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Solar: present and challenges

Solar energy generates just 0.04% of worldwide electricity, even though investors and intellectuals like Thomas Friedman believe it will be crucial to the “Green Revolution”.

The elevated price of fossil fuels and the increased regulation of energy worldwide, to combat climate change, have caused a wave of investments in renewable energies. Even the international credit crisis hasn’t affected clean energy


Despite occupying more space than ever in the media, renewable energies continue to be a -growing, yes- small percentage of the energy consumed worldwide. And of the total energy produced in the world currently, solar represents just a grain of sand.

The Economist published a

chart showing the annual world consumption of primary energy and its sources (the magazine’s source of data: International Energy Agency, or the IEA):

  • Oil: 34.3% of the total worldwide production of energy in one year.
  • Coal: 25.2%.
  • Gas: 20.9%.
  • Renewables: 13.1%.
  • Nuclear: 6.5%.

This 13.1% represented by renewable energies in the world consumption of energy, can be itemized:

  • Biomass: 10.4%.
  • Hydroelectric: 2.2%.
  • Other energies: 0.5%.

Finally, we focus on this 0.5% of the world energy production represented by “other energies”:

  • Geothermal: 0.41%.
  • Wind: 0.064%.
  • Solar: 0.039% (of the world energy production in one year).
  • Wave: 0.0004%.

The chart showing the world annual production of electricity (as opposed to the total consumption of energy worldwide, represented in the last data), shows the importance of coal in the production of electricity that we consume in homes, industry and public buildings:

  • Coal: 40%.
  • Natural gas: 20%.
  • Hydroelectric energy: 16%.
  • Nuclear energy: 16%.
  • Oil: 7%.
  • Renewables: 1%.

One shouldn’t forget the still minuscule relative weight that solar technology represents in world energy production. Nevertheless, there is another way, something more encouraging for renewable energies, to interpret this data.

Wind and solar energies already play a very important role in electricity generation in several industrialized countries, above all in Europe. About 20% of the electricity consumed by Denmark is derived from its wind farms. In Spain and Portugal, 10% and in Germany, 6%.

Meanwhile, in China, about 80% of hot water is heated with solar energy.

Another factor to keep in mind, the growing number of investors in technologies capable of increasing the percentage of solar radiation converted into energy. According to Nature, the solar energy absorbed by the Earth’s atmosphere, the oceans and the crust of the earth equals 3,850 zetajoules per year. This means the sun is providing us with more energy per hour than the world’s populations consume, in 2002 terms, in one year.

We use an imperceptible percentage of the energy originating from the sun, though it is capable of being transformed into energy at a price increasingly more competitive in comparison with fossil fuels and even in comparison with the abundant and cheap -as well as contaminating- coal.

For that reason various countries, above all European, have established objectives so that a determined percentage of the electricity consumed comes from renewable sources.

Electricity production and sustainability: current proportion of sustainable generation, medium term objective and possibilities of success (source: The Economist, from data of New Energy Finance):

  • Spain: current production with renewables 17.2%; objective of 29.4% in 2010; possibilities of success in the objective.
  • Italy: production with renewables 16.5%; objective of 25% in 2010; few possibilities of success due to a slow permissions process.
  • France: production with renewables 11.0%; objective of 21% in 2010; possibilities of success.
  • Germany: production with renewables 10.4%; objective of 12.5% in 2010, 20% in 2020; possibilities of success.
  • United States: 10% (including hydroelectric), >5% excluding it; there is no federal objective, although there are objectives for 21 States.
  • China: production with renewables 7.7%; objective of 15% in 2020; many possibilities to comply.
  • United Kingdom: production with renewable 4.1%; objective of the 10.4% in 2010; relative possibilities to achieve it.
  • Japan: 3.0%, including hydroelectric and geothermal, 2% excluding them; 3% in 2010 (without hydro) or 7% in 2010 (including them); possibilities of complying with the -hardly ambitious- objective.

The specific weight of energy

The energy market is gigantic: the world population currently consumes 15 terawatts of energy, according to The Economist (a terawatt equals 1,000 gigawatts, while 1 gigawatt is the energy capacity of the largest coal-powered electric power plant in the world).

This enormous production and energy consumption, the cause of most of the human contribution to climate change, is a 6 billion dollar annual business, or around a tenth of the world income in a year.

This is data provided by the Silicon Valley venture capitalist John Doerr, previously heavily invested in the Internet and new technologies, and now focused on investment in clean technologies.

The price of oil is still several times higher than it was just five years ago, before the start of the second Iraq War.

The price of natural gas, lifted by the high cost of oil, has also risen drastically, a negative factor given that it increases the price of global electricity, despite the importance of coal and hydroelectric energy, less dependent on unstable countries and high prices.

The control of the reserves of both fossil fuels is in the hands of governments unwilling to help developed countries transition without shocks toward other energy models.

Investing in renewable energies has, therefore, more sense than ever, for governments (geopolitics: Who wants to explain to voters that the country’s industry depends on the energy obtained from places like Russia, the Caucasus, the Middle East, Venezuela or Nigeria?), for businesses (regulations that penalize the emission of contaminating gases derived from fossil energies consumption) and for consumers (climate change awareness is growing).

In this context, as explained in The Economist article The power and the glory, renewable alternatives like wind power and solar no longer turn out to be so costly.

And, though coal continues to be cheap and the main source of energy generation in Asia and the driver of its rapid industrialization, the European Union and North America consider its use a small evil that should be phased out as soon as possible.

They are developing, as well, technologies that can store the CO2 generated during combustion, with large investments in Europe (several technologies are being tested to capture and store CO2, explains the BBC) and North America (Jim Rogers, CEO of Duke Energy, has been called by The New York Times the “green coal baron“).

Bets on renewables, despite the crisis

The projects being funded are both independent types with a risk-taking and pioneering spirit (following the model of Internet startups), as well as technologies developed within the world’s largest energy and petroleum companies.

The so-called clean technologies (“cleantech“), or green technologies (“greentech“) include solar energy, whose growth potential is colossal, despite having to face various challenges, among them to produce solar energy economically comparable to the production of coal, the most abundant fossil energy in nature, employed en masse in the production of energy.

The principal investors of venture capital worldwide made possible the data processing market of the masses in the 80s, the Internet boom in the 90 and the creation of clusters of biotechnology and nanotechnology in early 2000. Now, with clean technologies, this century’s venture capital market has arrived.

Venture capitalists are not only attracted to solar energy investment, assures Keith Johnson in The Wall Street Journal, but wind technology and electric batteries for cars are something being pursued by the leaders of the technology revolution.

The Economist explains: “energy has become supercool”. Elon Musk, co-founder of PayPal, has developed an electric sports car.

Larry Page and Sergei Brin, founders of Google, support via Google.org, the philanthropic division of the business, technologies capable of generating “electricity from renewable energy sources that will be cheaper than electricity produced from coal” (or RE geek” colleagues). Already, they have invested in firms such as eSolar and Makani Power.

Vinod Khosla, one of the founders of Sun Microsystems and the initial investor in firms such as Google, has followed his venture capitalist instincts toward renewables, as has Robert Metcalfe, co-inventor of the Ethernet- a standard for connecting local networks.

The list of cleantech enthusiasts also includes well-known venture capitalist John Doerr of the firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers; or the British Richard Branson, who has his own fund to invest clean technologies, the Virgin Green Fund.

Solar energy in Europe

Europe has led the production of solar energy in recent years, with Germany at the vanguard, thanks to a tradition of support for sustainable culture and to the existence of generous subsidies that, as in Spain, could disappear.

The more conservative German lawmakers believe it doesn’t make sense to continue subsidizing the installation of solar energy when this sector is growing so much that it threatens to overload consumers’ electric bills.

It doesn’t matter that Germany doesn’t receive as much sun as the European south: the biggest economy in the EU has half of the world’s installations of solar electric generation, despite the growth of this market in countries such as United States, Spain and China.

The New York Times asks in an article about the objectives of the subsidies for the establishment of solar energy. “The debate over solar subsidies is a test of how an environmentally minded country can move from nurturing a promising alternative energy sector to creating a mass-market industry that can compete with conventional energy sources on its own footing.”

Keith Johnson explains in The Wall Street Journal that the so-called German “Solar Valley” employs 40,000 qualified workers, or “green collar” professionals that are part of the rhetoric of every politician on the American campaign trail.

Nevertheless, explains Johnson, “if the goal of clean-energy subsidies is to make renewable sources a viable and sizeable part of the electricity mix, then Germany hasn’t done so well”. Despite two decades of growth and many leading companies worldwide for the sector, solar energy constitutes only 0.6% of the country’s electricity production (he gives partial credit for that to the massive subsidies for coal).

The European Union has proposed that 20% of its energy stem from renewable sources in 2020. The EU has established subsidies to help comply with these objectives.

Green Revolution? It’s possible, according to Thomas L. Friedman

The current economic crisis can be taken advantage of, according to diverse voices, to prompt a new arena of development internationally, that depends less on fossil fuels and capable of generating thousands of green collar jobs worldwide.

Barack Obama has been accused of being populist upon announcing that his candidacy to the presidency of the United States includes concrete measures to incentivize the new sustainable economy and to convert his country into driving force of a more prosperous, and less contaminating, global economy. Nevertheless, the plan to prompt a new American energy plan seems a solid and well supported idea.

The journalist Thomas L. Friedman, New York Times columnist, writer (The World is Flat, among others works) and Pulitzer prize winner, is also calling on the United States to head the “Green Revolution”.

He does so in his latest book, Hot, Flat, and Crowded.

Friedman, who denounces U.S. dependence on foreign oil, believes that the moment has arrived for the country to lead the sustainability sector (comparing it to the effort carried out to reach the moon, after the Soviet launch of the Sputnik satellite), and he gives clues for how to carry it out.

To comply with Friedman’s predictions (or at times, simple wishes), Europe should compete with the United States to offer better energy solutions, as even China has acknowledged that it wants to begin to do.

Objective: to improve solar technology

The poor rate of energy conversion obtained with conventional technologies (photovoltaic cells and solar concentrators, fundamentally), to obtain the maximum possible energy percentage from a determined intensity of solar rays, is improving fast.

Solar energy refers to the radiation of the sun converted into electricity, through technologies such as photovoltaic cells, thermal concentrators and other experimental technologies that aim to improve the percentage of conversion of radiation into electricity.

Photovoltaic solar energy has, historically, been used for more small-scale generation of energy, although generous subsidies in countries such as Germany (the world leader), Spain (the third country in the world, after incentivizing their installation from 2004 until 2008), France, Italy, South Korea and the United States, have prompted the creation of solar parks.

For large scale exploitation, however, the most common technology continues being that of solar concentrators, consisting in the use of large mirrors that reflect the collected sunlight on a single point, which is then used as a source of heat to propel a conventional power plant.

Several parks have been built that use the principle of solar concentration on a grand scale, such as the PS10 tower in Sanlúcar la Mayor (Seville, Spain), from Abengoa, with 11 MW of power; the solar platform in Almería, Spain; or the Nevada Solar One installation in Boulder City (Nevada, United States), erected by the Spanish firm Acciona; among others installations (a list of solar thermal power stations).

The future, as much for new photovoltaic technologies as for an increasingly more powerful thermosolar technology, is promising.

Research centers such as MIT, for example, have promised that solar energy based on silicon wafers (photovoltaic) will be able to compete with coal in 2012. In the meantime, we continue to dream of such metaphorical and incredibly ingenious projects as converting the asphalt of our highways into gigantic (and inexpensive) solar power plants.

Or there’s an idea that has earned the favor of the writer of this article, in the fight against climate change and, at the same time, for the solar development for all of North Africa. It would generate, besides, the need for thousands of green collar workers on both sides of the Mediterranean, a sea that could send a gigantic message from the future to the remainder of the world.

It would be a matter of creating, jointly between the EU and the Maghreb, enormous solar parks in the Sahara, capable of supplying both sides of the Mediterranean.

To be continued.