Concentration of CO2 in the Atmosphere

2018: A Sustainable Year in Review

Moonrise over the Cranston Fire. CAL FIRE photo.

George Harvey

This year, some impressive developments have started to become clear. In some ways the most impressive of these has been the continued decline in the costs of electricity from renewable resources. Two reports on the “levelized” cost of energy (LCOE) that came out in November both indicate that electricity from renewables is becoming less expensive than the least expensive fossil fuel competition, nearly everywhere on Earth. The LCOE has the cost of subsidies included, so the different sources of energy can be compared directly.

The first of these reports came from Bloomberg New Energy Finance. According to an article at, it showed that the LCOE of onshore wind and solar power had fallen well below the cost of electricity from any form of fossil fuels in all major world economies except Japan ().

The second of the reports was Lazard’s LCOE Analysis, Version 12.0 (). Lazard’s analysis might be the most referenced publication on the subject. This year it had the exciting news that the unsubsidized cost of electricity from onshore wind and solar had fallen below the marginal cost of coal-burning power plants. This means that for a company that owns a coal-burning plant, it is now getting less expensive to shut the plant down and buy the electricity from renewable sources than to keep the plant going. I explain this in an article written for ().

The reports that renewable electricity sources are out-competing fossil fuels reflect conditions that have already appeared in the real world. This means that people who are aware of what is going on, such as the managers of utility companies, had already been seeing the developments and acting on them. And this means other effects have already appeared in the marketplace. These effects include a switch away from plans for future natural gas plants and announcements that coal-burning plants are being closed down.

According to Bloomberg NEF, this year is very close to setting a record for the greatest amount of coal-burning capacity taken offline. What used to be called “Obama’s war on coal” has continued, despite President Trump’s promises to put coal plants back to work, and his attempts to fulfill those promises. So far in 2018, 16 gigawatts (GW) of coal-burning capacity have been closed down, and 37 GW are expected to be closed down by 2025. That is nearly a quarter of the U.S. coal-burning fleet ().

News for natural gas, which is credited with coal’s demise, is not much better. An article published by Reuters explained that the gas industry is not growing much faster than 1% per year, and orders for gas turbines are off by well over 50% since 2010 (). It seems that the managers of utilities have seen the time coming when making money on a gas-fired power plant will not be easy. Perhaps, it will not even be possible.

The problems of the fossil fuels companies are at least partly the result of a near collapse of activity in exploration. According to the International Energy Agency, things are looking pretty dreadful not only for the oil and gas companies, but for anyone dependent on them (). Because there is little exploration, there will soon be insufficient oil or gas to cover demand.

I want to emphasize the bit that said, “for anyone dependent on them.” That means not just the utilities, but everyone else dependent on fossil fuels. These people include anyone who burns oil, natural gas, or propane to keep warm; anyone who drives a car that burns gasoline or diesel oil; any company that flies airplanes or operates ships. In short, it includes just about all of us, because we live in a society that is addicted to fossil fuels.

The fossil fuels industry has more problems than competition and lack of preparation, however. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued a report saying that we have to get busy, right now, addressing the issue of climate change, if we are to keep global warming to 1.5°C (). It said that goal is achievable, but not if we delay any longer.

Meanwhile, President Trump, touring damage from wildfires in California, said, “I want great climate, and we’re going to have that, and we’re going to have forests that are very safe” (). He appeared to blame the wildfires on California’s mismanagement of forests, not realizing that the fires were mostly not in forests, and management of the land that was burned was mostly the responsibility of the federal government, which he heads himself.

Hurricanes were behaving more aggressively this year, also. This was for reasons that we can observe easily, as they are matters of simple measurement. Hurricane Michael, for example, hit the Florida panhandle far more powerfully than it would have if the temperature of the water in the Gulf of Mexico had been normal. But it was not. It was 3°F to 5°F warmer than normal, and since it is the temperature of the water that fuels a hurricane, Michael was stronger than it would have been ().

Of course, the pressures of the real world have played out in politics. The Democratic Party took control of the House of Representatives in the midterm election. But the greatest changes have been at the state level. For example, California has a unique right to set stricter auto emissions standards than those of the federal government, but other states can adopt California’s standards, if they choose. After the midterms, Colorado will be the thirteenth state to do so ().

One more thing worth noting is that in October, Scotland generated enough electricity from renewable resources, mostly wind power, to cover 98% of its demand ().

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