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Renewable Energy: The Good, the Bad, and the So-So

Jul 27, 2008
The green movement has created a plethora of buzzwords. One of the more popular phrases is renewable energy. And for good reason. Businesses, traditional and emerging, will soon be affected by how they will respond to the reality of renewable energy depending on where they fall in the supply chain.

Renewable energy is a term that refers to those potential sources of energy that are naturally replenished, which means that using them does not decrease the amount available in the future. This contrasts with nonrenewable sources (fossil-based fuels) that have a limited supply and will eventually be used up. Renewable energy sources include sunlight, hydrosphere/water cycle, geothermal and some types of biomass and biofuels. Think of energy as a source and electricity as an application.

The mechanisms used to generate electricity from these sources vary considerably. For sunlight, there are photovoltaic technologies that generate electricity directly from sunlight. But there are also systems that use the sunlight to heat an intermediate fluid, which is used to turn turbines to generate electricity. There are multiple ways that water can be used to provide electricity, of which the most commonly used is the hydroelectric dam.

Other systems that produce electricity from water include wave power systems that convert the kinetic energy of waves into electricity, tidal power systems that use the kinetic energy of tidal flows in a similar fashion, and systems that take advantage of the temperature differences between surface waters and deeper waters in the ocean to generate electricity. Geothermal systems rely on the heat of the earth's interior to generate electricity in various ways, depending on the specific nature of the site. Biomass and biofuels consist of fuels derived from plant and other organic matter, which are renewable depending on the sustainability of the agricultural practices that provide the biomass. Examples include ethanol and biodiesel liquid fuels for transportation, and solid biomass from unused portions of other crops for electricity generation.

Presently, renewable energy sources provide only a small fraction of global energy production, and the majority of this is from biomass burning such a wood (which while renewable in the strictest sense is not environmentally friendly) in undeveloped regions of the world. Renewable energy provides less than 1% of the world's energy production even though its use is expected to grow rapidly amid rising concerns about global warming and the rising price of oil.

The biggest impediment to the widespread use of renewable energy sources in the past has been its price compared to the price of coal, natural gas, and petroleum. At present, wind energy costs $0.04-$0.08 per kWh, while coal costs $0.04 per kWh. Other renewable energy sources are even more expensive, such as solar thermal at $0.12-$0.34 per kWh and solar photovoltaic at $0.25-$1.60 per kWh. Water sources vary in cost from being cheaper than coal to costing three times as much. This cost differential, however, is narrowing as the price of oil rises and new technological innovations are bringing down the prices of renewables.

Looking forward, the increasing likelihood of carbon taxes or emissions trading schemes being implemented in much of the developed world means that the cost of generating electricity from coal, natural gas, and petroleum will rise even more precipitously, which will make renewable energy even more attractive for future development.

The future of renewable energy depends on how government energy policy will develop over the course of the next presidential administration and congress. Will carbon taxes or emissions trading schemes be enacted to limit greenhouse gas emissions? Will green grid technologies become widespread? Will the development of new oil supplies be allowed? All of these possible scenarios will affect the future deployment of renewable energy technologies.

As an example, consider the application of rooftop solar photovoltaic systems. Not only will these systems provide electricity to homes and businesses, but they can even be used to sell energy back to the power utility. Farmers and ranchers can plant wind turbines on land unsuitable for growing crops. The widespread use of smart grid technologies can become a major method of decentralizing power generation.

Similarly, if emissions trading schemes are enacted, then the rising cost of carbon-producing energy sources will force a shift to renewable energy technologies for large portions of our energy needs. This is deemed so likely that many believe that renewable energy technologies will be the next major industrial boom, similar to the computer technology revolution of the 1980s and the internet revolution of the late 1990s. Increasingly, large quantities of venture capital are pouring into renewable energy companies in expectation of just such an outcome.

How you position your firm to take advantage of the probable boom in renewable energy depends on your business's energy needs and usage. If green grid technology becomes widespread, the opportunity presents itself to businesses to become both an electricity consumer and a supplier. If carbon taxes or emissions trading systems drive the move away from petroleum transport fuels to biomass transport fuels, it is important to be prepared for that as well.

As the renewable energy debate gains momentum, NOW is the time to prepare for its eventual inevitability to help protect your business from rising energy and transportation costs.
About the Author
Bottom line? - Apply this information to improve your profitability, reengineer business models, and strengthen or gain competitive advantage in the marketplace. And apply the free Fiscal Test at http://fiscaldoctor.com/fiscaltest.html.

From Gary W Patterson, www.FiscalDoctor.com Copyright 2008
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