Post-2012 Climate: Wind makes case in climate crunch

With the world's leaders set to descend on Copenhagen next month to secure a new global climate change agreement, warnings that nothing less than an energy revolution is needed have been rife.

Wind has a pivotal role to play in that revolution - a fact now widely acknowledged - even if some still seem to vastly underestimate its potential. But strong market mechanisms and policy certainty is the key to unlocking that potential.

"The message is simple and stark: If the world continues on the basis of today's energy and climate policies, the consequences of climate change will be severe," says the executive director of the International Energy Agency (IEA), Nobuo Tanaka. To avert what the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change calls a catastrophic climate change disaster, the all important aim is to keep global temperatures from rising more than two degrees Celsius. For that to happen, global greenhouse gas emissions must peak by 2020 at the latest and come down by at least 50-80% in the following decades, with the concentration of emissions stabilising at 450 parts per million (ppm) of carbon dioxide equivalent. "Energy is at the heart of the (climate change) problem and so must form the core of the solution," says Tanaka, noting that the energy sector currently accounts for about 65% of the world's greenhouse gas emissions.

Creating a clean energy future can only happen if the right policies are put in place promptly, Tanaka adds. The success of the United Nations Framework Climate Change Convention's Conference of the Parties 15 (COP 15) meeting in Copenhagen next month - which aims to secure a binding post-2012 international climate change agreement - is then, he adds, crucial in this regard. The Global Wind Energy Council (GWEC) agrees. "The power sector is the single biggest source of carbon dioxide emissions, so global decision makers have a responsibility towards the environment and towards humanity to make profound changes to the way we produce electricity," says Steve Sawyer, GWEC's secretary general.

Few disagree. So the financial crisis, currently preoccupying every government and business leader's mind, must not be used as an excuse to put climate on the back burner, warns the World Bank. "While financial crises may cause serious hardship and reduce growth over the short to medium term, they rarely last more than a few years. The threat of a warming climate is far more severe and long-lasting," it says in its recent World Development Report 2010. "Promising new energy technologies can vastly reduce future greenhouse gas emissions and prevent catastrophic climate change," Rosina Bierbaum, a co-director of the bank's report and dean of the University of Michigan's School of Natural Resources and Environment, says. It is possible to cut energy consumption in industry and the power sector by 20-30% without sacrificing growth, the report says. "Solving the climate problem requires a transformation of the world's energy systems in the coming decades," it adds. According to the report, research and development investments in the order of $100-700 billion annually will be needed - a major increase from the $13 billion a year of public funds and $40-60 billion a year of private funds currently invested. Meantime, in an excerpt of its World Energy Outlook (WEO) 2009 report, the IEA says an incremental investment of $10 trillion between 2010 and 2030 will be necessary in the energy sector, with the power sector accounting for $1.7 trillion. The investment across industry, transport and buildings, it adds, will be offset by fuel savings. "Every year of delay adds an extra $500 billion to the investment needed between 2010 and 2030 in the energy sector," adds Tanaka.

Both the IEA and World Bank acknowledge that to succeed in combating climate change and stabilising emissions at 450 ppm, a major increase in renewable energy deployment, led by wind power, must happen, with most power generation investment targeted towards that end. They also say significant spending on new nuclear power stations is essential as is, in the IEA's words, "urgent investment in and development" of carbon capture and storage (CCS) for fossil fuel and biomass plants, an as yet unproven technology. Of the $1.7 trillion IEA says is needed for the power sector under the 450 scenario, almost $6600 billion is allocated to low carbon generation, with renewables accounting for 72%, nuclear for 19% and CCS making up the remaining 9%. Its WEO 2009 excerpt, published last month ahead of the full report (due next month), does not specify an exact amount for wind.

But GWEC insists that the IEA is placing too much faith in unproven technology and not enough in wind. "Wind energy can go a long way in achieving the emissions cuts we need, right now," says Sawyer. "No other power technology can make that claim." It is a message that he and the industry's business leaders have been pounding the global beat with this year, in the build-up to COP 15, as part of its Wind Power Works campaign, which includes the recent launch of its India Wind Energy Outlook 2009 report (see page 60).

While agreeing that wind power will continue to lead the renewable sector, the IEA estimates for its potential are woefully low, says the industry. The IEA forecasts global wind capacity to reach 550 GW by 2020 and 1.1 TW by 2030 in its best-case 450 ppm scenario - a forecast first published in its WEO 2008 report (Windpower Monthly, December 2008) and retained for this year's report (see chart, page 51). The World Bank uses the IEA figures in its report, too, suggesting 17,000-18,000 3-4 MW turbines will need to be installed each year from now on. But GWEC says at least double the capacity projected by IEA could be achieved.

GWEC's current forecast, released late last year, suggests that, even under a moderate scenario, globally installed wind capacity will reach 707 GW by 2020 and 1.40 TW by 2030, with those figures jumping to 1.08 TW by 2020 and 2.38 TW by 2030 under its advanced scenario, which assumes a positive outcome at Copenhagen and favourable policy conditions at national levels (Windpower Monthly, December 2008). GWEC's advanced scenario means wind power supplying around 12% of the world's electricity by 2020. Historically, the industry's projections for wind power have been cautious and then significantly surpassed by actual development, it points out.

The wind industry already commands an annual capital investment of over $47 billion (based on 2008 figures) and supports more than 400,000 jobs globally. Over two million people could be employed in the industry by 2020, GWEC adds. And with 260 billion kWh of electricity produced by 120 GW of installed capacity, wind energy saved around 160 million tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2) in 2008. Under GWEC's advanced scenario, this figure is projected to reach 1.5 billion tons annually by 2020 - equivalent to taking 28 million cars off the road.

Proven track record

At a time of economic turmoil and concerns about energy security and climate change, wind energy has a proven track record in solving these challenges, GWEC adds: "Experience shows that a firm, long-term national renewable energy policy is key to attracting investment and is good economic, trade, energy security and carbon avoidance policy." Policy certainty is key in creating investor confidence. "Industry decisions about where to invest and build up a manufacturing base are made on this basis. While environmental and economic benefits remain the main drivers for wind power's entry into the mainstream, it is the presence, or absence, of policy certainty which shapes investment patterns," GWEC adds.

Of the world's large strategic markets - Europe, China and the US - the US is the only one without a firm, long-term renewable energy commitment in place, the industry points out. Over 70 countries have deployed wind energy, created new jobs and saved on carbon as a result of renewable energy requirements. Most of these countries have introduced renewable energy policies based on national renewable energy requirements, pricing, "must-take" or other mechanisms, says GWEC. "For the US, strong renewable electricity standards are the policy of choice, and these standards can provide the firm commitment needed to draw both project development and manufacturing."

By mid-October, at the conclusion of a high-level international negotiation session on a post-2012 climate change agreement in Bangkok, the US had still to put a firm renewables or overall emissions reduction target on the table. According to Sawyer, without such a firm commitment by the US, the chances of success in Copenhagen next month are slim (see page 56). "Many fine statements by leaders have not translated into hard action on the ground," he says of the meeting in Bangkok. "The emphasis of the talks is on what cannot be done, rather than on what can." His message to the world's leaders is simple: "The cuts required are possible. Wind energy and other clean energy technologies are already playing their part and could do so much more."

Forecast for over 2 TW by 2030
Region Moderate Advanced
scenario scenario
(GW) (GW)
2020 2030 2020 2030
North America 214 366 243 520
China 101 201 201 451
Europe 182 306 213 353
India 63 142 134 241
OECD Pacific1 30 70 75 215
Dev. Asia2 40 140 61 211
Latin America 50 103 100 201
Transition 9 34 10 75
Middle East 8 20 25 63
Africa 10 21 17 52
Total 707 1403 1079 2382
1 incl. South Korea. 2 excl. South Korea. 3 former Communist states
Source: GWEC.

Have you registered with us yet?

Register now to enjoy more articles
and free email bulletins.

Sign up now
Already registered?
Sign in