Wind, Solar Drive ‘Eye-Catching’ Growth in Renewable Energy

Scottish inventor James Blyth built what is believed to be the first electricity-producing wind turbine in 1887. It was 10 metres tall and generated, at best, 12 kilowatts — enough to power a dozen 100-watt incandescent light bulbs.

Today, plans for B.C.’s Meikle Wind Project, now under construction in the Peace River region, shows how far the technology has come. Based on 61 turbines from GE, including 35 of its leading edge 3.2-103 units, the farm will be the largest in the province and produce 180 megawatts.

That’s enough electricity to power 54,000 B.C. homes, and the project will increase the province’s installed wind capacity by 38 per cent in one swoop.

When the deal for GE’s turbines was announced in July, Anne McEntee, president and CEO of GE’s renewable energy business, described the Meikle project as “an example of how sustained investment in technology can help unlock the value of wind in locations across the globe.”

Her comment could easily apply to solar power and many other renewable energy technologies that are today leading a revolution around the world.

In 2014, more than $270 billion was invested in global renewable energy projects, according to a joint report released earlier this year by the United Nations Economic Programme, the Frankfurt School and Bloomberg New Energy Finance.

The massive expenditure was a $38-billion increase over 2013 and was accompanied by a record-setting $11.7 billion in research and development spending by corporations and government. Solar projects led the way with a total investment of $149.6 billion (with installation booms in China and Japan) while wind power spending totalled $99.5 billion.

And even though total investment in 2014 fell short of the record-setting $278.8 billion spent in 2011, it delivered more bang for the buck. Due to declining costs for renewable technology, spending in 2014 is expected to add 103 gigawatts of new capacity, compared to 80.5 gigawatts in 2011.

“The 2014 performance by renewable energy investment was arguably more impressive than that in 2011,” states the report, which labelled 2014 as “a year of eye-catching steps forward for renewable energy.”

“Because capital costs in wind, and particularly in solar (photovoltaic), fell sharply in the intervening three years, each billion dollars committed added up to many more MW of capacity.”

The report also says that Canada is keeping pace with the global trend. Renewable investments totalled $8 billion, putting Canada at the sixth spot in global rankings.

But Dan Woynillowicz, policy director of Clean Energy Canada at Simon Fraser University’s Centre of Dialogue, warns that developing countries are closing in fast.

“I think what we’re likely to see in the years ahead, unless we see a move to accelerate things, is we’re going see Canada beginning to drop down the rankings.”

Developing countries, led by Indonesia, Chile, Mexico, Kenya and South Africa, embraced renewable energy last year, investing $131.6 billion — a 36 per cent increase over 2013. That wasn’t far off the $138.9 billion spent by developed nations.

For the third year in a row renewable energy investment also made up more than 40 per cent of the money spent on new electricity generation projects around the globe, coming in at 48 per cent in 2014. Worldwide, renewable sources contributed 9.1 per cent of the world’s electricity in 2014, rising from 8.5 per cent in 2013.

Robert Hornung, president of the Canadian Wind Energy Association, says wind energy is the leader in renewables in Canada.

“In the last five years there’s been more wind energy capacity built in Canada than any other form of electricity generation,” he says, adding that Canada has the seventh largest fleet of wind turbines in the world.

That’s partly due to a 50 per cent decline in costs over the past five years.

“Wind has become incredibly cost competitive,” Hornung says. “So part of this is economically driven; part of it is policy driven by governments that are seeking to reduce the environmental impacts of their electricity systems.”

As the wind and solar industries have grown, they have also developed a more experienced workforce and increasingly mature business models that have contributed to a better bottom line, Hornung adds. The costs for materials, permitting, financing, building and maintaining a project have dropped, as well.

In December, world leaders will meet in Paris for the United Nations Climate Change Conference — COP21 — with the goal of reaching a global agreement on carbon emission reductions. Such an accord would give renewable energy a massive boost. But even if a deal can’t be brokered, Woynillowicz says the popularity of green energy will continue to grow.

“We’re going to continue to see growth in the clean energy sector regardless,” he says. “Paris could be something that gives it a turbo boost, but if countries can’t agree to anything in Paris, that’s not going to put the brakes on clean energy by any stretch.”

Hornung adds the stakes are high.

“What scientists have told us is that if you want to keep climate change to a level where we can manage the impacts, we need to see greenhouse gas emission reduction of about 80 per cent by 2050,” he says.

“The only way you get there is by a massive increase in the use of clean electricity; not just for what we use electricity for today, but as a substitute for fossil fuels in other areas like home heating and cooling, some industrial processes and transportation.”

Top image: The 3.2-103 brilliant wind turbine from GE generates more power for medium-to-high wind speed sites. As a brilliant turbine, the 3.2-103 utilizes the power of the Industrial Internet to help manage the variability of wind for smooth, predictable power. This advanced technology drives higher wind farm output, services productivity and creates new revenue streams for customers.
Photograph by: GE Power & Water

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