The resurgence of renewables

New technologies and age-old natural resources generate clean energy

By Antoinette Price

The global transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy is well under way, with record new additions of installed renewable energy capacity, thanks in part to rapidly falling costs, particularly for solar PV and wind power.

The priniciple of the solar cell was discovered in 1839 but the first solar PV cells were developed in the 1950s The first solar PV cells were developed in the early 1950s

Imagine if trees had nanoleaves that could generate power from wind, sun and rain, or if solar panels could be printed onto walls, windows and packaging thanks to a new flexible ink. What if just five floating wind turbines anchored to the seabed could produce enough energy to power 20 000 homes, or it were possible to convert carbon dioxide into clean energy by using light, a little like photosynthesis. And what if solar power could be harnessed from space, to provide a continuous energy source that is sustainable from outside the Earth’s surface.

These are not farfetched ideas; these are some of the innovative renewable energy technologies being tested around the world.

Overtaking fossil fuels

According to the Renewables 2017 Global Status Report, by REN21 – the global renewable energy (RE) policy network which works towards a rapid global transition to renewable energy – for the fifth consecutive year, investment in new renewable power capacity (including all hydropower) was roughly double the investment in fossil fuel generating capacity, reaching USD 249,8 billion.

In other words, globally, more renewable power capacity is added annually than the added net new capacity from all fossil fuels combined. The cost of electricity from solar PV and wind continues to fall rapidly and in 2016, solar photovoltaic (PV) accounted for around 47% of the total additions, wind power 34% and hydropower 15,5%.

Standards and testing advance the RE sector

The demand for electricity continues to increase, while the RE sector continues to develop and grow rapidly. Against this backdrop IECRE, the IEC System for Certification to Standards Relating to Equipment for Use in Renewable Energy Applications, was established in 2014 to address the specific requirements of the solar PV, wind and marine RE sectors. The System covers the design, manufacture, transportation, installation and maintenance and testing of the equipment using IEC International Standards.

Thus, IECRE certification reassures investors, manufacturers and users of RE technologies that the complex equipment and systems are safe, secure, and interoperable and function correctly wherever they are in the world.

A part of the mix from the outset

Almost all energy used up until the industrial revolution of the 19th and 20th centuries was renewable, from biomass for making fires, to wind for powering ships and windmills that converted wind energy into rotational energy in order to mill grain and pump water. 

During the industrial revolution, coal was developed on a large scale for industry and transport. It became the main source of power for steam engines, heating buildings and generating electricity, as the transition to new manufacturing processes took place, in which machines replaced hand work.

Nonetheless, during this time, some scientific journals and prominent inventors made reference to the fact that fossil fuels would one day run out. For example, Augustin Mouchot, French inventor of the earliest solar power engine for converting solar energy into steam power, was spurred on to carry out pioneering solar energy research, such was his belief that coal would eventually be depleted. He published the book Solar heat and its industrial applications in 1869 and later presented a paper on an experimental solar generator he invented, to the Academy of Sciences in 1875.

In 1885, when talking about the photovoltaic effect, German industrialist Werner von Siemens, who founded the electrical and telecommunications company Siemens, also noted that solar energy would last for countless ages after the exhaustion of coal.

The inventive years

Though it would take many decades for RE technology to be developed and used to power homes, buildings and become integrated into the grid, as well as used for off-grid energy provision, the basis for modern-day RE technology was discovered and built during the 19th and 20th centuries:

  • 1839, the observation that sunlight striking certain materials could generate detectable electric currents. French physicist Alexandre-Edmond Becquerel discovers the photovoltaic effect or the operating principle of the solar cell.
  • 1887, Scottish professor James Blyth builds the first windmill for electricity production.
  • 1887, US professor Charles F. Brush builds a 12kW wind turbine to charge 408 batteries stored in his cellar.
  • 1966, the world’s first large-scale tidal power station built in France becomes operational.

Greening the future

There is still a long way to go, and oil remains the world’s leading fuel, accounting for one third of global consumption, according to the BP Statistical Review of World Energy June 2017. However, global energy is transitioning towards greener, cleaner, sustainable energy sources, in order to protect the environment. As the world’s energy demand continues to grow, technological developments, policies and regulations are helping countries, regions, states and cities to improve energy efficiency and use more renewables to generate electricity for infrastructure, such as transport, the grid, heating and cooling systems, to power buildings and homes, and for off-grid rural electrification.

Windmills were used originally to mill grain and pump water Windmills converted wind energy into rotational energy to pump water (Photo:
The priniciple of the solar cell was discovered in 1839 but the first solar PV cells were developed in the 1950s The first solar PV cells were developed in the early 1950s
Low carbon marine energy contributes to reducing greenhouse gases The ocean produces low-carbon energy, which helps to reduce greenhouse gases (Photo: ©Dreamstime)