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Global Report on Renewable Energy Paints Bright Future

A new report on the status of renewable energy resources worldwide describes a rapidly expanding global market for non-fossil fuels that can reduce climate-changing carbon emissions and create millions of new jobs. The report says government incentives have been key to the renewable energy market's recent growth.

Investments in renewable energy resources, from wind and solar to geothermal and biofuels, topped 100 billion dollars in 2007, according to an analysis by an international policy research group called Renewable Energy for the 21st Century, or REN21. Contributor and Worldwatch Institute President Chris Flavin told the Washington International Renewable Energy Conference last week [March 4-6] that the 100 billion dollars includes a wide range of investments. "That includes everything: new generating equipment, new manufacturing facilities, mergers and acquisitions, IPOs [Initial Public Offerings]. That is the broadest possible way of describing it."

Flavin says the report found these investments have spurred a dramatic growth in the renewables industry. Worldwide power-generating capacity from renewable fuels climbed to an estimated 240 gigawatts last year, up 50 percent from levels in 2004. "The numbers are growing at 25-30 percent a year," Flavin says, "whereas overall energy investment is perhaps growing in the range of three to four percent per year."

Wind power is the largest component of new energy sources, growing by 28 percent worldwide in 2007 to reach nearly 100 gigawatts of power. That compares with a generating capacity of between 360 and 370 gigawatts of nuclear power, a sector that's growing by just one percent per year.

Behind wind energy, solar power and biofuel production are making healthy gains worldwide. Flavin says government policies have been key to sparking and sustaining this trend. "Official renewable energy targets and goals are present now for at least 64 countries," he notes. "The European Union has just approved a new policy that requires 20 percent of new energy come from renewable energy by 2020."

Those same policies are boosting energy-sector employment with approximately 2.5 million jobs in renewable energy worldwide.

Those jobs, says the Worldwatch Institute president, are the major rationale for pursuing renewable energy projects in less developed countries. "African countries have some of the greatest potential to develop renewable energy," Flavin observes, "if the policies were in place, if the investments were made to flow. They would have the greatest social gains to be made."

Many scientists now advocate reaching a carbon-neutral global economy by the end of the century. Flavin says that means either sharply curbing the use of fossil fuels or more efficiently capturing the carbon their use emits. He says the technology revolution under way makes it much more likely than ever before that renewables can step in to do the job. Not that it will be easy. Renewables account for just 18 percent of the world's energy use today, compared with 79 percent for fossil fuels.