Micropower is slowly taking over. The class of relatively small power generators that includes cogeneration, geothermal, solar, biomass, hydroelectricity, wind, and nuclear — that is micropower. Those forces combined in 2013, a recent report shows, to produce nearly a quarter of the world’s total electricity, and they are leaving traditional power plants, such as those which are coal-powered, in their low- or no-carbon dust.
The blog at the Rocky Mountain Institute website discussed this past week the emergence of the term “micropower” and its slow takeover of the planet. The term was reportedly first coined in 2000 at The Economist by its writer Vijay Vaitheeswaran. He wrote about two different kinds of micropower. The first of those includes renewables like solar and hydro; here, however, he specifically excludes large hydroelectric dams. Second, there is cogeneration where power plants make electricity and useful heat in the same process. Waste heat from electric production is used to create usable heat, so the entire process is more efficient than making both electricity and heat separately.
RMI notes that micropower sources are useful because they democratizes energy choices and promote competition within arenas and against each other — such as wind versus solar. They also produce little or no carbon and are often easier to construct than traditional power plants. RMI points to Bloomberg New Energy Finance and REN21.net for its figures regarding micropower’s slow takeover. It has also personally gathered information about cogeneration by tracking industry sales for cogeneration equipment.
Those sources show that, since the year 2000, generation from micropower renewables (excluding big hydro and including cogeneration) has nearly tripled by increasing from approximately 2200 terrawatt hours per year (TWh/y) to approximately 5500 TWh/y. This represents an increase in the world’s power generation from about 15 percent in the year 2000 to about 24 percent in 2013. During that same time period, nuclear power has remained at approximately 2500 TWh/y and therefore has dropped from about 15 percent of the world’s electricity generation to around 10 percent. Consider also that, in 2013, big hydroelectric dams produced 13.5 percent of the world’s energy.
Therefore, taking into account renewables, nuclear, and big hydro, the units combined to produce nearly half of the world’s electricity in 2013, and they did it with a minimum of carbon output. The growing capacity of renewables (including big hydro and nuclear, excluding cogeneration) is expected to allow its combined power output to dwarf fossil fuels in the years to come. Bloomberg forecasts that, by the year 2030, those renewables will have a global capacity of nearly 300 gigawatts (GW), up from 100 GW in 2013. In comparison with the drop of fossil fuel capacity from approximately 100 GW to 40 GW in the same time period, renewables are expected to have over seven times the capacity of fossil fuel plants in 15 years.
The face of the world’s energy is rapidly changing. Soon, if the U.S. follows suit with many countries in Europe, many states could find themselves reliant more on renewables than fossils. Indeed, RMI continues in an accompanying video presentation, both Iowa and South Dakota already have a quarter of their power sourced from wind. The technology for renewables should continue to get cheaper and easier to deploy as more manufacturers enter the market. In addition, such technologies should make for more reliable infrastructure that can support even the highest demands of the largest cities.
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