What is meant by “new renewable energies” (NRE)?
The term “new renewable energy” (NRE) covers all non-traditional renewable energy sources; either those that are newly exploited or those that already exist but are being developed in a new way. The current energy transition will be characterised in particular by the wide-scale use of “NRE”.
By definition, renewable energy means an energy source that regenerates naturally and whose renewal process (e.g. tree growth for wood) is fast enough to make the resource deemed inexhaustible on a human scale.
Renewable energies mainly include solar radiation, wind energy (wind), hydropower, tide energy (tidal) or wave energy (wave), biomass (especially wood), deep geothermal energy, and heat naturally present in the environment (in air, water, soil).
The notions of “renewable” and “sustainable” should not be confused. Poor management of a renewable resource may well not be sustainable. For example, exploitation faster than the natural regeneration rate may deplete a resource that is renewable. In the case of wood, such a situation corresponds to deforestation.
Renewable energy is fundamentally different from non-renewable energy sources, which have taken hundreds of millions or even billions of years to build up and whose current stocks are inexorably shrinking as they are consumed. This is the case for fossil fuels (oil, coal, natural gas) and nuclear fuel (uranium).
Since the dawn of time and up to the industrialisation process of the 19th century, humanity has met its energy needs mainly by burning biomass, mainly wood. At the end of the 19th century, Switzerland began to use hydropower to generate electricity. These two sources of energy - wood and hydropower - represent the so-called “traditional” renewable energies.
All other renewable energy sources are considered “new” because they were not, or very little, exploited until today. It should be noted that small hydropower, which includes all hydropower facilities with a capacity of less than 10 MW, is also considered as new renewable energy, although it is already widely exploited [→ Q57]. The same applies to all forms of biomass other than wood (agricultural residues, plants grown for energy purposes, green waste, sewage sludge, etc.), as well as to advanced wood recovery technologies (pellets, second generation biofuel from wood residues, etc.).
The notion of “new renewable energies” is thus purely a matter of vocabulary. It was introduced primarily to facilitate the distinction, in policy debates, between traditional renewable energy sources (economically viable without subsidies) and new ones, which require subsidies to take off.
- Office fédéral de l'énergie (OFEN) (2019)
- Office fédéral de l'énergie (OFEN) (2019). Schweizerische statistik der erneuerbaren energien, ausgabe 2018.