Footloose and Fossil Fuel–Free
- According to the UN, investment in renewable energy was up 17% last year
- The top three leaders in renewable investment last year were China, the U.S., and Japan
- DOE’s Clean Energy Manufacturing Initiative is partnering with manufacturers on innovative energy projects
The Future Looks Bright
The United Nations Environment Programme recently released its latest report on Global Trends in Renewable Energy Investment and it provides a positive outlook for the future of renewable energy investment. Last year saw a 17% increase in renewable energy investment, due in large part to the sizable investments by China ($83.3 billion), the U.S. ($38.3 billion), and Japan ($35.7 billion). The percentage of electricity generation attributable to alternative fuels such as wind, solar, biomass, and geothermal increased from 8.5% in 2013 to 9.1% in 2014.
More countries are looking to alternative energy to combat the expense and environmental effects associated with fossil fuels. This is partly what is motivating China’s aggressive investment in solar energy. Chile has made the move to use both solar and wind energy to power its mines and potentially reduce its dependence on fossil fuels.
The UN report noted that investment for solar and wind increased by 29% and 11% last year, respectively. Although investment centered on solar and wind, there was positive news for batteries and electric cars as well. One notable finding was that the sharp decline in technology costs made the dollar’s purchasing power stretch further and bought more energy capacity. These investments and advances have even put us ahead of the curvein predictions of battery costs over time.
Pura Vida, Pure Results
A few weeks ago, Costa Rica made headlines with the news that the country has used only renewable sources of energy to power itself so far this year. The Central American nation is widely known for its ecotourism and commitment to conservation. It has the ambitious goal of being carbon-neutral by 2021. While it’s an impressive feat in its own right, it is not necessarily a blueprint for how other countries can also go footloose and fossil fuel–free. Costa Rica was able to capitalize on its geography and topography. It’s a relatively small country, has volcanoes, receives a good amount of rainfall, and doesn’t have a huge manufacturing presence.
The example of Costa Rica’s progress does, however, demonstrate the benefits of using what you have and the importance of making a commitment. A small town in Texas may soon follow in Costa Rica’s footsteps; it hopes to rely on wind and sun to completely move away from fossil fuels by 2017. In South America, Brazil is adding solar panels to its reservoirs, a strategy that will generate an impressive 350 megawatts of capacity. By way of comparison, the average U.S. coal plant provides about 239 megawatts. The incidental benefits are noteworthy—the panels reduce water evaporation, thus conserving water (something to consider for drought-prone areas such as California). The reservoir itself will serve as a source of hydropower, producing 250 megawatts of capacity. These examples show that there is no single solution or path to alternative energy—each region took advantage of its environment.
The Path Forward
Two years ago, the U.S. Department of Energy launched the Clean Energy Manufacturing Initiative to “strengthen U.S. clean energy manufacturing competitiveness” and ensure that Americans are manufacturing alternative solutions. Its Better Plants Challenge focuses on energy efficiency.
The overall initiative offers a platform to showcase innovative manufacturing projects and provides investment in technology, such as the SunShot Initiative and EV Everywhere Grand Challenge. Manufacturers are participating and competing with products as diverse as solar electric systems, wind power solutions, and fuel cells. The combination of these initiatives and manufacturing innovation is bearing fruit. The price of solar panels has fallen, wind energy production has risen, and there are more jobs in green manufacturing.
There is room for all of these technologies to be developed and further refined—and we need them to be. A source we depend on today, such as rain in Costa Rica, could be gone or become scarce tomorrow. We would do well to heed the example of Costa Rica and incorporate the features of our environment into alternative energy design plans. The UN report, the town in Texas, and the ever-growing crop of renewable energy manufacturers all point to the fact that a commitment to alternative means of energy is real and here to stay. Whether we call it alternative, clean, or renewable energy, the name is not nearly as important as its global implications.