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Record Year For Renewables Brings 185 GW of Clean Power Generation and 1.1 Million Electrical Vehicles

Despite policy opposition from fossil fuel backers across the world, renewable energy adoption rates rapidly accelerated during 2017 as both renewable electricity generation and clean energy vehicles saw considerable growth. This rapid growth is providing an opportunity for an early peak in global carbon emissions so long as investment in and broader policy support for clean energy continues to advance.

Solar Leads Record Year for New Renewable Power Generation

At the grid level, the biggest gains came from solar which saw an estimated 98 GW added globally. This is a 31 percent jump YOY from 2016 when 76.2 GW of solar energy was installed. More than half of this new solar generating capacity (52.83 GW) was added by China — now the undisputed solar leader both in terms of manufacturing and installations. That said, large gains were also made by India, Europe and the U.S. even as the rest of the world saw broader adoption as panel prices continued to fall. Uncertainty in the U.S. over the 201c trade case brought by Sunivia and enabled by the Trump Administration hampered solar adoption there. However, it is estimated that about 12 GW were still installed. Australia also saw a solar renaissance with more than 1 GW installed during 2017 as fossil-fuel based power generation prices soared and panel prices continued to plummet.

(Solar energy’s versatility combined with falling prices generates major advantages. In the coming years, solar glass will make this clean power source even more accessible.)

Wind energy also saw major additions in the range of 56 GW during 2017. Though less than banner year 2015 at 60 GW, wind grew from an approximate 50 GW annual add in 2016. This clean power source is therefore still showing a healthy adoption rate despite competition from dirty sources like natural gas and cheap coal due to overcapacity. Other renewable energy additions such as large hydro power, small hydro, biofuels, and geothermal likely resulted in another 30 GW or more– with China alone adding 12.8 GW of new large hydro power capacity.

Overall, about 185 GW of new clean electricity appears to have been added to global generation during 2017 — outpacing both new nuclear and new fossil fuels. This compares to approximately 150 GW from similar sources added during 2016. The primary drivers of this very rapid addition were swiftly falling solar costs, continued drops in wind prices, a number of policy incentives for clean energy adoption, rising access to energy storage systems and increasing concerns over human-caused climate change.

(More bang for your buck. Despite a plateau in clean energy investment over recent years, annual capacity additions keep rising — primarily due to continuously falling wind and solar prices. Image source: Bloomberg New Energy Finance.)

Electrical Vehicles Boom

Even as clean power generation was making strides, clean transport was racing ahead. With new offerings like the Chevy Bolt, the Tesla Model 3, and the upgraded Nissan Leaf, the electrical vehicle appears to have come of age. Luxury EVs are now more and more common in places like Europe and the United States even as mid-priced EVs are becoming widely available. Concern over both clean air and climate change is driving large cities and even major countries like India and China to pursue fossil fuel vehicle bans. A growing number of EVs with range capabilities in excess of 200 miles are hitting markets. And charging infrastructure is both growing and improving. As a result of these multiple dynamics, EV sales grew by nearly 50 percent from about 740,000 sold in 2016 to 1.1 million sold in 2017.

Renewables + EVs Bring Potential For Early Peak in Carbon Emissions

Such rapid rates of renewable energy adoption are starting to have an impact on human carbon emissions. Annual rates of renewable power addition in the range of 150 to 250 GW are enough to begin to plateau and/or reduce global carbon emission so long as reasonable efficiencies are added to the energy system. Meanwhile, annual EV sales in the range of 3 to 5 million per year and growing around 20 percent annually is enough to start to tamp down global oil demand and related externalities.

(Very rapid EV sales growth during 2017 is likely to be repeated in 2018 as more capable and less expensive electrical vehicles like Tesla’s Model 3 hit markets in larger numbers. Image source: Macquarie Bank and Business Insider.)

We are beginning to enter the range of visible fossil fuel replacement by renewable power generation now and it appears that EVs will start to measurably impact oil demand by the early 2020s. To this point, direct replacement of coal with renewable and natural gas based energy sources during recent years has resulted in a considerable slowing in the rate of carbon emissions growth. If renewables continue to make substantial gains during 2018 and onward, this trend of replacement of fossil fuels and reduction of harmful greenhouse gasses hitting the atmosphere will become more and more apparent.

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22 Comments

  1. Glen Kelleher

     /  January 23, 2018

    Thanks Robert, an excellent summary.

    i was encouraged by this solar thermal addition in South Australia.

    https://www.gizmodo.com.au/2017/08/south-australia-to-get-the-worlds-biggest-solar-thermal-plant-what-the-experts-have-to-say/

    150 MW is not huge but if it goes well, they’ll put up 10 and you’ll have the equivalent of a coal fired power station. As you know, it can supply power when the sun doesn’t shine.

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  2. Another article on the sea turtle crisis (Science Daily: Sea turtle crisis: Moisture, not just heat impacts sex of sea turtle hatchlings confirms the bad news) – 97-100% females in Palm Beach County, FL., as in Australia.
    An (old) article on the effects of extinction of sea turtles mentioned one that I did not know about but is likely to be great, that of their mowing sea grasses – “2. Green turtles feed on seagrasses and seaweeds that grow on the ocean floor. These seagrasses are home to other marine life such as seahorses and also serve as breeding ground for fishes. However, they must be kept short to remain healthy and this is where the turtles come in. If turtles were to ever go extinct, seagrasses would eventually die off and this would in turn affect the marine life and eventually human life as well.” At this rate of change, negative effects may be very great, very soon.
    http://www.turtleconservationsociety.org.my/what-happens-to-the-environment-if-turtles-became-extinct/

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  3. Another warning from a scientist on how little time we have to act –
    . . . “if immediate action isn’t taken, Earth’s global average temperature is likely to rise to 1.5°C above the period before the industrial revolution within the next 17-18 years, and to 2.0°C in 35-41 years respectively if the carbon emission rate remains at its present-day value.

    Through their projections, Dr Goodwin and Professor Williams advise that cumulative carbon emissions needed to remain below 195-205 PgC (from the start of 2017) to deliver a likely chance of meeting the 1.5°C warming target while a 2°C warming target requires emissions to remain below 395-455 PgC.

    “Immediate action is required to develop a carbon-neutral or carbon-negative future or, alternatively, prepare adaptation strategies for the effects of a warmer climate,” said Dr Goodwin, Lecturer in Oceanography and Climate at Southampton.

    Global temperature targets will be missed within decades unless carbon emissions reversedhttps://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/01/180122110946.htm

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  4. A rather technical issue on enzymes in bacteria, the discovery of a second, previously unknown route for the natural biological production of methane. If more bacteria can easily produce methane that is currently accounted for, that could lead to some surprises.

    Unexpected environmental source of methane discovered. Some nitrogen-fixing microorganisms contain an enzyme for the simultaneous production of ammonia and methane. Jan 15, 2018.
    https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/01/180115120551.htm
    Summary:
    Roughly 10 percent of nitrogen-fixing microorganisms contain the genetic code for manufacturing a back-up enzyme, called iron iron-only nitrogenase, to do their job. New research reveals that this enzyme allows these microorganisms to convert nitrogen gas to ammonia and carbon dioxide into methane at the same time. This enzymatic pathway is a previously unknown route for the natural biological production of methane.

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  5. Keith Antonysen

     /  January 23, 2018

    The Minerals Council of Australia is pushing hard to gain subsidies in relation to carbon capture and storage.

    https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/jan/23/minerals-council-steps-up-coal-advocacy-despite-bhp-call-for-neutrality#comments

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  6. Today, Jan, 23, is 70F in Raleigh, NC, bright, clear and feels like a day in Hawaii. This just days after 13F at night. Just out of interest, here is one effect described by a local farmer –

    “Late afternoon of the 22nd, just before the first of the 20 degree days, M. found a hen walking around with 12 newly hatched chicks! . . . That Saturday was beautiful, but the bottom was predicted to drop out that evening into the low 20s, so I hustled to provide them as safe a place as I could. Hens are not supposed to hatch out in December!

    Much to my surprise, and because of a whole lot of attention, we still have all 12 chicks.
    My bet is they will be the healthiest of all the birds here. They have stayed outside in one
    of the stalls, and that hen did a great job of keeping them warm. And I did a really good job
    of switching out frozen waters 3 times a day! With vitamins!

    The guineas, on the other hand had a really hard time with the erratic temperature shifts. They could not take those warm to hot to frigid and back again temperature changes. We lost 6 of the 12 keets, but none since the really cold weather hit and stayed.”

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  7. wharf rat

     /  January 23, 2018

    Survey: Mayors view climate change as pressing urban issue

    In all, 115 mayors of cities with at least 75,000 residents answered the fourth annual survey named for Thomas Menino, a longtime Democratic mayor of Boston who founded the university program before his death in 2014. The survey was sponsored in part by The Rockefeller Foundation and Citigroup.

    Organizers of the survey declined to release a list of the 115 mayors who responded, citing confidentially agreements. According to the report, nearly two-thirds of the mayors were Democrats and the cities had an average population of 233,000.

    http://abcnews.go.com/Technology/wireStory/survey-mayors-view-climate-change-pressing-urban-issue-52541242

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  8. A worthwhile resource is provided in this must read article
    https://www.theguardian.com/environment/planet-oz/2018/jan/24/murky-world-of-science-journals-a-new-frontier-for-climate-deniers?
    Murky world of ‘science’ journals a new frontier for climate deniers
    Deniers have found a platform in emerging publications that publish without rigorous review
    Which links to a list of “Predatory Science Publications”

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  9. Jim

     /  January 24, 2018

    This summary of Elon Musk’s bonus package over the next decade is perhaps the best summary I’ve seen today. It’s penned by Australia’s Giles Parkinson, owner of RenewEconomy.

    From the report:

    “Elon will receive no guaranteed compensation of any kind – no salary, no cash bonuses, and no equity that vests simply by the passage of time,” the company said in a statement.

    “Instead, Elon’s only compensation will be a 100% at-risk performance award, which ensures that he will be compensated only if Tesla and all of its shareholders do extraordinarily well.

    “Because all Tesla employees are provided equity, this also means that Elon’s compensation is tied to the success of everyone at Tesla.”

    Personally, I’m not a fan of huge pay packages that generally feed income inequality. But if you’re going to put together such a package it should be for someone who’s actually trying to revolutionize the energy system from generation, to storage, and to transportation. This kind of “ecosystem” thinking is part of what launched steep stock price rises for Apple, Amazon and Google. And I think all scribblers here would likely agree that moving to a carbon free future is more important than the next iPhone update/planned obsolescence.

    http://reneweconomy.com.au/musk-could-pocket-88-billion-bonus-if-tesla-dreams-come-true-66740/?utm_source=RE+Daily+Newsletter&utm_campaign=8b36564156-EMAIL_CAMPAIGN_2018_01_24&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_46a1943223-8b36564156-40326537

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  10. 12volt dan

     /  January 24, 2018

    The situation in Cape Town just keeps getting worse. 0 day is less than 2 months away now as the date keeps getting pushed up. Four million people will be getting water from 200 stations. I’m not sure how that’s going to work.

    https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/jan/24/cape-town-to-run-out-of-water-by-12-april-amid-worst-drought-in-a-century

    “On 1 February, even stricter water restrictions come into force, limiting the maximum use per person to 50 litres a day, down from 87 litres. Earlier this year, the city published a name-and-shame list of the worst water offenders in Cape Town, and it says it is issuing fines for the heaviest water users.
    Advertisement

    Farmers have been asked to cut back on irrigation, car hire firms have stopped washing cars, hotels have restricted all uses of water, while tourists in self-catering accommodation have been asked to restrict personal washing.

    Discussions are under way with the South African armed forces to enable water to be stored on military bases. Officials have been criticised for failing to implement usage restrictions sooner and for ignoring warnings by experts in the years before the drought.

    Experts say it is unlikely the targets will be met”

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  11. DT warned us.

    Air quality is leading environmental threat to public health. Switzerland tops the report while India falls to the bottom tier. Jan 23, 2018. Yale University
    https://www.sciencedaily.com/news/earth_climate/climate/

    Summary:
    The 2018 Environmental Performance Index (EPI) finds that air quality is the leading environmental threat to public health. The tenth EPI report ranks 180 countries on 24 performance indicators across 10 issue categories covering environmental health and ecosystem vitality.

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  12. utoutback

     /  January 24, 2018

    Having finally checked out the article on radiation in the Pacific Ocean from Fukishima I found the web site questionable and so went to check it further.
    Turns out that the graphic with the article is specious.
    Here is a link:
    https://www.snopes.com/photos/technology/fukushima.asp

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    • Jim

       /  January 24, 2018

      Hi utoutback,

      I came across the same graphic myself awhile back and saw that the NOAA graphic was indeed tsunami wave height. But the Snopes article downplays the fact that there is considerable radioactivity seeping into the Pacific, it’s virtually unstoppable as all containment methods have failed, and the plant operator and Japanese government are still uncertain of where the fuel is. The latest tests indicate some of it has breached the containment vessel and are on the floor of the plant and subject to a constant bath of cooling water which seeps into the ocean.

      As a chemist, I’m very suspicious of those who use the diffusion argument to minimize any risk as many chemicals tend to bio-accumulate and move up the food chain. Methylmercury being the best known. Further ocean currents, stratification, and suggest contaminates added to the ocean probably would need thousands of years to properly mix.

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  13. wili

     /  January 24, 2018

    “Melting sea ice increases Arctic precipitation, complicates climate predictions”

    https://phys.org/news/2015-12-sea-ice-arctic-precipitation-complicates.html

    Extract: “The melting of sea ice will significantly increase Arctic precipitation, creating a climate feedback comparable to doubling global carbon dioxide, a Dartmouth College-led study finds.”

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  14. wili

     /  January 24, 2018

    Thanks for this update, robert. Apologies if these figures are in your report and I missed it, but do happen to have stats on where we are now in terms of percentage of global energy produced by wind and solar at this point? And what percentage of vehicles are EVs? Thanks ahead of time for robert’s or anyone else’s insights, links or starts on this.

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    • Robert McLachlan

       /  January 26, 2018

      There are about 1 billion cars in the world with another 80 million being sold each year. (I think around 40 million are destroyed.) So, the 2 million electric cars are only a small part (0.2%) of the fleet. I think EV sales will have to reach much more than 3-5 million before oil sales are seriously impacted. So far, only two markets (Iceland and Norway) have reached market shares of more than 10%. Market share in the US was 0.95% in 2016, 1.2% in 2017. To me, that is disappointing. Still, many optimists think 2018 will really be the year that EVs reach the mainstream, so here’s hoping.

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      • Jim

         /  January 26, 2018

        It certainly would be nice if the current number of EV’s were higher, but the good news is that almost all car companies have announced fairly rapid moves to electrification and several countries, including the world’s largest auto market, China, have announced plans to ban ICE sales. Combine that with similar momentum on trucking, all the way up to class-8 semis, and you’ve got the beginning of huge global shift away from petroleum based transportation.

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  15. Jeremy in Wales

     /  January 24, 2018

    https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/jan/24/worlds-first-electric-container-barges-to-sail-from-european-ports-this-summer
    First 5 all electric barges will be running this summer in Belgium and the Netherlands. Looks like this will remove tens of thousands of truck movements. Guess this will be adopted across Europe in short order but will be applicable on river systems all over the world.

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