You probably heard about citizens becoming more informed and aware of green energy resources in the news recently. While the news itself is recent, green energy is not. In fact, it has been around for awhile, having to pass a number of milestones before arriving at a format that is both cost-effective and commercially deployable.
The first such milestone reached in the history of green energy was the first wind turbine farm built in New Hampshire, USA, by U.S. Wind Power in December 1980. While the initial and subsequent designs of the turbines were faulty and the energy yield output was overestimated, the company — which later changed its name to Kenetech — became the world’s largest turbine manufacturer and wind farm developer.
One year later, Solar One, the first large scale solar-thermal power plant was built in Daggett, California, USA. 1818 mirrors tracked the motion of the sun and used the redirected solar energy to boil water, which in turn powered a turbine to generate electricity. It operated from 1982 to 1986, generating 10 megawatts of energy.
Everyone is familiar with the March 24, 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster that released 11 million gallons of crude oil into the Alaskan waters. What made this a milestone is the fact that Exxon was fined $150 million – the largest ever imposed for an environmental crime. It also served notice that companies that mishandled “dirty” forms of energy resources would now be responsible for any damage to the environment.
Events such as the Exxon Valdez began a movement towards reducing the dependence on conventional fossil fuels in favour of cleaner forms of energy. For example, the United States Congress passed the Spark M. Matsunaga Hydrogen Research, Development, and Demonstration Program Act on November 15, 1990. This act sought to help assist in the economical production of hydrogen fuel.
Furthermore, the German Electricity Feed-In Act of 1991 was the first policy to introduce feed-in tariffs. Under a feed-in tariff, eligible renewable electricity generators, including homeowners, business owners, farmers and private investors, are paid a cost-based price for the renewable electricity they supply to the grid. Japan would soon follow with the original “Sunshine” program and subsidies for commercial deployment of solar PV in 1993.
In 1996, General Motors releases the EV1 — the world’s first electric car — to the public to meet a mandate that 2% of all cars sold in California in 1998 be zero-emission. While proving ultimately to an unprofitable failure for the automaker, it was the first of many steps in the evolution of the electric car that is now more economical to produce.
By the turn of the century, clean energy had become more mainstream, leaving its niche origins behind. By 2003, investment in renewable energy had reached about $25 billion (US) globally, up from $6 billion in 1995 and 40 countries around the world had enacted policies that stoked clean energy markets.
Part of this mainstream acceptance was assisted by research findings such as the report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that confirms that climate change is real, and mostly as a result of human action. Released on Nov. 17, 2007, the report also proposed policies and technologies meant to reduce further impact to the climate.
It should be noted that solar and wind power were not the only forms of green energy gaining attention during this time. For example, the first commercial cellulosic ethanol plant went live on February 2008, converting soft wood, cardboard, and paper into a form of biofuel that could be used to power motor vehicles. Further support for biofuel came on October 7, 2008 in the form of the National Biofuels Action Plan or NBAP, to accelerate the development of a sustainable biofuels industry.
Attention to improving the efficiency of delivering both “old” and “new” sources of electrical power to consumers was also an important focus. On October 27, 2009, President Barack Obama announced the largest single energy grid modernization investment in U.S. history, meant to promote energy-saving choices for consumers, increase efficiency, and foster the growth of renewable energy sources.
One milestone in particular demarks the amount of new green energy being equal to the addition of current forms of “dirty” energy after many years of trying to reach mainstream acceptance. In both 2011 and 2012, the amount of renewable power capacity added globally was about equal to the amount of fossil-fuel and nuclear power capacity added globally. In addition, annual global investment in renewable energy had exceeded annual global investment in fossil-fuel and nuclear power in 2012.
The crowning accomplishment of these milestones is the activation of the world’s largest concentrated solar power generation plant in the Mojave Desert, California, USA on February 13, 2014. Named Ivanpah, the plant can generate an impressive 392 megawatts of clean electricity, enough to power 94,400 average homes.
Will there be more milestones reached in the year to come? Absolutely. The U.S. Energy Information Administration forecasts renewable energy will be the fastest-growing power source through 2040. According to Dan Kammen, director of the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory at the University of California at Berkeley; and Ron Pernick, co-founder and managing director of Clean Edge, a research firm, expect the market share held by coal and oil to shrink once solar energy costs drop, while the wind power market is forecasted to become as large as nuclear power.
Smart appliances such as refrigerators that will one day dial our cell phones to remind us to pick up things from the grocery story (saving that extra and unnecessary trip) will play an important role in reducing our energy consumption needs. Expect future appliances to automatically go into hibernation mode as ordered by the electrical grid during peak usage hours when sensors detect they are not being used.
Hydrogen fuel cells that take in hydrogen (from storage) and oxygen (from the air) to generate electricity and water (which is a waste by product) will one day become cheaper and greener to produce without using fossil fuel based materials as part of their manufacture.
Finally what was once environmentally harmful could in term become a green source of power. Imagine one day carbon dioxide from coal-fired plants being used to create products such as calcium carbonate, a key component of Portland cement used as a basic ingredient of concrete, mortar, stucco, and most non-speciality grout.