The Renewable Energy Policy Network (REN21) has published its Global Futures Report 2017, which examines a wide range of issues associated with renewable energy and assesses how the future may evolve. The assessments were built up by consulting experts around the world and not necessarily those inclined favourably towards renewable energy.
On the question of falling costs, 67% of those contributing either agreed, or strongly agreed, that the costs of renewables will continue to fall and will outpace all fossil fuels within the next ten years; 20% neither agreed nor disagreed with the proposition, and only 13% disagreed.
The report does not discuss generation costs in any detail, and the one chart that does (below) quote these appears to be a little dated as the figure for solar is a little under $100/MWh, despite the text quoting solar PV being among the cheapest power-generation options.
The generation-cost data confirm that wind energy is within or below the cost range for "non-renewable electricity costs". The minimum value quoted for wind is $50/MWh, and the range for fossil generation is $60-120/MWh.
Latest from the US
The wide range of generation costs in the REN21 report stems from its international perspective.
The latest edition of the US Energy Information Administration's (EIA) Annual Energy Outlook confirms that geothermal (where accessible) offers the lowest generation costs, in the $45-55/MWh range, followed by wind at $47-75/MWh, and then hydro, with a minimum of around $55/MWh.
The minimum for solar is around $57/MWh, and the range for combined-cycle gas turbines is around $50-80/MWh. The costs for nuclear are around $95-105/MWh. The EIA figure for biomass is significantly higher than the REN figure, with a minimum around $85/MWh.
Uncertainty over oil prices
Now that wind-energy prices have fallen to the extent that little or no support is required, the price of oil and gas is less important than it was. However, an increase in oil or gas prices would strengthen the attractiveness of renewables.
Although some authorities suggest that oil prices will stay low for some time, in four out of the five scenarios examined by the EIA, the oil price starts to rise this year. The fifth scenario envisages a much more modest rise starting next year.
In all scenarios, however, gas prices begin to go up this year. There is perhaps some evidence of this, with prices in April around 30% higher that one year ago. Experts interviewed for the REN21 report were divided: 34% thought oil at $100/barrel was likely within the coming decades, while 37% disagreed; the rest were neutral.
The extent to which electricity supplies will come to rely more on small, decentralised supplies, especially renewables, is one of the topics explored by the Renewable Energy Network.
Perhaps surprisingly, many experts from developing countries thought that decentralised systems would not be sufficient to provide adequate supplies of electricity. Large-scale centralised power plant would be required as well.
In Europe, however, only 7% of respondents agreed with this view.
Overall, 56% of respondents thought large-scale conventional power plants would no longer be needed, with the contrary view embraced by 33% of respondents.
Storage is another issue that currently attracts a lot of attention. The REN report suggests the use of batteries for householders with photovoltaic systems, "is not quite mainstream, but close to it".
A number of other options for storage within electricity networks are discussed, and the overall conclusion is that "the future is wide open and far from being decided".
AT A GLANCE — THIS MONTH'S REPORT CONCLUSIONS
Global Futures Report 2017, Renewable Energy Policy Network for the 21st Century After consulting a range of experts, renewable energies are no longer judged as "alternative" but as mainstream, with assimilation seen as quite feasible.
Annual Energy Outlook Energy, Information Administration, United States Department of Energy, 2017 Examines the likely future trends in energy supply and usage in the short and medium term and confirms the competitive position of wind and solar. 56% of respondents to Global Futures Report 2017 think large-scale centralised power plants will soon be obsolete Source: REN21.