric power capacity introduced over the past 10 years in North America has been natural-gas-fired turbines for several reasons: they have become exceedingly efficient, their unit cost is low because of economies of scale, and they can be produced quickly in modules of 50-100 MW and installed within a year. Rapid installation means a low cost of borrowing and a better match and immediate production of power upon installation. Incentives in the deregulation process have also encouraged installation of these units.57

The magnitude of the evolution required is vast, but it is achievable. In 2007 wind power was the largest single source of new capacity in Europe and second only to natural

Figure 4-4.World Average Annual Growth Rates for Energy Resources, 2002-07

An Enduring Energy Future

Figure 4-4.World Average Annual Growth Rates for Energy Resources, 2002-07

gas in the United States. Globally, even new solar photovoltaic capacity exceeded that of newly installed nuclear power capacity that year. And renewable technologies continue to advance—for example, a new PV technology introduced in 2007 bypasses silicon as a base material, could lower costs by 75 percent, and allows for increased rates of production.58 More countries are also joining the transition, promising to push growth rates even higher for the manufacture of and demand for renewables. Indian wind turbine manufacturers are acquiring European and North American suppliers and markets and are now among the top global producers and installers of wind turbines. China was barely in the wind business in 2004 but ranked third after the United States and Spain for new installations in 2007. Similarly, in 2003, China manufactured 9 MW of PV cells—1 percent of the global total. But by 2007, by some estimates, Chinese companies passed Japan and Europe to lead the world in solar PV production. China could account for two thirds of global production by 2010.59

Current growth rates indicate that wind, solar, and biomass plants can be manufactured at rates that are comparable to large-scale conventional power projects. (See Figure 4-4.) In 2002-07, photovoltaics grew at an annual average rate exceeding 40 percent and wind's average growth rate topped 24 percent. Annual PV and wind gro wth rate s have actually accelerated in recent years. If current growth rates continue, tapping the wind will generate more electricity than nuclear power in 2020.60

Such massive undertakings have succeeded in the past. The U.S. public works projects of the Great Depression, the vast numbers of airplanes and warships built for two world wars, and the enormous number of automobiles manufactured annually provide testimony to possible rates of scaling up. It is a matter of setting priorities and having the political will to establish effective and long-term policies that support a new energy economy. The resources and capabilities exist. By one estimate, if two thirds of U.S. truck production were redirected to the production of wind turbines, about 100,000 MWof wind capacity— the cumulative total installed globally by early 2008—could be manufactured annually in the United States alone.61

Of course, energy will be required to move

An Enduring Energy Future

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