Renewables power forward

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Renewable energy continues to outperform and outmuscle traditional sources of energy in the majority of countries across the globe. Renewables are now the cheapest power technology for new electricity generation across two-thirds of the world.  This is the startling finding of a new study from an authoritative agency published earlier this month.

Bloomberg New Energy Finance’s assessment of the global energy picture is more objective that those of the oil and gas companies (like British Petroleum), or even of supposedly non-aligned agencies like the International Energy Agency, which tend to assume that that world will deviate only slowly from a business-as-usual path. On the other hand, BNEF is more concerned with global finance and investment opportunities: it tends to be clear-eyed and much more realistic about what the future holds.

Megawatt-scale wind turbine blades delivered

The numbers speak for themselves: solar photovoltaic modules, wind turbines and utility-scale lithium-ion batteries (the essential partner for solar and wind), are set to continue down strong cost-reduction curves of 28%, 14% and 18% respectively for each doubling in global installed capacity. This irresistible market pressure means that by 2030, the energy generated or stored and dispatched by this triumvirate of transformative technologies will undercut electricity generated by existing coal and gas plants almost everywhere.

In the BNEF scenario, the electrification of the major economic sectors substantially drives up the global demand for electricity.  But this power is not generated by carbon-based fuels. The world changes from two-thirds fossil fuels in 2018 to two-thirds zero carbon energy by 2050. For wind and solar this is 50-by-50: supplying 50% of the worlds electricity by 2050–effectively ending the era of fossil-fuel dominance in the power sector.

Solar PV gets incredibly cheap. According to BNEF, the levelized cost of an average PV plant falls 63% by 2050 to around $25/MWh. No other power technology will be able to match that price. Wind power is not far behind, BNEF sees costs falling to $30/MWh over the same period. Enabling fully dispatchable power from these intermittent sources, the cost of batteries falls to $62/MWh by 2030, down more than 60% from today.

Coal cannot compete with solar, wind, and cheap natural gas in the US

The impact of cheap renewables is brutal. Coal collapses everywhere in the world except in Asia, and peaks globally in 2026. Carbon pricing and the mandated phase-out plans in Europe, and cheap natural gas in the US force coal out of the picture. Coal’s role in the global power mix falls from 37% today to a mere 12% by 2050, while oil as a power generating-source is virtually eliminated. And if, as expected, the rampant rise in the deployment of electric vehicles continues, the demand for gasoline and diesel fuel will drop dramatically by 2030.

The BNEF analysis paints a picture of a clean energy future and of a sharp reduction in the emissions of greenhouse gases that aligns with the trajectories required to meet the Paris Agreement target of keeping global heating to less that 2C.  But there’s a caveat.

The New Energy Outlook is what BNEF calls “fundamentally policy-agnostic”. It assumes that markets operate “rationally and fairly to allow lowest-cost providers to win.”   How naïve is that?

Hi, are you with Koch or Exxon?

Lowest-cost forms of power generation like solar energy and wind power can never gain traction if they are deliberately impeded by corrupted regulatory agencies that seek to block their commercial progress.

Regulatory capture is defined as a situation where “regulation is…directed away from the public interest and toward the interest of the regulated industry by intent and action of industries and their allies.” [1]

It’s not uncommon for governments to employ advisors and appoint administrators whose thinking aligns closely with government policy. The problem arises when government policy is squarely at odds with evidence-based science, and when these senior staff have umbilical ties to the industries that they are supposed to be regulating.

The most egregious examples of this type of corruption are to be found in the US where the Environmental Protection Agency now focuses more on weakening environmental protections rather than enforcing them. But instances can be found in Canada where the National Energy Board, charged with reviewing applications for new pipelines, routinely relies on advice from ‘experts’ working in the petroleum industries, and where the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, CAPP, recently helped draft the Progressive Conservative Party’s policy on the climate crisis.

In Oregon at the end of June, Republic lawmakers went into hiding rather than be present for a vote on a bill proposing a cap and trade levy on carbon emissions. According to one report, legislators receive millions from industries with a shared interest in weak environmental regulation. A Republican lawmaker claimed that fleeing the state capital was a victory for democracy.

Caveat emptor

Buyer’s regret may not be as painful as voter’s remorse. The pain and damage wrought by a devious, dishonest and corrupt legislator can last for years. Many candidates for political office are adept at vehemently assuring their constituents that they will act in their best interests. Once elected, it is a different story. But by then it is too late; the voters cannot change their minds. Which only underscores the obvious fact that people should make certain that the candidate they vote for can be trusted to follow through with his or her campaign promises. This advice particularly applies to a candidate’s position on the climate crisis and what he or she intends to do about it. Moreover, dismantling and rebuilding the regulatory agencies that have been captured by corporate lobbyists can only be done by politicians that are not in thrall to the petrochemical conglomerates and the oil companies.

The Canadian federal election takes place in October this year. This is an especially important election for Canada—whose performance so far in terms of reducing its emissions in line with the 2015 Paris Agreement is abysmal. Building the Trans Mountain Expansion pipeline will only make things worse, and Canada’s reputation as a world leader in tackling the climate crisis, already tarnished by the massive environmental impact of the Alberta tar sands, will soon be in tatters. No-one should vote for a political party that takes its direction on environmental policy from the petroleum industry.

In the US, the re-election of Donald Trump in 2020 would be an unmitigated disaster: not just for the environment and the welfare of disadvantaged communities across the US, but also for global efforts to tackle the climate crisis. The oil companies, petrochemical industries, and the billionaires that profit from them, will all be spending millions of dollars on attack ads to ensure fossil fuel-powered business-as-usual is safeguarded, and that the task of regulatory agencies is more strongly focused on eliminating regulations that were enacted to protect the environment and the health and well-being of Americans.

The analysis carried out by Bloomberg New Energy Finance shows the way forward to a future where the majority of countries enjoy sustainable prosperity and a clean and healthy environment. Renewable energy unlocks the way forward to this carbon-neutral future which offers the real possibility of keeping global heating in check.

But right now, the key to that future has been stolen. It’s time to fight hard to get it back.           


The Bloomberg report can be found here: //about.bnef.com/new-energy-outlook

[1] Quoted in the American Journal of Public Health article. The Environmental Protection Agency in the early Trump Administration: Prelude to Regulatory Capture. Accessed at //ajph.aphapublications.org/doi/10.2105/AJPH.2018.304360

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Martin Bush

Martin Bush graduated from the University of Sheffield with a PhD in chemical engineering and fuel technology. He has spent the last 30 years leading natural resources management, renewable energy, and climate change adaptation and mitigation projects in Africa and the Caribbean. He lives in Markham, Ontario, Canada. He can be contacted at climatezone.central@gmail.com. He is the author of a new book: Climate change and renewable energy--How to end the climate crisis. Published by Palgrave-Macmillan in October 2019.

2 thoughts on “Renewables power forward

  • 07/04/2019 at 9:10 am
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    I’m profoundly skeptical regarding the prospects of a future built on ‘clean’ energy.

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    • 07/05/2019 at 2:21 pm
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      why is that? Solar and wind are are gigawatt scale and are laready the least cost option in nearly all industrialised countries.. Intermittency is no longer a problem because massive batteries store all that energy and deliver it when needed.

      Reply

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