Shift to Renewables Seems Inevitable, but Is It Fast Enough?

New York – Climate change may be one of the most divisive issues in the US Congress today, but despite the staunch denialism of Republicans, experts say the global transition from fossil fuels to renewables is already well underway.

A new book published by the Washington-based Earth Policy Institute finds that a steep decline in the price of solar photovoltaic (PV) panels (by three-fourths between 2009 and 2014, to less than 70 cents a watt) has helped the industry grow 50 percent per year.

Wind power capacity grew more than 20 percent a year for the last decade, now totalling 369,000 megawatts, enough to power more than 90 million US homes.

In China, electricity generation from wind farms now exceeds that from nuclear plants, while coal use appears to be peaking.

“Wind farms and solar PV systems will likely continue to anchor the growth of renewables,” Matthew Roney, a co-author of “The Great Transition”, told IPS. “They’re already well established, with costs continuing to drop, and their ‘fuels’ are widespread and abundant.”

With international initiatives like the UN Secretary-General’s Sustainable Energy for All and new development goals in the offing, donors and policy-makers are looking to massively scale up these tried-and-true clean technologies.

“One of solar’s advantages is that not only is it increasingly competitive with the average cost of grid electricity around the world, it can make economic sense for many of the 1.3 billion people who do not yet have access to electricity,” Roney said.

The book also notes that 70 countries now have feed-in tariffs, a policy mechanism designed to accelerate investment in renewable energy technologies by offering long-term contracts to renewable energy producers. Another two dozen have renewable portfolio standards (RPS), 37 countries offer production or investment tax credits for renewables, and 40 countries are implementing or planning carbon pricing.

In the US, reliance on coal is dwindling – it fell 21 percent between 2007 and 2014 – and more than one-third of the nation’s coal plants have already closed or announced plans for future closure.

But according to Greenpeace and other civil society watchdog groups, the industry is trying to get a new lease on life by pushing so-called carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) – where waste carbon dioxide (CO2) is captured from large point sources, such as power plants, and transported to a storage site – what Greenpeace has dubbed a “Carbon Capture Scam.”

The Barack Obama administration advocates CCS as part of its “all of the above” energy strategy, the group says in a recent analysis, even though the government’s own projections show that it would cost almost 40 percent more per kilogramme of avoided carbon dioxide than solar photovoltaic, 125 percent more than wind and 260 percent more than geothermal.

“The most fair-weather politician, if honest, should agree that advocating for renewables is a winning campaign strategy,” Greenpeace USA legislative representative Kyle Ash told IPS.

“Do they really care about jobs? Do they really care about US competitiveness and energy independence?” he asked. “The president and Congress have no shortage of reasons to acknowledge renewables are the only path forward when it comes to energy production. If they truly want to keep their own jobs, our elected leaders will soon see ties with coal, oil and gas as a serious political liability.”

The Environmental Protection Agency’s proposed carbon rule requires that new coal plants capture CO2, and emphasises the CO2 be used to augment oil extraction. Oil rigs then pump the carbon dioxide underground so the oil expands and more is forced up the well.

Greenpeace says that rather than actually storing carbon, it comes right back up the well with the oil. Every major power plant CCS project in the United States intends to sell the scrubbed carbon to the oil extraction industry.

“We don’t just have statistics, technology, and climate science on our side – we have a growing body politic that is opposing fracking, tar sands, coal exports, and other ways an archaic industry is trying to hold on,” Ash said.

“CCS is really the last gasp of the political pandering to coal, an industry widely known to have been horrible to workers and horrible for the environment. What we should soon see is more pandering to workers and the environment.”

The Obama administration has won kudos from environmental groups, including Greenpeace, for at least acknowledging the problem. In a videotaped statement for Earth Day this year, the US president declared that “Today, there’s no greater threat to our planet than climate change.”

The million-dollar question, most scientists say, is whether the transition to renewables will be fast enough to restrict warming to the benchmark two-degree increase by 2020, beyond which the consequences could be catastrophic.

“Although the adoption of renewable energy worldwide is moving in the right direction, more quickly than virtually anyone predicted even five years ago, the race is definitely not over yet,” Roney said. “Cutting into oil use by electrifying the transport sector is key, but electric vehicle adoption is not yet moving quickly enough to have a big impact.”

He noted that batteries, a major part of the price tag for an EV, are set to come down by half by 2020, according to UBS, making EVs fully competitive with conventional cars.

“At that point, buying an EV over a car that runs on gasoline will be a no-brainer, with up to 2,400 dollars in anticipated annual savings on gas. More broadly, pricing carbon would likely be the most effective way to accelerate the shift fast enough to keep climate change from spiraling out of control,” Roney said.

“The good news is that some 40 countries now have implemented or plan to implement carbon pricing, through a cap and trade system or carbon tax, including China. When its anticipated national cap and trade system begins in 2016, roughly a quarter of global carbon emissions will be priced – not nearly enough, but a decent start.”

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida