Renewable energy at the tipping point
Much has been made of the new presidential regime’s energy policies, but it’s worth pointing out that the move towards renewable energy is inevitable. The price of solar and wind power plummeted in recent years, and they are at parity with fossil fuels in many countries - and cheaper in some.
Coal and gas still make up around 62 percent of the global electricity supply, but the World Economic Forum, which met in Davos Switzerland last week says, this will change. “Exponential improvements in renewable technology, both in efficiency and cost, have made renewable energy competitive in the past few years,” it said in a report published in December 2016.
The cost of solar energy has dropped 80 percent since 2009, according to data from the International Renewable Energy Agency quoted by the WEF, and wind energy costs have dropped 30 percent in the last three years.
At the same time, most fossil fuel costs have been increasing. It’s true that fracking has opened up some cheaper reserves but, like all fossil fuels, those reserves are limited.
Image from: buildipedia.com
With all that, several things happened in 2016. WEF reckons that 30 countries reached "grid parity" – where fossil electricity and renewable power cost the same. And plenty more countries are on the way.
"If electricity costs were to rise by three percent annually, 80 percent of the global market would reach grid parity in the next couple of years," says the WEF.
As that happens, the amount of renewable power in the grid is increasing. On Christmas Day 2016 in the UK, renewables made up 40 percent of the UK’s power grid, up from 25 percent in 2015.
It’s true that government backing for renewables looks like rolling back in the US, as well as the UK and some other places. But, even without government incentives, renewables are starting to look pretty healthy.
Of course, that’s not the whole story. We all know that solar power and wind power are intermittent. So they can’t on their own provide the continuous baseline of generation that the power grid needs, or the surges when more power is demanded.
That’s why data centers rarely power themselves directly with renewable plants. They buy up the renewable power that is in the mix of the grid - and thereby encourage the production of more. Even when data centers do have a solar farm or wind turbine on site, it feeds its intermittent energy into the grid while the grid feeds the facility.
But there are moves that will fix these problems, making renewables match the grid better, and allowing data centers to use their energy. Some of this will happen through energy storage, which is increasing and improving. While most national grids have a small amount of storage, it is nowhere near the Terawatt hours (TWh) that would be required to convert all the renewable power into dispatchable power.
But add in smart grids, and we have the possibility of distributed storage, where localized batteries can provide local storage where required, eventually allowing households and data centers to operate off the power grid when required to do so.
Make no mistake, renewables are the way of the future.