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Renewables sector must sell itself better to show potential

Experts see bright future ahead – but industry players still need to do more

The renewable energy industry is doing well and has the potential to provide the lion’s share of global power over coming decades, but it needs to work a lot harder to get that message across, according to an expert panel at the World Energy Congress.

“[The renewables sector] has a very bullish outlook, but it’s not going as well as it should be. We are not very good at marketing, or working together,” said Jeremy Leggett, chairman of renewables firm Solar Century.

The conventional energy sector had proved much better at promoting its agenda in recent years, countering the effects of falling manufacturing costs and technical improvements in the solar and wind sectors, he added.  

Countries such as Ireland, Spain and Denmark have demonstrated it is possible for existing electricity grids to cope with high levels of wind power and they have lofty ambitions. Denmark, for example, wants to supply all its energy – including power, heating, industry and transport – from renewables by 2050. On one night in March this year, the country produced enough wind power to cater for all of its electricity demand.

Fintan Slye, chief executive of Ireland’s state-owned transmission business EirGrid, says his country’s grid has already shown it can handle 50% wind power comfortably. “[A decade ago] that would have been incomprehensible… and we’re about to get that to 75% by 2020,” he said. 

Meanwhile, global solar power capacity should climb as photovoltaic panels become cheaper and concentrated solar power (CSP) – which uses the sun’s heat to create steam to drive turbines – begins to take off. Matthew Brett of Bright Source Energy said CSP has the advantage of being able to store some of the heat it generates, so it can be converted into power later. That makes the technology an economic proposition in countries such as South Africa, where energy stored in the day can be used to provide an alternative to expensive diesel power in peak usage hours after dark.  

Despite the opportunities, investment levels are failing to match the industry’s self-belief. Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF) reported on Monday that global investment in clean energy had fallen 20% in the third quarter of 2013 compared to the same period a year earlier.

The consultancy said the latest figure of $45.9 billion made it virtually certain that investment in renewable energy and technologies related to smart grids, efficiency, storage and electric vehicles would be lower than the $281bn for 2012. That figure was already 11% down on 2011’s record levels.

BNEF attributed the decline to policy uncertainty in Europe, the lure of cheap gas in the US, flatter wind and solar investment in China, and a “general weakening of political will” in major economies.

However, the renewables sector is still moving into the mainstream, according to Dolf Gielen, director of the Innovation and Technology Centre at the recently created International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA).

He noted that IRENA, an inter-governmental body aiming to accelerate global adoption of renewable energy, already had 118 member countries. Others, including China and Indonesia, are set to join shortly. “This is not marginal anymore. There is a very strong global policy interest,” he said.

IRENA’s Renewable Energy Roadmap identifies policies and actions needed to boost the global share of renewable energy to 30% by 2030.

The organisation thinks that, if progress continues at the current rate, renewables would account for 21% by 2030, leaving a shortfall that it says presents a “significant challenge that requires action at all levels”. Gielen said that, with the right policies, it should be possible to get to 30% share “with almost zero net cost”.

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