We Will Win the Climate War!
By George Harvey
While the bad climate news looks bad, the good news is stunningly good.
It is clear that economics now favor renewable power strongly. Many people expected the sharp reduction in fossil fuel prices to undermine renewable power, but that did not happen. Most investors want to have a sense of security, and they have increasingly considered fossil fuels risky. Many of our largest coal companies have already gone bankrupt, and the oil industry is in trouble. Some analysts say that we could see as many as a third of those in the United States go under this year.
At the same time, the costs of wind and solar power have declined sharply worldwide, as have costs of utility-scale batteries. Prices for long-term solar power purchase agreements are down, below 4.4¢/kWh in one unsubsidized instance in Spain. At this price, the cost of solar with battery backup is very competitive with natural gas. GTM Research says solar power is at grid parity in twenty states already.
Given these facts, it is hardly surprising that the International Renewable Energy Agency says the world could save $4.2 trillion annually by doubling our renewable capacity by 2030. And that figure, they say, is fifteen times as much as the investment to do it would cost.
Part of our trend away from fossil fuels depends on simple changes in our understandings and applications of science. For example, a NOAA study says installing high-tech transmission lines could enable changes that would reduce emissions from United States’ electric generation by 80% in fifteen years.
With the increasing renewable buildout it is becoming clear that wind and solar power can do anything baseload power plants can do – and do it better. Baseload power plants match grid demand very badly because they are inflexible. By comparison, solar plants produce their power during high demand times, and widely distributed wind turbines can usually have their output adjusted as needed, so they can match demand well.
Chemistry is also helping us, as more synthetic and biologically based fuels are brought to market. One example of this is a system developed by German and Portuguese companies that can make a drop-in gasoline replacement from carbon dioxide and water at prices that are competitive with oil when it is $30 per barrel.
Unsurprisingly, renewables are being built out very quickly, as these changes take effect. For example, two-thirds of new electric capacity in the United States was renewable last year. Additions of natural gas capacity have declined steeply, and additions of coal capacity have nearly ceased. Renewable power output is growing markedly, and output by fossil fuels is shrinking.
With increased efficiency, energy demand is in decline, and this has made the shift away from fossil fuels worse for those companies that depend on them. American electric consumption fell 1.1% last year, according to U.S. Energy Information Administration figures. Heating and transportation are also seeing reduced demand.
These trends are true not only in the United States, but also in most of the rest of the world, and for the same reasons. Large companies and governments of all sizes are shifting to renewable resources (with some notable exceptions). The great majority of new capacity is renewable, worldwide.
The problems presented by climate change are also being addressed in other ways. For example, there is a European effort to plant 600,000 hectares (1.5 million acres) of forest over the next five years, according to a senior adviser to the European Commission.
Governments leading the way include San Francisco‘s, which has enacted a requirement that all new buildings have solar power, Oregon, which is ending use of electricity produced with coal, and the Island of Hawaii, which gets 41% of its electricity from renewables. Uruguay increased its wind power from about 2.5% of its demand to about 19% in just one year, Costa Rica gets 99% of its power from renewables, and this year China will close about 1,000 coal-fired power plants.
There are, of course, dangerous developments that could impede our progress. Among the worst of these are political hate-mongering, the scare tactics that are being used to derail renewable energy development, and the ignorance that feeds off hatred and fear.
Ultimately, we will win the race with climate change. Addressing an audience of 2,800 energy professionals, EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy put it simply: “The clean energy train has left the station, folks.”