Thanks to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), it is getting a little more difficult to argue that global warming is a myth fostered by the nuclear industry or a conspiracy orchestrated by environmentalists. Recent voluminous reports put out by working groups of the IPCC do seem to provide strong support for the view that human activity is already influencing the global climate, and that the rate of change is increasing.

The report of IPCC Working Group I, on the scientific basis, finalised in Shanghai in January, suggests that globally averaged surface temperature has increased by 0.6 ± 0.2°C over the 20th century. On current trends, it projects that this temperature could rise significantly over the next 100 years, perhaps between 1.4°C and 5.8°C, with globally averaged sea level projected to rise between 0.09 and 0.88 meters by 2100.

On 19 February the report of IPCC Working Group II, dealing with what it calls "impacts, adaptation and vulnerability", was finalised in Geneva. This projects increased frequency and intensity of extreme climatic phenomena, including both droughts and flooding. The 1000 page report of Working Group II involved no less than 183 lead authors, 243 contributing authors and 440 government and expert reviewers, which is of course no guarantee of quality and might even indicate the opposite. But it is by no means the end of IPCC’s current labours, which together will comprise its overall assesssment of the state of play on climate change. From 28 February to 3 March, the IPCC’s Working Group III, charged with assessing the options for limiting greenhouse gas emissions and otherwise mitigating climate change, will finalise its report, in Accra, Ghana.

Presumably, greater use of renewables will be one of the measures supported. A number of other recent developments, including gas price esacalation, are also boosting the cause of renewables and attracting increasing commercial interest to this sector.

At its annual press conference in mid February, ABB reaffirmed its goal of achieving a revenue of euro 1 billion from alternative energy by 2005. Shell, which is currently in discussion with Siemens Solar GmbH on closer co-operation, is investing $500 million over five years in renewable energy sources such as wind, biomass and solar. 3i, the venture capital company, has recently taken a 39 per cent share in Fortum’s solar power arm, Naps Systems Oy, with a view to entering such markets as grid connected solar panels (which have proved successful in Germany under the auspices of the 10 000 roof programme). A new report from the Global Environment Facility ( sees huge potential for renewables in the developing countries and predicts that they overtake fossil fuels as "the lowest cost, least-risk investment." Wind, in particular, is on something of a roll, with share prices in Danish pioneer Vestas having risen by a factor of about 35 in the past two years, while its fellow Danish wind turbine maker NEG Micon seems to be recovering from the gear box and other problems that have plagued it in recent times.

A recent forecast by investment bank Dresdner Kleinwort Wasserstein is forecasting a tripling in installed world wind capacity over the next five years, from about 18 GW today to about 67 GW in 2006. By then the USA will have overtaken Germany as the country with the largest wind capacity.

Helped by a high guaranteed price for wind-generated electricity, no less than 1668 MWe of new wind capacity was installed in Germany in 2000, bringing the country’s total wind installed capacity to 6113 MWe. There are plans for a 1000 MWe offshore wind park (the world’s largest) in the Baltic Sea, off the German coast.

For the time being the title of world’s largest wind farm is claimed by the 450-turbine 300 MWe Stateline project, currently under development in the United States. This project also has a further distinction: it looks like it will be able to stand on its own feet economically and will be profitable without relying on government tax credits. Furthermore it should be possible to get most of the project generating this year, which is an important issue in the power starved United States these days. (This contrasts with the long lead times associated with conventional fossil plants, to say nothing of nuclear units. Brazil’s Angra 2 nuclear unit, at 1309 MWe, may be the equivalent of about 1700 average-size wind turbines but it has been under construction, off and on, for a quarter of a century or so (see p 36).) In the UK, where the first offshore wind farm, albeit a modest two-unit 4 MW development project, has just entered operation the Crown Estate has reported a "tremendous response" from developers in the first round of lease applications for offshore wind farm sites on the UK seabed (see this month’s news). Significantly, one of the applications was from a joint venture involving nuclear generator, British Energy.

Of course some regions and countries are projecting much higher contributions from renewables than others. An extreme case is Iceland, which plans to eliminate all fossil fuels and move to an energy economy based on hydrogen produced from hydroelectric plants plus geothermal for space heating. But it is a special case, uniquely endowed with geothermal and hydro resources and with a population of only 170 000.

More modest, but still ambitious, is the directive currently under consideration that wants 22 per cent of EU electricity to come from renewables by 2010.

Unfortunately, however, for the world at large, renewables still only contribute a very small proportion of the electricity generated and this will remain so for a good few years yet. Take wind, for example, perhaps the most successful of the renewable technologies to date. It currently accounts for a paltry 0.2 per cent of the world’s 3300 GWe of installed capacity and even on the DKW projections referred to above the percentage will be a mere 1.42 per cent in 2005 and 3.11 per cent in 2010.

Conventional fossil technologies, albeit employing advanced emissions reduction technologies, are going to remain the mainstay of the world’s electricity generation system for the foreseeable future.