How Green Energy is already taking over the World

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

In 2015 energy companies invested more in new renewables power plants in 2015 than in fossil fuel plants for the first time in history. The majority of these plants were planned for the developing countries, which is a sign that the technology is viewed as now less expensive.

The UNEP rpress release said,

“Coal and gas-fired electricity generation last year drew less than half the record investment made in solar, wind and other renewables capacity — one of several important firsts for green energy announced today in a UN-backed report. Global Trends in Renewable Energy Investment 2016 . . . says the annual global investment in new renewables capacity, at $266 billion, was more than double the estimated $130 billion invested in coal and gas power station s in 2015. All investments in renewables, including early-stage technology and R&D as well as spending on new capacity, totalled $286 billion in 2015, some 3% higher than the previous record in 2011. Since 2004, the world has invested $ 2.3 trillion in renewable energy (unadjusted for inflation). (All figures for renewables in this release include wind, solar, biomass and waste-to-energy, biofuels, geothermal, marine a nd small hydro, but exclude large hydro-electric projects of more than 50 megawatts). Just as significantly, developing world investments in renewables topped those of developed nations for the first time in 20 15. Helped by further falls in generating costs per megawatt-hour, particularly in solar photovoltaics, renewables excluding large hydro made up 54% of added gigawatt (GW) capacity of all technologies last year. It marks the first time new installed renewables have topped the capacity added from all conventional technologies. The 134 gigawatts of renewable power added worldwide in 2015 compares to 106GW in 2014 and 87GW in 2013. Were it not for renewables excluding large hydro, annual global CO2 emissions would have been an estimated 1.5 gigatonnes higher in 2015.”

Here is how the new energy generation broke down by type of fuel:

Additional energy generating capacity, 2015:

Renewables (excl. large hydro) 134 GW
Large Hydro: 22 GW
Nuclear: 15 GW
Coal-fired: 42 GW
Gas-fired: 40 GW

What shocks me is that companies are still investing as much in new coal plants as in new gas or renewables. All fossil fuels are bad and are on their way out, but coal is in investor’s terms already a dead man walking. Why would you do that? Quite apart from being highly polluting and now no cheaper than solar or wind, coal emits more carbon dioxide than other fossil fuels, a deadly greenhouse gas. It will likely just be outlawed in most of the world soon as a health and environmental hazard. So investing in a long-term coal plant is like piling up your cash and setting it on fire (that would also emit a lot of CO2).

And here are the past few years’ annual global investments in renewable energy ($US)

$286 billion (2015)
$273 billion (2014),
$234 billion (2013),
$257 billion (2012),
$279 billion (2011),
$239 billion (2010),
$179 billion (2009),

It is clear that there is a secular trend upwards and there is no reason to think that will change. One of the things cities like about new renewables plants is that they can lock in price over say 25 years, because the cost of the fuel is zero and won’t change. You never know what natural gas will cost 15 years from now, and you don’t know if the government environmental agency or ministry will outlaw coal.

Scotland just closed its last remaining coal plant, Europe’s third largest. It was, in part, a victim of European Union carbon emissions limits. (That’s why I say it is crazy to invest in a new coal plant).

In February, wind turbines alone met 41% of Scotland’s electricity needs!

Exemplifying the kind of thing the UNEP report found, Morocco has opened the first of three big solar plants planned at Ouarzazate on the doorstep of the Sahara (they film Game of Thrones episodes there). Morocco wants two new gigawatts from solar, two from wind, and two from new hydro by 2022. While there are problems with the social relations involved (it is a Berber area and the government used eminent domain to acquire the land), in the medium to long term it will mean much cheaper electricity for Morocco, and less air pollution, and more jobs. The plant uses molten salt batteries and so goes on working at night.

And this is the kind of thing that is happening all over the world where Big Oil, unlike in America, can’t hog the microphone.

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Related video

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7 Responses

  1. I watched a documentary recently on RT (Russian television) which we get over here in the UK. The gist of the piece was that a mountain in East America called “coal mountain” is being completely removed for its coal and the locals don’t like it. The locals have done a study showing that because of the high altitude of the mountain, wind generators would produce as much electricity as the one coal fired power station does from the coal harvested from the mountain. As the wind is likely to blow for the foreseeable centuries to come, this would mean the locals could have their mountain and there would be electricity produced from it for ever! Obviously, the companies harvesting to coal don’t agree. I am not qualified to pronounce on the matter one way or the other. What I find strange however, is that I should only be able to find this documentary on a Russian television station and not on an English or American one. Perhaps you have seen an American version of this documentary, professor?

    • John, search on “Mountaintop removal mining”. There’s plenty of information to find if you look, but as you say, mainstream media haven’t given it much space so not that many outside, or maybe even inside, USA are aware of the extent.

  2. One of the great advantages of solar and wind for developing countries is that solar and wind are scalable. That means they can easily be built to meet local energy needs, and when more power is needed, the right amount of additional power is easy to add. Before its famous demise, Enron was famous for trying to build a 1 billion dollar power plant in a poorer area of India that didn’t know what to do with all the energy the plant provided, and couldn’t afford to pay for the huge unused capacity (it was eventually cancelled).

    Global warming should have been a sufficient reason to switch to alternative energy. But economics is now a big factor. Fossil fuels have pretty much reached rock bottom in prices. And yet the prices of various forms of alternative energy continue to fall. Experts believe the prices will continue to fall for another decade or two.

    In the meantime, electric cars are only about two to four years from taking off. Given the rising level of global warming, the switch to electric vehicles can’t happen soon enough.

  3. The shocking thing is that most Americans have no idea this is happening. Go ahead. Ask some. They all believe that solar & wind are more expensive than natural gas even if they support them. Yet they also believe that investors are always right. So they must have no idea that investors have already calculated that coal is dead and natural gas is shaky. Go to cleantechnica.com. Every few days major solar & wind projects begin construction somewhere outside the USA, and most are in poor countries. Yet Americans are still easily seduced by the propaganda that the poor must live with pollution to have the blessings of cheap energy and the US-based version of progress.
    All the signs of decline are here. Even in our own heads.

  4. Renewables are better in so many ways. With solar, for example, the energy can be generated at the site of the use, obviating the need for the infrastructure required with a large distribution system–power lines, substations and the like. This makes it extremely attractive for developing countries. The costs of fossil fuels are always understated, too, because of the deleterious health costs that are not factored in by the use of fossil fuels. When you consider the cost of climate change, then the gap in cost between fossil fuels and renewables becomes even larger. It should be a no-brainer, but the huge profits in fossil fuels means they will be fighting long and hard to maintain the prior status quo. The job for citizens is to fight the efforts of the monied fossil fuel interests to try and stop what should be inevitable.

  5. The transition from the pure poison, fossil fuel, over to clean, renewable energy is about three decades late. And it is merely the beginning to save our way of life and our only home, Earth.

    Here are a few more “beginnings.”

    The LIE OF OMISSION cannot continue:
    • Media must now accurately inform the public on what has always been suppressed by the fossil fuel industry.
    • Educators and TEXTBOOKS must become factually up-to-date on the serious threat WE ALL FACE.

    Stop PANDERING to poison:
    • Elected government at large must remove their fossil fuel industry knee-pads and get busy on behalf of ALL Americans and indeed, the entire planet,
    • Realization by our military that exclusive access to unlimited fuels and lubricants does not assure success – as proven by 17 years of fruitless, unnecessary wars which ironically only serve the fossil fuel industry, itself.

    The transition from fossil fuel to renewable energy sources offers the fossil fuel industry a unique long-term source of revenue and the opportunity to create hundreds of thousands of vital jobs, worldwide.

    Addressing the astonishing numbers of uncapped, seeping, leaking, forgotten, unmaintained, unmaintainable and undocumented planet-killing fossil fuel punctures (both oil/gas and coal) belching pure poison into the seas and atmosphere, worldwide, 24/7 and on an increasing basis will be a formidable, laudable and necessary task for some time to come.

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