WASHINGTON - Renewable energy captured from the wind, sun, Earth's heat, tides, and from small dams is drawing record levels of investment as poor villagers and entire nations alike seek clean, abundant ways to fuel economic growth.
Global investment in renewable energy set a new record of $30 billion in 2004, according to a new report from the Renewable Energy Policy Network for the 21st Century (REN21).
Technologies such as wind, solar, biomass, geothermal, and small hydro now provide 160 gigawatts of electricity generating capacity--about four percent of the world total--the report said. They are growing at rates of around 20-30 percent per year, however, compared to two or three percent for oil and gas.
''Renewable energy has become big business,'' said Eric Martinot, lead author of the study, "Renewables 2005: Global Status Report."
Martinot, a senior fellow at the Washington, D.C.-based think tank Worldwatch Institute and a lecturer at Tsinghua University in Beijing, said renewable energy has attracted some of the world's largest companies, including General Electric, Siemens, Sharp, and Royal Dutch Shell.
The report estimated that nearly 40 million households worldwide heat their water with solar collectors, most of them installed in the last five years. Altogether, renewable energy industries provide 1.7 million jobs, most of them skilled and well paid.
Martinot and 100-plus researchers in more than 20 countries assessed several renewable technologies: small hydro (meaning small dams), modern biomass (agricultural waste, for example), wind, solar, geothermal, and biofuels such as ethanol and biodiesel. These technologies now compete with conventional fuels in four distinct markets: power generation, hot water and space heating, transportation fuels, and rural (off-grid) energy supplies.
Renewable energy is gaining in popularity because it is considered to be in infinite supply--unlike oil, coal, and gas--and because it involves little or no pollution compared to those fossil fuels. Scientists blame the burning of fossil fuels for the release of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases that stoke global climate changes, which in turn are intensifying droughts in some parts of the world, floods and storms in others, and the spread of tropical diseases to temperate zones.
Additionally, renewable energies could empower millions of poor and vulnerable people who lack access to reliable, affordable, and clean modern energy services, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said in a message to the Beijing International Renewable Energy Conference, which opened Monday.
Annan said that rising oil prices have hit oil-importing developing countries especially hard and underscore the need for alternative energy supplies.
According to the REN21 report, government support for renewable energy is growing rapidly. At least 48 countries now have some type of renewable energy promotion policy, including 14 developing countries. Typically, they include targets to ensure that renewable sources generate 5-30 percent of energy use in a given country by around 2010-2012.
The renewable sector's prospects appeared to receive a further boost Monday, when China announced it was raising its target for reliance on renewable energy even as it acknowledged that coal would remain its primary source for electricity for decades to come.
Renewable energy should account for 15 percent of national consumption by 2020, Vice Premier Zeng Peiyan said at the Beijing talks. China had previously aimed to get 10 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2020.
Mandates for blending biofuels into vehicle fuels have been enacted in 20-plus states and provinces worldwide as well as in three key countries--Brazil, China, and India--the report said.
Government leadership has ensured market success, according to REN21, which is composed of representatives of governments and non-governmental organizations. Market leaders in renewable energy in 2004 included Brazil in biofuels, China in solar hot water, Germany in solar electricity, and Spain in wind power, the report said.
The fastest growing energy technology in the world is grid-connected solar photovoltaic (PV), existing capacity of which blossomed by 60 percent per year from 2000-2004, to cover more than 400,000 rooftops in Japan, Germany, and the United States, it found.
Wind power came second, with generating capacity growing by 28 percent last year with almost 17 gigawatts installed as of 2004.
Production of ethanol, biodiesel, and other biofuels exceeded 33 billion liters in 2004, when ethanol displaced about three percent of the 1,200 billion liters of gasoline produced globally.
An estimated $500 million goes to developing countries each year as development assistance for renewable energy projects, training, and market support, with the German Development Finance Group (KfW), the World Bank Group, and the Global Environment Facility (GEF) providing the majority of these funds, and dozens of other donors and programs providing the rest, the report said.
More than 4.5 million ''green'' power consumers in Europe, the United States, Canada, Australia, and Japan purchased renewable electricity in 2004, it added.
Asia is seen as a vast market for renewable energy as it seeks to meet growing demand for power to feed rapid economic expansion amid runaway oil prices.
Copyright © 2005 OneWorld.net.