Science in Society Archive

Towards 100% Renewables

Renewable Ousting Fossil Energy

Radical Grid Transformation under Way

Phenomenal growth of renewable energy capacity along with rapidly improving efficiencies and tumbling costs putting fossil power generation out of business and forcing a radical transformation of the electricity grid in just 4-5 years Dr Mae Wan Ho

2013 the year renewables start to out-compete fossil fuels

2013 will go down in history as the year renewables start to out-compete fossil fuels, even as feed-in tariffs and other subsidies have disappeared from developed countries that are still heavily subsidizing fossil fuel use.  All this has happened within the past 4 to 5 years. Shale gas, tar sands, coal, could disappear within another decade along with nuclear power, if perverse subsidies cease and investments properly directed.

In our second energy report published in 2009 [1] Green Energies - 100% Renewable by 2050 (ISIS/TWN publication), we highlighted decentralized, distributed small scale to micro-generation of renewable energy, citing the success in Germany, a country that started serious investment into renewables since 1999. At the time, the mainstream opinion was still much in favour of big nuclear power stations, along with concentrating solar power stations served by ‘supergrids’. There was much objection t0 distributed solar and wind power because of their intermittency, and grid connections were non-existent for renewables in most countries.

Since then, feed-in tariffs and other subsidies for renewables were introduced in many countries in Europe and elsewhere, along with grid connections. But off-grid solar PV and mini-grids for mixed renewable power generation became increasingly popular, not just in developing countries without a national electricity grid or remote areas without access to the national grid; but even for locations in developed countries where power demand is low and grid connection too expensive (see [2] How off–grid renewables & small farms can save the world, SiS 51). Efficiencies have been improving and prices falling especially for solar PV (photovoltaic). By 2012, prices reached new lows largely due to the cheap costs of silicon and solar modules [3] and overproduction [4], and solar PV installation continued its steep upward trajectory. At the end of 2012, the total global capacity for solar PV exceeded 100 GW (see Box 1).

Box 1

Global status of renewable energies [5]

Renewable energies supplied an estimated 19% of global final energy consumption in 2011, the latest year for which data are available, with a little less than half from traditional biomass. Total renewable power capacity worldwide exceed 1 470 GW in 2012, up 8.5 % from 2011. Hydropower rose 3 %, to an estimated 990 GW, while other renewables grew 21.5 % to 480 GW, with solar PV capacity surpassing 100 GW. Globally wind power accounted for about 39 % renewable power capacity added in 2012, followed by hydropower and solar PV, each at about 26%. Renewables made up just over half of total net additions to electric generating capacity from all sources in 2012. By year end, they comprise more than 26 % global generating capacity and supply an estimated 21.7 % of global electricity, 16.5 % of which hydroelectric. Industrial, commercial and residential consumers are increasingly becoming producers of renewable power in a growing number of countries.

The top countries for renewables at the end of 2012 were China, the US and Germany, followed by Spain, Italy and India. By regions, the BRICS nations (emergent economies Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) have 36 % of total renewable power capacity and almost 27 % non-hydro renewable capacity. The EU had the greatest non-hydro capacity at 44 % global total.

Renewables in developed countries

The US installed 3.313 GW solar PV in 2012, up 76%, bringing its total capacity to 7.221 MW [6]. By mid-2013, the US passed the 10 GW mark in installed solar PV capacity [7], with an additional 80 % forecast by the end of 2014. The average cost of an installed system has fallen from $ 6/ W in 2011 to $4.25 /W residential and $3/ W utility-scale. The low cost of utility-scale installations has dominated the market, representing at least 45 % of US installations. There were almost 1 400 solar PV installations of 500 kW or larger in 39 states, providing 5.4 GW capacity, with 40 % in California alone.

In the European Union, renewables accounted for almost 70 % additional electricity capacity in 2012, mostly from solar PV and wind power. In 2011, renewables met 20.5 % of electricity consumption and 13.4 % gross final energy consumption. In Germany, renewables accounted for 22.9 % electricity consumed, up from 20.5 % in 2011, and 12.6% of total final energy demand. Italy and Germany both ended 2012 with more solar PV than wind capacity in operation, and together account for almost half of the global total. Germany added a record 7.6 GW, increasing its total to 32.4 GW, while Italy reached a total capacity of 16.4 GW. However, the 3.6 GW added in Italy was far lower than in 2011, largely due to reduced incentives including feed-in tariffs.

But installations are set to soar for solar panels whether or not subsidies are available. For example, an 8.6 kW system now costs €15 000 in Spain, and Ricard Jornet had installed that on the roof of his organic restaurant in Barcelona even though the Spanish government had stopped subsidizing solar panels [8]. As global bank UBS says an “unsubsidized solar revolution” has begun.

In the UK, the City has just unveiled new investments in solar power worth nearly £220 million [9], bringing the City’s total investments on renewables to almost £910 m so far. A solar fund created by asset manager Foresight is planning to raise £200 million to buy 8 solar farms across UK through the London stock exchange, and Bluefield Partners, which already attracted £130 m earlier this year for its Solar Income Fund, say it will spend £17 m buying a large solar plant in Norfolk from the pioneering developer Solarcentury. In addition, the Renewable Infrastructure Group is raising £300 m for wind and solar farms and Greencoat UK is raising £260 for wind projects. Renewables UK, which lobbies on behalf of green energy, says the newfound City interest is “the best possible kind of endorsement” for a sector that has been hit hard by recession. About 2.5 GW solar PV has been installed in Britain, but the government would like to see 20 GW by 2020. There is already concern, however, that large swaths of the British countryside will be covered by solar panels, when a lot of room for small scale rooftop installations still exists.

Biomethane - biogas after removal of carbon dioxide and hydrogen sulphide - is now used widely as vehicle fuel in Europe [5]. During 2012 in Germany, for example, the share of biomethane in natural gas increased from 6 % to more than 15%, and the number of fueling stations selling 100 % biomethane more than tripled, from 35 to 119 by the end of 2012. Further, 10% of the natural gas vehicles in Germany used compressed biomethane fuel rather than compressed natural gas methane. In Sweden, 50% of Stockholm city council’s car fleet of 800 vehicles ran on biomethane as of October 2012.

Farm and community-scale biogas plants continue to be installed for treating wet waste biomass products, especially in Europe with almost 12 000 plants - mostly combined heat and power (CHP) operated – in 12 countries in 2011. In addition, 2 250 sewage sludge facilities are operating in Europe with about 2 % of the plants upgrading the biogas to biomethane for use as a vehicle fuel or for injection into the gas grid. In December 2012, the Port of Amsterdam opened a new vehicle refilling facility where biogas from sewage sludge is upgraded using technology manufactured by BioGast.

In 2012,  a French multinational retailer announced plans to fuel its trucks with biomethane produced from organic wastes arising from its stores, and a plant in Sweden became one of the world’s first to produce liquefied biogas (from local food waste) as an alternative for heavy-duty vehicles.

Renewables transforming the developing world

The developing world has been transformed by renewables energies [5]; here Investment jumped 46 % from US$94 billion in 2011 to US$112 billion in 2012 (in contrast, investment fell 29 % from US$186 billion in 2011 to US$132 billion in the developed economies, partly as the result of the financial crisis and partly due to the fall in prices of renewables). The year brought improved access to modern energy services through renewables to millions that have no electricity grid, and attention is increasing focused on minigrids that can connect up different renewables to ensure a more constant electricity supply. Mini-grids are power solutions for isolated sites such as islands and towns in remote mountainous or forested areas. They are larger in capacity than stand-alone systems, up to 1 MW, and serve entire communities through distribution networks, and often incorporate a number of technologies such as hybrid wind-PV. “Intelligent” community minigrids can automatically measure power use, bill customers and provide management data online to system operators.

As solar PV prices continue their downward plunge, small installations are becoming more affordable. Falling prices, efficient LED lamps and improvement in batteries have combined to provide accessible, lightweight, reliable and long-lived solar lanterns at a much lower cost than the conventional kerosene lamps. Solar pico-PV systems ranging up to 10 W, easily self-installed are now widely available. Innovative uses include the Solar Suitcase [9] that powers critical lighting, mobile communication devices and medical devices in health centres and hospitals in poor areas without reliable electricity. Slightly larger solar home systems ranging from 10 to 200 W are increasingly installed in rural areas. In Bangladesh, for example, more than 2.1 million systems had been installed by March 2013. This has turned rural villages into thriving centres of commerce. Small wind turbines typically up to 50 kW have improved in performance due to advanced wireless technologies and materials. Small and medium-scale wind turbines are becoming cheaper and easy to integrate into existing grids. In Egypt, Ethiopia, Kenya, Lesotho, Madagascar, and Morocco, plans are underway to add wind to existing mini-grids. Even in areas with limited infrastructure, more and more medium scale wind systems are being installed with generation costs as low as US$ 0.10/kWh in 2012. Micro-hydro power generation - as small as 1 kW - is extensively deployed in remote and rural areas.     

The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) plans to provide electricity for 78 million households by 2030, largely through mini-grids. ECOWAS also adopted a regional renewable energy policy that aims to provide 25 % of the rural population with decentralized renewable energy systems, directly tackling the challenge in West Africa where more than 170 million people lack access to electricity. In Bangladesh, the Rural Electrification and Renewable Energy Development Project is currently installing some 1 000 solar home systems a day. This project is operated by an institutional partnership between the Bangladesh Infrastructure Development Company (IDCOL) and some 40 NGOs.

The United Nations General Assembly’s “Energy Access for All” objective of universal access to modern energy by 2030 will require an annual investment of an estimated US$ 36–41 billion.

China is investing in technical upgrades of the existing grid infrastructure in rural areas to achieve 100 % access to electricity by 2015. To address energy supply shortfalls in rural areas and to advance the phase out of burning traditional wood fuels, old hydropower stations are being refurbished and deployment of small-scale hydropower and solar water heaters promoted.

Approximately 48 million domestic biogas plants running on livestock, human, and crops wastes have been installed since the end of 2011 for rural electrification, with the vast majority in China (42.8 million) and India (4.4 million) and smaller numbers in Cambodia and Myanmar.

As summed up by the Renewable Energy Network global status report [5]: “Renewable energy is growing rapidly and is likely to become the backbone of a secure and sustainable energy supply in an increasing number of developed and developing countries.”

Fossil energy plants in trouble while renewables expand

The rapid upsurge in renewables has taken traditional power companies by surprise [8]. EON, Germany’s largest utility company, blames the rise of subsidized green energy for abandoning its profit targets this year; one of its gas-fired power plants ran for only 9 days in 2012.

In July 2013, US Arizona’s largest utility APS asked regulators to consider imposing fees on people installing new rooftop solar systems to help pay for the cost of a grid they still use “essentially for free”. The Spanish government too, also wants to impose new charges on rooftop solar owners. Spain’s overall electricity capacity is far in excess of peak demand.

Another German utility Essen-based RWE has taken 3 100 MW generation capacity off line, and the Netherlands will also dispose of 1 200 MW of German coal-fired power plant capacity to which it has contracted usage rights [11]. And further shutdowns are likely. As renewable energy is prioritized by law in the German grid, gas and coal are sometimes required only at peak load periods. Apart from dwindling profits, RWE warned it faces a burden of more than €1.1 billion arising from a German Parliament decision in June on the search for a final storage facility for radioactive nuclear waste.

At the end of June 2013, Moody’s (a global corporation providing credit ratings and analysis) lowered its long-term credit rating of RWE from A3 to Baa1, citing a significant deterioration in earnings prospects in the conventional electricity generation business.

Meanwhile, new business opportunities have opened up for companies such as German’s Donauer, which has developed the D:Hybrid, a system that allows thousands of solar panels to be attached to generators hitherto run only on diesel [8]. One has been installed in a hospital in Haiti that was spending €150 000 a year on diesel, and is already saving up to €4 000 a month. The company has also won a contract for a much larger installation on a Namibian brewery, expected to recoup its initial costs in less than 6 years, and is set to sell similar systems in South Sudan and other Caribbean countries. “There is a lot of potential because more than 40 GW new diesel generation capacity is sold every year,” said Benedikt Bohm, Konauer’s sales manager.

System transformation of electricity grid happening

Variable renewables such as wind and solar are growing particularly rapidly in the electricity sector. This is forcing a “system transformation” of the conventional supply grid that distributed electricity from a few centralized coal-fired and nuclear power plants to a flexible system that enables significant increases in shares of distributed and variable renewables. It means shifting from a system that is relatively “rigid and centralized” to one that is more “nimble and decentralized” (see [5]). In the new system, producers, consumers, grid operators and others will play greater roles in optimizing supply and demand, in part through information technologies (smart grids) and also through increased interconnection of all energy sectors: power, heating and cooling, and transport. As the installed capacities of renewables increase, a portfolio of different renewable technologies can often meet the major part of the power demand and provide a surplus for export. They can supply electricity around the clock and throughout the year at reasonable costs, if the grid system and the regulatory framework are flexible and operated smartly, and can reduce electricity prices considerably.

Denmark and Germany have decided to base their electricity supply and/or final energy supply predominantly on variable renewables, and are moving away from conventional suppliers. This means that many individual renewable power plants can be combined and interconnected to facilitate local generation and consumption, extending to local storage, while balancing supply and demand over the network, and often to networks across country borders.  

Storage technologies from batteries to pumped hydro are advancing rapidly (see below). Denmark, which pioneered wind power and CHP biomass, achieved a renewable share in excess of 24 % final total energy use in 2012, and in 2011, more than 40 % of its electricity came from renewables, with wind alone contributing more than 30 % by the end of 2012. CHP biomass is a key balancing power, with extra stability obtained by interconnecting the Danish grid with grids of other Scandinavian countries that source electricity either mainly from hydropower (Norway) or a combination of hydropower and CHP biomass (Sweden). (ENDK), the state-owned grid operator for the gas grid and the electricity system, is working towards targets of 50% wind power by 2020 and a fully renewables-based energy system by 2050.

Germany is in the process of “Energiewende” (energy transition), a transformation that started long before the 2011 decision to phase out nuclear power by 2022 (see [1]). Its Renewable Energy Sources Act (EEG) entered into force in 2000. By granting priority grid access and priority dispatch to renewable energy, the EEG facilitated the process of transforming the power grid to accommodate increasing shares of renewable energy. Germany is going for a thorough system transformation of its electricity grid.

Microgrids and local energy storage

Energy storage is a hot area of development for dealing with intermittency in renewable energy generation. Batteries are still too expensive for mainstream use, but prices are set to fall, and some new markets are emerging, especially the rising development of mini and microgrids [12]. Following the grid outages caused by Hurricane Sandy, several communities and states in New England are developing microgrids for emergency planning.

Ionex Advanced Energy Storage Systems of Long Beach is developing a battery based on a silicon and graphene anode (see [13] Graphene Micro-Supercapacitors for On-Chip Energy and other articles in the series, SiS 59) that will discharge “faster than any other battery on the market”, according to Philip Roberts, the company CEO. Using technology originally developed at Argonne National Laboratory, the company is now working with global battery manufacturers at a price of $350 per kilowatt hour (compared with current price of $400-$500). “We hope to get down to $150/kWh over the next 18 months or two years, with a 5 000 cycle lifetime.” He said.

Urban Electric Power based in New York is commercializing research done at City University of New York. Their power battery - a new Ni-Zn flow-assisted 100 kW system - can discharge 85 % in 30 minutes, or 100 % over 4 hours, the life of this battery is 10 years compared with a lead and acid battery that would fail after 250 cycles. Valerio De Angellis, vice-president of grid storage systems at the company plans to use the battery to chop 15 minutes off the University building’s 1 MW peak use time, and recover the cost of the system in three years. This building-based local energy storage is a way to reduce peak use in future, rather than bringing more power into the system. The company also has developed a Zn-MnO2 energy battery that can be used for industrial applications where the use peak is flatter than commercial use spikes. The battery is available for $70/kWh but the operating cost is a few cents per kW cycle, which is cheaper than a car battery.

To conclude

Renewables are ousting conventional fossil fuel and nuclear power in all areas of energy use, especially electricity supply. The system transformation of the electricity supply grid is particularly interesting, as it allows for distributed power generation, intermittency, local power consumption and storage as well as intercommunication and overall balance. It is evolving much like a real organism, as described in my book [14] The Rainbow and the Worm, The Physics of Organisms, which also explains why the organism is the model of the truly sustainable system.

Article first published 11/09/13


  1. Ho MW, Cherry B, Burcher S and Saunders PT. Green Energies, 100% Renewables by 2050, ISIS/TWN, London/Penang, 2009.
  2. Ho MW. How off-grid energy and small farms can save the world. Science in Society 51, 2-4, 2011.
  3. “A look back at solar energy in 2012”, Vince Font, RenewableEnergy., 19 December 2012,
  4. “5 charts that show the massive growth of solar in 2012”, Rani Molla, gigaom, 25 December 2012,
  5. Renewables 2013 Global Status Report, REN21, 12 June 2013,
  6. “USPV market grew 76 % in 2012”, Modern Power Systems, 25 March 2013,
  7. “US passes 10 GW installed solar PV capacity milestone”, Clean Technica, 9 July 2013,
  8. “Renewables: a rising power” Pilita Clark, Financial Times, 8 August 2013,
  9. We Care Solar, accessed 8 September 2013,
  10. “Solar power gets investment green light from City”, Terry Macalister, The Guardian, p. 34, 6 September 2013.
  11. “Solar energy boom takes shine off RWE”, Chris Bryant, Financial Times, 14 August 2013,
  12. “Energy storage technology at renewable market’s edge”, Charles Thurston, Renewable, 13 August 2013,
  13. Ho MW. Graphene microcapacitors for on-chip energy. Science in Society 59, 30-31, 2013.
  14. Ho MW. The Rainbow and the Worm, the Physics of Organisms, World Scientific, 1993, 2nd edition, 1998, 3rd enlarged edition, 2008, Singapore and London.

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Todd Millions Comment left 18th September 2013 15:03:01
Caevet-Provincial power corps in some canadian provinces,are offering 100$rebaites,to replace old fridges and freezers-but ,the approved models you are to buy with the grant,are only half as efficent as best practice models of 20 years ago.Those are still expencive due to limited production runs and ship lots.Some standards work needs too be adressed before storage,ones that have there own built in 'heat ballast'of some days without power-should have highest priority.About as high a one for removal of all the intertwinded nuke,coal,oil,and gas subsudies.