Education and information dissemination

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Even if a government offers generous incentives and low-cost capital, people will not invest in renewable energy if they lack information regarding resource availability, technology development, the numerous advantages and potential applications of renewables, the fuel mix of the energy they use, and the incentives themselves. During the 1980s, several US states offered substantial subsidies for wind energy — including a 100 per cent tax credit in Arkansas, a state with enough wind resources to generate half of its electricity (Righter, 1996; Battelle/ PNL, 1991). But these subsidies evoked little interest, owing to a lack of knowledge about wind resources. By contrast, it was wind resource studies in California, Hawaii and Minnesota that led to interest in wind energy in these states. And cloudy Germany has more solar water heaters than the sunnier countries of Spain and France, largely because public awareness of the technology is much higher in Germany (Hua, 2002).

Lack of experience or past experiences — from failed Californian wind projects in the 1980s to early development projects in Africa — have left people in much of the world with a perception that renewables do not work, are inadequate to meet their needs, are too expensive or are too risky as investments. Above all, it is essential that government leaders recognize the inherent value of renewable energy. Then, governments, non-governmental organizations and industry must work together to educate labour organizations about employment benefits, architects and city planners about ways to incorporate renewables into building projects and their value to local communities, agricultural communities about their potential to increase farming incomes, and so on.

In India the government's Solar Finance Capacity Building Initiative educates Indian bank officials about solar technologies and encourages them to invest in projects. The Indian government has also used print media, radio, songs and theatre to educate the public about the benefits of renewable energy and government incentives, and has established training programmes (Indian MNES, 2000). In Austria, students learn about renewable energy in schools and universities, and in Germany many vocational training programmes cover renewable energy issues (Goldstein et al, 1999; German BMU, 1994).

It is often assumed that barriers and solutions to renewables are unique to particular countries or settings, but this is not necessarily the case (Kammen, 1999). Thus, at the local, national and international levels it is essential to share information regarding technology performance and cost, capacity and generation statistics, and policy successes and failures in order to increase awareness and to avoid reinventing the wheel each time. While several countries now do this on a national level, a centralized global clearinghouse for such information is clearly needed. The Renewable Energy Network for the 21st Century (REN21) — a product of the International Conference for Renewable Energies in 2004 - may play this role.

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