Conventional wisdom holds that one straightforward way to cut greenhouse-gas emissions and improve energy security is by boosting the use of renewable energy, like wind and solar power. And just how big an effort does it take to make renewable energy a key—and dependable—part of the energy mix?
A sobering hint today from the Emerald Isle, which has ambitious targets for renewables. Ireland has to produce 16% of its electricity from renewables by 2020 under European mandates, but has an even more-ambitious self-imposed target of 33% by the same date.
The state-owned monopoly, the Electricity Supply Board, said today it will invest 22 billion euros (that’s $34 billion) over the next 12 years to clean up its act—including 11 billion euros for more renewable energy. Part would go to building more wind farms, biomass, and wave-power plants. Even more, about 6.5 billion euros, would go to make sure that tetchy renewable-energy sources work better on the power grid, by pouring more resources into smart-meters and “fast-response gas turbines” to back up the new juice, reports Reuters.
Ireland isn’t big—6 million people–or rich. How big an effort is that?
For ESB, Ireland’s main source of power since the 1920s, the renewables investment alone is 3.5 times its annual sales. If a big American utility, say AES Corp., were to match the Irish effort, that would mean about $47 billion over the next decade. Well, this week AES did say it would put $500 million into developing big solar power projects over the next five years.
But ESB is 95% owned by the Irish state, and doesn’t have to answer to any pesky shareholders looking for value creation. So the green investment accounts for 6.7% of Irish GDP. In American terms, that kind of renewable-energy push would mean a $931 billion check from the government. Not even the farm bill has that kind of largess.
Back-of-the-envelope comparisons from a small island nation can be misleading, but the math is pretty consistent. The world has invested about $140 billion total in building wind farms over the past decade—just to make wind power contribute 1% to the world’s electricity supply, according to Danish wind-power consultants BTM Consult. That makes the U.S. “Grand Plan” for solar power sound like a bargain—at just $400 billion over the next four decades.
Posted by Keith Johnson
27 March 2008
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