A video circulated recently in which a Fox Business Network analyst made the laughable assertion that Germany’s success with solar power is due to its abundant solar resources (for those missing the humor here, Germany has about the equivalent solar resource of Alaska). While the gaff elicited plenty of chuckles from around the energy sector, the analyst also made another claim that received less attention, but may be similarly incorrect.

Shale gas operations, such as the one above, are multiplying across the U.S. But will unconventional gas resources produce as much energy as is typically touted? (Source: Flickr user Nexen)

In trying to make the argument that the United States should pursue natural gas as opposed to solar power for electricity generation, the Fox analyst states: “Now people are saying, well, solar may be dead in the water. What’s going to happen with nat. gas? You guys know this very well; we have a hundred years of energy.… Let’s take our focus off of solar, let’s move it to nat. gas, and let’s get this economy going.” (We can, for the sake of argument here, ignore the many other nuances in this debate, such as the fact that the U.S. Southwest has some of the best solar resources in the world, and that natural gas and solar are actually complementary technologies and are in no way mutually exclusive.)

The claim that natural gas resources will provide the United States with 100 years of energy is often thrown around (and not just by a fossil fuel-happy news organization like Fox) thanks to recent technological advancements in hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling techniques that sparked the so-called “shale revolution.” Shale gas now accounts for almost 40 percent of U.S. natural gas production and has reversed the trend of declining gas production numbers.

However, the estimated amount of natural gas that is available is not a hard number, and the upswing in gas production may not be as long-term a trend as many people believe. In January 2012, the U.S. Energy Information Administration slashed its estimate of unproven technically recoverable shale gas resources by 42 percent. This new estimate, along with proven shale gas reserves, amounts to 579 trillion cubic feet of available natural gas.

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energy, LNG, natural gas, renewable energy, shale gas, unconventional gas, United States

CARICOM's Energy Programme Manager Joseph Williams with Worldwatch Institute Program Manager Mark Konold and Research Associates Evan Musolino and Katie Auth.

In the face of the many challenges inherent in getting 15 countries—each with their own resources, priorities, and political complexities—to agree to anything, let alone a comprehensive regional energy policy, the Caribbean is now on the brink of taking a significant (and impressive) step forward. For the past half decade, a Draft Caribbean Community (CARICOM) Regional Energy Policy—designed to address critical issues like energy security, affordability, energy efficiency, and renewable energy—has been circulating among CARICOM’s 15 member states, continually being revised to reflect the concerns of individual members, but never finalized.

Last week, a team from Worldwatch joined CARICOM Prime Ministers, Energy Ministers, government representatives, technical experts, and international organizations in Trinidad & Tobago for the Forty-First Special Meeting of the Council for Trade and Economic Development (COTED). On March 1, after more than five years of lengthy deliberation, delegates at the event provisionally adopted both the Draft Energy Policy and Worldwatch’s Sustainable Energy Targets for the region, marking an important step forward in the development of renewable energy and energy cooperation in the Caribbean.

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Caribbean, CARICOM, energy, energy policy, energy security, low-carbon, renewable energy, Trinidad and Tobago

A team of Worldwatch researchers spent last week in Haiti meeting with energy sector stakeholders and visiting important energy project sites. The stakeholder meetings were incredibly enlightening and we learned a great deal about the obstacles to achieving improved and more widespread energy services throughout the country.

One successful energy project in Haiti is the solar installation on the roof of Hôpital Universitaire de Mirebalais. (Photo Credit: Matt Lucky)

Overall, there are a lot of determined people doing great work in Haiti, with the hope that they can improve the energy sector, including helping to expand electricity services beyond the 25 percent of the population that currently receives these services. A major barrier to expanded energy services, however, and something that was a common theme throughout our stakeholder meetings, is that Haiti currently lacks a clear and long-term energy framework.

While many energy plans have been developed by various government agencies, institutions, and consultancies, they remain interim, uncoordinated, and lack a common vision. As a result, plans often go unfulfilled or only accomplish isolated goals on a short-term basis. It is true that Haiti needs plans that can provide rapid results, as it is still recovering from the devastating 2010 earthquake and dealing with a number of other urgent, immediate challenges. However, Haiti is also in dire need of long-term and stable infrastructure development that will help it to prosper in the future, and a forward-thinking energy framework will go a long way in helping Haiti to accomplish this goal.

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Caribbean, developing countries, development, electricity, energy, energy policy, Haiti, low-carbon, renewable energy

The full text of this Vital Signs Online article can be found here.

Smart meters are just one component involved in emerging smart grid networks. Smart meter deployments are increasing, with many nationwide installations planned worldwide. (Source: Wired)

Global investment in smart grid technologies rose 7 percent in 2012 from the previous year. On top of direct investments, numerous countries around the world are making headway on smart grid regulatory policies, development plans, and frameworks to support future grid infrastructure upgrades.  Smart grids consist of many different technologies serving different functions. Smart grids are commonly defined as an electricity network that uses digital information and communications technology to improve the efficiency and reliability of electricity transport. Such modernized grids are becoming more important as current grid infrastructure ages and regions begin connecting more variable generation from renewable energy sources into the electricity network.

The United States had the highest investment of all countries in 2012 despite seeing a 19 percent decrease in smart grid spending from 2011. While the U.S. federal government has funded smart grid development and supported deployment projects throughout the country, many individual utilities are contributing their own efforts to update grid infrastructure. At the beginning of 2012, U.S. smart grid development efforts had installed 37 million smart meters, covering 33 percent of American households. Continued efforts by utilities to deploy smart grid solutions will become increasingly important in the U.S. as federal funding initiatives enacted under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 begin to expire.

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electricity, energy, energy storage, Green Technology, smart grid, smart meters, Vital Signs Online

The full text of this VSO is available here.

Geothermal power, which uses the Earth's natural heat to produce electricity and heating services, is increasingly being recognized as a valuable resource by policymakers (Source: Energy Conservation Future).

Hydropower and geothermal technologies are some of the oldest and longest-standing renewables in use today. In 2011, the total capacity and use of both technologies continued to increase. The two technologies, however, are at very different stages of deployment. By year-end 2011, global installed capacity of hydropower reached 970 gigawatts (GW), roughly 2.5 times greater than capacity of all other renewable power sources combined. By contrast, geothermal installed capacity reached a new high of 11.2 GW as of year-end 2011. While overall capacity continued to increase, consumption growth slowed for both technologies compared to recent years with each growing at reduced rates not seen since the early 2000s.

The majority of geothermal power is found in a select group of countries, although capacity has now been developed in 24 countries worldwide. The United States continues to lead all others, accounting for 28 percent of geothermal power capacity. Beyond the U.S., only three other countries had over 1 GW of capacity installed as of May 2012. Geothermal is increasingly attracting the attention of policymakers and project developers with new projects under development or consideration in an additional 70 countries. Though expanding, geothermal sources accounted for less than 1 percent of global electricity production in 2011.

By contrast, hydropower represents slightly above 6 percent of total primary energy use and 15 percent of electricity production worldwide. China, Brazil, the United States, Canada, and Russia are the global hydropower leaders, together accounting for over 50 percent of all installed capacity. China, Vietnam, Brazil, India, and Canada accounted for 75 percent of all new installations, with China alone representing nearly half of all new capacity added in 2011.

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energy, geothermal, hydropower, renewable energy, Vital Signs Online

Smog in Beijing recently reached record levels. (Source: Flickr user michaelhenly)

China recently announced that it would be joining the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), as a global leader in terms of installed capacity and investment. This acknowledgement of its status as a clean energy leader may come as a surprise to some, given the recent headlines about the country’s astounding air pollution. But in 2012, China invested US$ 68 billion on developing renewable energies, 55 percent greater than U.S. investments, making it the largest clean energy investor in the world. Installed capacities for hydro and wind power rose to 249 and 63 gigawatt (GW), achieving another two global “top spots.” Looking into 2013, with aims to add 21 GW of hydro, 18 GW of wind and 10 GW of solar power in a single year, it seems that nothing can stop China’s clean energy ambition.

However, what matters to the energy sustainability is not only the scale of clean energy products, but also the environment-friendly approaches through which the sector is built and operates. While clean energy is certainly not to blame for the large portion of pollution problems, China’s efforts to develop renewable energy so quickly have generated some environmental problems, too. A lack of effective environmental policy-making and regulation has led to unsustainable practices in the renewable energy sector that cast a shadow on those “top spot” numbers.

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China, developing countries, development, energy, energy policy, low-carbon, renewable energy
Standing in front of the Capitol, President Obama focused on climate change and energy as critical issues for his second term in office. (Photo Credit: Reese Rogers)

President Obama’s decision to make climate change and energy a centerpiece of his Inaugural Address has taken political analysts and partisans on both sides of the issue by surprise. Of the half dozen specific issues raised in the speech, only the economy, foreign affairs, and the social safety net had as many words devoted to them.

Why would a President who has recently made only glancing reference to climate change double-down on one of the most contentious issues of his first Administration?  A second failure on climate would go down as a signature feature of the Obama legacy—and not a positive one.

Hurricane Sandy and Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s clarion call on climate change just days before the 2012 election were undoubtedly part of the reason for the President’s decision.  But the speech itself provides a deeper explanation.  With his young daughters standing a few feet away, Obama declared that failure to respond to the threat of climate change “would betray our children and future generations.”  No President has ever faced an issue whose consequences will last so long.  Historians a century now could see it as his most tragic legacy.

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Climate Change, energy, energy policy, inauguration, President Obama, renewable energy, United States

The recent increase in U.S. oil production after four decades of decline has attracted great excitement in the energy industry and beyond.  The International Energy Agency, projects that North America could become a net oil exporter within the next few decades.

While these developments are undeniably dramatic, they may be obscuring some other unexpected and potentially transformative changes with large implications for the U.S. economy and the global environment.  They include:

1.  U.S. energy consumption declined in 2012 for the fourth time in the last five years—even as economic recovery began to take hold.  According to preliminary Worldwatch estimates, total energy use in 2012 was a full 7 percent below the 2007 level, the steepest five-year decrease in at least 60 years.  Most of this decline results from advances in U.S. energy productivity—dominated by gains in transportation fuel economy and building efficiency.

2.  Reliance on natural gas is growing rapidly, particularly in power generation.  Falling natural gas prices, sparked by the shale gas boom, has led electric utilities to switch from  coal to gas while many manufacturing companies have been replacing oil with gas.  (Not surprisingly since gas prices averaged the equivalent of $18 per barrel in 2012 while oil hovered at $100.)  Natural gas provided the U.S. with 27 percent of its total energy in 2012, compared with just 18 percent from coal.

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emissions reductions, energy, natural gas, renewable energy, United States

Renewable energy development is critical to climate adaptation efforts for numerous reasons, including its minimal use of increasingly scarce water resources. (Source: ClimateTechWiki).

For countries that are particularly vulnerable to climate change—especially developing countries—the lack of urgency in the recently ended United Nations climate talks failed to reflect the reality back home. In many of these places, the effects of climate change are already taking their toll on social and economic development, not to mention human lives. So it’s no surprise that throughout the halls and meeting rooms of the 18th Conference of the Parties in Doha, Qatar, the most vulnerable countries made it abundantly clear that—for them—adaptation, not mitigation, is the number-one priority.

The impacts of climate change are mounting. Shifting rainfall patterns are already affecting Kenya’s agricultural sector, and the increasing frequency and severity of extreme weather events are necessitating rebuilding in numerous Caribbean countries. But unfortunately, both adaptation and energy, a critical area for development, are consistently shortchanged in climate negotiations. Of the “fast-start financing” provided by Germany in 2010 and 2011, only 28 percent was allocated for adaptation projects, while mitigation received 48 percent of the funds (the rest went to REDD+ and multipurpose activities).

Meanwhile, the energy sector’s contribution to greenhouse gas emissions, and the emission reduction opportunities that the sector presents, hardly made it into the recent discussions. When renewable energy is brought up, it is most often in the context of mitigation, highlighting how a shift away from fossil fuel-fired power generation can reduce emissions and slow further climate change.

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adaptation, Climate Change, developing countries, development, energy, renewable energy, UNFCCC

Jamaica's current generation mix is heavily oil-dependent. New energy policies call for diversification.

Jamaica is hostage to oil and needs to diversify its energy mix. Astoundingly, in 2010, the country’s oil imports exceeded its exported goods in value by 118 percent. Like most Caribbean island nations, Jamaica has limited domestic fossil fuels and relies heavily on outside sources to meet its energy needs. In 2010, it imported 20.5 million barrels of oil at US$1.62 billion, representing 11.6 percent of GDP.

The electricity sector accounts for 32.4 percent of Jamaican oil consumption and is the country’s second largest oil consumer, after transport. Ninety-five percent of domestic installed capacity is oil-based, compared with only 5 percent for renewables. As a result, the electricity sector is heavily susceptible to oil price fluctuations, and as prices rise, the country needs to look to other energy sources to provide power. 

In 2010, Jamaica elaborated a new energy policy that includes long-term targets for fuel diversification and renewable energy use. The plan stipulates that by 2030, the primary energy mix should include a 70 percent non-oil-based supply. Options include natural gas as well as a range of renewable energy sources, including wind, solar, and biomass.

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Caribbean, electricity, energy, Jamaica, natural gas, renewable energy