Renewables are Winning the Race Against Fossil Fuels — But Not Fast Enough

We have to reverse global warming urgently, if we still can. — Stephen Hawking

The world is dangerous not because of those who do harm but because of those who look at it without doing anything. — Albert Einstein.

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Whether you realize it or not, you’ve been drawn into a race. A race against time to swiftly reduce carbon emissions in order to prevent ramping climate harms on the path to a fifth hothouse extinction. For the current burning of fossil fuels and the ongoing dumping of carbon into the atmosphere at the rate of 13 billion tons each year is an insult to the global climate system that has likely never been seen before in all of the deep history of planet Earth. And the swifter we draw that emission down to zero and net negative, the better.

In the early part of this race, there is one factor that can provide the greatest overall benefit — the rate of renewable energy (RE) adoption. For adding RE at a high rate removes future market share from fossil fuels even as it draws down emissions, enables efficiencies, and undercuts fossil fuel industry revenues. Such a systemic change saps the economic and political power of destructive entities that have for decades attempted to lock in greater and greater volumes of climate-harming emissions. And when RE begins to overcome not just future market share, but also current fossil fuel markets, this loss of power and influence hastens.

Hawking We have to reverse global warming urgenty if we still can

Once fossil fuels begin to lose their grip on political systems around the world, it becomes easier to implement other consumption based policies like a carbon tax or further disincentives to a very wasteful use of resources at the top of economic spectra across the globe. An energy renaissance of this kind is not a perfect fix. It can’t halt all the climate harm coming down the pipe. But it does hit hard at the center of gravity of a corrupt and deleterious global economic power base that, if it had its way, would lock in the worst effects of a hothouse extinction in very short order — inevitably wrecking human civilization and inflicting a global ecocide in the process. It shrinks the might and reach of bad carbon actors. And it opens up avenues for a ramping up of more powerful climate change mitigation and response policies in the future.

In this context of a drive pull the rug out from under the bad carbon actors, it appears that RE adoption rates are now starting to hit a level that makes just such a political and economic power shift possible.

Renewable Energy Adds Nearly 150 GW in 2015 Despite Low Fossil Fuel Prices and Backward Policies in Some Countries

During 2015, according to a new report out by REN21, renewable energy added 147 Gigawatts of total global electricity generation capacity to hit 1,849 gigawatts overall. This big jump came even as fossil fuel prices plummeted, as policies adverse to renewable energy adoption took hold in places like Australia and the UK, and as global subsidy support for fossil fuels remained at a level four times that of government support for renewables. Factors showing a serious lack of commitment to the safety of human civilization that lead to a slower overall RE capacity growth in the range of about 3 percent year on year for the entire sector.

Christine Lins, Executive Secretary of REN21, noted in Clean Technica that renewables gains against this tide were significant and impressive:

“What is truly remarkable about these results is that they were achieved at a time when fossil fuel prices were at historic lows, and renewables remained at a significant disadvantage in terms of government subsidies. For every dollar spent boosting renewables, nearly four dollars were spent to maintain our dependence on fossil fuels.”

Rates of solar and wind growth were particularly strong. Both technologies benefited from prices that increasingly undercut gas, coal, and diesel generation in an expanding number of markets. Solar added 50 gigawatts (GW) of new capacity during 2015 — which is a stunning 40 percent jump over the amount added in 2014. This nearly matched wind’s jump of 63 gigawatts — about a 14 percent increase above 2014 wind additions. In total, global solar capacity now stands at 277 GW and wind at 433 GW.

REN 27 renewable energy share

(Renewables continued to gain ground against traditional power sources in 2015. Wind and solar together now account for about 5 percent of global electricity generation with total renewable generation now nearing 23.7 percent. Image source: Renewables Global Status Report.)

As a share of global electricity generation, renewables grew by nearly 1 percent year on year from 2014 to 2015 — jumping from 22.8 percent to 23.7 percent. A rate of growth that edged out coal and gas in many markets. Meanwhile, the number of people now employed in the renewable energy sector globally expanded to 8.1 million.

99.2 Percent of all New US Electrical Power Additions Came From Renewables During the First Quarter of 2016

Moving on to 2016, the US saw a stunning 99.2 percent of all electricity power additions coming from renewables during the first quarter. Overall adding about 2.1 gigawatts of new capacity, wind and solar dominated.

The biggest contributor to these gains was residential solar which installed 900 megawatts of new capacity. Falling customer costs in the residential market spurred these gains even as state and federal incentives provided a sunny outlook for those taking the rooftop solar plunge. Solar leasing accounted for about 60 percent of this new capacity. But a healthy 40 percent came from outright purchases. Rates of solar purchases have benefited from easy access to loans and a positive policy environment in many states (although exceptions like Nevada did put a drag on the national rate of adoption).

New Electric Generating Capacity

(A staggering 99.2 percent of all new electricity production capacity came from renewables during Q1 of 2016. If we’re wise, we’d work to ensure that all new energy comes from non carbon sources on into the future. Image source: Renewables — 99 Percent of New Electricity Capacity in the US During Q1.)

These substantial residential adds marked a continued trend in which individual homeowners are enabled more and more to chose between utility sourced energy, solar leasing contracts, and individual ownership of energy production. A new freedom that provides resilience to renewable energy growth across the US so long as adversarial policies aren’t enacted (as we’ve seen in Nevada with Warren Buffet’s strong-arming of the political process in an attempt to protect legacy coal and gas holdings).

Meanwhile, wind added 707 megawatts of new power and utility solar added 522 megawatts. Gas, which maintained near historically low fuel prices only added 18 megawatts. Together, this picture shows that climate change concern based resistance to new fossil fuel infrastructure has combined with falling renewable prices to push most utilities to opt out of new carbon based infrastructure. Larger trends like Obama’s Clean Power Plan, the Paris Climate Summit and vigorous fossil fuel divestment, anti-pipeline, and anti-coal campaigns spear-headed by 350.org and the Sierra Club, serve as a powerful moral backstop to renewables improving economies. A combination of government and NGO action that has now generated a decent level of enforcement to reducing dependency on harmful fuels.

US Energy Generation by Sector

(Large renewable additions outpaced natural gas year on year as coal saw big cuts. Overall, US electricity usage was also down. Image source: Renewables — 99 Percent of New Electricity Capacity in the US During Q1.)

Year on year differences in power generation from Q1 2015 to Q1 2016 paint a rather bright picture for what appears to be an ongoing US energy transition. Overall coal use fell by 7.3 percent to 28.6 percent of the US total. Renewables jumped by nearly 3 percent to 17.1 percent of the US total — taking up almost half the loss coming from coal. Most of the renewable gain came from wind and solar which jumped from 5.2 to 7.2 percent of the US total. At more than 1 million rooftops and taking in a growing portion of utility power generation, solar for the first time exceeded 1 percent of US electricity generation — a threshold that many see as a tipping point for ramping rates of adoption. Water generation added about another 1 percent. And rounding out the non-carbon energy sources, nuclear power added 1.2 percent to increase to 20.9 percent of the US total (though the nuclear generation addition was smaller than either wind or solar, its larger net total figured favorably over a period in which overall US power use fell).

Led by drops in coal and petroleum liquids use at a combined total 94,000 gigawatt hours, US electricity generation fell by more than 50,000 gigawatt hours — a drop of nearly 5 percent. This continues a larger trend of US electricity demand softening — one that has been driven in part by increasing efficiencies across the electricity chain. And the only fossil fuel based energy system showing year on year gains was natural gas — which added just over 19,000 gigawatt hours. A total that trailed the renewables add by nearly 3,000 gigawatt hours.

The trend in the US is therefore pretty amazingly clear. Despite historically low coal and gas prices, renewables and efficiencies are now the dominant force in a US electricity market that presently appears to be making solid moves away from traditional fossil fuel based energy sources.

Positive Trends, but Still too Slow

To be clear, these are very positive trends. On a Q1 2015 to Q1 2016 comparison, US fossil fuel use for power generation fell from around 67 percent to 62 percent. But 62 percent is still a majority of the US electricity generation base. And with climate change already ramping up to dangerous extremes, the goal here should be to push US fossil fuel burning for electricity past the 50 percent level and on to 0 percent as swiftly as possible. So for the US, which has clearly shown global leadership in cutting carbon based fuels over the past year, there is still a very long road ahead. And the globe, even in the more positive electricity generation context, lagged the US rate of renewable energy adds by about 50 percent while net power use is growing (not shrinking).

To this point, electricity power use is not all power use. And from a global perspective, adding in transportation, renewable energy only managed to gain a 0.1 percent additional share of the global energy pie (rising to 19.2 percent). This lag was due in large part to growing oil use for transportation — which benefited from lower prices. And though the jump in global oil demand was not as much as some fossil fuel interested parties had hoped for, it did manage to forestall a greater overall net gain in the global renewable energy total.

LCOE costs for all power sources

(Falling wind and solar LCOE prices have combined with global concern over human caused climate change to push ramping rates of renewable energy adoption. A second wave of increased market access will necessarily be driven by renewed policy efforts combining with falling energy storage prices and a flood of new electrical vehicle production coming from 2017 to 2022. Image source: Commons.)

Looking forward, the world will need to add in the range of 250 to 350 gigawatts of renewable energy each year while rapidly adopting electric vehicles and related energy storage technologies to provide annual rates of renewable share increases in excess of 2 percent while trimming fossil fuel use in the transportation sector. Synergies between electrical vehicle production increases and falling battery costs provide a pathway for this next phase of renewable energy expansion. For garaged electric vehicles (EVs) can act as energy storage devices with the right software, smart grids, and organized energy trading. Meanwhile, old EV batteries can be re-purposed for low cost home, business, and utility energy storage devices that can aid in ramping renewable energy grid penetration.

Fossil fuel industry special interests are likely to fight this phase of renewable energy growth with everything they’ve got. But, so far, they’ve pretty much failed to take out the renewables renaissance in its infancy. Now as it moves into adolescence, the stakes are higher and the game is likely to get even rougher. But it appears that despite all opposition from various fossil fuel bad actors, this critical energy renaissance is in the process of taking hold. And given the fact that a very dangerous human-caused climate change is ramping up far more rapidly than expected, the building impetus for an energy switch couldn’t happen soon enough.

Links:

Global Renewable Energy Adds 147 GW in 2015

Renewables — 99 Percent of New Electricity Capacity in the US During Q1

Cost of Energy by Source

Thirty Years of Climate Deception Could be Offense Under New California Law

Stephen Hawking Quotes

Renewables Global Status Report

350.org

Sierra Club Beyond Coal

The Clean Power Plan

The Paris Climate Accord

Hat tip to Colorado Bob

Hat tip to DT Lange

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