Renewable energy advocates optimistic, but political will is lacking

The future of renewable energy may be brighter than some skeptics believe, according to a couple of high-profile advocates. One of these, Canada’s David Suzuki, quotes a new report stating that Canada’s vast renewable energy resources, in the form of hydropower, solar, wind energy, biomass, geothermal, wave and tidal energy “are many times larger than current projected levels of total fuel and electrical consumption.”

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Hydroelectric power helped Canada achieve 63 per cent of its power generation, from renewables in 2011. The technology exists to make it 100 per cent. Only the political and social will is lacking.

Discounting the common arguments that wind and solar power are unreliable sources of electricity, Suzuki scoffs at the shortsightedness of “rushing to squeeze every last drop of oil and gas” from the earth, using increasingly destructive methods, such as deep-sea drilling, fracking and oil sands extraction. What, he asks, will we do when we’ver burned it all?

Researchers at Stanford University have confirmed, according to Suzuki, that it is “technically and economically feasible” to convert New York City’s energy infrastructure to one that is powered by “wind, water and sunlight.” The International Energy Agency reports that thirteen countries got more than 30 per cent of their electricity from renewable energy back in 2011. The biggest obstacles to achieving the same result, and better, in America, according to a Stanford University engineering professor, are socal and political. “You need the will to do it.”

We’re still thinking about the future of renewable energy like it’s 1990 or like it’s the year 2000. Our thinking is just behind the reality of where renewables are today and where they are going based on existing market technology, cost and finance trends.

Eric Martinot, Institute for Sustainable Energy Policies, Toky0

In Canada it would be even less of a challenge, says Suzuki. Canada produced more than 63 per cent of its electricity from renewables in 2011, thanks to hydro resources. In Canada, the biggest obstacle to a complete shift to clean energy is the lack of “smart” technology in the grid. Since the current grid is in need of overhaul, Suzuki argues that now is the perfect time to invest in the information technologies that will make it more efficient and cost effective.

In Tokyo, meanwhile, an American professor at the Sustainable Energy Policies Institute said that since 2010, global investment in renewable energy has exceeded investment in fossil fuels and nuclear power generation. Professor Martinot said that renewable currently supply about 20 per cent of global electricity. Hydropower is the largest contributor, accounting for 15 per cent.

“We have all of the technologies we need right now, we don’t need to wait for technology for high shares of heating and cooling from renewables, but this is going to involve huge changes in building construction, architectural practices, building materials, the whole construction industry,” he explained. “It can take decades for all of that to change. But we can do it.”

The greatest changes will have to come in the way we think about designing and building power grids. For the last 100 years, Martinot says, power grids have been designed based on the twin principles that power cannot be stored, and supply must meet demand. These are being “turned on their head,” however, as energy storage is becoming practical, and done on a commercial basis. New hybrid systems are beginning to emerge as tools are being developed to manage the variability of wind and solar, with the ability to switch to natural gas when needed.

The homes of the future will utilize solar power for heating and hot water. The batteries in electric vehicles will be used by the home for power and energy storage, and passive heat storage will be a feature  in building construction, with geothermal heat pumps to power homes. All of these technologies are already available and in use, it is just a matter of standardizing them, something that the building sector needs to be doing.

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