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5 renewable energy trends to watch in 2012

Advances in energy efficiency and grid-connected storage projects shape investments over the next 12 months, according to a new report from cleantech research firm Clean Edge.
Written by Heather Clancy, Contributor

Green technology and renewable energy research firm Clean Edge reports that the solar photovoltaic, wind power and biofuels markets grew 31 percent last year to reach $246.1 billion, despite the bad rap that renewable energy has been suffering since the Solyndra bankruptcy.

That's one of the key findings in the firm's "Clean Energy Trends 2012" report. All three technology areas had a record year, according to Clean Edge. For example, solar installations grew by more than 69 percent from 15.6 gigawatts in 2010 to more than 26 gigawatts in 2011, largely due to rapidly decreasing solar technology costs. Last year was the largest year for wind power installations ever, reaching 41.6 gigawatts. (China alone has installed more than 40 percent of the global wind power capacity.)

Mind you, all of these projects were probably long underway before the mood turned so sour on clean energy last year, at least in the United States where it has become an election year issue. And not in a good way. So, I was far more interested in the trends that Clean Edge is watching most carefully over the next 12 months. Here are 5 things that anyone interested in clean energy should watch closely, according to the Clean Edge report.

  1. Military installations and investments. There have been numerous announcements about combined energy efficiency and renewable energy projects over the past several months, and you should expect more throughout 2012. One reason is the enormous dependence that the military has on fuel sources, especially when it is deployed in combat zones. Clean Edge points out that the proposed budget for fiscal 2013 (although it isn't likely to pass) contains spending of $1 billion on clean energy and energy efficiency projects, up from $400 million in the latest year. When you consider that the U.S. Department of Defense is the WORLD's largest consumer of energy, it is clear that something has to be done. Find cheaper sources of energy for the military, and you can cut the budget. The catch is that you have to invest to save.
  2. What will Japan do? Before the devastating tsunami of March 2011, Clean Edge reports that about 30 percent of Japan's energy came from nuclear power. Currently, all but three of the nation's 54 reactors are sitting idle as the government grapples with next steps. Japan is focusing on a goal of producing 20 percent of its electricity needs through renewable power sources by 2020.
  3. Watch the impact of commercial energy efficiency retrofits. Over the past 18 months, the mantra around energy efficiency initiatives has become louder and more insistent. That's because simple adjustments and measures can help save energy, decreasing the need to build more power plants. Clean Edge notes that about one-fifth of the annual energy consumption in the United States is tied to commercial buildings. The federal government is kicking in some incentives to make it all the more appealing; the goal is to make all of America's commercial and industrial buildings 20 percent more efficient by 2020. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to see that helping businesses save money isn't a hard argument to make. Significantly less difficult than convincing them to invest in on-site solar panels.
  4. Turning waste into a resource. The idea of creating value out of what some of us deem to be waste or a castoff item continues to gain more ground. Clean Edge reports that the practice of turning municipal waste into gas that can be used as energy is enjoying a renaissance, as the result of technologies that can do this with far less toxic impact to the government. Here are the companies that Clean Edge is watching: Agylix, Enerkem, InEnTe, PyroGenesis and Waste Management.
  5. Grid energy storage. One perennial argument against renewable energy is its intermittent nature. So energy storage technologies continue to be an important focus of research and development, and investment. We will continue to hear about more energy storage projects that are adjacent to renewable energy installations, which should have the effect of balancing loads.

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