Jeremy Leggett: The Green Energy Revolution Is Happening Faster Than You Think – Impact4All

Jeremy Leggett: The Green Energy Revolution Is Happening Faster Than You Think

In the first of a series of exclusive columns, Jeremy Leggett, founder of Solarcentury, the UK’s largest solar energy company and board member at Impact4All, discusses renewable energy’s supercharged journey into the future

When the G7 nations agreed in June 2015 to push for a treaty to phase out fossil fuels, few believed it could be negotiated. But in December that year, at the Paris Climate Summit, it was. The Paris Agreement was adopted by every independent government on the planet.

A total phase out of coal, oil and gas will mean a global energy transition to renewables: totally, or nearly so. Is this feasible, doubters ask?

A total phase out of coal, oil and gas will mean a global energy transition to renewables: totally, or nearly so. Is this feasible, doubters ask?

Renewable energy practitioners tend to be very bullish in their response to that question. Renewable electricity will consistently be less expensive than fossil fuels by 2020, the International Renewable Energy Agency [IRENA] reported in January. IRENA plots spectacular drops in solar and wind prices around the world in recent years.

World records in power generation have been tumbling everywhere as a consequence.

In 2017, solar was the biggest single sector for new global power capacity additions for the second year. The 98 gigawatts installed was 38 per cent of all the new electricity generation installed and more, for the first time, than coal, gas, oil and nuclear combined. Wind came second with 52 GW.

In 2015, all China’s new power demand was met with wind and solar. In 2016, almost 90 per cent of new power in Europe came from renewables. In March this year, Portugal’s electricity consumption was met 104 per cent by renewables for a whole month (and it was cheaper than the year before).

In 2017, wind supplied a record 43.6 per cent of Denmark’s electricity, with no grid problems. Denmark is targeting 50 per cent wind by 2020, with a further 30 per cent from solar, biomass and other renewables: 80 per cent in all, just two years from now.

In April, the world’s most powerful wind turbine was installed off Scotland. Just one rotation of the blades can power the average UK home for a day.

In April, the world’s most powerful wind turbine was installed off Scotland. Just one rotation of the blades can power the average UK home for a day.

Cities and corporates are mobilising the revolution

Cities and companies are playing major roles in the transition. 43 cities are now 100 per cent renewable powered. Thousands more target 100 per cent. The corporate world is increasingly heavily engaged. Google owner Alphabet, the biggest corporate renewables buyer of renewables, reached 100 per cent renewable power in early April this year. Wind and solar now power all their data centres, where electricity use grows in double digits percentage each year. A week later Apple reached 100 per cent renewable power for all its operations, spanning 43 countries. Tim Cook, Apple CEO, said: “We’re going to keep pushing the boundaries of what is possible ….because we know the future depends on it.”

Apple’s Head Office, Cupertino, California

Around the world, 122 giant companies have now committed to 100 per cent renewable powering of their operations. If the 122 RE100 companies were a country, it would be the world’s 24th biggest user of electricity, ahead of Poland for example.

The first US coal-fired power plant is being shut down and replaced by solar simply because it is cheaper to build new solar than to operate existing coal burning plant: the Wisconsin utility WEC Energy’s inappropriately named Pleasant Prairie plant.

The workforce increasingly reflects the big switch underway. As of April 2017 475,000 Americans were employed in the US solar and wind industries, more than in oil and gas, and many more than in coal.

And renewables are universally popular, seemingly. In the largest international opinion poll to date, a survey of 26,000 people, conducted by Edelman for Orsted, an average of 82 per cent in 13 countries said they believe it is important to create a world fully powered by renewable energy.

Doing the exponential maths

A key factor in envisioning how the growth of renewables will play out going forward is the “math of exponential.”

Google futurist Ray Kurzweil argues that analysts tend to struggle with exponential effects. Solar has doubled every two years for a long time now: around eight doublings between 2000 and 2016. Solar is today still only a tiny fraction of global energy, but six more doublings – which will happen by 2028 if the historic rate is maintained – will put in place capacity equivalent to more than 100 per cent of 2016 global energy demand.

The story isn’t just about renewables, but the wider family of clean and smart technologies. The cost of batteries, and electric vehicles, are also falling steeply. This is just as well, because air pollution has increasingly emerged since 2015 as a powerful additional driver for national, state and city governments to cut fossil fuel emissions, notwithstanding climate change.

Lithium-ion battery prices are down 80 per cent since 2010, ….to an average $209/kWh. $100 is widely viewed as the tipping point for electric vehicles, in terms of economics, and on the current trend that is reached by 2025.

At least seven new gigawatt-size battery factories will come onstream in Europe by 2020, driving costs down further.

Solar power and batteries are already beating natural gas in some places, including California and Arizona. This is ominous news for the oil and gas companies, most of whom pursue strategies involving transition to gas as the backbone of energy for decades to come.

Worse than this for Big Oil, carmakers everywhere are embracing an electric future. China’s Chongqing Changan car company recently decided to sell only electric vehicles from 2025.

Worse than this for Big Oil, carmakers everywhere are embracing an electric future. China’s Chongqing Changan car company recently decided to sell only electric vehicles from 2025.

The writing is on the wall

The writing is becoming clearer on the wall, for those with the eyes to see, with each passing week. People in unexpected places are seeing this writing. In January 2016, Crown Prince Shaikh Mohammad Bin Zayed Al Nahyan of Abu Dhabi told his people: “In 50 years, when we ship off the last barrel of petrol, we will not be sad. I promise you, my brothers and sisters, we will be celebrating.” That will be because of the clean energy the nation will have invested in before then.

European utility companies have also seen the writing. How could they not? With such low renewables costs, their old business models are broken. In December 2017 all the major EU power utilities commited to carbon-neutral power ‘well before’ 2050.

The global energy transition from fossil fuels to clean energy is, in my view, going much faster than most people think.

I chronicle the transition between 2013 and end 2017 in my book The Winning of the Carbon War, and continue to do in 2018 on my website.

 

About Jeremy Leggett:

Jeremy is the founder and director of Solarcentury, an international solar solutions company. He is also the founder of SolarAid, a charity funded with five per cent of Solarcentury’s annual profits that builds solar lighting markets in Africa. 

He is winner of the first Hillary Laureate for International Leadership in Climate Change (2009), a Gothenburg Prize (2015), the first non-Dutch winner of a Royal Dutch Honorary Sustainability Award (2016), and has been described in the Observer as “Britain’s most respected green energy boss”.

He is a historian, futurist, and author of four books on the climate and energy nexus, the most recent of which is ‘The Winning of The Carbon War’, an account of what he sees as the “turnaround years” in the dawn of the global energy transition, 2013 -2015



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