In the coming decades, as fossil fuel supplies dwindle and our environment worsens, renewable energy sources will become increasingly valuable. According to industry estimates, renewable energy could meet half of the world's energy needs by 2050. Currently, just 20 % of global energy consumption is met by renewable energy. The Kyoto Protocol proposals to cut greenhouse gas emissions will also promote the development of renewable energy sources.
Renewable energy sources are those that are continuously, sustainably available in our environment. They are non-polluting and emission-free, and their waste can also often be used as a fuel source. Certain renewable energy sources, such as hydro, are better established than others, of course. Local availability can also determine the source alternative; the UK, for example, is poorly suited for hydropower but very favourably located to develop wind power.
While hydropower dominates Norway's renewable energy sector, accounting for more than 99 % of the nation's domestic electricity production, the government is encouraging source diversification. With the long-term goal of making Norway completely self-sufficient with renewable energy, the government is promoting wind power as a future alternate source of renewable energy. The Norwegian coast is a perfect setting for wind farms, and the official target is 3TWh of wind-powered generators by 2010. A 25 % state subsidy has made wind-generated electricity more competitively priced and is encouraging its commercialisation.
Wind power converts wind into electricity by employing blades that spin turbines. Today, only 0.1 % of global electricity is wind-generated, but wind-turbine technology is advancing with gale force. Wind power can be particularly useful in rural locations to generate power for residences, telecommunications, and water pumping. Where land is limited, offshore wind farms are particularly valuable. These farms also benefit from higher wind strength and consistency, and so will yield greater generation capacities. Furthermore, countryside groups often oppose the construction of wind farms onshore. Denmark and Germany have been very quick to embrace wind power, which already provides 13 % of Danish energy needs.
Another promising energy source is landfill gas, whereby organic,
biodegradable waste is collected from our rubbish and compacted. As microbes break down this waste, they produce methane-rich biogas that can be burnt for power generation. A further benefit is that environmentally unfriendly methane gets converted into carbon dioxide, which is less damaging to the climate. The British government, keen to stop traditional waste burial, wants to define energy derived from waste as a "renewable" resource.
Some experts are touting biomass as the fuel of the future. The Norwegian government has also bestowed some modest investment grants to promote the development of biomass technologies, which burn specific crops to generate electricity as well as produce chemicals and liquid fuels. One method of generating electricity, called co-firing, substitutes biomass for a portion of the coal burnt in an existing coal-fired power plant. Co-firing reduces carbon emissions and is cheap, since no new or additional technology is needed to incorporate the biomass with the coal. Florida is testing two biomass co-firing plants with a pilot plantation growing eucalyptus and cottonwood trees harvested every one to three years. Other renewable energy sources with potential include solar power (passive, active, and photovoltaic varieties) and wave/tidal power.
Green Certificates: Our Ticket to Cleaner Air
The Kyoto Protocol may be just the impetus the world needed to begin taking our global environment seriously. EU countries in particular are being urged to raise the proportion of renewable energies, including hydropower, in their total energy consumption. The EU Directive on Renewable Energy, which took effect in October 2001, sets goals that nearly double the renewable energy share of total energy consumption by 2010, as well as increase the renewable energy share of electricity generation from 14 % in 2001 to 22 % by 2010.
These environmental mandates have spawned innovative methods of encouraging clean energy. The EU increase in green energy is most likely to come from micro hydro projects, i.e. with capacities under 10 MW; the legislation of most countries classifies a mini hydro project as a new renewable source worthy of support. In addition, governments around the world are increasingly using Green Certificates as a means to support renewable energy production. Power producers earn Green Certificates - also known as 'green tags', 'green tickets', or 'TRECs' (tradable renewable energy certificates) - as proof of energy being generated from renewable sources. For additional revenue, producers can sell their Green Certificates separately from their electricity. (Potential buyers who are unable to produce enough green electricity can include generators to meet a pre-determined obligation.)
Variations of Green Certificate systems are developing around the world. Australia, for example, in attempting to meet Kyoto Protocol targets, has created a Green Certificate market in Asia Pacific. Japan is finalizing its green scheme details, and China has included a certificate scheme in its 2001-2005 five-year plan. While the US rejected the Kyoto Protocol in favour of voluntary measures, several US states have begun implementing renewable portfolio standards schemes to enforce renewable energy requirement ratios.
European industry players in 1998 set up the Renewable Energy Certificate System (RECS) with the goal of offering international trading of fully transparent renewable certificates. Utilities and traders from 14 European countries, Norway among them, are currently taking part in the RECS test phase. The plan involves careful oversight by certificate issuers to ensure that energy produced is truly green and that no double selling occurs.
Cleaner Coal Firing
In the US, it is coal that will provide half the electric power used by the world's largest economy over the next 20 years. The high level of greenhouse gas and noxious emissions from coal-fired plants, however, has compelled America to make major strides in curbing its emissions. But what about the developing nations that rely on coal-generated electricity almost as heavily as the US does? Russia, India and China are close behind in terms of coal consumption and pollution emissions from coal use, but they lack the funds to implement clean coal technology (CCT) in their coal-fired generators.
These countries' electricity needs will grow with their economies. And it is coal, their abundant and inexpensive source of energy, which will have to meet these needs. The industrialised nations and international organizations such as the World Bank must be prepared to help these nations implement CCT. This situation should spur a commercial boom for new clean coal technologies, especially in China, where coal amounts to 90 % of the country's total fossil energy reserves.