Why Renewables are necessary for the next generation.

Renewable energy investment and installation has been increasing year on year for over a decade. This is due to a number of reasons: the falling cost of renewable technologies, the ever increasing cost of fossil fuels, government legislation, the profit motive and the need for energy security.

Whilst there has been some debate on what types of renewable generation are most suitable for large scale deployment or are most cost effective what cannot be argued is that it is a necessity, given the finite nature of fossil fuels and their impact on the environment, that renewable energy plays an ever increasing role in the world's energy usage.


Worldwide population levels, and thusly worldwide energy demand, is expected to increase year on year. Fossil fuel reserves will decline as demand and price soars. The next generation will be unable to continue on as the current one has. And in the middle of a worldwide recession renewables can act as both an engine for growth and a source of new jobs and opportunity.

Over the last 20 years the worldwide population has increased by 1.6 billion to its current level of around 7 billion. In 2011 alone the worldwide population increased by an estimated 78 million. A report produced by the United Nations in 2008 placed the world's population at around 9 billion by 2050 (although this was only one scenario, a higher alternative estimate of 10.6 billion was also provided). Population increases will inevitably lead to higher energy demand. Particularly in the developing world where rapid population growth, high birth rates and accelerating industrialisation .

According to IEA figures (the International Energy Agency), as of 2008 the total world energy supply was 143,851 TWh (Terra-Watts per hours, 1 Terra-Watt = 1 million mega-watts). Of this supply; 33.5% was generated from oil, 26.8% from coal, 20.8% from gas (of which 81% was derived from fossil supplies), 12.9% from renewables, 5.8% from nuclear, and 4% from other sources. These figures demonstrate the huge reliance that the world currently has on fossil fuels. From 2009 to 2010 worldwide energy use increased by 5%; +4% in Asia, -4.5% in North America, -5% in Europe, CIS countries -8.5%, OECD countries -4.7%, and China +8%. The reductions in energy usage in developed countries as a result of population stagnation, de-industrialisation and increased efficiency were offset by the increased usage of the developing and industrialising world, particularly China (which in the world's largest energy user).

There are several different projections of the world's future energy usage but all of them demonstrate a significant and on-going increase in demand. For example, BP estimated in its paper 'Energy Outlook 2030' that within the next 20 years worldwide energy consumption will increase by 39%. The United States Energy Information Administration in its 2011 paper 'International Energy Outlook 2011' placed worldwide usage at 504.7 quadrillion btu (British Thermal Unit, equivalent to 1055 joules). By 2015 this is expected to increase to 573.5 quadrillion btu, by 2020 619.5 quadrillion btu, by 2025 671.5 quadrillion btu, and by 2030 721.5 quadrillion btu. These figures demonstrate that even if fossil fuel extraction was to remain constant for the next 20 years (disregarding price rises and CO2 emissions) then other forms of energy generation would be vital to maintaining any semblance of a functioning global economy.

According to US Department of Energy figures fossil fuels supply over 80% of the world's energy needs. They also predict that that energy consumption will increase by 50% by 2020. Given this, and the inherently limited supply of fossil fuels in existence, the current model of energy production is unsustainable. Projections of the amount of fossil fuels still to be extracted are hugely variable but in any case it is a fact that at some point the world will run out of fossil fuels. The price of fossil fuels is also hugely variable on an upward trend. In 2011 alone the UK wholesale gas price increased by 40%; driving up energy bills far more than any amount of subsidies for renewables.

The Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) has produced a series of price projections for fossil fuels up until the year 2030. Given the hugely complex nature of these projections and the number of variables involved prices have been produced for three different scenarios. Prices are based upon real 2011 figures. In the absolute best case scenario oil would cost $75/bbl (by the barrel, contains 42 US gallons). This price is based upon there being zero growth in oil demand as well as large scale successful climate change and emission reduction policy. Gas would cost 45p/therm (1 therm is equal to 100,000 btu) based upon there being a failure of price protection from suppliers as well as the gas-oil price link being broken. Coal would cost $80 a tonne based upon supply out-stripping demand, a very high take up of renewable energy, completely modernised worldwide infrastructure and reduced worldwide energy demand! The central price projections are somewhat more likely. Oil would cost $130/bbl based upon security of supply and significant fuel diversification in the developed world. Gas would cost 70p/therm dependent upon new sources being brought on line to undercut oil-linked prices and the liberalisation of the European market. Coal would cost $110/ a tonne based upon 'moderate' demand for coal in the developing world. The highest price projections have oil selling at $170/bbl based upon there being supply constraints and faster than projected economic growth. Gas would cost 100p/therm based upon a failure of liberalisation in the European market and the continued strength of the market. Coal would cost $155/tonne based upon high demand, high economic growth and the continued market strength of the suppliers.

These price projections illustrate the importance of increasing the amount of energy generated from renewables. DECC estimates that if the UK achieves the target of 15% of energy being generated from renewables then overall demand for fossil fuels would drop by 10% and gas imports would drop by 20-30%. Given that gas imports are the main driver of energy bill increases (as well as being one of the major reasons for the country's current energy security) the importance of increased renewable generation for the consumer as well as the environment can be clearly seen.

Currently around 12.9% of the world's energy supply is generated from renewable sources (excluding biogases). For example, as of the end of 2011, there were 238,000 megawatts (MW) of installed wind turbine capacity worldwide. In the case of photovoltaic solar panels there was 67,000 megawatts of installed capacity by the end of 2011. These figures will obviously increase as time goes on, indeed BP project that worldwide renewable usage will increase 8.2% per annum. This will require significant investment, particularly in technologies such as wave and tidal which have not yet achieved commercialisation, but the rewards are there for industry, government and labour. The UK's leading industry body RenewableUK recently announced that the UK renewables industry alone could create up to 120,000 jobs in the next decade alone. Renewable energy is one of the few growth industries in the current economic climate. In the midst of a global recession renewables can generate not just significant amounts of energy but substantial economic growth. For instance, the wind energy industry is experiencing 30% growth annually.

It should be remembered that renewables are not just important for the current economic climate but key to the next generation. The current economic model based upon available abundant fossil fuels is unsustainable in the long term future. Renewables have the potential to provide for the worlds energy demands. In 2008 474 exajoules of energy were consumed worldwide. There are 1600 exajoules of solar potential worldwide. 600 exajoules of wind power (both on and off shore). 500 exajoules of geothermal. 250 exajoules of biomass and 50 exajoules of hydropower. It is for the next generation then, as much as our own, that renewables are a necessity.