^Solar & Wind Power Account for Most of the Renewable Energy Production. Image Courtesy of KENNY TONG at shutterstock.com
Back in 2009 at the height of the Great Recession, many predicted a prolonged hibernation for green energy technologies. Some doomsday proponents may have gone to the extent of drafting (premature) obituaries.
With most of the world trying to save what they had, any new investments in clean energy seemed unlikely. For the near future at least. Innovation is perhaps the first casualty of recessions, the way truth is of war. The night for renewables was blindingly dark!
As it turned out, this was night at its darkest – but the way it is before dawn. And the dawn seems to have finally arrived. Despite the prolonged slump in oil prices, renewable energy is doing more than just holding its ground – it is gaining ground and gaining it big time.
Falling prices of renewable coupled with favorable public policy and corporate cum investor support is fuelling the renewables revolution. But as is the case with all revolutions, it is the people and the climate of opinion that provide the real driving force.
The Bulwark that Holds off Global Warming
Renewable energy or renewables is the energy sourced from renewable sources such as wind, solar, hydropower, biomass, geothermal, and biofuels. Contrast them with non-renewable power sources that will soon run out viz. coal, oil, petroleum, and gas.
According to estimates by U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) that were last updated in December 2014, renewables supplied about 11% of the total energy consumed globally.
Furthermore, the EIA projects this figure to rise to 15% by 2040. The EIA also places at 21% as the fraction of the global supply of electricity coming from renewable sources and forecasts this to rise to 25% by 2040.
In an article in the National Geographic, Why Solar and Wind are Thriving Despite Cheap Fossil Fuels, Wendy Koch notes the reasons for the seemingly surprising phenomenon of the continued rise of renewables despite falling oil prices.
By the way, it was the technological breakthrough in fracking or hydraulic fracturing that enabled the United States to make a quantum leap in the production of oil and gas.
In the year 2000, the U.S. produced only 2.5 billion cubic feet of dry shale gas a day. The figure has now jumped to 40 billion. In 2012, the U.S. overtook Russia as the top energy producer. By 2014, U.S. produced more oil than the combined oil and gas produce of Saudi Arabia.
At $30 per barrel, oil prices are at their lowest in 12 years. Gas prices too are on their way down. Oil exporters such as Saudi Arabia and Russia are feeling the pinch. As are oil companies that have postponed mega projects and laid off employees.
Barring a few locations in the U.S. where the sales of gasoline-propelled SUVs have gone up and those for electric and hybrid cars have fallen, plummeting oil prices have failed to halt the juggernaut of clean energy.
According to United Nations Environment Program’s (UNEP) 9th Global Trends in Renewable energy Investment 2015, green energy bounced back in 2015 to attract a stunning $270 in investment – a swell of 17%.
This is because of the synergic effect of numerous factors:
- Falling Prices of Clean Energy
- Policy Interventions
- Investor and Business Support
- Facilitating Public Opinion
Large scale production of solar power is now cheaper by 60% than in 2008. The corresponding statistic for wind power is 40%. Last time oil prices sank to this depth, the prices of renewables were much higher.
Wind and solar commanded 92% of the investments made in renewable power and fuels. Gas power generation technologies already use highly efficient technologies. Immediate further improvements seem unlikely.
Although considerable upgrade in the efficiency of solar power generation technologies is not on the cards, global investment in solar power jumped by 29% to $149.6 billion in 2015. Global investment in wind power stood at $99.5 billion in 2015, a noteworthy 11% rise.
Policies in the U.S. are restricting the use of coal while incentivizing wind and solar power. The U.S. Congress in December 2015 extended tax credits for solar and wind power by another 5 years, something that will further propel the rise of solar and wind power.
Many other countries are looking to do the same. This is of course in sync with the commitments made at the Paris Climate Summit of December 2015.
Numerous state and local governments require power utilities to source some minimum fraction of electricity from renewables. Governments will soon offer discounts for electric cars. Numerous jurisdictions allow such cars to use High-Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) Lanes.
Created with the aim of increasing average car occupancy that, in turn, slashes per-capita emissions, HOV Lanes are reserved at rush hours (and sometimes at other durations) for clean-fuel automobiles, vehicles with 2-3 passengers, pooled cars / vans, and law enforcement vehicles.
And it is not only governments that are supporting this massive migration towards green energies. Prodded by the Paris Climate Summit, corporations and investors too are strongly backing clean energy.
Even oil exporting countries are investing in renewables. This is because by using clean energy at home, they can maximize profits that come from exporting oil.
Last but most important, it is the general climate of opinion that drives the raging bull of renewables. If governments provide a viable system as an alternative to dirty, fossil fuels, people accept it. The power of public opinion is great regardless of the form of government.
Environment & the Paris Climate Summit
Simply speaking, environment is the sum total of all the biotic and abiotic resources. It renders three critical services:
- supplies resources for us to survive and thrive
- absorbs wastes
- maintains biodiversity through the above two functions
The more resources we use, the more wastes we generate. For example, emissions rise with the increased use of fossil fuels. And if we generate wastes at a rate that exceeds the rate at which the environment can absorb them, we risk threatening the biodiversity on earth.
Now, biodiversity is essential to preserve life on our planet. Without it, many plant and animal species will be extinct. Soon, humans will join them. If we fail to protect the environment, we risk digging our own permanent graves.
Although it will enter force in 2020, the Paris Accord is the first time 195 nations adopted a legally binding deal that seeks to limit global warming to less than 20C below pre-industrial levels. Signatories also confirmed their willingness to try and hold this rise to below 1.50C, if possible.
That apart, signatories submitted detailed National Climate Action Plans (INDCs) before and during the Paris Accord. While these are not enough to hold global warming to below the 20C target for now, they make a start with room for subsequent course corrections.
They also agreed to meet every 5 years and set more exacting emission reduction targets, track their progress under a transparent and accountable system, and report this progress to each other and to the public.
It is argued that developed nations must accept greater responsibility for containing the menace of global warming because they have historically emitted more greenhouse gases (GHG).
Now, industrialization is the reason developed countries have progressed this far. The industrial age started earlier in today’s developed world. And during the course of such development, they emitted tons of GHGs.
Precisely this is the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities – developed economies are more responsible, but developing economies too have their obligations lesser though they may be.
But then, the developing world cannot shrug its responsibility. Lest, everybody’s business become nobody’s business. What’s the point in repeating the follies of the developed world when you can avoid this pitfall?
For this reason, even China and India are cutting down on coal, the dirtiest of all fossil fuels. The question of who should put in more efforts to halt the juggernaut of global warming and climate change has been a source of great friction among the developed and the developing world.
But if we look at renewables from a broader and a futuristic point of view, it is a boon for the non-developed world. Not a bane. Remote locations in here do not have access to electricity through conventional grid networks. Solar panels or small turbines are filling in this void.
Even developed economies can put solar panels to great use. Remember the blackouts when hurricanes such as Sandy or Katrina dismantled the electricity grids. Wind turbines may not work in such situations though, for ferocious howling winds will knock them flat.
Renewables’ Top Brass
China leads the world in the production of renewable energy followed by the United States, Brazil, Canada, and Russia. Germany however produces 27% of its power from renewables, the highest in percentage terms.
Denmark produced 42% of its electricity from wind turbines in 2015. Even if 2015 had not been more breezy than average, Denmark would have remained the world leader in wind energy. In 2014, wind power made up 39% of its electricity.
Based on installed capacity, the top five wind power generating countries are:
- United States
In terms of wind power as percentage of total power, the top five countries are:
And the top five solar power producing countries include:
- United States
Per usual, there is the other side. A recent study by two British organizations, the Adam Smith Institute and the Scientific Alliance, voiced objections on wind power. The fact that the Adam Smith Institute is a right-leaning body makes many doubt the veracity of the report.
Nevertheless, a perusal of their concerns merits our attention. The report says wind power is expensive and can be produced only for extremely limited durations – wind farms generate 90% of their rated power only for 17 hours a year and 80% for less than a week per year.
Technology evolves with time. We do not accept innovations immediately because of our innate dread of the unknown. And this is not a bad phenomenon. Because it forces innovators to refine their technologies that eventually end up as more useful.
Soon, the fresh technology gathers critical mass and reaches the tipping point. This sets off a chain reaction of acceptability as people embrace it arms stretched out to the limit. Then on, the sky is the limit. Wonders happen when you step out of the comfort zone.
Perhaps it is our aforementioned fear of uncertainty that makes us look at fossil fuels with a sense of reliability. But, what of the environmental cost of burning fossil fuels? And the cost of loss of life, livelihood, and health that spring from using dirty fuels?
Threshold Dynamics is a term in social physics. It states, when two concepts have an almost equal legitimacy in the public mind, a little extra effort by one side helps it overcome the threshold of acceptability and command wider approval.
What we are witnessing now with renewables is perhaps a manifestation of the above. Renewables have crossed the last frontier, the threshold of acceptability. The road only gets greener from now on.
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