The Unstoppable Global Clean Energy Transition

By Traver Kennedy, Chairman and CEO on December 04, 2018
Traver Kennedy
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We have reached a renewable tipping point. Renewable wind and solar have followed the classic pattern of adoption similar to other transformative technologies like the Internet, mobile phones, television, radio, and the telegraph. In such instances, the adoption curve is typically characterized by slow to moderate growth initially until an inflection point is reached where subsequent growth becomes exponential and unstoppable. Few people are aware, for instance, that both the Internet and mobile phones function with technologies that took around four decades to get out of the labs and beyond the niche military and academia markets to the exponential growth that put them, literally, in everybody’s pockets.

Similarly, solar and wind energy are expected to meet 20% of global power needs sooner than previously forecasted and to keep growing exponentially thereafter. This is especially significant given the urgency to limit greenhouse emissions, which will have a costly negative impact if alternatives to fossil fuels are not widely adopted soon, according to the National Climate Assessment Report.

2015: the tipping point where the commissioning of new energy from renewables surpassed that of fossil fuels.

One Trillion Watts of Clean Energy

In October, Bloomberg reported that within five years, the world is expected to have installed enough renewables to power one trillion watts of energy, which they indicate, is more than the entire power capacity of the European Union. This is significant not only for the planet but for economic growth everywhere. Clean power technologies like solar, wind, and hydrogen generate jobs in a long supply chain that goes from R&D to installation to service. In fact, the director-general of IRENA estimates that “decarbonization of the global energy system can grow the global economy and create up to 28 million jobs in the sector by 2050.”

The Bloomberg article also reports excellent news regarding where this new clean energy is being deployed: in countries that, until recently, were seen as the biggest obstacles to limiting greenhouse emissions because of a flawed “progress first, clean energy follows” mentality of economic growth. They write, “China will be responsible for 41 percent of global renewable growth, adding 438 gigawatts of clean energy to become the largest consumer of green energy in the world, overtaking the EU [according to the International Energy Agency]. Almost half of Brazil’s total power consumption will come from renewables by 2023, in large part down to hydro and bioenergy.”

An Even Larger Clean Energy Wave Ensues

A recent article by ThinkProgress foretells, “By 2035, the ‘great fuel switch’ will mark the end of the age of oil and gas.” This ‘switch’ marks the year where 20% of all of the world’s energy consumed comes from renewables. They cite a report from Wood Mackenzie that indicates, “The growing focus on sustainability in many parts of the world is almost akin to a gravitational force, pulling things in one direction and driving the ‘great fuel switch,’ leaving little possibility for a reversal.”

The article points out that the growth journey of renewables is nothing new. This is good news and reinforces the idea that we are not experiencing an anomaly that could be ephemeral. They elaborate, “the current hydrocarbon-based economy has itself evolved out of many previous energy transitions, from the age of biomass to the age of coal, and, ultimately, to that of oil and gas. Each of these was different, but all took at least 30 to 50 years to unfold.” Oil and gas, for instance, became ubiquitous in the 20th century because their low cost made previous energies uneconomical. Similarly, they write, “stunning drops in solar, wind costs mean the economic case for coal, gas is crumbling.”

Unlike past energy transformations, we need to bear in mind that the new clean energy paradigm is not being driven or monopolized by any single energy source. Solar and wind are leading the way. However, because of their variability, they need to be supported by technologies like hydrogen and batteries, which can store excess solar and wind in measurable amounts to power our needs when the sun and wind aren’t available.

Clean Energy News Comes with a Warning

The good news regarding clean energy’s growth curve also comes with a warning. As Bloomberg wrote, “the positive outlook for clean energy comes with a warning that government support and market design is critical to ensuring that renewables continue to be invested in and built.” Again, mobile phones and the Internet provide many lessons to draw upon. It took visionaries to prevent the efforts of some who wanted to regulate or tax the Internet or slow down mobile technology by favoring monopolies. While many governments did favor large companies by auctioning radio spectrum to the highest bidder (effectively a tax on mobile users), it was handled in a competitive manner. The winners of those decisions are clearly the five billion people around the world who, by next year, will own a connected mobile device that gives them access to education, information, and communication freedom. Energy is no exception.


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