The outlook is still positive for renewable energy despite the failure of the Copenhagen summit to agree binding carbon emissions, E&T investigates.
The outcome of COP15, the conference on climate change in Copenhagen, was the Copenhagen Accord that was recognised by the 193 countries that attended. The Accord set no limits on carbon emissions and no reductions unless the West paid for them. It is also worth noting that none of the five countries that introduced the Accord - USA, China, India, Brazil and South Africa - has signed the Annexe to the Kyoto Agreement, committing them to limit their emissions.
In view of their dependency on coal for power, it is difficult to see how any of these leading countries could curb their emissions without damaging their economies and they acknowledge in their Accord that eradicating poverty is the ‘overriding priority’. They underline that ‘climate change is one of the greatest challenges of our time’, but it is evidently only of secondary importance.
Renewable energy can claim to produce no green-house gas emissions and so it is attractive to countries that are concerned about their emissions. Indeed, more than half the electrical generation installed in the EU was renewable in 2008. More of it was from wind turbines than any other type of plant.
It might then be thought that those countries that are less concerned about limiting their emission would place only secondary value on renewables. The facts however tell a very different story. The US, China and India ranked first, second and third in the world for installing wind power in 2008 and Brazil has one of the largest renewable energy programmes based on biomass.
This raises a strikingly obvious question: why this interest in renewables? If these countries are not prepared to place limits on their emissions, why are they adopting wind power and biomass, far more than those countries that are desperately trying to limit their emissions, particularly in the EU?
The real reason was brought home to me when I visited Afghanistan in 2006. There they showed great interest in the small 400W wind turbine I took with me as a lecture demonstration. They explained that 90 per cent of their country has no mains electricity and the interest in wind power is because wind is delivered free everywhere, even to remote mountain regions. Every farmstead has its own free supply of wind and sunshine that it can capture if it has a wind turbine or solar panel.
There is a message here for us all. Wind and sunshine are free. They don’t come from the Gulf, like oil, or from Siberia, like gas. We don’t have to fight to protect them when energy supplies are threatened or the pipelines are shut off. It could be said that renewable energy avoids world war.
So security of supply is the compelling reason that explains why all countries are pursuing wind power, whether they are prepared to limit their emissions or not.
There is another big advantage with wind power. It is capital intensive and all the money has to be paid up-front. That is often seen as a problem but price fluctuations are an even bigger problem. Modern capitalist economies find fuel imports ruinous, not so much because of the amounts they have to pay, but because nobody knows how much the fuel bills will be. The uncertainty can be crippling.
In July 2008, oil prices surged to $140 per barrel. Five months later they had plummeted below $40 and in another five months they had shot back up again, nearly doubling to over $70 per barrel, despite the economic down-turn. But if you’ve paid all the money for your wind farm up front, the price from here on is zero - and you can’t get much more stable than that!
There is a final and more pressing reason for welcoming wind power: it is cheap. An authoritative study of generating costs published in May 2008 by the California Energy Commission showed that wind was marginally the cheapest method of generation there.
Several competing technologies - gas, coal, hydro, geothermal - all came within ten per cent or so of wind, although nuclear did not, but we can be confident that wind’s lead will widen with time and that wind power will become decisively the cheapest.
The reason for such confidence is the rate of expansion of wind capacity, which is far greater than that of any other type of power plant. Installed capacity has been doubling every three years for the past 15 years and will overtake nuclear power within three years.
Production engineers explain that prices come down in real terms as capacity increases. Their rule of thumb is to expect savings of scale of ten per cent or more when capacity is doubled. This applies to everything from paper clips to sewing machines, from cars to planes, and we can be confident that it will continue to apply to wind turbines. As this expansion of wind power continues, it will lower the costs and wind power will become the cheapest by an ever wider margin.
Saving the rest of the planet may be a good reason for pursuing renewable energy, but having one’s own energy supplies is a much more immediate and realistic one, security of supply. Also, most importantly, wind power is cheap and is becoming cheaper. So COP15 may have done little to limit green-house gases emissions, but it did nothing to limit world-wide enthusiasm for renewable energy, especially for wind power. USA, China, India and Brazil will continue to lead the way.
Professor Donald T Swift-Hook, is visiting professor, Kingston University and secretary of WREN.