Renewable Energy and Big Business

A new report from a group with a horrifically unwieldy name — the Renewable Energy Policy Network for the 21st Century (REN21) — indicates a record level of investment in renewable energy worldwide.

REN21 Report “Renewables 2005: A Global Status Report”

The lead author of the report Eric Montinot claims that “Renewable energy has become big business.” What am I missing here? Why do I find it difficult to agree with this assessment?

True, there are a lot of big corporations with a non-trivial involvement in renewables: BP, Shell, GE, FPL, ADM, and so on. And, there is no doubt that the renewable sector is growing rapidly and has grown tremendously from its earliest days. But, it strikes me that claiming renewables as “big business” is hype, premature at best. For the above firms, renewables represent a significant growth opportunity and an excellent PR position, but don’t represent a very large portion of their core business. Furthermore, there’s still an awful lot of “mom-and-pop” in the renewables sector, and an awful lot of green idealism or green policy rather than green money driving activity in renewables.

In any event, what does it really mean anyway for renewables to be “big business”? If it means being like Dell or Wal-Mart — improving the economics and delivery of products/services so that more customers purchase them because they represent truly valuable offers — then that (in my opinion) would be a good thing for the advancement of renewables. If “big business” means being like the average U.S. oil company, utility or auto manufacturer, those are the last role models I would like to see for the renewable energy sector.

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