In order for the world to begin to solve the climate crisis, one critical thing has to happen. Global carbon emissions need to start falling. And they need to start falling soon before the serious impacts that we are already seeing considerably worsen and begin to overwhelm us.
Carbon Emissions Plateau For Last Three Years
Over the past three years, countries around the world have been engaged in a major switch away from the biggest carbon emitter — coal. China is shutting down hundreds of its worst polluting coal plants, India is following suit, the U.S. is shuttering many of its own facilities, and in Europe the trend is much the same. Around the world, investment in new coal fired plants continues to fall even as the old plants are pressured more and more to halt operations.
(It’s starting to look like cheap renewable energy and the drive to reduce pollution and to solve the climate crisis are a stronger factor in the present carbon emissions plateau than a cyclical switch to natural gas fired power generation. Image source: The International Energy Agency.)
In many places, coal generation is being replaced by natural gas. This fuel emits about 30-50 percent less carbon than coal, but it’s still a big source. In the past, a switch to natural gas due to lower prices has driven a cyclical but temporary reduction in global carbon emissions. And falling coal prices have often driven a price-forced switch back to coal and a return to rising emissions rates. But after years of rock-bottom coal prices due to continuously falling demand this, today, is not the case.
Low-Cost, More Desirable Renewable Energy Blocks a Cyclical Switch back to Coal
And the primary reason for this break in traditional energy cycling is that renewable energy in the form of wind and solar are now less expensive than coal and gas fired power generation in many places. Add that wind and solar are considerably more desirable due to the fact that they produce practically zero negative health impacts from pollution and that such zero-emitting sources are critical to solving an ever-worsening climate crisis and you end up with something seldom seen in markets anywhere. A rare synergy between a public interest based drive for a more moral energy industry and a, typically callous to such concerns, market-based profit motive.
(In Western Europe basic economics and a desire for cleaner power sources has resulted in both wind and solar overtaking coal fired power generation capacity. Image source: Bloomberg.)
Consider the fact that now, in Western Europe, both solar and wind energy have higher installed capacities than coal. Combined, the two sources have more than double the present energy producing capacity of this dirty fuel. Coal just can’t compete any longer. And an increasing glut of low-cost, non-polluting renewable energy is forcing even the largest, most economically viable, coal fired power plants such as the 2.2 gigawatt facility in Voerde, Germany to shut down.
In Australia, despite the mad-hatter attempts by coal cheerleader politicians to supply more of this dirty carbon to a dwindling world market, renewable energy just keeps on advancing. This week, Queensland announced a new solar + storage project that would at first supply 350 megawatts of renewable energy and would ultimately expand to 800 megawatts. The drive for the project comes as solar prices in Australia are now beating out gas fired power generation. Meanwhile, market analysts are saying that solar+storage will soon be in the same position. And, even more ironically, many of the new solar and battery storage promoters in Queensland are past coal industry investors.
Simple Technologies Leverage Economies of Scale
The technologies driving this fundamental energy market transformation — wind, solar, batteries — are not new silver bullet advances. They are older technologies that are simple and easy to reproduce, improve, and that readily benefit from increasing economies of scale. This combination of simplicity, improvability and scaling is a very powerful transformational force. It enables companies like Tesla to spin core products like mass produced batteries into multiple offerings like electrical automobiles, trucks, and residential, commercial and industry scale energy storage systems. A new capability and advantage that is now beginning to significantly disrupt traditional fossil fuel based markets world-wide.
A fact that was underscored by the shockwaves sent through combustion engine manufacturers recently after Tesla’s simple announcement that it would begin producing electric long-haul trucks.
The announcement almost immediately prompted downgrades in conventional truck engine manufacturer stock values. In the past, competition by electric vehicle manufacturers like Tesla have forced traditional, fossil fuel based vehicle and engine manufacturers to produce their own electric products in order to protect market share. But since these companies are heavily invested in older, more polluting technology it is more difficult for them to produce electric vehicles at a profit than it is for pure electric manufacturers like Tesla.
Renewable Energy Technology Capable of Removing Lion’s Share of Global Carbon Emissions
In light of these positive trends, we should consider the larger goals of the energy transition with regards to climate change.
- To slow and plateau the rate of carbon emissions increases.
- To begin to reduce global carbon emissions on an annual basis.
- To bring carbon emissions to net zero globally.
- To bring carbon emission to net negative globally.
By itself, market based energy switches to renewable energy systems can cut global carbon emissions from their present rate of approximately 33 billion tons of CO2 each year to 1-5 billion tons of CO2 each year through full removal of fossil fuels from thermal, power, fuel, manufacturing, materials production and other uses. In other words, by itself, this now rapidly scaling set of technologies is capable of removing the lion’s share of the human carbon emission problem. And given the rapid cost reductions and increasing competitiveness of these systems, these kinds of needed reductions in emissions are now possible on much shorter timescales than previously envisioned.
Hat tip to Phil
Hat tip to Spike
Hat tip to Brian