Renewable energy means any form of energy that is natural and does not run out. Examples include wind, solar, hydro, wave and geothermal power, all of which are growing in popularity in response to rising costs of fossil fuels and scientific information about the threats posed by climate change.
Combined, these sources of energy account for about one-fifth of all electricity that is generated worldwide. Most of this comes from hydro-power stations, which block the flow of a river with a dam to trap large volumes of water. This water can then be released at a controlled rate. As it flows it turns turbines that power generators to create electricity.
The other main forms of renewable energy are:
- Wind power, which harnesses the power of the wind to turn turbines that generate electricity
- Solar power, which converts sunlight into electricity either directly (known as photovoltaic solar power) or by focusing sunlight to boil water which then provides power (known as concentrating solar-thermal power)
- Wave power, which captures the energy from ocean waves
- Geothermal power, which taps heat energy from the Earth’s core
While much media attention has focused on large-scale projects, small forms of renewable energy technology have the potential to serve rural households in developing nations that are not connected to conventional power grids.
This includes rooftop wind turbines and solar panels, small-scale hydropower (which generate electricity using the water that flows in small streams) and biogas plants, which generate fuel in the form of gas that organic material produces when it decomposes in the absence of oxygen.
The annual Ashden Awards for Sustainable Energy highlight examples of such small-scale energy solutions.
There are many barriers to greater use of renewable energy. New infrastructure is costly to research, develop and build. Some forms of renewable energy are also hampered by their technology’s limited efficiency or dependence on intermittent sunlight or wind. Such sources of energy are dependent upon improvements in energy storage technology or the development of a smarter electricity grid.
For others, such as large-scale hydropower schemes that create dams that flood large areas of land, there are major concerns about widespread environmental damage and the eviction on large numbers of people (as reported in this article in the Guardian).
There is also often local opposition to large scale renewable energy systems such as wind-farms, which can be noisy and have a stark effect on the landscape. This is known as the NIMBY (“Not In My Back Yard”) effect.
These factors, combined with the subsidies that governments provide for fossil fuels, make the more polluting energy sources more economical (because their environmental impacts are not included in their cost).
As a result, most forms of renewable power still meet only a small portion of our overall energy needs. For instance, by the end of 2010, wind power accounted for just three percent of global energy capacity.
Nonetheless, the role of renewable energy is growing fast. Brazil, Norway and the Democratic Republic of Congo get most of their electricity from hydro-power. Denmark aims to get 100 percent of its power from renewable sources by 2050, while Scotland aims to do the same by 2025 — both using a combination of wind, hydro and biomass.
The Columbia Journalism Review has a useful summary of two panel discussions held in 2011 at the Harvard Kennedy School’s “Clean Energy and the Media” series. It discusses the pitfalls and warnings in pursuing stories on renewable energies.
To report effectively on renewable energy journalists will need to have a good grasp of mathematics and a clear understanding of the energy budget for the country or region that are reporting about.
Often media reports describe ambitious solar or wind power projects without making clear reference to their scale relative to existing and future energy demands. This can paint an unrealistic picture of a project’s ability to deliver benefits at a meaningful scale and affordable cost.
Another factor to consider is that all renewable energy sources come with some environmental and/or social impacts. Large amounts of land and resources are required for wind farms and solar power installments. Many criticisms involve the impacts on local wildlife and land costs. The US Union of Concerned Scientists has produced a useful report that summarizes these impacts.
Many other think-tanks and non-governmental organizations have well-informed energy programs and produce regular information about different forms of renewable energy. The following are a good selection of sources for journalists: Chatham House (Royal Institute for International Affairs); the World Resources Institute; and the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD).
IISD also runs Energy-L, a mailing list for news and announcements related to energy policy issues that is a good source of story ideas, contacts and other information.
Another useful source is the International Energy Agency’s annual World Energy Outlook report provides an up-to-date picture of renewable energy worldwide. The agency’s website also had a media room, which has information for journalists.
In 2011, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change will produce a special report on renewable energy which will provide a better analysis of the potential for renewable energy in different parts of the world.
CASE STUDY – Solar and wind power in the Sahara
DESERTEC is a large-scale project being developed by a consortium of companies led by the German reinsurance firm Munich Re. It will cost investors hundreds of billions of dollars but could create trillions of dollar’s worth of clean electricity.
It aims to use wind farms and a combination of photovoltaic and concentrating solar-thermal systems to harness the abundant wind and solar resources of North Africa to generate electricity.
The project could one day supply 15% of Europe’s electricity needs, create more than 200,000 jobs and play a big role in limiting emissions of greenhouse gases.
DESERTEC’s backers say the project would improve local livelihoods, create energy that can be used to desalinate sea water for drinking and to increase agricultural production through irrigation.
Despite these claims, the project has many critics. Some are concerned that DESERTEC would make Europe overly dependent on North African countries that have patchy records of governance and democracy.
Other risk factors include terrorism, international discord within North Africa, and the possibility of state seizures of infrastructure.
Critics also say that renewable energy produced in North Africa should be used primarily to support clean development there, rather than to power Europe.
Guardian: Wind power growth in China’s deserts ignored financial risks
Guardian: Wind will power fossil fuel-free Denmark in 2050, report predicts
New York Times: Beyond Fossil Fuels: Costs and Benefits
Renewables Global Status Report