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The latest International Energy Agency’s (IEA) Medium-Term Coal Market Report 2012 re-confirms the dangerous path the world is on--a path of increasing dependence on coal, which carries serious environmental risks for people and the planet. According to the report, the world will burn 1.2 billion metric tons more coal per year by 2017 compared to today, surpassing oil as the world’s top energy source.

Coal already contributes 40 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions--the IEA projects this figure to grow to 50 percent over the next 25 years. Greenhouse gas emissions--which again reached record levels this year--are driving global climate change, the impacts of which we’re already seeing through more extreme weather events, droughts, and rising sea levels.

To alter course and avoid the worst impacts of climate change, we need a new approach that’s grounded by stable long-term policies, investments, and innovation that leads to a global transition to clean energy. While it may seem that the road to greater coal production is inevitable, the reality is that we can avoid this pathway--if we start now.

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In 2009, the European Union (EU) pledged a unilateral greenhouse gas (GHG) reduction target of 20 percent below 1990 levels by 2020, rising to 30 percent if “other developed countries commit themselves to comparable emission reductions” (European Council 2009). The EU’s GHG

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The global renewable energy industry has experienced dramatic growth in recent years. Renewable energy capacity (excluding hydropower) has more than doubled since 2005. In 2011, new clean energy investments reached a record $257 billion (a six-fold increase from 2004), and approximately half of the world’s new electric capacity came from renewable sources. These gains came despite the tumultuous backdrop of a global financial crisis and a rapidly changing clean energy technology industry - one that’s experiencing increased global competition, rapidly falling industry prices, and oversupply in the solar photovoltaic (PV) and wind sectors.

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How can policymakers deliver low-carbon development, particularly clean energy, at affordable costs? What strategies have countries used to attain the economic benefits of building a clean energy industry while keeping the burden to consumers low —and who is succeeding, and why? These are just a few of the questions that policymakers grapple with when tackling the challenges associated with transitioning to a green economy, one of the key themes of the Rio+20 conference. They’re also questions that WRI seeks to answer through our upcoming, cross-country analysis of clean energy industry development.

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Accessing reliable energy is one of the greatest obstacles the developing world faces. Globally, about 1.3 billion people go without electricity, while 2.7 billion lack modern energy services. Providing these populations with energy is difficult—ensuring that generation occurs in environmentally sustainable and cost-effective ways makes the task significantly more challenging.

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Google is backing it. So is Warren Buffett, America’s most-watched investor. GE, one of the world’s biggest manufacturers, is too. Each of these corporate icons is placing big bets and hundreds of millions of dollars on a future powered by wind and solar power. Apple just joined them, announcing plans to power its main U.S. data center in Maiden, North Carolina, entirely with renewable energy by the end of this year. So why - yet again - are pundits making dire warnings about prospects for renewable energy? The answer is that the clean tech industry is at a critical crossroads.

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Clean tech in the United States has been on the rise in recent years— even through the recession and other challenges. Increasing wind power, falling solar costs, expanding electric vehicle markets, government stimulus and other investments have built a global clean tech sector that topped $263 billion last year.

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The agenda at this week’s Pacific Energy Summit, hosted by the National Bureau of Asian Research, in Hanoi, Vietnam, includes increasing energy security, expanding access to energy, and decarbonizing the power sector. Given these goals, plus the staggering growth in energy demand in Asia, as well as increasingly volatile fossil fuel prices and rapidly falling renewable energy costs, there are many opportunities to scale up renewable energy throughout the region. (For more on renewable energy’s rapid growth see here and here.) In order to take advantage of this fast-moving sector and develop internationally competitive domestic industries, countries need to have a strong capacity for innovation.

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Innovation in breakthrough energy technologies is notoriously challenging, despite having potentially large rewards. Individual innovations are embedded in larger systems where change is very hard. These innovations often carry significant capital costs to demonstrate, commercialize, or reach economies of scale. Unlike the latest cell phone, consumers are often unwilling to pay more for a new energy innovation, especially when the rewards are in the future.

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In his annual State of the Union address, President Obama declared: “I will not walk away from clean energy.” His words were a sharp rebuttal to critics harping on the Solyndra bankruptcy and others making dire predictions about the downfall of the renewable energy industry. So, who is right? Will 2012 be a breakthrough year for renewable, or will it collapse?

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