Is "Clean Energy" Still a Dirty Word?

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    The global popularity of a shift toward clean-burning and renewable energy sources pendulums regularly depending on political climates, times of war and peace, singular events, and of course, supply and demand. Whether a devastating accident like Fukushima has policymakers rushing to decry nuclear energy or environmental concerns have world leaders coalescing to reduce carbon emissions, it is safe to say that the general sentiment hasn’t been set squarely in one camp in the new millenium. Although some countries have decidely invested in new clean energy infrastructure, others lag far behind, while others still staunchly exploit coal, petroleum, and other nonrenewable resources that emit greenhouse gases. Traditional thinking suggests that barriers to market entry can be prohibitive for new and expensive infrastuctural developments, like wind farms or solar panels. But  Pew Charitable Trusts reported last week that G20 countries have had unprecedented amounts of investment  into the clean energy sector, as relaxed regulations and stimulus funds bolster construction of alternative energy modules. As a result, the output of clean energy capacity reached an all-time high in 2011.

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    The report states that from 2010 to 2011, private and public investment in renewable energy sources has risen 6.5% to $263 billion. As expected, 95% of this investment is in G20 countries, which have the governance and economies to support environmental initiatives. They do note that in the next 10 years, parts of Asia, Africa, and Latin America could see anywhere between a 10-18% increase in investment for the sector. With $42 billion in investments last year, the United States saw a sharp uptick in clean energy interest, leading in value of investment for 2011. A driving factor in investment this year may be that research and development that has long been in the design and testing process is finally emerging into practice, and existing technologies are getting more efficient.

    The field with the most rapid positive change in investments in 2011 was solar energy. Over half of total investment in clean energy among G 20 members was solar energy-related. Surprisingly, in Europe, Spain has attracted a significant portion of all solar panel investment funding. Prior to a 2008 reform, Spain was a failed model of clean energy investment.

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    Loose regulation, cheap solar panels, and incentives for investors flooded the market and devalued solar output, leading to a harsh condemnation by the European Union. New regulations on investment there and institutionalized competition for new contracts reset the market, and now have regained leadership in the solar energy sector.

    Prices per megawatt are falling as clean energy is finally showing its capacity to compete with fossil fuel consumption on the consumer market. This is primarily because the cost of infrastructure, like solar panels or geothermal power plants, is also dropping, meaning more capacity to produce per dollar invested. Although the clean energy movement has seen significant roadblocks in recent years, such as failure to pass binding chlorofluorocarbon emissions regulations at the Kyoto Protocol negotiations and more recent international discussions like the COP talks in Copenhagen, Mexico, and South Africa, perhaps the momentum has shifted. Countries with fossil-fuel dependent economies like China and the U.S. have shown signs of progress toward a competitive green energy market. With investment in the U.S. up 44% from 2010, and China leading the world in implementing wind and solar energy plans on the ground, clean energy may have reached a tipping point as a viable, environmentally friendly, efficient, and competitive resource for the new millennium.