A global shift to 100% renewables is within sight

By Jon Crooks

"Schneebergerhof 01" by Kuebi = Armin Kübelbeck - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Schneebergerhof_01.jpg#/media/File:Schneebergerhof_01.jpg

At the Climate Summit in New York last September, the task given by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon was simple. Heads of States had to promise the delivery of a global action plan by 2015 and this needed to target a fully decarbonised energy sector based on 100% renewable energy by 2050. That means no new carbon put into the air by the way we power our lives. Homes, transport and businesses – everything needs to be powered by clean, renewable energy.

Is this possible? Yes. Remember we have 35 years to get there. Think of all the technology we have now that didn’t exist 35 years ago: computers, the internet, smartphones etc. We can create even more solutions that we haven’t even thought of yet.

The EU has said it will push for at least 27% of the EU’s energy to come from renewables by 2030, but that’s not enough. The G7 have said they will commit to ‘strive’ towards transformation of the energy sector by 2050, but this is too loose. We can do so much better than this when you look at the progress made already.

Since the Copenhagen climate summit 6 years ago…

In the last six years since that now infamous and disastrous Copenhagen climate summit there has been a huge amount of investment in renewable energy, spectacular growth in the amount of solar and wind generated power, with renewables now the world’s second largest source of electricity. The prospect of a renewably-powered future is now much more tangible.

In 2009, there was 1,223GW of renewable power capacity installed globally (including hydro and traditional biomass), according to REN21, a thinktank. By 2014 that had risen 28% to 1,560GW, equivalent to 780 average sized (2GW) coal power plants. That’s in just 6 years.

2013 was the first year that more renewable capacity was built than fossil and nuclear combined: 56% of the electricity generating capacity built in 2013 was renewable.

China increased the amount of renewable power it generated by more than three times as much as the rest of the world put together in 2014.

Investment in renewables grew significantly in the years following Copenhagen, according to figures from BNEF. $196Bn was invested in 2009. In 2013 it stood at $254Bn, a 30% increase.

The growth of wind and solar power has consistently outstripped projections from the influential International Energy Agency. Renewables have even grown faster than predicted by Greenpeace.

Wind Power

Global wind power capacity more than doubled between 2009 and 2014. By 2014 China had installed more than four times the wind generating power it had in 2009. India doubled its wind capacity in the same five years.

Solar Power

Global solar capacity saw even faster growth between 2009 and 2014 – growing by 91% in 2010 alone. In 2014 China had achieved a staggering 94-fold increase in solar capacity since 2009. Solar capacity grew 15-fold in the United States between 2009 and 2014, with a third of that installed in 2013/2014 alone.

And now?

The latest figures on renewable energy trends from the UN Environment Programme (Unep) reveal a striking turnaround after a period in which low oil prices and policy uncertainty pushed investment down, threatening the sector. Even though oil prices remain low, world investment, largely in solar and wind, went up by 17% to $270bn last year, reversing a two-year dip. The new generating capacity that represents is about the same as the total output of the current US nuclear system.

The cost of renewable electricity has fallen rapidly over the past six years, particularly for solar power, where cost reductions have been dramatic and unexpected. IRENA says solar PV module costs have fallen 75% since the end of 2009 and the cost of electricity from utility-scale solar PV by 50% since 2010.

Of course it’s tough for politicians trained to look only to the next election cycle, but we are starting to see progress. At least 16 cities already have 100% targets. Copenhagen, San Francisco, Munich and Frankfurt were the first to commit to going 100 % Clean – Copenhagen even a lot earlier: by 2030!

Costa Rica may have relied on its very particular topography to have its energy system powered 100% by renewable energy in 2015, but it is symbolically powerful and Costa Ricans are enjoying falling energy prices. Also, the best energy systems should always be locally tailored.

Under very different circumstances, the district of Rhein-Hunsrück in the industrial giant of Germany achieved 100% renewable status and exports surplus clean energy to the grid. The €290m (£213m) it used to spend on importing energy is being turned into value for the local community by an energy system based on efficiency and local, renewable sources.

One in four UK homes now benefits from wind power, a rise of 15% on last year, and Scotland is generating enough clean energy to be used in 98% of its homes.

Solar entrepreneur Jeremy Leggett argues in his forthcoming book, The Winning of the Carbon War, that three mostly independent dynamics are at play driving the change. Firstly, the numbers no longer add up in the old fossil fuel model. The costs of new acquisitions become unmanageable in a system that feasts on debt. Secondly, costs in solar and the vital link of a green energy system, battery storage, are plummeting while the sector offers attractive, reliable rates of return to investors. The Swiss bank UBS famously predicted the rapid “extinction” of the old fossil fuel system as battery costs as much as halve over the next five years.

And, finally, there is movement internationally on climate policy. “We are now in danger of winning the carbon war,” says Leggett. ”Would I like to be running an oil company now? Defending their case is becoming untenable.”

Some countries have begun to realise the benefits. A recent German study [pdf] reveals that some €5.4bn was generated in Germany in 2012 through projects that were partially or fully owned by local investors, including citizens. Local private investments created a total of around 100,000 jobs that year in both the construction sector and operation.

It is doable – the weight of scientific opinion leaves no doubt. Professor Mark Jacobson from Stanford University has outlined a vision to power the entire United States, including the transport sector, by 100% renewables by 2050. We don’t lack the ability, we lack political will.