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Mainstreaming Renewable Energy in the 21st Century
Alex Steffen, 19 May 06

Worldwatch has an excellent new paper Mainstreaming Renewable Energy in the 21st Century (which is available as a free PDF download here, with an email registration):

Renewable energy is poised for a global takeoff. Over the past decade, the installed capacity of solar power has increased seven-fold, and wind energy capacity has grown by more than a factor of 13. These 10-year annual growth rates (of 22 and 30 percent, respectively) are closer to the realm of computers and telecommunications than the single-digit growth rates common in today’s energy economies. And their impact could be revolutionary. The immediate effects include rapidly declining costs, impressive technology advances, and growing economic power and broad-based political support, which in turn are leading to further policy reforms and even faster growth.

Those in the mainstream energy sectors tend to dismiss rapid growth in what they view as tiny industries. This thinking mirrors the attitude of IBM toward Microsoft in the early 1980s. Such high growth rates can rapidly vault a new industry from insignificance to market dominance and thus radically transform the status quo. The conventional wisdom is that the high growth rates will quickly decelerate. Yet the global capacity of both wind and solar photovoltaics (PV) has grown faster over the past five years than in the previous five. And in fact these industries are already far from tiny.

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That rate of exponential growth is indeed encouraging, but some political will is required to make sure that this new clean energy generation capacity replaces the dirty stuff and isn't just added on top; it's not enough to slow down the growth of GHG emissions, it must be drastically reduced.

Peak oil and peak natural gas are allies in this (though it would be foolish to wait until the last minute to take action), but unfortunately we're not yet close enough to peak coal...

Posted by: Michael G. Richard on 19 May 06

I agree Mike. It's about energy system, and not just supply, as we've said before -- how do we reduce demand, use more efficiently, generate power in greener ways and pull as much carbon out of the system as possible -- and renewables alone won't get us there.

Posted by: Alex Steffen on 19 May 06

Exactly, Alex.

The systems that surround us should be restorative, or at least neutral. It's a losing fight to try to work with broken and unsustainable systems for too long.

But how do we get there? From the top and the bottom, I think; some people who know what they are doing must work on devising new systems and inventing solutions (or "de-inventing", in some cases) to our problems, and from the bottom, we must build a critical mass of people who will support these radical systemic changes and influence systems that can be changed from the inside. It's not enough to have an intellectual elite working on this, because its ideas would just be ignored by the 99.9% of others.

Our approach at TH is to try to make sustainability concepts mainstream by hooking people with a variety of stuff, small and big, important and less important, but also mix into that larger scale ideas. People usually don't go from total obliviousness to caring and spending their lives working on almost abstract systems, and most of us here (unless we were raised that way from birth) probably started with smaller stuff too before noticing all the other connections to large systems. The important part is to plant the seed of a new way of thinking in people, and then they'll grow in that direction and look for information and ways to act by themselves.


Posted by: Michael G. Richard on 19 May 06

Something that really helps to increase the uptake of renewable energy systems are positive planning policies that promote them.

In October 2003 the London Borough of Merton because the first council in the UK to require that all new developments incorporate enough on-site renewable energy production to reduce their predicted CO2 emissions by at least 10%

I am currently working on a site that encourages the spread of "The Merton Rule" which can be found at

Posted by: Josef Davies-Coates on 19 May 06



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