Although national and international resources allocated to developing, adapting and disseminating renewable energy technologies during the 1970s and 1980s have been substantial, the total amount is still insignificant when compared to resources spent on fossil fuels or nuclear power. Up to now, research and development activity has been substantially skewed towards nuclear power. The member countries of the International Energy Agency (IEA) allocate only 6% to renewables.
This strategy features in the framework of Agenda 21 as formulated at UNCED (Rio de Janeiro, 1992), now coordinated by the United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development and implemented through national and local authorities.
Opened in 1984, a privately owned Danish renewable energy centre is developing wind, solar and biomass energy along with integrated systems to supply local power and heating. The Centre also gives advice to producers and users about building and operating the systems, and provides information concerning the possibilities of using renewable energy. Many cooperative arrangements have been made with countries in Europe and the developing world. In 1988, the centre hosted the First International Conference on Renewable Energy and Local Production. There is also a centre in Wales that concerns itself with promoting renewable energy.
The Renewable Energy Technologies (RETs) Research for Dissemination and Implementation project, starting in January 1994, is an initiative of the Stockholm Environment Institute, African Energy Policy Research Network, and the Foundation of Woodstove Dissemination. Through the examination of non-technological barriers, the project aims at gaining a better understanding of factors determining the success or failure of RETs dissemination projects. Case studies will be made of successful dissemination recorded in some eastern and southern African countries, for instance dissemination of the Kenyan ceramic jiko (an improved charcoal stove), solar water heaters in Botswana, photovoltaics in Kenya, Botswana and Zimbabwe, ethanol in Zimbabwe, and biogas in Burundi.
The Centre for Scientific Research, Auroville is one organized attempt to promote renewable energy processes and appropriate technologies. Begun in 1984, with 21 volunteers from around the world, it has completed projects in solar, wind and biogas energies, including manufacture of ferro-cement biogas digesters and housing elements, smokeless cooking stoves, kiln-fired houses, hand-operated press for making earth blocks, low-tech (wooden) windmills and high-performance multi-blade windmills, and electronic devices for use in photovoltaic systems; and been responsible for the local promotion of solar water heaters, cookers, food dryers, pumps and electrical systems.
UNESCO organized the World Solar Summit (September 1996, Harare). The World Solar Programme, launched in 1996, runs until 2005 with the aim of promoting research, education, public awareness, marketing and job creation in all fields of renewable energy. The programme calls for a global information and communication network to support appropriate training and research.
At the Johannesburg Earth Summit in 2002, the EU set its internal target of 22% renewable energy for the generation of electricity and 12% of all energy coming from renewable sources by 2010.
The largest European-based energy companies, British Petroleum and Royal Dutch Shell, have made a long-term commitment to making the transition out of fossil fuels and are spending large amounts of money on renewable technologies and hydrogen research and development. By contrast, the American energy company, Exxon Mobil, has remained steadfast in its long-term commitment to fossil fuels with little effort being expended on renewables and the exploration of hydrogen-based research development.
Excess production capacity has recently led to low oil prices while new insights into economically-recoverable fossil fuel reserves suggest lower energy prices for at least the next few decades, particularly for oil and natural gas. These low fossil fuel prices make it unlikely that the market share of renewable energy sources will grow significantly in the next few decades without major policy interventions favouring non-fossil energy resources combined with taxes on fossil fuel use to reduce urban air pollution, acidification and climate change.
Although solar power (including wind power and other renewables) has an important growing niche, the possibilities for their widespread use should be viewed with caution. The development and market penetration process for renewables will in all likelihood be so long that it would be questionable for a country to plan for renewables as its principal source of energy for any time in the near future. Natural gas has considerable environmental advantages over oil and coal. Nuclear power is the fastest growing energy source worldwide despite the fact that it is seldom mentioned as a promising alternative, notably because of potential public reaction to any further nuclear accidents. Nevertheless, continuing assessment of the nuclear alternative should be maintained. It cannot be written off at the present stage of world development.