Monthly Archives: February 2017

The Case of the Missing Alternative Energy Numbers

How much of our global power comes from alternative energy sources (i.e. wind, hydro, solar, etc.)? The truth is that we don’t know.

SustainabilityWhen I  last looked at how much of our total global power came from alternative sources five years ago (yes, it’s been a while), the increase over the previous year was amazing (5%!). About a month ago, I decided it was way past time for a revisit. Given the large amount of alternative energy capacity that’s come online recently (an estimated 200,000 megawatts of capacity were added between 2012-2016 in solar photovoltaics alone) I was looking forward to some pretty impressive numbers.

So I went back to the World Bank (and U.N.) data source I’d used previously but quickly discovered that the numbers hadn’t really been updated (to 2012 for most countries, and 2013 or 2014 in a few cases). I noticed that the data was coming from the IEA (International Energy Agency). So I checked that out. But though they have an impressive set of data, there was still nothing more recent than 2014 and many countries’ data was missing altogether. (In one odd graphic they seem to be including “fuel wood” as a “renewable resource” putting  many African countries high in “renewable’ energy but this isn’t a resource usually included when determining modern renewable use. Fortunately, this peculiar definition of “renewable” doesn’t seem to be reflected in the World Bank data. I know personally that Ugandans burn a lot of firewood for cooking – you can smell smoke almost wherever you go in the country but I wouldn’t count that as “renewable energy.”)

It seemed unreal that no one would have these numbers so I kept looking and checked:

Why aren’t these organizations updating their numbers? One factor could be the difficulty in gathering data, particularly solar, which is often residential and off-grid. (True story: The first people to embrace solar as an energy option were California marijuana growers who saw the off-grid potential and therefore nearly invisible ability to support their growing operations while eluding the unwanted attention of the authorities.) Another factor, when attempting to gather data from countries is that many of them may not have the personnel, technology, or interest in pulling together those figures. A third possibility is that whoever put together this data in the past is no longer doing so for some reason, possibly  due to funding cutbacks or a lapse in leadership.

But I have to admit I was little surprised and even shocked. With all the modern technology available and the vast amount of data collected on everything from the minutes we sleep to micro-gravitational variations in sea level to precisely what item of clothing you just checked out on that website, how can we not have this information? Considering the planet-wide concern about global warming and the monumental efforts being employed to both study and combat it, how can we not know how much of our increasing energy pie is composed of that slice of alternative energy? I still have no idea.

But in the spirit of this blog I decided to find out what I could. (Note: my next blog post was going to be on solar energy (PV) so that’s why the focus is largely on solar.) Here’s just a little of what I’ve found:

The Case of the Missing Solar Numbers remains unsolved. Possibly, as the realization of how important this data is sinks in to whatever businesses, organizations, and countries are reliant on it, those numbers will magically show up again. I’ll be looking for them but I’ll also be just watching and enjoying how people all over the globe are quietly and steadily making our world a much better place one solar panel at a time.

What can we do?

If you own your home, get solar panels, use thermal solar heating, and take full advantage of the power of passive solar. (See this article for an extraordinary example of how passive solar can be used even in the Northeast.) The subsidies may not be around for very long but the price of solar panels is continuing to drop as the the technology gets better and better. Other positives include increased home value, power outages becoming a thing of the past, and yes, you are helping to save the planet.

But the biggest positive is a lower power bill. And, in some cases, this could be suspiciously lower. In a recent in-depth study, the L.A. Times found that, despite a huge surplus of power in California, residents are actually paying more than other states because utilities have built too many power plants in a poorly planned rush to avoid power outages. The taxpayers are footing the bill and I suspect, now that they’ve been outed, there may be a backlash against more building. (Yup, I was right.) In addition, Tesla has stepped up in a big way and is going full-throttle into the energy market breaking speed records for large battery storage installation for solar power. So, if you want to lower your bills, get control over your power supply, and not contribute to corporate greed, those could also be good reasons to go with solar energy.

Thanks for stopping by,

Heather McC