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Renewable energy is a crucial element in the global energy future

By Piotr Tulej

The development and deployment of renewable energy technologies are important components for the future of a balanced global energy economy. Renewables can make major contributions to the diversity of energy supply, to economic development, and to addressing local environmental pollution. The International Energy Agency (IEA) believes that renewables--as part of a balanced energy mix--are a crucial element in achieving a clean and competitive global energy future. They contribute to energy supply security, reduce dependency on fossil fuel resources and have the potential for mitigating climate change.

In 2005, IEA Ministers called for a clean, clever, and competitive energy future, and renewable energy technologies--as part of a balanced energy mix-- will need to play a significant role in this future. A key prerequisite for that is to ensure they become cost-effective. Currently, renewable energy technologies supply 13.3 per cent of the world's primary energy supply. Most of this is accounted for by well-established technologies such as hydropower and biomass. Other renewable energy technologies--such as wind, solar hot water, solar photovoltaics, and advanced bioenergy-- although starting from a much lower base, are now growing rapidly. This is the result of research, development and demonstration (RD&D). These research investments, mainly by IEA member countries, began in the 1970s and were originally stimulated by the oil supply crisis.

Concentrated solar power, ocean energy, advanced geothermal, advanced biomass and biorefinery technologies are still under development, but have great promise for the future. Spending in renewable energy RD&D by IEA member countries has dropped to two-thirds of the peak level reached after the oil shocks of the 1970s. Since 1987, the share of renewable energy technologies in total energy RD&D spending has stagnated, averaging 7.6 per cent. Among renewable energy technologies, the shares in global funding of biomass, solar photovoltaic and wind have increased, while those of ocean, geothermal and concentrating solar power have declined, broadly reflecting the evolving consensus as to where the greatest potential lies. Of course, there are great variations in the balance of spending of individual countries, reflecting resource potential and national energy policies. The United States, Japan and Germany are the biggest total spenders on energy technology RD&D, although Switzerland, Denmark and the Netherlands are the leaders on a spending per capita basis.

Successful RD&D programmes need to be well focused and should be co-ordinated with both industry efforts to promote commercialization and competitiveness in the market, and with international programs. In addition, they must reflect national energy resources, needs and policies. They also need to have roots in basic science research. Issues of public acceptability, grid connection and adaptation, and managing natural cycles are common to a range of renewable energy technologies and need to be addressed in government RD&D programmes.

Public funds for RD&D should be used as effectively as possible. At the same time, industry can be expected and should be encouraged to play a major role in the development of all technologies, whether or not yet commercially available.Recent IEA analysis demonstrates consensus that RD&D in renewable energy must be strengthened, but with a caveat that priorities must be well selected, in order to address priority policy objectives, especially as they relate to prospective cost-effectiveness.

Intelligent choice of such priorities will invariably facilitate market deployment of new and improved technologies, including renewables. Research, development and demonstration activities have played a major role in the successful development and commercialization of a range of new renewable energy technologies in recent years. A new publication recently released by the IEA--"Renewable Energy: RD&D Priorities, Insights from IEA Technology Programmes"--reinforces the view that research, development and demonstration are crucial elements in making renewable energy technologies cost-effective and viable in the global market. The publication is intended to assist governments in prioritizing their RD&D efforts for renewable energy.

We think that countries can improve their market deployment strategies for renewable energy technologies and above all, increase targeted renewables RD&D, simultaneously ensuring continued cost-competitiveness.

There is much at stake.

Samuel W. Bodman is U.S. Secretary of Energy.

July/August 2006