You know studies. You know reports. You know data collections. But you don’t know Ren21? You should. Ren21, calling itself an international policy network promoting renewable energy, publishes an annual global renewable energy status report supported by 39 renewable energy professionals plus numerous regional researchers who verify the precision of the global coverage. In the report you find detailed diagrams for any renewable power source and more diagrams showing their development from 2010 to 2011. Because both government officials and NGO representatives, both intergovernmental organization members and industry agents all take part in the report’s generation, the conclusions and opinions spotlighted by the report can claim to be important, if not essential.
So, for the actual report, which was published last week, what were the findings? I remember that the most striking news of last year’s report was the economic crisis did not affect the renewables market:
Renewable energy […] continued to grow strongly in all end-use sectors – power, heat and transport – and supplied an estimated 16% of global final energy consumption.
This figure refers to 2009. For 2010, the year the new report addresses, the figure had further risen to 16.7%. However, in addition to modern renewables, that includes traditional biomass – still the number one energy source in rural developing areas. For the problems related to the use of biomass, especially when there are scarce resources and forest management is non-existent, see our article A Challenging Task: Promoting Energy Efficiency in Tajikistan. Substracting the use of traditional biomass, the figure for renewables in the modern sense, that is, wind, hydro, solar, geothermal, woodpellet, biofuel and biogas declines to 8.2% of the entire global energy consumption. Really, just 8.2% renewables? Sounds too little? Well, it refers to the final energy consumption, as in power, heating, cooling and transport. Concerning electricity only, the share of renewables is almost three-times higher, and a large portion of newly built power plants use renewable forms of energy. Ren21:
In the power sector, renewables accounted for almost half of the estimated 208 gigawatts (GW) of electric capacity added globally during 2011. Wind and solar photovoltaics (PV) accounted for almost 40% and 30% of new renewable capacity, respectively, followed by hydropower (nearly 25%). By the end of 2011, total renewable power capacity worldwide exceeded 1,360 GW, up 8% over 2010; renewables comprised more than 25% of total global power-generating capacity (estimated at 5,360 GW in 2011) and supplied an estimated 20.3% of global electricity.
It is crucial, at this point, to differentiate between the installed capacity of renewables and the actual share of renewables satisfying the final energy consumption. How is it that the final energy consumption is only 16.7%, whereas the global capacity of renewables lies at 25%? The capacity is 64% larger than the consumption! We have to take into consideration that energy consumption, as mentioned above, comprises all forms of energy, whereas power generating capacity and electricity consumption refer to electrical energy only.
Understanding Capacity ≠ Energy
We also have to understand that the capacity sums up to the maximum power that can potentially be generated in a power plant. This is measured in W (watt), kW (kilowatt, 1 kW = 1000 W), MW (1 megawatt = 1000 kW) or GW (1 gigawatt = 1000 MW) units. On the other hand, there is energy. Energy is the “amount of electricity” produced over a certain period of time. The units for energy are Wh (watt hour), kWh (kilowatt hour) etc. Energy = Power * Time.
To give you an example: a modern off-shore wind turbine generates up to 5 MW (5000 kW). This is the installed capacity. On a windy day, in perfect conditions, the turbine produces 5 MW during one hour. Hence, the generated electricity in this period is 5 MWh. But renewable energies never produce electricity at full capacity all year long. When there is little wind, the same turbine may only produce 1 MWh in 1 hour, and sometimes it may even stand still, producing 0 MWh. The renewable energy being produced (remember? energy = power over time) fluctuates. During fossil or nuclear energy production, it will not. Consequently, the share from renewable energy production is always lower than the installed capacity of renewables.
What’s Hot About 2011? Any Surprising News?
Back to Ren21. Renewable energy has spread considerably, that is what last year’s report already stated. “By early 2011, at least 118 countries had some type of policy target or renewable support policy. […] For example, commercial wind power existed in just a handful of countries in the 1990s but now exists in at least 83 countries. Solar PV capacity was added in more than 100 countries during 2010.”
The diagram shows the installed capacity of selected renewable energy sources, excluding hydropower. In total, a capacity of 390 GW is installed globally. To find the full amount of renewable capacity, just add the missing 970 GW of hydro power (not displayed).
Per Capita Renewable Leaders: Germany, Spain, Italy, US, Japan, China, India
Seven countries have more than two-thirds of the world’s renewable energy capacity:
The top seven countries for non-hydro renewable electric capacity—China, the United States, Germany, Spain, Italy, India, and Japan—accounted for about 70% of total capacity worldwide. The ranking was quite different on a per-person basis, with Germany in the lead followed by Spain, Italy, the United States, Japan, China, and India.
Double the Ocean Energy Capacity After 2011
After years that saw development of only small pilot projects, global ocean power capacity almost doubled in 2011. The launch of a 254 MW tidal power plant in South Korea and a 0.3 MW wave energy plant in Spain brought total global capacity to 527 MW. A number of additional projects—small pilot-scale and utility-scale—were under development in 2011, designed to test and demonstrate various technologies for full commercial applications in the near future.
Basically, in addition to the one in France, there is now also a Korean tidal power plant. The development from one to two power plants doesn’t sound very impressive, but a 100% rise does… However, energy from the ocean may finally leave the arena of theoretical discussion and hit the real world in the next few years.
Biomass and Solar Heat for Industrial Processes
Because industrial ecology not only deals with material and energy efficiency, but also with using renewable energy as an environmentally friendly process input, let’s see what trends the Ren21 report can introduce us to.
Trends in the heating (and cooling) sector include the use of larger systems, increasing use of combined heat and power (CHP), the feeding of renewable heating and cooling in district schemes, and use of renewable heat for industrial purposes.
The renewable heat for industrial purposes mainly comes from two sources: either by burning biomass, or by concentrating solar energy. According to the report, the former (biomass) is used “predominantly in the food and tobacco, paper, pulp, and wood processing sectors”, whereas the latter, solar heat and steam, is not very well developed yet. However, there are examples of practical applications:
Examples include piano maker Steinway & Sons in New York, a concrete plant in Upper Austria, a sheep wool processing facility in Slovenia, and a leather factory in Thailand.  In 2011, the largest solar process-heat applications were believed to be operating in China.  However, district heating networks, solar air conditioning, and solar process heat for industrial purposes still account for less than 1% of total global installed capacity. [39 ]
Renewable Power Generation 30% More Efficient than Fossil
The most interesting part of the report, in my opinion, is its reasoning why not all fossil fuels need to be replaced with renewables. More suitable energy generation and more efficient distribution result in lower demand, even if consumer goods don’t manage to become more efficient:
Replacing the 500 EJ of current primary energy that is 85% fossil fuels appears to be a daunting task. But the amount of energy needed to deliver the desired energy services is much smaller. Analysts suggest that by 2030, and assuming no improvement in end-use efficiency, an all-renewable energy system would be 30% smaller than one powered by current thermal fuels and technologies— or requiring less energy input than the entire world consumes today.  […] According to another study, end-use technologies and practices exist today that require as little as one-fifth of the primary energy utilised in most circumstances today. 
The two studies mentioned are Jacobson and Delucchi (2011) and Weizsäcker’s renowned Factor 5 (2009). The report also illustrates how one of the biggest energy consumers, industry, can shift to renewables by becoming more efficient and less energy intensive:
Industry demands substantial amounts of energy in the forms of electricity, heat, and mechanical services. Hydro resources have powered major industrial development over the past century, while CSP, wind power, and PV are now demonstrating that they also can meet industrial needs. Still, renewables become more effective as industrial processes become less energy-intensive and are modified in ways that reduce the inherent need for fossil fuels. For example, as carbon fibre composites replace energy-intensive steel for auto bodies, it becomes easier to substitute fossil fuels with renewable energy at fabrication plants because both total energy use declines and process-specific demand for natural gas and coal in blast furnace operations is displaced. Harnessing the rich variety of chemical substances and materials from plants will allow industry to take advantage of biochemical conversion methods rather than energy-intensive chemical processes.
Overview of Worldwide Energy Efficiency Policies
I recommend reading the whole chapter from page 95 on, “Policies to Advance Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy”. It refers to the EU’s Ecodesign Directive, to the US’s Zero Net Energy goals for public buildings and to the state of other binding energy efficiency goals for countries all around the globe.
I also like the optimism embedded in the following paragraph, which I allow myself to cite in conclusion. If we, as human civilization, could achieve economic growth four times greater than the rise in demand for energy without really making an effort – that’s what happened during the past 20 years – it is highly probable that in the next 20 years we can reduce demand drastically and still grow, because now we do make an effort! It is the challenge of our generation to de-materialize the growth of the future.
Between 1990 and 2007, world gross domestic product rose by 156% while primary energy demand increased 39%. Over this period, energy productivity gains—due largely to improvements in energy efficiency—saved the world an estimated 915 EJ of energy, or almost twice the total global primary energy use in 2007. Individual countries have done even more, but still the potential for further improvements is vast; this is particularly true in the developing world, but even the world’s most energy efficient economies still have large untapped “resources” of additional potential improvements.
M. Z. Jacobson and M.A. Delucchi, “Providing all global energy with wind, water and solar power, Part I Technologies, energy resources, quantities and areas of infrastructures and materials,” Energy Policy, vol. 39 (2011), pp. 1154–69.
Article image combines a detail of Ren21’s figure 1, “Renewable Energy Share of Global Final Energy Consumption, 2010”, from page 21 of their global status report for renewable energy, with a commons image of the world.