R&D key to making renewable energy shift meaningful


The time being should mark an epoch in the global transition to renewable energy sources. Several factors are coming together to make that happen despite disagreement on and rubbishing of human-induced climate change. But there is a catch.

Most recently, a global group of scientists and economists proposed the establishment of “Global Apollo Programme”, an initiative that aims at making “new solar capacity cheaper than new coal-burning power plants by 2025”.

The program was to pave the way for common minimum spending on renewable energy research and development. Signatories to the program were to promise allocation of 0.02 percent of their GDP for research and development of clean energy technology.

Nations across the globe have been announcing clean energy initiatives at a heightened pace in recent times. Top polluter nations such as China and India are proactively working to replace conventional energy sources with clean energy.

China and India now rank among the top five nations with potential to build renewable energy capacity over the coming years. China proposes to cut energy production using renewable sources such as coal by closing down units. Currently, the biggest coal consumer of the world is working toward shutting down major coal-fired plants by 2030.

The country is also the world’s largest producer of solar cells and modules and has in recent times started expansion of its own renewable energy capacity through utility-scale projects. It is also helping neighbor Pakistan develop its clean energy capacity through collaborative projects.

India, in turn, has set an ambitious renewable energy target for 2022; it is five times its current capacity and the country is experimenting with different methods of supporting renewable energy growth, including dollar-denominated bidding for power projects and floating of green bonds.

Meanwhile, development of renewable energy technology in Europe and the US is headed seaward; there is greater interest in the development of offshore wind projects, particularly with the development of better turbines and technology associated with offshore installations.

Germany is leading the world in growing renewable energy capacity. The country was meeting about 30 percent of its electricity needs from renewable energy sources as of 2014.

And nations of the Middle East, too, are looking to shift focus to renewable energy sources, particularly solar. Top OPEC country Saudi Arabia, which singly holds 16 percent of the world’s oil resources, has started signs of focusing on renewable energy.

OPEC nations had been noted for their unstated but adversarial position on the development of renewable energy. But with widespread acknowledgement of the effects of climate change, there is a thaw in that stand.

The countries now see opportunity in developing solar energy projects in the region. These should be large enough to produce adequate energy to be exported.

Renewable energy is offering even remote nations such as Mongolia better economic prospects as producers of energy.

Significant investment in renewable energy development is taking place in Brazil, South Africa, Japan, Southeast Asian countries and Australia as well.

One other significant development in recent times has been the increase in attention to storage technology. US automaker Tesla recently introduced its home power solution Powerwall, which can be considered a firm step toward grid independence.

Elsewhere, flywheel technology has received attention as a viable storage solution. Much of renewable energy generated goes waste as it cannot be evacuated into the grid. Storage solutions could come in handy to mop up whatever energy is produced for later use.

It also makes sense as more and more attention is being paid to distributed production of renewable energy by way of rooftop projects and such micro-level installations. Nations with poor grid connectivity, particularly those in Africa, find renewables the answer to their energy needs.

Despite all the effort, though, there is concern that renewables will not be able to play a meaningful role in slowing climate change at its current pace of development. It requires much more progress, much faster, according to the authors of the Apollo project.

The only way they see for a turnaround in global warming is for renewables to become cheaper than fossil fuels by 2025. And they believe only revolutionary new technologies can bring about such development at the required pace.

For that to happen, renewable energy subsidies and carbon taxes won’t suffice. Governments will need to raise allocation for research and development.

Ajith Kumar S