Energy: Looking for a Cleaner World

Under the shadow of the sobering anniversary of 25 years since the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl, Japanese workers continue to battle to contain the recent nuclear crisis in Japan.  Today, Ukraine launches a week of commemorations to mark the Chernobyl disaster and to seek international funds to continue containment efforts, while intense debate continues over the long-term health effects of the radiation released by the explosion and fire.  Thousands of kilometers away, Japan’s Tokyo Electric Power company (TEPCO) is still struggling to stabilize the Fukushima nuclear power plant 240 km from Tokyo that was seriously damaged by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami. As radiation continues to leak and the Japanese economy faces significant negative effects from power shortages, the world is looking for cleaner answers to future energy needs. After a period when nuclear power had been put squarely back on to many countries’ agendas, plans are being put on hold and public opinion is mounting against nuclear, as the massive risks once again become devastatingly clear.  So what do we need and what are the options?

The demand for energy is rising rapidly. According to IEA’s International Energy Outlook 2010, total world consumption of energy is projected to increase by a staggering 49% from 2007 to 2035 with the largest projected increase in demand in the non-OECD economies. This increase in energy consumption represents an average of about 1.4% per year, with demand projected to rise from 495 quadrillion Btu in 2007 to 739 quadrillion Btu in 2035.  Adding this vast amount of electricity production capacity will in itself be an enormous challenge; doing so in a sustainable way raises the bar significantly.

How are we doing in meeting this challenge?  Renewables are the fastest-growing source of world energy, increasing output by 2.6% annually, driven by concerns over the environmental impacts of fossil fuel use and strong government incentives for increasing the use of renewable energy in many countries.  While clean energy still remains a small part of the overall energy mix, it is worth thinking about how far we have come in just a decade in making cleaner energy a reality.  Ten years ago Clean Edge released their first publication: Clean Tech – Profile and Potential and that is indeed what it was then – potential.   Today, clean energy and clean tech has moved from being a virtually unknown and expensive concept to being an affordable mainstream energy source across the globe from United States to China to Europe, Brazil and more. It has not only proven to be a major business opportunity for producers but also a significant opportunity for their customers to lower CO2 emissions and costs. Now, it is a must to invest in clean energy and clean tech to satisfy stakeholders, consumers and workforces. 

The latest Clean Edge report, Clean Energy Trends 2011, shows the dramatic growth in clean energy in the last decade:

  • The combined global market for solar photovoltaics (PV) and wind power has expanded from US$ 6.5 billion in 2000 to US$ 131.6 billion in 2010 and is expected to reach US$ 236.5 billion by 2020.
  • The average cost to install a PV system has decreased from US$ 9 in 2000 to US$ 4.82 per peak watt in 2010.
  • The number of hybrid electric vehicle models available globally has increased from 2 to 30 in just 10 years.
  • Worldwide the number of LEED-certified commercial green buildings was 8,138 in 2010 compared to 3 in 2000.
  • The percentage of total U.S. venture capital Invested in clean tech has risen from less than 1% in 2000 to more than 23% in 2010 with the overall trend continuing in 2011.

We have indeed come a long way in developing cleaner energy, but it is not enough to meet the rise in projected energy demand.  We will continue to need more involvement from consumers and companies alike, as well as continued efforts in advancing clean technologies – plus a large dose of creativity and will power to make it happen.  And it is starting to happen.  More and more companies have already or are introducing energy saving or energy related initiatives to reduce cost, for environmental reasons or to meet regulations. Automaker BMW is piping methane gas 15.3 km from a landfill site and recovering waste heat from turbines, thereby satisfying more than 60% of its facility’s thermal needs, as well as nearly 20% of its electricity need. Wal-Mart is installing solar panels, aiming to be 100% renewable energy powered.  

They are not alone. A recent report from the Economist Intelligence Unit suggests that sustainability is high on executives’ agendas and in their corporate strategies. Asked about their environmental, social and governance goals in the coming three years, 50% of the executives responded that they are most likely to target increased energy efficiency, followed by employee health and safety (38%), and accountability and transparency (33%). Regardless of the underlying reasons for driving energy saving initiatives the big conclusion here is that it really doesn’t matter whether the company produces cars or shoes, sells groceries or delivers packages – these companies are transforming themselves into energy companies. According to Deloitte by pursuing sustainable business initiatives: “Every company is an energy company and if it isn’t it will be soon because a decade from now, a company without an ‘energy and sustainability’ department could be as unusual as one without a human resource department. Either that, or it might be out of business.”

But it doesn’t stop on Earth.  Last year the Shimizu Corporation, a Japanese construction firm, proposed one of the most ambitious ways of capturing solar energy: The Luna Ring, a belt of solar cells around the Moon’s 11,000-kilometer equator, converting the electricity to powerful microwaves and lasers to be beamed back to Earth and transformed into conventional power.  This proposal goes one step further than many of the plans to put orbiting solar power stations into space.

While it will take many years, huge amounts of investment and further technological advances to realize such plans, the push for creative and innovative ways of developing cleaner energy is positive.  For now, companies are starting to make a difference, and it is to be hoped that not just every company, but every household will become an energy company as the smart grid and distributed energy become more mainstream.  We have come a long, long way in ten years.  How far can we get in the next ten?