Renewable energy systems are rapidly becoming more efficient and cheaper and their share of total energy consumption is increasing. Today, more than two-thirds of all new electricity capacity installed is renewable.
At least 30 nations around the world already have renewable energy contributing more than 20% of energy supply. National renewable energy markets are projected to continue to grow strongly in the coming decade and beyond. Iceland and Norway generate all their electricity using renewable energy already, and many other countries have the set a goal to reach 100% renewable energy in the future. Many nations around the world already have over 50% of electricity from renewable resources.
Renewable energy resources exist over wide geographical areas, in contrast to fossil fuels, which are concentrated in a limited number of countries. Rapid deployment of renewable energy and energy efficiency technologies is resulting in significant energy security, climate change mitigation, and economic benefits.
As most of renewable energy technologies provide electricity, renewable energy deployment is often applied in conjunction with further electrification, which has several benefits: electricity can be converted to heat (where necessary generating higher temperatures than fossil fuels), can be converted into mechanical energy with high efficiency, and is clean at the point of consumption. In addition, electrification with renewable energy is more efficient and therefore leads to significant reductions in primary energy requirements.
Renewable energy often displaces conventional fuels in four areas: electricity generation, hot water / space heating, transportation, and rural (off-grid) energy services:
- Power Generation
By 2040, renewable energy is projected to equal coal and natural gas electricity generation. Several jurisdictions, including Denmark, Germany, the state of South Australia and some US states have achieved high integration of variable renewables. For example, in 2015 wind power met 42% of electricity demand in Denmark, 23.2% in Portugal and 15.5% in Uruguay. Interconnectors enable countries to balance electricity systems by allowing the import and export of renewable energy. Innovative hybrid systems have emerged between countries and regions.
Solar water heating makes an important contribution to renewable heat in many countries, most notably in China, which now has 70% of the global total (180 GWth). Most of these systems are installed on multi-family apartment buildings and meet a portion of the hot water needs of an estimated 50–60 million households in China. Worldwide, total installed solar water heating systems meet a portion of the water heating needs of over 70 million households. The use of biomass for heating continues to grow as well. In Sweden, national use of biomass energy has surpassed that of oil. Direct geothermal for heating is also growing rapidly. The newest addition to heating is from geothermal heat pumps which provide both heating and cooling, and also flatten the electric demand curve and are thus an increasing national priority.
Bioethanol is an alcohol made by fermentation, mostly from carbohydrates produced in sugar or starch crops such as corn, sugarcane, or sweet sorghum. Cellulosic biomass, derived from non-food sources such as trees and grasses is also being developed as a feedstock for ethanol production. Ethanol can be used as a fuel for vehicles in its pure form, but it is usually used as a gasoline additive to increase octane and improve vehicle emissions. Bioethanol is widely used in the USA and in Brazil. Biodiesel can be used as a fuel for vehicles in its pure form, but it is usually used as a diesel additive to reduce levels of particulates, carbon monoxide, and hydrocarbons from diesel-powered vehicles.
A solar vehicle is an electric vehicle powered completely or significantly by direct solar energy. Usually, photovoltaic (PV) cells contained in solar panels convert the sun’s energy directly into electric energy. The term solar vehicle usually implies that solar energy is used to power all or part of a vehicle’s propulsion. Solar power may be also used to provide power for communications or controls or other auxiliary functions. Solar vehicles are not sold as practical day-to-day transportation devices at present, but are primarily demonstration vehicles and engineering exercises, often sponsored by government agencies. High-profile examples include PlanetSolar and Solar Impulse. However, indirectly solar-charged vehicles are widespread and solar boats are available commercially.
- Rural ( off-grid ) Energy Services
Off-the-grid is a system and lifestyle designed to help people function without the support of remote infrastructure, such as an electrical grid. In electricity, off-grid can be stand-alone power system or microgrids typically to provide a smaller community with electricity.
The power available from the wind is a function of the cube of the wind speed, so as wind speed increases, power output increases up to the maximum output for the particular turbine. Areas where winds are stronger and more constant, such as offshore and high-altitude sites, are preferred locations for wind farms. Globally, the long term technical potential of wind energy is believed to be five times total current global energy production, or 40 times current electricity demand, assuming all practical barriers needed were overcome. This would require wind turbines to be installed over large areas, particularly in areas of higher wind resources, such as offshore. As offshore wind speeds average 90% greater than that of land, offshore resources can contribute substantially more energy than land-stationed turbines.
There are many forms of water energy. Hydroelectric power came from constructing large hydroelectric dams and reservoirs, which are still popular in developing countries. The largest of them are the Three Gorges Dam in China and the Itaipu Dam built by Brazil and Paraguay. Small hydro systems are often used on small rivers or as a low-impact development on larger rivers. China is the largest producer of hydroelectricity in the world and has more than 45,000 small hydro installations.
Hydropower is produced in 150 countries. For countries having the largest percentage of electricity from renewables, the top 50 are primarily hydroelectric. China is the largest hydroelectricity producer.
Wave power, which captures the energy of ocean surface waves, and tidal power, converting the energy of tides, are two forms of hydropower with future potential; however, they are not yet widely employed commercially. A demonstration project operated by the Ocean Renewable Power Company on the coast of Maine, and connected to the grid, harnesses tidal power from the Bay of Fundy, location of world’s highest tidal flow. Ocean thermal energy conversion, which uses the temperature difference between cooler deep and warmer surface waters, currently has no economic feasibility.
Solar energy, radiant light and heat from the sun, is harnessed using a range of ever-evolving technologies such as solar heating, photovoltaics, concentrated solar power (CSP), concentrator photovoltaics (CPV), solar architecture and artificial photosynthesis.
Solar technologies are broadly characterized as either passive solar or active solar depending on the way they capture, convert, and distribute solar energy. Passive solar techniques include orienting a building to the sun, selecting materials with favorable thermal mass or light dispersing properties, and designing spaces that naturally circulate air. Active solar technologies encompass solar thermal energy, using solar collectors for heating, and solar power, converting sunlight into electricity either directly using photovoltaics (PV), or indirectly using concentrated solar power (CSP).
The five countries that produce the most solar energy are Germany, China, Japan, Italy, and the United States.
High temperature geothermal energy is from thermal energy generated and stored in the earth. Thermal energy is the energy that determines the temperature of matter. Earth’s geothermal energy originates from the original formation of the planet and from radioactive decay of minerals. The geothermal gradient, which is the difference in temperature between the core of the planet and its surface, drives a continuous conduction of thermal energy in the form of heat from the core to the surface.
The heat that is used for geothermal energy can be from deep within the earth, all the way down to Earth’s core. Heat conducts from the core to surrounding rock. Extremely high temperature and pressure cause some rock to melt, which is known as magma. Magma convects upward since it is lighter than the solid rock. This magma then heats rock and water in the crust.
Biomass is biological material derived from living, or recently living organisms. As an energy source, biomass can either be used directly via combustion to produce heat, or indirectly after converting it to various forms of biofuel. Conversion of biomass to biofuel can be achieved by different methods which are broadly classified into: thermal, chemical, and biochemical methods.
Wood remains the largest biomass energy source today while biomass also includes plant or animal matter that can be converted into fibers or other industrial chemicals, including biofuels. Industrial biomass can be grown from numerous types of plants and a variety of tree species.
Biomass can be converted to other usable forms of energy such as methane gas or transportation fuels such as ethanol and biodiesel. Rotting garbage, and agricultural and human waste, all release methane gas – also called landfill gas or biogas. Crops, such as corn and sugarcane, can be fermented to produce the transportation fuel, ethanol. Biodiesel, another transportation fuel, can be produced from left-over food products such as vegetable oils and animal fats.
Renewable energy production from some sources such as wind and solar is more variable and more geographically spread than technology based on fossil fuels and nuclear. While integrating it into the wider energy system is feasible, it does lead to some additional challenges. In order for the energy system to remain stable, a set of measurements can be taken. Implementation of energy storage, using a wide variety of renewable energy technologies, and implementing a smart grid in which energy is automatically used at the moment it is produced can reduce risks and costs of renewable energy implementation.
Renewable energy technology has sometimes been seen as a costly luxury item by critics, and affordable only in the affluent developed world. This erroneous view has persisted for many years, investments in renewable energy were higher in developing countries than in developed countries. Many Latin American and African countries increased their investments significantly. In rural and remote areas, transmission and distribution of energy generated from fossil fuels can be difficult and expensive. Producing renewable energy locally can offer a viable alternative.
Renewable energy projects in many developing countries have demonstrated that renewable energy can directly contribute to poverty reduction by providing the energy needed for creating businesses and employment. Renewable energy technologies can also make indirect contributions to alleviating poverty by providing energy for cooking, space heating, and lighting. Renewable energy can also contribute to education, by providing electricity to schools.
Other renewable energy technologies are still under development, and include cellulosic ethanol, hot-dry-rock geothermal power, and marine energy. These technologies are not yet widely demonstrated or have limited commercialization. Many are on the horizon and may have potential comparable to other renewable energy technologies, but still depend on attracting sufficient attention and research, development and demonstration funding.
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