Green Energy at Davos: What Happened?

Davos, Switzerland, the city that hosts the World Economic Forum, announced last week that it will install a 1,000-square-foot array of solar panels on roof of the Davos Congress Center, where much of the forum’s official business stakes place, enough to replace 20 tons of carbon emissions every year.

It was one of the few highlights in an other wise bleak year for renewable energy at Davos, where experts bemoaned the lingering economic woes worldwide, the continued natural gas boom in the United States, and the resulting low demand for new clean energy projects.

“The industry will be flat,” Tulsi Tanti, chairman of Suzlon Energy Ltd., said of the wind turbine installation business in an interview from Davos with Bloomberg. “(A) lot of projects are delayed because of the financial situation.”

There was $189 billion was spent on new renewable energy generation worldwide in 2011, the latest year for which data is available, according to a report by the Green Growth Action Alliance released at the outset of the meeting. Another $63 billion was spent on energy efficiency projects. Only a quarter of those investments came from governments, while the other three-fourths originated from private sources.

It turns out that 2011 was a high-water mark for renewable energy investment, however. After growing 33 percent per year between 2004 and 2011, propelled by more efficient wind and solar technologies, more generous government subsidies and the rising cost of fossil fuels, investment slowed significantly in 2012, according to the report. The global financial crisis forced many governments to reduce their clean energy subsidies, as private investors retrenched and energy demand dropped.

Even though it started as a short-term phenomenon, the trend of lower clean energy investment may continue, the report found, because “In the longer term, the current revolution in shale gas could place downward price pressure on carbon-intensive energy sources, making renewables comparatively less attractive investments.”

The biggest bright spot lies in developing countries, where demand for clean energy is both more robust and more stable than in rich countries. Investment in renewable energy in developing countries grew at an annual rate of 47 percent from 2004 to 2011, and has not slowed as much during the subsequent global recession.

There’s also potential for a solar boom in the U.K., which plans to install between 800 megawatts and 1 gigawatt of solar energy production in the first quarter, Ben Hill, president of Trina Solar Europe, told Bloomberg in Davos. The British government hopes to have 20 gigawatts of solar capaxity by 2020.

Another study released at Davos called on governments around the world to spend an additional US$ 700 billion every year until 2030 to avoid devastating economic effects from global climate change. A third of that money must come from diverting government spending away from investment in new fossil-fuel-based infrastructure and into renewable energy and transportation, the report found.

“It is clear that we are facing a climate crisis with potentially devastating impacts on the global economy,” Felipe Calderon, the former Mexican president who led the study group, said during the conference.

Another study released by the World Economic Forum’s Climate Change Initiatives group found that climate change already kills 5 million people a year and costs the global economy more than US$ 1.2 trillion, including $110 billion last year to respond to weather-related damage in the United States alone.

“Greening the economy is the only way to accommodate 9 billion people by 2050,” said Thomas Kerr, the forum’s director of climate change initiatives, said in a press release.

Other interesting developments at this year’s World Economic Forum include:

Greenpeace shut down a Shell fuel station in Davos on Friday to highlight dangers of drilling for Arctic oil.  Shell was given GreenPeace’s Public Eye award on Thursday for the world’s dirtiest corporation.

Umicore was named the most sustainable corporation in the world, according to Corporate Knights, a media firm focused on “clean capitalism”, which released its annual Global 100 List at Davos. Umicore is a Belgium-based materials technology and recycling company that derives the majority of its $3 billion in revenue from clean technologies.

-A new “WindMade” symbol for consumer products was introduced by Vestas, the biggest wind turbine maker, along with a consortium of major organizations.  As global financing for clean energy is declining, more private sector initiatives like this one may be launched in order to drive awareness and future industry growth, according to an article in the New York Times.

-An analysis in a new Greenpeace report presented at Davos found that 14 global carbon intensive projects are set to increase CO2 emissions 20% by 2020. The projects range from coal expansion in Australia, China, the US and Indonesia, to oil expansion in the tar sands of Canada, the Arctic and Brazil to new gas production in the Caspian Sea and the US.



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