Humanity's Pursuit Of Energy And The Race For Renewables

11/07/2016 4:36 PM IST | Updated 16/07/2016 1:08 AM IST

Humankind's 50,000-year history is characterized by its quest for energy, starting with the need to cook food and then progressively to carry out other tasks. The initial source of energy was very basic -- human muscle. However, the discovery of fire along with combustible materials like fuel wood and animal dung etc. took it to the next level. And next in this energy evolution was animal power that became possible because humanity succeeded in domesticating other beasts. And then there were resources like water and wind, harnessed through rudimentary mills. Interestingly, some of these old practices, such as the use of traditional biomass, are still in vogue in many parts of the world.

It is said that the Chinese were the first to use coal as an energy source way back in 2000 BC. But the quantum leap came about in the 18th century with the advent of the steam engine. The industrial revolution changed the energy scene completely -- and forever. And the journey continues, covering resources like hydropower, oil and nuclear, but also featuring a growing trend towards renewable sources of energy. The picture that emerges out of these historical milestones is that of human ingenuity, its perseverance in discovering more efficient and more convenient solutions that can help it scale increasingly complex heights in terms of energy usages and economic development.In 2015, coal, oil, and gas constituted about 29%, 32%, and 23% respectively of the global energy mix.

One common characteristic of the aforementioned fossil or "conventional" sources of energy is that they are available in finite quantities. In addition, since countries are not uniformly endowed with these resources, various economic and geopolitical reasons could adversely affect the supply of such fuels. That's precisely what happened in the early 70s, when oil-importing nations faced the first "oil shock". Given the fact that uninterrupted and adequate energy supply is the bedrock of modern economies, it provided the global community an impetus to explore alternatives to these fossil resources. Another key reason to look for alternative sources of energy, especially in developing countries like India, was to provide energy to the rural and remote populace that could not benefit from a centralized model of fossil fuels based energy supplies. And that is how renewable sources of energy like solar and wind became a focus area. But unlike the early centuries, though, extensive research was the driver. The aim was to come up with alternatives that could compete with the existing technologies, both in terms of ease of use as well as economically.

This shift towards cleaner, renewable sources of energy is a race against time if we are to avoid the grave consequences of climate change.

Lately, one more factor has added a new critical dimension to the energy scenario: climate change. Now that it has been established clearly that climate change -- the deleterious impacts of which are well known -- is a result of human activities such as burning of fossil fuels, global efforts to develop clean energy options for large-scale deployment have become imperative. And what fits this bill better than renewable energy? Indeed, increased share of renewable energy were the one common thread in most of "nationally determined contributions (NDC)" submitted by countries in the run-up to UN Climate Change Conference in Paris last year. And this shift towards cleaner, renewable sources of energy is a race against time if we are to avoid the grave consequences of climate change.

Fortunately, the results are encouraging. According to the "Renewables Global Status Report" of REN 21, "An estimated 147 gigawatts of renewable power capacity was added in 2015... For the sixth consecutive year, renewables outpaced fossil fuels for net investment in power capacity additions."
Yet, at last count about 17% and 38% of the global population did not have access to electricity and clean cooking energy respectively. The race has just begun.

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