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The Future of Renewables: Economic, Policy and Social Implications

It all comes down to a simple choice. Given technology and economic trends, the future of renewable energy is not a foregone conclusion, as states REN-21's new Renewables Global Futures Report 2013.

Indeed, the report shows total energy system costs in some scenarios to be roughly equal for renewables-centric and fossil fuel-centric cases. The implications for the renewables industry are pretty clear: the future depends on finance, risk-return profiles, business models, investment lifetimes and a host of other economic, policy and social factors.

So, not that different from any other business. But in considering the future, and more immediately what 2013 will hold, the latest Energy Industries Council (EIC) Monitor report reveals that while 20 percent was sliced off the total number of new global energy supply chain project deals in the fourth quarter of 2012, the renewables sector saw an increase of 9 percent. In total, the document states, there were 138 new projects in the renewables sector worth US$86.1 billion in the last quarter of 2012, compared with 157 projects and $79.2 billion in the previous quarter.

So far, so good - but compared with the power sector, where the total potential investment value of new projects decreased by 16 percent and the number of new projects decreased by 14 percent, renewables have, by any measure, performed exceptionally well. Neil Golding, Head of Business Information at EIC, put it in perfect context when he said the renewables sector "remained buoyant".

This analysis becomes more interesting still in light of new research from PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC). Its annual Power and Renewables Deals report on merger and acquisition investment reveals that institutions, such as insurance, pension and sovereign wealth funds, more than doubled their energy sector investment year-on-year. Infrastructure funds and institutions accounted for a third of all power and renewables deal value in 2012, the report adds, noting that the sector is attracting a greater diversity of buyers. In particular, the authors note, there is significant renewables deal flow with potential for an 'unprecedented' volume of deals for onshore wind generation assets in Europe and Australia in 2013, with interest high from Chinese and Japanese investors as well as Australian pension funds.

Norbert Schwieters, global power and utilities leader at PwC, observed: "This is a significant shift in the buy-side balance. In the space of just one year, corporate buyers' share has gone from 80 percent of total deal value to just 63 percent. In their place, outside investors are coming into the sector attracted by its long-term growth and steady-return potential."

REN-21's report goes on to say that the "finance challenge" is key to the future. It also notes that many new sources of finance are possible, citing insurance funds, pension funds and sovereign wealth funds along with new mechanisms for financial risk mitigation. Moreover, the report adds that many new business models are possible for local energy services, utility services, transport, community and cooperative ownership, and rural energy services.

REN-21 notes that some projections of annual investment in renewables by 2020 amount to a staggering $400-500 billion, up from $260 billion in 2011, while projections of average annual investment in the coming decades range between $300 billion and $1 trillion.

It's certainly well known that just about every prediction ever made about renewable energy growth has underestimated the eventual figure, but whatever the level of investment, and whatever the future of renewables, it will inevitably depend upon choices. And, given the evidence, it seems that those choices are already being made worldwide. What would you choose?

Lead image: Green lightbulb via Shutterstock

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