Three decades after former U.S. President Jimmy Carter experimented with solar panels on the White House roof, grim U.N. warnings about climate change may kick-start wider global use of renewable energy.
OSLO -- Three decades after former U.S. President Jimmy Carter experimented with solar panels on the White House roof, grim U.N. warnings about climate change may kick-start wider global use of renewable energy.
"The political willingness to act is now significantly higher," Achim Steiner, head of the U.N. Environment Programme (UNEP), told Reuters.
Governments from Japan to Germany are already subsidising energies such as wind, hydro, biofuels, geothermal, solar or tidal power, spurred by worries about security of supply, climate change and high oil prices at about $60 a barrel.
Steiner said warnings by the world's top climate scientists in a Feb. 2 report that blamed mankind more clearly than ever for causing global warming -- mainly by emitting greenhouse gases from burning fossil fuels -- would be a big new spur.
"This will change the variables, renewable energies will become a more significant part of our energy mix," he said.
Past waves of optimism for renewables, such as during an energy crisis in the 1970s under Carter, foundered on technological barriers and a lack of competitiveness when oil prices fell below $10 in the mid-1980s.
Many experts also warn against exaggerated hopes this time, despite increasing public pressure to act.
"There will be a push for renewable energies, but they have limitations," said Fatih Birol, chief economist of the International Energy Agency (IEA), which advises governments in developed nations. Windmills cannot generate electricity on still days, for instance, and solar power doesn't work at night.
"They can be part of the solution but they are not the magic bullet," Birol said. He said energy efficiency was the main way both to curb climate change and to cut energy imports, and renewables and nuclear power are secondary solutions.
According to the IEA, renewable energies met 13.2 percent of world primary energy demand in 2004 and their share is likely to edge up to 13.7 percent by 2030, on present trends. Fossil fuels will remain dominant at about 80 percent.
Most of the total renewable energy used is biomass, firewood burnt by 2.5 billion people in the Third World. Even in an alternative scenario with stronger incentives for renewables, their share would reach just 16 percent by 2030, the IEA says.
BIGGER THAN NUCLEAR
"Anybody who claims that they can make an energy revolution overnight I think is not being realistic. Coal, given the deposits around the world, is going to be part of the energy mix," Steiner said.
Still, he noted that clean energies dominated by hydropower generated 18 percent of world electricity in 2004 -- ahead of 16 percent for nuclear. "Renewable energies are already quite an important part of our supply system," he said.
Carter, a Democrat, put solar panels on the White House roof in the late 1970s amid worries that oil supplies were running out and could be shut off by more Arab oil embargoes.
He said that the energy crisis was, "apart from war, the greatest challenge our country will face during our lifetimes." The panels were ridiculed by many Republicans -- and taken down by his Republican successor, Ronald Reagan.
RENEWABLES IN VOGUE
In a sign of changed attitudes, firms such as U.S. retailer Wal-Mart now win wide praise for installing solar panels on superstores.
And renewable energy firms are booming.
"Everything happening around climate issues is affecting the solar industry positively," said Erik Thorsen, chief executive of Norway's Renewable Energy Corp. , one of the world's biggest makers of solar energy equipment.
REC's share price has roughly doubled since a 2006 listing, giving the firm a market capitalisation of $12 billion. Trading at around 39 times its forecast 2007 earnings, the firm has a higher valuation than Internet giant Google . A minority of analysts worry the boom is a bubble.
Thorsen says solar power could be the prime source of energy by 2100 -- consigning fossil fuels to an interlude in human history since the Industrial Revolution in the 18th century -- even though prices are far from competitive with fossil fuels.
Birol at the IEA said the world had a chance in the next decade to shift course -- many power plants built in western nations after World War Two are up for renewal, and China is opening coal-fired power plants at a rate of almost one a week.
"The lifetime of power plants is about 60 years," he said. "If trends do not change we cannot ask the Chinese to close down their power plants."
The U.N. Climate Panel, the bedrock for government environmental policy-making, said in its Feb. 2 study that it was "very likely", or at least 90 percent certain, that human activities were the main cause of global warming, up from "likely" or a 66 percent probability, in a 2001 report.
It projected wrenching changes from rising temperatures including higher seas, more droughts, more powerful storms and floods.
Industry groups say the IEA projections for renewables are too pessimistic and environmentalists want to phase out nuclear power.
"There is a bright future for renewable energy," said Christine Lins, Secretary General of the European Renewable Energy Council (EREC). "Climate change is getting more and more in the centre of the discussion but we also see that there is still lots to do to make this happen," she said.
50 PERCENT BY 2050?
EREC and Greenpeace issued a report this year saying that 50 percent of all world energy could come from renewables by 2050. But this hinged on shifts in government policy, forecasts of rising oil prices and penalties for emitting greenhouse gases.
Renewable energies have all been around for a long time.
U.S. Bell Laboratories patented the first solar cell based on silicon in 1955, and Italian engineers first generated electricity from geothermal steam in 1904.
"In many cases the technology is there, but hasn't reached the market," said ex-Swedish Prime Minister Goran Persson, who introduced tax breaks during his 1996-2006 term to foster everything from biofuels to cuts in heating with oil.
"The market is not enough to solve this. We also need political decisions," he said.
Among these, the European Union has a goal of generating 21 percent of its electricity from renewables by 2020, up from 14 percent in 2005. China plans to spend $180 billion on renewables.
Even environmentalists have objections to some renewable energies, such as damage by windmills. Ten white-tailed eagles have been killed in just over a year by wind turbines on the remote islands of Smoela off Norway.
"The frequency is as high as from turbines in the Altamont Pass in California, which is often seen as a bad example of bird deaths," said Arne Follestad of the Norwegian Institute for Nature Research.
He said birds seemed less vulnerable in heavily populated areas where turbines were often sited on harbours, in fields or near roads. "If you go to a pristine area you meet species that live there to avoid human activity," he said.