Renewable energy: Map


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Renewable energy is energy generated from natural resources such as sunlight, wind, rain, tides, and geothermal heat, which are renewable (naturally replenished). In 2006, about 18% of global final energy consumption came from renewables, with 13% coming from traditional biomass, such as wood-burning and 3% from hydroelectricity. New renewables (small hydro, modern biomass, wind, solar, geothermal, and biofuels) accounted for 2.4% and are growing very rapidly. The share of renewables in electricity generation is around 18%, with 15% of global electricity coming from hydroelectricity and 3.4% from new renewables.

Wind power is growing at the rate of 30% annually, with a worldwide installed capacity of 121,000 megawatts (MW) in 2008, and is widely used in European countries and the United States. The annual manufacturing output of the photovoltaics industry reached 6,900 MW in 2008, and photovoltaic power stations are popular in Germany and Spain. Solar thermal power stations operate in the USA and Spain, and the largest of these is the 354 MW SEGS power plant in the Mojave Desert. The world's largest geothermal power installation is The Geysersmarker in California, with a rated capacity of 750 MW. Brazil has one of the largest renewable energy programs in the world, involving production of ethanol fuel from sugar cane, and ethanol now provides 18% of the country's automotive fuel. Ethanol fuel is also widely available in the USA.

While most renewable energy projects and production is large-scale, renewable technologies are also suited to small off-grid applications, sometimes in rural and remote areas, where energy is often crucial in human development. Kenya has the world's highest household solar ownership rate with roughly 30,000 small (20–100 watt) solar power systems sold per year.

Some renewable energy technologies are criticized for being intermittent or unsightly, yet the renewable energy market continues to grow. Climate change concerns, coupled with high oil prices, peak oil, and increasing government support, are driving increasing renewable energy legislation, incentives and commercialization.New government spending, regulation and policies should help the industry weather the 2009 economic crisis better than many other sectors.

Main forms/sources of renewable energy

Three energy sources
2008 worldwide renewable-energy sources.
Source: REN21
The majority of renewable energy technologies are powered by the sun. The Earth-Atmosphere system is in equilibrium such that heat radiation into space is equal to incoming solar radiation, the resulting level of energy within the Earth-Atmosphere system can roughly be described as the Earth's "climate." The hydrosphere (water) absorbs a major fraction of the incoming radiation. Most radiation is absorbed at low latitudes around the equator, but this energy is dissipated around the globe in the form of winds and ocean currents. Wave motion may play a role in the process of transferring mechanical energy between the atmosphere and the ocean through wind stress. Solar energy is also responsible for the distribution of precipitation which is tapped by hydroelectric projects, and for the growth of plants used to create biofuels.

Renewable energy flows involve natural phenomena such as sunlight, wind, tides and geothermal heat, as the International Energy Agency explains:

Each of these sources has unique characteristics which influence how and where they are used.

Wind power

Vestas V80 wind turbines

Airflows can be used to run wind turbines. Modern wind turbines range from around 600 kW to 5 MW of rated power, although turbines with rated output of 1.5–3 MW have become the most common for commercial use; the power output of a turbine is a function of the cube of the wind speed, so as wind speed increases, power output increases dramatically. Areas where winds are stronger and more constant, such as offshore and high altitude sites, are preferred locations for wind farms. Typical capacity factors are 20-40%, with values at the upper end of the range in particularly favourable sites.

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. This could require large amounts of land to be used for wind turbines, particularly in areas of higher wind resources. Offshore resources experience mean wind speeds of ~90% greater than that of land, so offshore resources could contribute substantially more energy."Offshore stations experience mean wind speeds at 80 m that are 90% greater than over land on average. Evaluation of global wind power

"Overall, the researchers calculated winds at 80 meters [300 feet] traveled over the ocean at approximately 8.6 meters per second and at nearly 4.5 meters per second over land [20 and 10 miles per hour, respectively]." Global Wind Map Shows Best Wind Farm Locations (URL accessed January 30, 2006). This number could also increase with higher altitude ground-based or airborne wind turbines."High-altitude winds could provide a potentially enormous renewable energy source, and scientists like Roberts believe flying windmills could put an end to dependence on fossil fuels. At , winds are strong and constant. On the ground, wind is often unreliable — the biggest problem for ground-based wind turbines." Windmills in the Sky (URL accessed January 30, 2006).

Wind power is renewable and produces no greenhouse gases during operation, such as carbon dioxide and methane.


Energy in water (in the form of kinetic energy, temperature differences or salinity gradients) can be harnessed and used. Since water is about 800 times denser than air,even a slow flowing stream of water, or moderate sea swell, can yield considerable amounts of energy.

There are many forms of water energy:

Solar energy

Monocrystalline solar cell
In this context, "solar energy" refers to energy that is collected from sunlight. Solar energy can be applied in many ways, including to:


Plants use photosynthesis to grow and produce biomass. Also known as biomatter, biomass can be used directly as fuel or to produce biofuels. Agriculturally produced biomass fuels, such as biodiesel, ethanol and bagasse (often a by-product of sugar cane cultivation) can be burned in internal combustion engines or boilers. Typically biofuel is burned to release its stored chemical energy. Research into more efficient methods of converting biofuels and other fuels into electricity utilizing fuel cells is an area of very active work.

Liquid biofuel

Information on pump, California.
Liquid biofuel is usually either a bioalcohol such as ethanol fuel or an oil such as biodiesel or straight vegetable oil. Biodiesel can be used in modern diesel vehicles with little or no modification to the engine. It can be made from waste and virgin vegetable and animal oils and fats (lipids). Virgin vegetable oils can be used in modified diesel engines. In fact the diesel engine was originally designed to run on vegetable oil rather than fossil fuel. A major benefit of biodiesel use is the reduction in net CO2 emissions, since all the carbon emitted was recently captured during the growing phase of the biomass. The use of biodiesel also reduces emission of carbon monoxide and other pollutants by 20 to 40%.

In some areas corn, cornstalks, sugarbeets, sugar cane, and switchgrasses are grown specifically to produce ethanol (also known as grain alcohol) a liquid which can be used in internal combustion engines and fuel cells. Ethanol is being phased into the current energy infrastructure. E85 is a fuel composed of 85% ethanol and 15% gasoline that is sold to consumers. Biobutanol is being developed as an alternative to bioethanol.

Another source of biofuel is sweet sorghum. It produces both food and fuel from the same crop. Some studies have shown that the crop is net energy positive ie. it produces more energy than is consumed in its production and utilization.

Solid biomass

Solid biomass is most commonly used directly as a combustible fuel, in Biomass Fuelled Power Plants producing 10-20 MJ/kg of heat. Its forms and sources include wood fuel, the biogenic portion of municipal solid waste, or the unused portion of field crops. Field crops may or may not be grown intentionally as an energy crop, and the remaining plant byproduct used as a fuel. Most types of biomass contain energy. Even cow manure still contains two-thirds of the original energy consumed by the cow. Energy harvesting via a bioreactor is a cost-effective solution to the waste disposal issues faced by the dairy farmer, and can produce enough biogas to run a farm.

With current technology, it is not ideally suited for use as a transportation fuel. Most transportation vehicles require power sources with high power density, such as that provided by internal combustion engines. These engines generally require clean burning fuels, which are generally in liquid form, and to a lesser extent, compressed gaseous phase. Liquids are more portable because they can have a high energy density, and they can be pumped, which makes handling easier.

Non-transportation applications can usually tolerate the low power-density of external combustion engines, that can run directly on less-expensive solid biomass fuel, for combined heat and power. One type of biomass is wood, which has been used for millennia. Two billion people currently cook every day, and heat their homes in the winter by burning biomass, which is a major contributor to man-made climate change global warming. The black soot that is being carried from Asia to polar ice caps is causing them to melt faster in the summer. In the 19th century, wood-fired steam engines were common, contributing significantly to industrial revolution unhealthy air pollution. Coal is a form of biomass that has been compressed over millennia to produce a non-renewable, highly-polluting fossil fuel.

Wood and its byproducts can now be converted through processes such as gasification into biofuels such as woodgas, biogas, methanol or ethanol fuel; although further development may be required to make these methods affordable and practical. Sugar cane residue, wheat chaff, corn cobs and other plant matter can be, and are, burned quite successfully. The net carbon dioxide emissions that are added to the atmosphere by this process are only from the fossil fuel that was consumed to plant, fertilize, harvest and transport the biomass.

Processes to harvest biomass from short-rotation trees like poplars and willows and perennial grasses such as switchgrass, phalaris, and miscanthus, require less frequent cultivation and less nitrogen than do typical annual crops. Pelletizing miscanthus and burning it to generate electricity is being studied and may be economically viable.


Biogas can easily be produced from current waste streams, such as paper production, sugar production, sewage, animal waste and so forth. These various waste streams have to be slurried together and allowed to naturally ferment, producing methane gas. This can be done by converting current sewage plants into biogas plants. When a biogas plant has extracted all the methane it can, the remains are sometimes more suitable as fertilizer than the original biomass.

Alternatively biogas can be produced via advanced waste processing systems such as mechanical biological treatment. These systems recover the recyclable elements of household waste and process the biodegradable fraction in anaerobic digesters.

Renewable natural gas is a biogas which has been upgraded to a quality similar to natural gas. By upgrading the quality to that of natural gas, it becomes possible to distribute the gas to the mass market via the existing gas grid.

Geothermal energy

Geothermal energy is energy obtained by tapping the heat of the earth itself, both from kilometers deep into the Earth's crust in some places of the globe or from some meters in geothermal heat pump in all the places of the planet . It is expensive to build a power station but operating costs are low resulting in low energy costs for suitable sites. Ultimately, this energy derives from heat in the Earth's core.

Three types of power plants are used to generate power from geothermal energy: dry steam, flash, and binary. Dry steam plants take steam out of fractures in the ground and use it to directly drive a turbine that spins a generator. Flash plants take hot water, usually at temperatures over 200 °C, out of the ground, and allows it to boil as it rises to the surface then separates the steam phase in steam/water separators and then runs the steam through a turbine. In binary plants, the hot water flows through heat exchangers, boiling an organic fluid that spins the turbine. The condensed steam and remaining geothermal fluid from all three types of plants are injected back into the hot rock to pick up more heat.

The geothermal energy from the core of the Earth is closer to the surface in some areas than in others. Where hot underground steam or water can be tapped and brought to the surface it may be used to generate electricity. Such geothermal power sources exist in certain geologically unstable parts of the world such as Chilemarker, Icelandmarker, New Zealand, United States, the Philippinesmarker and Italy. The two most prominent areas for this in the United States are in the Yellowstonemarker basin and in northern Californiamarker. Icelandmarker produced 170 MW geothermal power and heated 86% of all houses in the year 2000 through geothermal energy. Some 8000 MW of capacity is operational in total.

There is also the potential to generate geothermal energy from hot dry rocks. Holes at least 3 km deep are drilled into the earth. Some of these holes pump water into the earth, while other holes pump hot water out. The heat resource consists of hot underground radiogenic granite rocks, which heat up when there is enough sediment between the rock and the earths surface. Several companies in Australia are exploring this technology.

Renewable energy commercialization


Percentage of renewables in primary energy consumption of EU-member states in 2005.
Source: Primärenergieverbrauch und erneuerbare Energien in der EU, Fig 55

See Also Relative cost of electricity generated by different sourcesWhen comparing renewable energy sources with each other and with conventional power sources, three main factors must be considered:

  • capital costs (including, for nuclear energy, waste-disposal and decommissioning costs);
  • operating and maintenance costs;
  • fuel costs (for fossil-fuel and biomass sources—for wastes, these costs may actually be negative).

These costs are all brought together, using discounted cash flow, here. Inherently, renewables are on a decreasing cost curve, while non-renewables are on an increasing cost curve. In 2009, costs are comparable among wind, nuclear, coal, and natural gas, but for CSP—concentrating solar power—and PV (photovoltaics) they are somewhat higher.

There are additional costs for renewables in terms of increased grid interconnection to allow for variability of weather and load, but these have been shown in the pan-European case to be quite low—overall, wind energy costs about the same as present-day power.

Growth of renewables

From the end of 2004 to the end of 2008, solar photovoltaic (PV) capacity increased sixfold to more than 16 gigawatts (GW), wind power capacity increased 250 percent to 121 GW, and total power capacity from new renewables increased 75 percent to 280 GW. During the same period, solar heating capacity doubled to 145 gigawatts-thermal (GWth), while biodiesel production increased sixfold to 12 billion liters per year and ethanol production doubled to 67 billion liters per year.

Selected renewable energy indicators
Selected global indicators 2006 2007 2008
Investment in new renewable capacity (annual) 63 104 120 billion USD
Existing renewables power capacity,
including large-scale hydro
1,020 1,070 1,140 GWe
Existing renewables power capacity,
excluding large hydro
207 240 280 GWe
Wind power capacity (existing) 74 94 121 GWe
Biomass heating ~250 GWth
Solar hot water/ Space heating 145 GWth
Geothermal heating ~50 GWth
Ethanol production (annual) 39 50 67 billion liters
Countries with policy targets
for renewable energy use
66 73

Wind power market

Wind power: worldwide installed capacity 1996-2008

At the end of 2008, worldwide wind farm capacity was 120,791 megawatts (MW), representing an increase of 28.8 percent during the year, and wind power produced some 1.3% of global electricity consumption. Wind power accounts for approximately 19% of electricity use in Denmark, 9% in Spain and Portugal, and 6% in Germany and the Republic of Ireland. The United States is an important growth area and installed U.S. wind power capacity reached 25,170 MW at the end of 2008. As of September 2009, the Roscoe Wind Farm (781 MW) is the world's largest wind farm.

As of 2009, the 209 megawatt (MW) Horns Rev 2 wind farm in Denmark is the world's largest offshore wind farm. The United Kingdom is the world's leading generator of offshore wind power, followed by Denmark.

New generation of solar thermal plants

Large solar thermal power stations include the 354 MW Solar Energy Generating Systems power plant in the USA, Nevada Solar Onemarker (USA, 64 MW), Andasol 1marker (Spain, 50 MW), Andasol 2 (Spain, 50 MW), PS20 solar power tower (Spain, 20 MW), and the PS10 solar power towermarker (Spain, 11 MW).

The solar thermal power industry is growing rapidly with 1.2 GW under construction as of April 2009 and another 13.9 GW announced globally through 2014. Spain is the epicenter of solar thermal power development with 22 projects for 1,037 MW under construction, all of which are projected to come online by the end of 2010. In the United States, 5,600 MW of solar thermal power projects have been announced. In developing countries, three World Bank projects for integrated solar thermal/combined-cycle gas-turbine power plants in Egyptmarker, Mexicomarker, and Moroccomarker have been approved.

World's largest photovoltaic power plants

First Solar 40 MW PV Array installed by JUWI Group in Waldpolenz, Germany

As of October 2009, the largest photovoltaic (PV) power plants in the world are the Olmedilla Photovoltaic Park (Spain, 60 MW), the Strasskirchen Solar Park (Germany, 54 MW), the Lieberose Photovoltaic Park (Germany, 53 MW), the Puertollano Photovoltaic Park (Spain, 50 MW), the Moura photovoltaic power station (Portugal, 46 MW), and the Waldpolenz Solar Parkmarker (Germany, 40 MW).

Many of these plants are integrated with agriculture and some use innovative tracking systems that follow the sun's daily path across the sky to generate more electricity than conventional fixed-mounted systems. There are no fuel costs or emissions during operation of the power stations.

Topaz Solar Farmmarker is a proposed 550 MW solar photovoltaic power plant which is to be built northwest of California Valleymarker in the USA at a cost of over $1 billion.Built on of ranchland, the project would utilize thin-film PV panels designed and manufactured by OptiSolar in Haywardmarker and Sacramentomarker. The project would deliver approximately 1,100 gigawatt-hours (GW·h) annually of renewable energy. The project is expected to begin construction in 2010, begin power delivery in 2011, and be fully operational by 2013.

High Plains Ranchmarker is a proposed 250 MW solar photovoltaic power plant which is to be built by SunPower in the Carrizo Plainmarker, northwest of California Valleymarker.

However, when it comes to renewable energy systems and PV, it is not just large systems that matter. Building-integrated photovoltaics or "onsite" PV systems have the advantage of being matched to end use energy needs in terms of scale. So the energy is supplied close to where it is needed.

Use of ethanol for transportation

Since the 1970s, Brazil has had an ethanol fuel program which has allowed the country to become the world's second largest producer of ethanol (after the United States) and the world's largest exporter. Brazil’s ethanol fuel program uses modern equipment and cheap sugar cane as feedstock, and the residual cane-waste (bagasse) is used to process heat and power. There are no longer light vehicles in Brazil running on pure gasoline. By the end of 2008 there were 35,000 filling stations throughout Brazil with at least one ethanol pump.

Most cars on the road today in the U.S. can run on blends of up to 10% ethanol, and motor vehicle manufacturers already produce vehicles designed to run on much higher ethanol blends. Ford, DaimlerChrysler, and GM are among the automobile companies that sell “flexible-fuel” cars, trucks, and minivans that can use gasoline and ethanol blends ranging from pure gasoline up to 85% ethanol (E85). By mid-2006, there were approximately six million E85-compatible vehicles on U.S. roads. The challenge is to expand the market for biofuels beyond the farm states where they have been most popular to date. Flex-fuel vehicles are assisting in this transition because they allow drivers to choose different fuels based on price and availability. The Energy Policy Act of 2005, which calls for 7.5 billion gallons of biofuels to be used annually by 2012, will also help to expand the market.

Geothermal energy prospects

The West Ford Flat power plant is one of 21 power plants at The Geysers
The Geysersmarker, is a geothermal power field located 72 miles (116 km) north of San Franciscomarker, Californiamarker. It is the largest geothermal development in the world outputting over 750 MW.

Geothermal power capacity surpassed 10 GW in 2008. The United States is the world leader, with some 120 projects under development in early 2009, representing at least 5 GW. Other countries with significant recent growth in geothermal include Australia, El Salvador, Guatemala, Iceland, Indonesia, Kenya, Mexico, Nicaragua, Papua New Guinea, and Turkey. As of 2008, geothermal power development was under way in more than 40 countries. Geothermal power accounted for 17 percent of the Philippines total power mix at the end of 2008, with installed capacity close to 2,000 megawatts.

Geothermal (ground source) heat pumps represented an estimated 30 GWth of installed capacity at the end of 2008, with other direct uses of geothermal heat (i.e., for space heating, agricultural drying and other uses) reaching an estimated 15 GWth. As of 2008, at least 76 countries use direct geothermal energy in some form.

Wave farms expansion

Portugal now has the world's first commercial wave farm, the Agucadoura Wave Park, officially opened in September 2008. The farm uses three Pelamis P-750 machines generating 2.25 MW. Initial costs are put at 8.5 million. A second phase of the project is now planned to increase the installed capacity to 21MW using a further 25 Pelamis machines.

Funding for a wave farm in Scotland was announced in February, 2007 by the Scottish Government, at a cost of over 4 million pounds, as part of a £13 million funding packages for ocean power in Scotland. The farm will be the world's largest with a capacity of 3MW generated by four Pelamis machines.

Developing country markets

Renewable energy can be particularly suitable for developing countries. 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 alleviation 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.

Kenya is the world leader in the number of solar power systems installed per capita (but not the number of watts added). More than 30,000 very small solar panels, each producing 12 to 30 watts, are sold in Kenyaannually. For an investment of as little as $100 for the panel and wiring, the PV system can be used to charge a car battery, which can then provide power to run a fluorescent lamp or a small television for a few hours a day. More Kenyans adopt solar power every year than make connections to the country’s electric grid.

In India, a solar loan program sponsored by UNEP has helped 100,000 people finance solar power systems in India. Success in India's solar program has led to similar projects in other parts of developing world like Tunisiamarker, Moroccomarker, Indonesiamarker and Mexico.

Industry and policy trends

Global revenues for solar photovoltaics, wind power, and biofuels expanded from $76 billion in 2007 to $115 billion in 2008. New global investments in clean energy technologies expanded by 4.7 percent from $148 billion in 2007 to $155 billion in 2008. U.S. President Barack Obama's American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 includes more than $70 billion in direct spending and tax credits for clean energy and associated transportation programs. Clean Edge suggests that the commercialization of clean energy will help countries around the world pull out of the current economic malaise.

Constraints and opportunities

Critics suggest that some renewable energy applications may create pollution, be dangerous, take up large amounts of land, or be incapable of generating a large net amount of energy. Proponents advocate the use of "appropriate renewables", also known as soft energy technologies, as these have many advantages.

Availability and reliability

There is no shortage of solar-derived energy on Earth. Indeed the storages and flows of energy on the planet are very large relative to human needs.
  • Annual photosynthesis by the vegetation in the United States is 50 billion GJ, equivalent to nearly 60% of the nation’s annual fossil fuel use.
  • The amount of solar energy intercepted by the Earth every minute is greater than the amount of energy the world uses in fossil fuels each year.
  • The energy in the winds that blow across the United States each year could produce more than 16 billion GJ of electricity—more than one and one-half times the electricity consumed in the United States in 2000.
  • Tropical oceans absorb 560 trillion gigajoules (GJ) of solar energy each year, equivalent to 1,600 times the world’s annual energy use.

A criticism of some renewable sources is their variable nature. But renewable power sources can actually be integrated into the grid system quite well, as Amory Lovins explains:
Variable but forecastable renewables (wind and solar cells) are very reliable when integrated with each other, existing supplies and demand. For example, three German states were more than 30 percent wind-powered in 2007—and more than 100 percent in some months. Mostly renewable power generally needs less backup than utilities already bought to combat big coal and nuclear plants' intermittence.

Mark Z. Jacobson has studied how wind, water and solar technologies can provide 100 per cent of the world's energy, eliminating all fossil fuels. He advocates a "smart mix" of renewable energy sources to reliably meet electricity demand:
Because the wind blows during stormy conditions when the sun does not shine and the sun often shines on calm days with little wind, combining wind and solar can go a long way toward meeting demand, especially when geothermal provides a steady base and hydroelectric can be called on to fill in the gaps.

The challenge of variable power supply BE be readily alleviated by certain forms of grid energy storage such as pumped-storage hydro system, hydrogen fuel cells, thermal mass and compressed air. Batteries are still far too expensive to have any impact.

From detailed studies in Europe, Dr Gregor Czisch has shown that the variable power issue can be solved by interconnecting renewable across Europe the European super grid and using only existing storage hydro. The costs of power over the lifetime of the scheme are the same as today's conventional power supplies, indicating that the capital investment is roughly the same as the cost of fuel avoided over the projects 25 year lifetime and

Lovins goes on to say that the unreliability of renewable energy is a myth, while the unreliability of nuclear energy is real. Of all U.S. nuclear plants built, 21 percent were abandoned and 27 percent have failed at least once. Successful reactors must close for refueling every 17 months for 39 days. And when shut in response to grid failure, they can't quickly restart. This is simply not the case for wind farms, for example.

Wave energy and some other renewables are continuously available. A wave energy scheme installed in Australia generates electricity with an 80% availability factor.

Sustainable development and global warming groups propose a 100% Renewable Energy Source Supply, without fossil fuels and nuclear power.Scientists from the University of Kasselmarker have suggested that Germany can power itself entirely by renewable energy.


Both solar and wind generating stations have been criticized from an aesthetic point of view. However, methods and opportunities exist to deploy these renewable technologies efficiently and unobtrusively: fixed solar collectors can double as noise barriers along highways, and extensive roadway, parking lot, and roof-top area is currently available; amorphous photovoltaic cells can also be used to tint windows and produce energy. Advocates of renewable energy also argue that current infrastructure is less aesthetically pleasing than alternatives, but sited further from the view of most critics.

Environmental, social and legal considerations

While most renewable energy sources do not produce pollution directly, the materials, industrial processes, and construction equipment used to create them may generate waste and pollution. Some renewable energy systems actually create environmental problems.

Land area required

Another environmental issue, particularly with biomass and biofuels, is the large amount of land required to harvest energy, which otherwise could be used for other purposes or left as undeveloped land. However, it should be pointed out that these fuels may reduce the need for harvesting non-renewable energy sources, such as vast strip-mined areas and slag mountains for coal, safety zones around nuclear plants, and hundreds of square miles being strip-mined for oil sands. These responses, however, do not account for the extremely high biodiversity and endemism of land used for ethanol crops, particularly sugar cane.

In the U.S., crops grown for biofuels are the most land- and water-intensive of the renewable energy sources. In 2005, about 12% of the nation’s corn crop (covering 11 million acres (45,000 km²) of farmland) was used to produce four billion gallons of ethanol—which equates to about 2% of annual U.S. gasoline consumption. For biofuels to make a much larger contribution to the energy economy, the industry will have to accelerate the development of new feedstocks, agricultural practices,and technologies that are more land and water efficient.

The efficiency of biofuels production has increased significantlyand there are new methods to boost biofuel production, although using bioelectricity, by burning the biomass to produce electricity for an electric car, increases the distance that a car can go from a hectare (about 2.5 acres) of crops by 81%, from 30,000 km to 54,000 km per year. However, covering that same hectare with photovoltaics (in relatively sunless Germany or England) allows the electric car to go 3,250,000 km/year, over 100 times as far as from biofuel.


The major advantage of hydroelectric systems is the elimination of the cost of fuel. Other advantages include longer life than fuel-fired generation, low operating costs, and the provision of facilities for water sports. Operation of pumped-storage plants improves the daily load factor of the generation system. Overall, hydroelectric power can be far less expensive than electricity generated from fossil fuels or nuclear energy, and areas with abundant hydroelectric power attract industry.

However, there are several major disadvantages of hydroelectric systems. These include: dislocation of people living where the reservoirs are planned, release of significant amounts of carbon dioxide at construction and flooding of the reservoir, disruption of aquatic ecosystems and birdlife, adverse impacts on the river environment, potential risks of sabotage and terrorism, and in rare cases catastrophic failure of the dam wall. (See Hydroelectricity article for details.)

Large hydroelectric power is considered to be a renewable energy by a large number of sources, however, many groups have lobbied for it to be excluded from renewable electricity standards, any initiative to promote the use of renewable energies, and sometimes the definition of renewable itself. Some organizations, including US federal agencies, will specifically refer to "non-hydro renewable energy".Environmental Protection Agency. Electricity from Non-Hydroelectric Renewable Energy Sources.

Energy Information Association. Policies to Promote Non-hydro Renewable Energy in the United States and Selected Countries. February 2005. Many laws exist that specifically label "small hydro" as renewable or sustainable and large hydro as not. Furthermore, the line between what is small or large also differs by governing body.

Hydroelectric power is now more difficult to site in developed nations because most major sites within these nations are either already being exploited or may be unavailable for other reasons such as environmental considerations.

Wind farms

A wind farm, when installed on agricultural land, has one of the lowest environmental impacts of all energy sources: To generate the total electricity used in the UK annually, 6% of the land area would be utilised, an area of about 70 miles by 70 miles, and this would not preclude that land from being used for other purposes.
  • Wind power occupies less land area per kilowatt-hour (kWh) of electricity generated than any other energy conversion system, apart from rooftop solar energy, and is compatible with grazing and crops.
  • It generates the energy used in its construction in just 3 months of operation, yet its operational lifetime is 20–25 years.
  • Greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution produced by its construction are low and declining. There are no emissions or pollution produced by its operation.
  • In substituting for base-load coal power, wind power produces a net decrease in greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution, and a net increase in biodiversity.
  • Modern wind turbines are almost silent and rotate so slowly (in terms of revolutions per minute) that they are rarely a hazard to birds.

Studies of birds and offshore wind farms in Europe have found that there are very few bird collisions. Several offshore wind sites in Europe have been in areas heavily used by seabirds. Improvements in wind turbine design, including a much slower rate of rotation of the blades and a smooth tower base instead of perchable lattice towers, have helped reduce bird mortality at wind farms around the world. However older smaller wind turbines may be hazardous to flying birds. Birds are severely impacted by fossil fuel energy; examples include birds dying from exposure to oil spills, habitat loss from acid rain and mountaintop removal coal mining, and mercury poisoning.

Longevity issues

Though a source of renewable energy may last for billions of years, renewable energy infrastructure, like hydroelectric dams, will not last forever, and must be removed and replaced at some point. Events like the shifting of riverbeds, or changing weather patterns could potentially alter or even halt the function of hydroelectric dams, lowering the amount of time they are available to generate electricity.

Some have claimed that geothermal being a renewable energy source depends on the rate of extraction being slow enough such that depletion does not occur. If depletion does occur, the temperature can regenerate if given a long period of non-use.

The government of Icelandmarker states: "It should be stressed that the geothermal resource is not strictly renewable in the same sense as the hydro resource." It estimates that Iceland's geothermal energy could provide 1700 MW for over 100 years, compared to the current production of 140 MW. Radioactive elements in the Earth's crust continuously decay, replenishing the heat. The International Energy Agency classifies geothermal power as renewable.

Biofuels production

All biomass needs to go through some of these steps: it needs to be grown, collected, dried, fermented and burned. All of these steps require resources and an infrastructure.

Some studies contend that ethanol is "energy negative", meaning that it takes more energy to produce than is contained in the final product. However, a large number of recent studies, including a 2006 article in the journal Science offer the opinion that fuels like ethanol are energy positive. Furthermore, fossil fuels also require significant energy inputs which have seldom been accounted for in the past.

Additionally, ethanol is not the only product created during production, and the energy content of the by-products must also be considered. Corn is typically 66% starch and the remaining 33% is not fermented. This unfermented component is called distillers grain, which is high in fats and proteins, and makes good animal feed. In Brazil, where sugar cane is used, the yield is higher, and conversion to ethanol is somewhat more energy efficient than corn. Recent developments with cellulosic ethanol production may improve yields even further.

According to the International Energy Agency, new biofuels technologies being developed today, notably cellulosic ethanol, could allow biofuels to play a much bigger role in the future than previously thought. Cellulosic ethanol can be made from plant matter composed primarily of inedible cellulose fibers that form the stems and branches of most plants. Crop residues (such as corn stalks, wheat straw and rice straw),wood waste, and municipal solid waste are potential sources of cellulosic biomass. Dedicated energy crops, such as switchgrass, are also promising cellulose sources that can be sustainably produced in manyregions of the United States.

The ethanol and biodiesel production industries also create jobs in plant construction, operations, and maintenance, mostly in rural communities. According to the Renewable Fuels Association, the ethanol industry created almost 154,000 U.S. jobs in2005 alone, boosting household income by $5.7 billion. It also contributed about $3.5 billion in tax revenues at the local, state, and federal levels.


The U.S. electric power industry now relies on large, central power stations, including coal, natural gas, nuclear, and hydropower plants that together generate more than 95% of the nation’s electricity. Over the next few decades uses of renewable energy could help to diversify the nation’s bulk power supply. Already, appropriate renewable resources (which excludes large hydropower) produce 12% of northern California’s electricity.

Although most of today’s electricity comes from large, central-station power plants, new technologies offer a range of options for generating electricity nearer to where it is needed, saving on the cost of transmitting and distributing power and improving the overall efficiency and reliability of the system.

Improving energy efficiency represents the most immediate and often the most cost-effective way to reduce oil dependence, improve energy security, and reduce the health and environmental impact of the energy system. By reducing the total energy requirements of the economy, improved energy efficiency could make increased reliance on renewable energy sources more practical and affordable.

Competition with nuclear power

Nuclear power continues to be considered as an alternative to fossil-fuel power sources (see Low carbon power generation), and in 1956, when the first peak oil paper was presented, nuclear energy was presented as the replacement for fossil fuels. However, the prospect of increased nuclear power deployment was seriously undermined in the United States as a result of the Three Mile Islandmarker, and in the rest of the world after the Chernobyl disastermarker. This trend is slowly reversing, and several new nuclear reactors are scheduled for construction.

Physicist Bernard Cohen proposed in 1983 that uranium dissolved in seawater is effectively inexhaustible, and could therefore be considered a renewable source of energy. However, this idea is not universally accepted, and issues such as peak uranium and uranium depletion are ongoing debates.

No legislative body has yet included nuclear energy under any legal definition of "renewable energy sources" for provision of development support, and statutory and scientific definitions of renewable energies normally exclude nuclear energy.

See also




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