In key markets around the world, clean solar energy appears poised to eat dirty coal’s lunch.
In Australia and Germany solar panel installation hit an extreme pace in the period of 2005-2013. The result is that, in some places, peak energy demand has fallen by as much as 15%. Utilities, in these areas, burdened with costly over-capacity are, in turn, looking to shut down some of their other peak energy providers. Namely coal plants.
This statement isn’t just anecdotal. In Central Europe, according to a recent UBS study, over 21 coal, gas, and oil-fired power plants are slated for closure by 2017. This represents over 7 gigawatts of fossil fuel generation capacity to be shut in. It positively compares to 6 gigawatts of nuclear facilities set for closure in Germany and Belgium over the same time-frame.
Even more impressive, a further 41 gigawatts of coal and gas plants may need to be closed in order for Central European utilities to remain profitable. Together, this could result in the closure of around 49 gigawatts of fossil fuel capacity over the next nine years, about a third of central European thermal capacity. This amount almost exactly matches the new renewable energy capacity coming online over the same period.
Because renewables are diffuse and dispersed, it negatively impacts centralized power generation systems. And most of these systems come in the form of coal and gas fired power plants. So in an irony to end all ironies, ‘liberal’ forms of green energy are empowering individuals to control their own energy destinies while central governments in Europe and Australia are helping them do it. This new energy autonomy is a renaissance of sorts, empowering to middle classes around the globe and resulting in a greater wealth diffusion likely to have strong long-term benefits to those economies in which energy transitions occur. New markets will emerge as access to a form of personal capital — energy capital — will take root.
Electricity grids in such systems will also be more resilient, as the sources of generation are more diffuse and, therefore, more difficult to disrupt.
What these new energy systems represent is a major opportunity to both fend off the worst impacts of climate change while creating new means for enabling economic development and prosperity. Which brings us to India, China and the US. Both India and China have plans to build a massive number of new coal fired power plants over the coming years. Both have serious needs to produce new energy to power burgeoning economies. Meanwhile, the US is still engaged in a series of alternative energy fits and re-starts — primarily due to legislative obstacles put in place by conservatives aligned with oil, gas and coal companies.
If these countries continue on the path of a massive build in dangerous energy (India and China), and stuttering adoption in the US, the transition of energy sources in Europe and Australia will not be enough. Total volumes of CO2 dumped into the atmosphere will still continue to rise for an unconscionable period. So it is imperative that the trend of rapid adoption and replacement seen in Europe and Australia must establish itself in the US, China and India as well.
Already, there is some hope that such a shift may be starting. China is adding large volumes of wind and solar capacity. India has plans for a multi-gigawatt solar build-out and, in the US, solar energy appears set to outpace all new energy installations except natural gas. But legal hurdles to the kind of individual adoption that spurred the replacement of dirty energy sources in Central Europe currently delay adoption in many US states. Arguably, without these adversarial laws and equally adversarial conservative politicians, US alternative energy adoption would be proceeding by leaps and bounds.
So, though challenges remain, there are certainly a few glimmers of hope. Power generation represents the lion’s share of CO2 emissions worldwide. So establishing the ongoing basis for a rapid transition to renewables would do much to lower the volume of CO2 emitted. But to stop global warming long-term we will have to also get a handle on transportation emissions (vehicle to grid and biofuels) as well as emissions from the way we use land. In any case, these ne