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Tech symphony to power future

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Creating a sustainable energy mix for the future will require collaboration between various technologies in a location- and resource-specific way.

This emerged during a panel discussion at the Solar World Congress, being held in Johannesburg this week, where representatives from the global organising bodies of major renewable energies discussed the way forward.

“The future of the world depends on achieving 100% renewable energy,” said Peter Rae, chairman of the International Renewable Energy Alliance (REN-Alliance), adding there are five major contributors involved in this mix: solar, wind, hydro, geothermal and bioenergy.

Rae stressed the need for these technologies to draw together in addressing energy needs, as “combining is usually better, stronger and more effective than playing or speaking alone”.

“As with music, one needs to combine the instruments to produce a symphony; we need orchestration, and this is why we have gathered together the associations now producing the symphony of renewables,” he added.

“They form a voice, which has been combined under an orchestra called the REN-Alliance, and each has a vital role to play, varying from country to country, economy to economy, and area to area, but all contributing to reaching 100% renewable energy.”

Monica Oliphant, president of the International Solar Energy Society, pointed out that solar energy alone could well provide all the world's energy needs, but added it would be unwise to put “all our eggs in one basket”.

“Only having a few energy sources is not a good idea; we need to have a raft of resources.”

She added there are sustainability challenges surrounding solar energy. “The solar resource is obviously a sustainable one; however, methodologies to optimise solar output over the wide range of solar technologies are often not standardised between countries, and often not even within countries.”

In transitioning to a renewable energy future, Oliphant stressed the need for good policies and incentives that provide stable investment conditions, as well as a strong commitment from both government and communities.

Big five

According to Stefan Gs"anger, secretary-general of the World Wind Energy Association, “wind potential is huge”, since advances in wind turbines meant six mega-watt turbines are now being produced, providing electricity for 20 000 to 30 000 people.

He added, however, that it is worthwhile to work together, and that holistic approaches are necessary. “Renewable energy is sustainable if we follow certain conditions, which take into account social, economic and environmental aspects.”

As far as social sustainability goes, he said local communities should be involved in wind projects to maximise the social and economic benefits of wind energy. “What is needed for successful policy principles is to close the price gap and create a level playing field. Let local communities benefit directly from a de-centralised energy supply.”

Gs"anger added it was important to provide newcomers and individual power producers access to the market arena, to stimulate community-based investment.

Regarding finance and economic considerations, Gs"anger noted that one of the basic challenges in investing in wind energy is that it involves a high share of initially fixed costs (around 80%), and a low share of operating cost.

According to Gregory Tracz, programme officer at the International Hydropower Association, hydropower could supply 1 500GW of electricity by 2020. “This is possible if we address two issues: sustainability and finance.

“Addressing sustainability requires looking at the social impact - that the benefits are shared among the local population and how communities are affected.”

He added that financing problems facing hydropower are similar to other renewables, in that it involves large upfront costs, but offers a high energy payback. “Faced with high upfront costs and low running costs, it remains difficult to find financing.”

Kent Nystr"om, interim president of the World Bioenergy Association, explained that bioenergy can be used to complement and supplement, in a very efficient way, solar energy. “If all these technologies are developed in a sustainable way, we can develop an energy system worldwide based on renewables.”

Getting specific

Rae stressed that renewables have the capacity to provide for the needs of the world. “Each of these technologies has a real role to play and can provide a significant proportion of the world's requirements for the future.”

There's an opportunity in the developing world to start from scratch with a mix of energies.

Monica Oliphant

However, what is needed for the effective realisation of this potential, according to Tracz, is a location and technology-specific approach. “Potential depends on region, and it's important that renewables have a clear idea where the potential is and how to use it.”

He added that technology-specific feed-in tariffs and supply schemes are needed to provide the best support programme per technology.

Gs"anger explained that feed-in tariffs were primarily designed to help emerging technologies come into the mix. “Wind power is one of the first technologies more or less approaching grid power and if there are no incentives to progress others, you end up with a scenario where you only have wind or hydro energy.

“If we want a symphony with the greatest amount of technologies involved, then we must give incentives to other less dominant technologies such as marine, photo-voltaic and so forth.”

“It's better to consider ourselves not competing against each other,” added Tracz.

Developing mix

According to Oliphant, in the developing world, many regions work better with distributed sources of energy than centralised ones. “We need local governments using local resources and the best renewable in the best location to develop the economy instead of spending valuable money on imported fuel.

“There's an opportunity in the developing world to start from scratch with a mix of energies.”

Godfrey Bahati, on the Uganda committee of the International Geothermal Association, said: “As we promote renewable energies, we should realise it takes time to produce and start moving in this direction. But, given that the reserves for oil are dwindling, continuing with research and implementation of renewables means we will not be in a situation where we run out of energy in 50 years.”

“By preserving the diversity of existing technology, while - at the same time - encouraging and facilitating the development of new technologies, we encourage variety, so we never again have the situation where the world is dependent on a monopolistic energy supply,” noted Rae.

“It's past time that people who make the policy decisions for the world realise that there's no validity in the arguments by those who seek to promote fossil fuels that renewable energy cannot provide sufficient energy for world demand and base load energy.

“We do have a solution to global warming and the message we need to take out there is that renewable energy has an answer, provides an answer, and is the answer.”

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