Six days into his presidency, Barack Obama made clear his position on renewable energy in a speech given at the White House:
"America will not be held hostage to dwindling resources, hostile regimes and a warming planet. We must take bold action to create a new American energy economy that creates millions of jobs for our people."
Obama's election might be the best thing ever to have happened to the renewable energy industry. As part of his fiscal stimulus plan aimed at repairing the US's shattered economy, the newly elected president aims to invest $90 billion in green energy technology and infrastructure over the next few years with a view to creating five million new jobs. Obama's stance represents a huge turn-around in the US's attitude towards energy consumption. Whilst individual states such as Arnold Schwarzenegger's California have adopted vigilant green policies, obliging companies to meet certain targets, America as a whole remains the world's largest energy consumer and accounts for 25% of all oil used around the globe. Despite this crippling statistic, the US has had a mixed attitude towards lowering its energy consumption over the last decade. It continues to allow some of the lowest petrol prices in the world and is by far the world's largest producer of CO2 emissions. Suggestions that the US is lagging behind its global counterparts in moving towards reducing its pollution output were confounded when in 2001 the Bush administration withdrew from the Kyoto Protocol - an agreement committing 37 nations to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by an average of 5% between 2008 and 2010.
Obama's hard-line stance, however, suggests that US might make a U-turn and adopt a new agreement at a global climate conference due to be held in Copenhagen later this year. With generous subsidies and government funding in place for developing clean energy projects, companies and investors may soon be flocking to the US to grab a slice of the action.
The green green grass of home?
Meanwhile, in the UK, it appears that whilst touting itself as an international leader in the field of renewable energy technology, the government will struggle to meet the green energy targets it has been set. The government aims to generate 10% of its electricity supply from renewable energy by 2010 and to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 24% before 2020. In theory, there is no reason why the UK should not be capable of achieving these goals - it possesses the perfect environment for harnessing energy from offshore wind and power plants and boasts Europe's largest offshore wind project at Array in the Thames Estuary. However, at present Britain still remains heavily reliant on fossil fuels. It has seen its carbon emissions rise during four of the last seven years, according to DEFRA, and with only 3.5% of its energy currently from renewable energy sources, remains some way behind the 2010 target set by the Kyoto Protocol.
Worryingly for its economic prospects, the UK has gone from being a net exporter of fuel in the 1980s and 1990s to being increasingly reliant on importing fossil fuels from abroad. This country is currently the largest importer of coal from Russia, a risky strategy given the unpredictable relationship the latter enjoys with its European neighbours which has already seen it cut off gas and oil supplies to Ukraine on several occasions.
The fall-out from the credit crunch may also begin to have an effect on funding for green energy projects in the UK as funding from the financial sector dries up. The majority of the UK's largest energy firms have remained committed to green energy projects and are continuing to invest in research and development. Centrica, the energy company which owns British Gas, which last week announced annual profits of just under £2 billion, has revealed that it plans to create 1,500 engineering and 'green' jobs in the UK in positions related to energy efficiency and wind farms. There are fears, however, that several firms will start to look to exit clean energy projects in the UK should countries like the US start to offer more favourable benefits and subsidies for setting up abroad posted by energy firms this year and next.
The view from above
Amongst its European competitors Britain is currently falling behind the rest of the pack. According to German publication BMU, approximately 3.5% of the UK's current energy consumption is derived from renewable energy sources as opposed to 30% of consumption in Sweden; 13% in Portugal; 16% in Denmark; and 7% in Italy. Both the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats have been critical of Labour's policy towards climate change and renewable energy since the Party came to power. Both point to a lack in reduction of CO2 emissions as well as the fact that the current administration appears to be far off reaching its first set of targets in 2010. The Conservatives have been especially vocal in demonstrating their prioritising of green energy initiatives. If it assumes power at the next election, the party pledges to "Expand offshore wind and marine power and provide government backing for a network of large-scale Marine Energy Parks".
At the same time, however, the party has sought to distance itself from the more radical proposals of Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg who recently unveiled his vision for the UK to become "energy independent" by 2050. Clegg envisages that the country will be self-sufficient in terms of its energy consumption without using nuclear energy generation as a resource. In order to achieve this, the UK would seek to move almost entirely to low carbon forms of energy production, meaning an almost total reliance on alternative energy sources like wind and hydro-power. Clegg accused Labour of having "dithered and flip-flopped for over a decade" on its green energy stance leaving the UK lagging far behind on the targets set by both the Kyoto protocol and its own goals. A target as extreme as the one set by the Lib Dem leader appears unrealistic, however, at least in the eyes of the Conservatives who labelled Clegg's prophesy as "irresponsible" and "verging on the loopy".
The UK may need to find a policy somewhere between its current approach and that outlined by the Liberal Democrats. The Conservatives' outline may prove to be a balanced solution should they gain power at the next election.
One of the major problems facing the UK if it is to reach its green energy targets over the longer term is a potential lack of skills and expertise. From an educational perspective at least, the number of both undergraduate and postgraduate degree courses available in the field of renewable energy has actually increased substantially in recent years. There are now numerous undergraduate courses and masters qualifications available in areas relating to renewable energy and climate change across different departments such as IT, electronics, engineering, geology, natural sciences and physics. Cranfield University is one of many institutions across the country which has responded to an increased demand for courses in the environmental development field. The school offers a range of post-graduate degrees focussing on both scientific and business disciplines.
A recent Masters graduate, HakÃ¶n SÃ¦len decided he wanted to work in the field of climate change from a young age. Having graduated with a Masters degree in Environmental Change and Management from Oxford, he now works for a climate change research institute based in Oslo. He identified the field of climate change and renewable energy as a growing area that would be a key destination for graduates going forward: "The field has been growing rapidly the last few years, especially the private sector related to climate change (like carbon trading, clean development mechanism (CDM), development, and consultancies), so there are a lot more opportunities than when I started my education." HakÃ¶n recognises the challenge that the credit crunch may pose for the investment needed for renewable energy projects but thinks that the environmental sector in general will not be too greatly affected. Though HakÃ¶n himself chose to return to his native Norway after graduating, he feels there are certainly opportunities available for graduates in the UK in his chosen field: "Many of my classmates got jobs in the UK even though most of them were from overseas. I know of only one person out of the 34 who graduated with me who had major problems finding a job."
It is the opinion of several industry specialists, however, that the government needs to be doing more to encourage its top graduates to look at renewable energy development as a career destination. It could begin to do this by creating more graduate positions in this area and by offering more funding to students looking to pursue further education and postgraduate research in the field. According to Gary Taylor, course director of the MSc in Sustainable Electrical Power at Brunel University, graduates who have the right skills in these area will be in a position to benefit from the opportunities which will be created worldwide over the next few years: "The greatest need is for technical personnel -- engineering and scientific skills are most in demand and will command high rates of pay, as well as longevity and security of career."
The question is how many of these positions will be in the UK with other nations, particularly the US, offering a greater range of opportunities and higher remuneration for graduates.
Wind produces only about 1.5% of worldwide energy supply but it is currently the most rapidly expanding resource and has huge potential - power generated from wind technology has in fact doubled over the last the three years. In several European countries wind generated power already accounts for a much greater proportion of electricity supply - currently approximately 19% in Denmark, 10% in Spain and Portugal, and 7% in Germany. Weather conditions in the UK and its expansive coastline make it well placed to benefit from wind generated power in years to come.
There are several forms of hydropower in use or under development. Hydroelectric power is the most developed resource and currently provides 19% of world electricity supply and is one of the longest serving alternative sources of energy and is primarily harnessed in the form of hydroelectric dams. The technology is limited to countries with significant fresh water supply - the world's largest dam is the Three Gorges Dam located on the Yangtzi River in China. Where viable, hydroelectric power is seen as a reliable and low lost alternative to fossil fuels, though it is mainly used as a supplement to traditional energy supplies during times of peak electricity demand.
The US is currently the world's second biggest producer of biofuels (behind Brazil). However, the growing of crops for use of biofuels remains a contentious issue as was publicly highlighted by the 'food vs fuel' debate surrounding the dramatic rise in food prices at the start of 2008.
The process of converting maize or grain into ethanol for vehicle use consumes a lot of energy in itself, meaning that the energy saving is relatively minor. It is also a wasteful process which deprives the globe of valuable food supplies- converting the entire grain harvest of the US into biofuels would only be enough to run 16% of the cars in the United States. So far, Brazil is the only country which has been able to create a sustainable biofuels industry. It uses sugar cane to produce ethanol, in what is a far cheaper and more energy efficient process The South American country has succeeded in efficiently harnessing its biofuel supply since 1976, when the government made it mandatory that all vehicle fuel sold is partially blended with ethanol.
Until now, geothermal energy has been a negligible contributor to world energy reserves, accounting for less than 1% of total energy production. The Philippines and Iceland are the only countries that currently generate a significant percentage of their electricity from geothermal sources. However, there is huge potential for geothermal energy to be a major energy resource if properly harnessed. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) estimates that The United States alone possesses enough geothermal energy 10km below ground to supply the entire world with power for the next 30,000 years. With drilling technology constantly developing in order to access fossil fuels and minerals deeper and deeper underground, there is the possibility of a major breakthrough in effectively harnessing huge quantities of geothermal energy in the next few years.