Science, Tech & Environment

Renewable energy booms outside the US and Europe

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(Image by Flickr user SolarEnima (cc:by-nc))

This story was originally covered by PRI's The World. For more, listen to the audio above.

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Climate-change legislation has stalled in the United States, but abroad, renewable energy is booming. "In Kenya alone it's estimated that there are about 300,000 small solar systems in place," Chris Flavin, president of the Worldwatch Institute, told PRI's The World. In fact, according to Flavin, renewable energy is expanding so fast that it may surpass conventional energy in many parts of the world within five or ten years.

One reason why renewable energy is expanding is because of the inadequacy of the power supply in much of the world. Conventional power grids simply don't reach many people. And when the price of oil goes up, people who use diesel generators start searching for other ways to get power.

To keep the trend toward renewables going, Flavin stresses that the technology needs to keep improving and getting cheaper. "We're seeing literally 50 percent growth rates in the solar industry worldwide," according to Flavin. "That's already driven down cost by 40 to 50 percent just in the last year and a half." If trends like that continue it makes sense, economically, for more people to move to solar.

Governments can also help by removing subsidies on conventional energy and fossil fuels. Microfinancing can help, too, because many renewables like solar require an upfront investment before savings start to kick in. "You need to figure out a way to provide financing, just the way we buy a house, so that you pay for it gradually," Flavin said. "I think that's really one of the key things to get this going as a really viable business."

Countries like Kenya, Bangladesh, parts of India, and Sri Lanka have been making great strides, but none may be as important as China to the industry as a whole. Renewable energy still represents a small part of China's energy use, and the country is building coal-powered plants quickly. But it is also taking the lead in both solar and wind power.

China is "beginning to become not just a major manufacturer but also an exporter as well as a significant innovator in the technology," according to Flavin. And as China continues to expand the market, and improve the technology as it goes, it's likely that other countries will follow suit.

For more on renewable energy in Ethiopia, watch the video below: