The renewable energy revolution is progressing faster than we realize

By Kent R. Kroeger (June 19, 2018)

A radical transformation of the world’s energy economy from fossil fuels to renewables is well underway and its momentum will make it hard (if not impossible) to reverse.

News on the advancement of the renewable energy revolution occurs every day:

India has increased the renewable purchase obligation(RPO) target from 17 percent now to 21 percent by 2022 for India’s largest power consumers, according to India’s Ministry of Power.

CDP, a not-for-profit environmental impact research organization, now says that 101 of the more than 570 cities it monitors generated at least 70 percent of their electricity from renewable sources in 2017, compared to 42 in 2015. The City of London (UK) recently said its electricity generation would be 100-percent renewable by October 2018.

And the U.S., despite the Trump administration’s efforts to reinvigorate the domestic coal industry, more and more cities are committing themselves to 100-percent renewable electricity generation by mid-century. The Sierra Club now reports over 65 U.S. cities have adopted 100 percent renewable energy goals, with five cities already reaching that milestone: Aspen CO, Burlington, VT, Greensburg, KS, Rock port, MO, and Kodiak Island, AK.

Just this week, the Massachusetts State Senate approved 35–0 an omnibus energy bill that included a provision that would set a 100-percent renewable energy standard by 2047, joining Hawaii as the first U.S. states to make such commitments.

And it is not just renewable energy electricity generation that is advancing fast, technologies developed to capture existing greenhouse gases — which contribute to global warming — are beginning to roll-out.

For example, cement accounts for 7 percent of global man-made carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA). In an effort to reduce cement’s impact on the environment, a Canadian startup recently announced a new cement-making system that traps CO2 emissions forever.

The renewable energy revolution is advancing on all fronts, public and private.

Yet, news of renewable energy’s fast and irreversible progress is still drowned out by scaremongering news stories like the following:

There’s a huge gap between the Paris climate change goals and reality (Vox.com, November 6, 2017)
The Paris agreement’s emissions goals may be in trouble, with or without U.S. participation (The Washington Post, June 1, 2018)
‘To date, we have failed’: Worldwide nations struggling to meet goals outlined in Paris climate agreement two years ago (National Post, February 20, 2018)

One of the common threads in these fear-inciting stories is the 2017 United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) report showing how greenhouse gases continue to rise. Climate scientists say, if greenhouse gas concentrations do not meet 2030 targets set by the Paris Accords, the world will fail to limit global warming to 1.5 °C above (or even 2.0°C above) pre-industrial temperatures. In scientists’ estimation, warming over 2.0°C will result in catastrophic changes to the earth’s climate and environment.

Whether climate science as a discipline has proven itself advanced enough to make such definitive forecasts is a debatable (and even asking the question can itself lead to a severe scolding by the news media and political activists).

On the assumption climate science can predict future global temperatures and their higher-order consequences (e.g., hurricanes, floods, droughts, etc.) with reasonable accuracy, the recent and stubborn growth in atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases appears troubling.

The following graphic from UNEP shows the consequences on global temperatures depending on three possible policy outcomes with respect to reducing greenhouse emissions: The “Nationally Determined Contributions” (NDC) case, the “Unconditional NDC” case, and the current policy trajectory. (Note: The y-axis represents atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations)

SOURCE: UNEP

“More than two decades ago, the world agreed to stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations in our air to prevent dangerous climate outcomes,” said Rob Jackson, an energy and climate expert at Stanford University, in the above-mentioned National Post news story. “To date, we have failed.”

Failed? Perhaps. But if one takes a broader look, the word ‘failed’ seems a tad…well…too overwrought given the real progress already made on converting the world to renewable energy sources.

The Global Goal of 100% Renewable Energy for Electricity Generation by 2050 is not only Doable, It is Likely

From the perspective of greenhouse gas emissions (including CO2), the world’s progress in converting from fossil fuels to renewables may appear as too little, too late.

SOURCE: UNEP

But as seen in the above graph, it is China’s economic growth engine that is the primary culprit for recent increases in greenhouse gas emissions. What the graph does not reveal is China’s significant progress in meeting its short-term climate change goals. In fact, China has already met its 2020 Paris Accords goal in greenhouse gas emissions.

China’s special representative for climate change, Xie Zhenhua, announced in March that China achieved a 46 percent reduction in CO2 emissions (as a percent of GDP) when compared to 2005 levels. The Paris Accords goal for China was 45 percent by 2020.

So, yes, China’s high-octane economic growth will challenge Paris Accords long-term goals, but as of now, China is doing what has been asked.

The renewable energy consumption and power generation trajectories worldwide are, in fact, not only positive (see graphs below), but on track to meet the Paris Accords goal of 100-percent renewable energy electricity generation by 2050.

SOURCE: BP Statistical Review of World Energy

Using data available from British Petroleum’s World Energy Review, I generated forecasts through 2100 for renewable energy’s share of electricity generation. Using a simple logistic forecast model (with a maximum share set at 1.0, i.e., 100%), the following forecasts for renewable energy (the blue lines) were made for China, India, the U.S., Europe (not including Russia and CIS countries), and the World:

Assuming nuclear energy and hydroelectric’s share of electricity generation remain near current levels, on their present trajectories, China, India, the U.S., and Europe are all on target to reach 100-percent renewable energy-based electricity generation by 2050 (the orange lines in the above graphs).

In fact, Europe will hit the mark as soon as 2030 and China will about 10 years later. Unsurprisingly, the U.S. won’t reach 100-percent renewable energy electricity generation goal until 2055. However, given the constant hand-wringing in the U.S. news media about Donald Trump’s decision to exit the Paris Accords, it may surprise these same critics that the renewable energy revolution is alive and well in the U.S. And it will be hard for the Trump administration to alter this trend as decisions on the building of new electricity generation plants generally occur at local and state-levels, not at the federal level. As of today, the economics increasingly favor wind, solar, and other renewable energy sources over carbon-based energy sources.

Even more encouraging are the modest year-to-year increases in renewable energy capacity required to reach the 100-percent renewable goal by 2050. In the case of the U.S., in the next 10 years the percentage point increase in renewable energy’s share of total electricity generation will need to average around 1 percent each year. In 2018, that requires adding about 43 Terawatt hours (TWh) of renewable energy electricity generation, or roughly the same electricity output as two Grand Coulee dams. In the next 10 years after that, the renewable energy’s share will need to increase by around 1.8 percent per year, and the 10 years after that, an increase of 2.3 percent per year will be needed.

These are achievable annual goals given the U.S. has been adding to renewable energy’s share of electricity generation by over 1 percentage point for the past two years.

SOURCE: Forbes.com

“The changing cost dynamic between renewable energy and fossil fuel is spurring coal closures along with new wind and solar installations,” writes Silvio Maracci, Communications Director at Energy Innovation. “In many parts of the U.S., building new wind is cheaper than running existing coal, while nuclear and natural gas aren’t far behind. As renewable energy costs continue their relentless decline, they keep pushing fossil fuels further from profitability — and neither trend is slowing down.”

SOURCE: Forbes.com

Of course, bad and short-sighted public policies could change any of these trajectories.

Despite the fact it is cheaper to build a new wind farm power plant than to continue running an old coal power plant in many parts of the U.S., the Trump administration is contemplating ‘forcing’ utilities to buy coal-generated electricity in certain situations. Why? Ostensibly, the Trump administration argues that, because coal and nuclear plants generate power continuously (day and night) and store their fuel sources on-site, they are less vulnerable to interruptions in power generation. Presumably, a terrorist group or natural disaster could disrupt the supply line between natural gas plants (that do not generally store their fuel on-site) and natural gas suppliers. The real answer is that saving the coal industry was a core promise during Trump’s presidential campaign.

Also adding uncertainty to the rise of renewable energy is the continued approval and building of new coal power plants throughout the world. According to EndCoal.org, China and India alone are already constructing 220 and 77 new coal plants, respectively. And in the pipeline are 492 new coal plants in China and 232 in India. If all of these plant are eventually built, the chance of meeting the Paris Accords’ 1.5°C limit would become all but impossible.

In contrast, the U.S. has no plans for building new coal plants and the Trump administration’s only proposed effort, so far, has been to extend the life of the U.S.’ 668 existing coal plants.

Source: EndCoal.org

And then there is the issue of nuclear energy. The forecast I detailed above assumes nuclear energy will maintain its current contributions to the world’s electricity supply. But that assumption could easily be wrong.

For example, South Korea President Moon Jai-in’s decision to phase out his country’s nuclear power industry, for largely political reasons, is a bad omen for nuclear energy’s future role in helping the world achieve its renewable energy goals. Nuclear energy remains one of the world’s cleanest, safest and, in the long-term, most affordable energy sources; yet, unfounded fears about this energy source continue to drive many environmentalists’ perceptions on its role going forward.

Optimistically, the climate change lobby will overcome its ideological blinders and realize the renewable revolution requires a wide variety of sources and technologies whose contributions to the world’s overall energy mix will depend on area-specific factors regarding their availability, appropriateness, and affordability.

Partisan Politics Could Still Derail the World’s Increasingly Green Future

There is another major threat to the renewable energy revolution: it is the partisan media’s propensity to exaggerate the effects of global warming that could potentially stunt renewable energy’s growth in the future.

Instead of making the public sensitive to the genuine risks associated with global warming (and the risks are real), the partisan media resorts to unnecessary hyperbole and unscientific doomsday tales when it discusses the topic. The media’s repetition of many false narratives regarding global warming (such as it being an extinction event for humans if it is not reversed) only serves to corrode the media’s credibility on the subject.

Donny Deutsch, a frequent guest on MSNBC’s Morning Joe, personified this pathology when he declared after Trump pulled the U.S. out of the Paris Accords that “if we go 3.6 percent warmer (?) the world ends.”

I don’t look to advertising executives for climate science information and neither should anyone else.

This type of rhetoric may help environmental activists raise money, but in the long run, as the doomsday predictions always fail to materialize, it also numbs the public to the seriousness of global warming.

Such ‘end-of-the-world’ nonsense too often heard in media discussions on climate change only empowers the global warming skeptics looking for any errors by the news media, no matter how minor, to dismiss all of the science on climate change.

Luckily, the private sector is so far out front on the issue of renewable energy that there is little the federal government can do to stop its advance. A new report by the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) shows private companies are increasingly switching to renewable energy for economic, not ideological, reasons. In its report, IRENA highlighted 134 worldwide companies committed to achieving 100-percent renewable electricity in the near future for their energy needs.

In addition to local decisions on building new power plants and the ‘greening’ of energy sources, it is in private industry where the growing demand for renewable energy all but guarantees its dominance by 2050. That is not hyperbole. That is fact.

  • K.R.K.