WASHINGTON - Renewable energy is approaching a "tipping point" and should expand dramatically in the next decade, further narrowing the gap between alternative forms of energy and fossil fuel use, said environmental and economic experts at a forum here Monday.
"Increasing market demand, policies, and investment trends are creating a perfect storm for the growth of renewable energy across the world," said Christopher Flavin, moderator of the forum and president of the Worldwatch Institute. "We are at a point where all of these factors will allow renewable energy to move into the mainstream."
Worldwatch fellow Eric Martinot and Michael Liebrich, CEO and founder of the investment analysis firm New Energy Finance, presented an optimistic picture for the future of renewable energy as global investment in the sector continues to expand.
Sixty-six countries have set policy targets to increase their investment in renewable energy, including 22 developing countries and all 27 EU countries, said Martinot, lead author of Worldwatch's "Renewables 2007 Global Status Report."
"Growth [in renewables] is driven by policy rather than efficiency," added Liebrich, emphasizing that the market "[doesn't] need lots of new policies because the policies we've got are generating lots of growth already -- although we can't let those policies expire."
Martinot, a visiting professor at Tsinghua University in Beijing, also praised China for having the most comprehensive energy targets of any country and exceeding its wind power targets for 2010. Developing nations, like China, hold 40 percent of the world's capacity for renewable energy in solar, wind, and other sources, he said.
The United States is the only developed nation without set energy targets, Martinot added. "State-led and local governments are doing the most [to promote renewable energy use], but federal policies are needed," he said
The European Union has set targets for biofuels -- like ethanol made from corn and other grains -- to provide 10 percent of the region's transport energy by 2020. The groups has also enacted tax exemptions for biofuels as well as policies that mandate increased use of alternative energy in industry.
Global investment in renewable energy hit a milestone in 2007 with $71 billion invested globally, up from $40 billion in 2004. China, Germany, Spain, and the United States were the leaders in total global investment, according to the Worldwatch report.
In 2006, renewables accounted for 18 percent of global energy consumption, with new sources, such as biofuels, "growing faster than any other [renewable] energy market," said Martinot.
Wind and solar power are two of the fastest growing sectors. Over 70 countries now use wind power, a sector that grows 25-30 percent per year. China is the third largest producer of solar photo-voltaic cells and is producing 75 percent of the world's global solar hot water from rooftop solar collectors.
Liebrich also advocated marine power as a relatively low-cost method of desalinization to combat future water scarcity in developing nations.
"North Africa is very vulnerable to a water crisis," he said. "You can tell exactly what year they are going to run out: 2021....And these companies say 'Don't worry, we have these very expensive technologies [to solve the problem].' But I'm very optimistic about marine power for desalinization."
Members of the panel acknowledged also that increasing gas prices are acting as a catalyst for increased development and investment in alternative methods of energy and transportation.
"You look at the parallel of where we are today and where we were in the early 1980s -- where oil prices were also soaring -- and the thing that ultimately brought them down was not the discovery of massive amounts of new oil, but falling consumption because of improved efficiency and development of alternative sources -- in that case natural gas and coal," said Flavin.
If these market trends towards energy alternatives continue and policies are maintained with some new target goals, then the world could see a "substantial oil reduction in the next 10-15 years," added Martinot.
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