Renewable Energy

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Graph showing the reduction of solar PV prices until 2010 Graph showing the reduction of solar PV prices until 2015

The important thing here is that energy costs change: with new technologies, renewable energy is always getting cheaper: for example, photovoltaic panels have dropped from USD 75.0 to below USD 0.40 per peak Watt at retail and are always getting cheaper whilst petroleum is getting more expensive, environmentally costly and would be much more so if Carbon Dioxide pollution was taxed and if conventional fuels were not so heavily subsidised. Heavy investment in Chinese Silicon solar PV explains most of why solar PV is so cheap now. Actually, for most installations, the costs involved in installation and also conversion to mains AC power now are greater than the price of the PV electricity generators themselves. It appears that Germany is responsible for trying to kick-start the entire World's photovoltaic expansion. One would have thought that The USA would, for its own selfish reasons (to avoid wars and Iranian oil, and to get clean reliable energy supplies) or for altruism and leadership be the one country that would pioneer solar power expansion but in 2011, it was nowhere and Germany was the example to follow and the country with a green conscience (as well as bankrolling European social programmes).

Back in January 2009, my electricity bill from ENECO showed that I was paying 0.2385 Euros per KWh because of Netherlands taxes. That rate was more than the industrial wholesale price of solar electricity at that time and multiple times the 0.04 British Pounds per KWh of recent British wholesale windpower. Solar PV panel costs can be tracked at pvinsights.com or SolarBuzz Windpower is always cheaper because it is not consistent even if it is predictable. Even UK offshore wind prices have dropped dramatically with new (unbuilt) bids well below the cost of new nuclear power. Do notice that retail prices for electricity are very different from wholesale (often 3 times the price of the direct generation) but when you put solar panels on your roof, you avoid all the costs of advertising, billing, distributing and the corporate energy company profits included in selling electricity plus energy taxes. Go green for selfish reasons !

Also, geothermal energy keeps getting cheaper and solar thermal with storage too. Biofuels worth depends very much on the details but biogas from anaerobic fermenters seems to be cheap, easy and prevents dangerous methane escaping. Nuclear power from Thorium seems like a great idea which no one investigated because it does not make nuclear bombs as a byproduct which is actually the reason most countries got into nuclear power from Uranium. Unfortunately, nuclear power always has long development times, large capital costs, and cleanup and insurance costs that are hidden or underwritten by the tax-payer and they keep producing energy at night when demand is low. Photo-voltaic panels on your roof in a sunny spot are already cheaper than nuclear. Exploding nuclear reactors in Japan will not help the nuclear industry image but one could argue that bad design and moronic legislation caused the USA 3-Mile Island meltdown, a total disregard for safety caused Chernobyl, and that Japan's 40-year old reactor designs, placed on an earthquake fault lines next to Tsunami-prone coast was somewhat silly but decidedly daft when one learns that they generally explode within a few days once their electricity supply is cut-off - as tends to happen after earthquakes and tsunamis in Japan! An unlucky leader might have said: My Kingdom for a few solar panels or a working diesel generator. The Japanese geologists had told their government that it was possible for a tsunami to be over a metre higher than the existing wall and they put the backup diesel generators below sea level but put the spent nuclear fuel rods in high level ponds ! It makes me wonder if there was any functioning safety review when fukushima nuclear power stations were designed. Next time they should put their reactors very near a volcano for extra excitement. Britain has decided to build two huge new nuclear reactors but the price for the electricity is guaranteed for 30 years to be double the current price of UK wholesale electricity. It obviously makes no economic sense except that Britain is not reliably sunny, windy or even wet so if Britain wants to behave responsibly and cut its Carbon Dioxide emissions then letting the French and Chinese build nuclear power in England suddenly becomes the least bad option apparently. The biggest problem is that all the other reactors of this type are very late, over budget and take 10 years to build at least whilst a renewable energy alternative would be cheaper and could be up and running 9 years earlier.

The elephant in the corner that no one normally talks about but featured in the sharpest rising graph in Al Gore's Inconvenient Truth movie is human population size. I support Camfed as my favourite charity because it educates women in Africa which is noble and directly positive for humanitarian reasons but indirectly too because education of women lowers fecundity across all cultures and countries. Also, if our homes and machines become more efficient, and if there are fewer of us, then there is less energy needed overall so the renewable component of energy utilisation can become a larger proportion of the total for the same level of new investment.

2016 Update and Review

Renewable energy has become cheaper than other forms of electricty generation. Basically, nuclear became slower to develop and more expensive, solar became cheaper faster than anyone expected (thanks to the Germans buying and Chinese building), geothermal is small outside Iceland, biofuels really struggled against cheap gas and oil but windpower was cheap, became cheaper and grew everywhere even in the UK which had the Worlds first industrial revolution thanks to many coal deposits so renewable energy supplied more electricity than coal in 2015! Britain also closed its last deep coal mine in 2015. The greatest reduction in carbon emissions in Britain came from Drax power station converting two boilers from coal to wood waste cofiring but then the British government removed subsidies and the share price of Drax halved. Technological development has been fascinating and obviously difficult to predict. The best way to understand what failed and what may yet succeed is to follow Vinod Khoslas investments where most have failed or given low returns. Vinod Khosla is one of the smartest and most long-term focussed financial wizards in the whole World so the massive price changes like shale gas are obviously hard to predict and so are proper Black Swans flying in from far outside any one scientists domain of expertise. Vinod lost money on biofuels and made money on Sakti3 developing clever Lithium batteries without the flammable bits. The big news in 2015 was that because renewable costs fell so fast and because storage is becoming cheap and practical, the Worlds governments all agreed to limit or reduce their Carbon Dioxide emissions. Big thanks to Denmark for pushing wind turbine development and Germany for solar subsidies! Graph showing the reduction of solar PV module prices over the last few years versus prior estimates

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Technology research in renewable energy made good progress in 2010.

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