2011 in perspective
2011 - renewables come of age
2011 was a mixed year for renewables in the UK. Scotland's Clyde Windfarm, started producing power in June - and with 152 turbines will become Europe's biggest on-shore generator, capable of supplying 280 thousand homes while the completion of the 2nd phase of the Walney offshore windfarm temporarily makes the UK the world's largest offshore wind producer. According to Renewable UK wind produced over 12% of the UK's electricity on December 28th and an average of over 5% throughout December – the equivalent carbon saving of removing 300,000 cars from the road. The strength of the wind industry in the UK was reinforced by Sieman's announcement of the development of a £200 million wind turbine plant in Hull .
On the downside the renewables industry fear that cuts to FITS (feed in tariffs) will cut both wind and solar developments. The solar industry has been hit particularity hard as the government as the government imposed cuts even before the formal consultation period for the changes had ended – and act currently being challenged in court. The wind industry, already struggling to develop new projects because of planning consent delays claim cuts to the Renewable Obligation Certificates could lead to a cut of 1.6 GW capacity – equivalent to the output of 2 nuclear power station.
In a potentially huge breakthrough for solar power the opening Fuentes de Andalucía, Spain saw the world's first large scale solar thermal plant with storage come on stream in May. Torresol's 20 megawatt installation stores heat in liquid salt tanks using the energy to create steam via a heat exchanger. It produced power for 24 hours for the first time in late June and it's predicted it will produce power 24 hours on most summer days and for 20 hours a day on average throughout the year – giving it the kind of performance associated with baseload thermal and nuclear plant.
Across the world reports there were reports of solar and wind power coming close to to grid parity (producing power at the average grid price) and competing on the open market for new generating contracts. In Brazil wind energy projects won 78 out of 92 energy auctions to build almost 2000 megawatts of capacity undercutting gas by a pound a megawatt at current gas prices. Tony Seba, writing in “Clean Techies”, reports that in an energy auction in California 20 projects undercut the reference price for Combined Cycle Gas in bids for 250 megawatts of solar capacity. Most startling of all – Bloomberg New Energy Finance in an analysis of falling wind turbine prices claim that in some areas wind outperforms coal:
“The cost of electricity generated from wind is now at record lows: several projects in high resource areas (US, Brazil, Sweden, Mexico) display a levelised cost of energy – excluding the impact of subsidies but after including the cost of capital and maintenance – below EUR 50/MWh ($68/MWh). This compares to current estimated average costs of $67 per MWh for coal-fired power and $56 per MWh for gas-fired power. “
The 1000 megawatt Blythe solar project in California will be the world's biggest - and in a seismic shift – the project, originally planned to use solar thermal technology switched to photovoltaics as solar panel prices plummeted – forgoing a $2.1 billion US Government subsidy and electing to fund the project on the commercial market. Vestas, one of the world's leading wind turbine developers announced the development of a gigantic 7 megawatt wind turbine – specifically for the North Sea which will help drive down offshore costs – it's worth watching Vesta's video about the installation of the Thanet windfarm to get an idea of the size and scale of these projects.
Investment in renewables continued to grow, Climate Progress report 13% growth in renewables globally compared to 2010 with solar energy highlighted as the top investment target for venture capital world-wide . Despite a difficult climate for investment and historically low natural gas prices in the USA Sheraz Haji, CEO of the Cleantech Group, expects the coming year to be a record for “cleantech investments”. China, India and Brazil led the way, investing more in renewables than either the USA or the UK, helping worldwide investment reach a record $211 billion, China alone contributing $50 billion of a total of $72 billion invested in the developing world.