The Independent reports that green campaigners are furious with the Green Party for not using the election to talk about climate change. This might appear to be a final confirmation that the issue is of scant electoral significance – and that our politicians can afford to ditch the “green crap.”
Fortunately, the transition to greener, cleaner energy sources is now the province of action, not talk. Indeed, recent figures – as set out by Tom Randall for Bloomberg – show that an important milestone has been passed:
“The world is now adding more capacity for renewable power each year than coal, natural gas, and oil combined. And there’s no going back.
“The shift occurred in 2013, when the world added 143 gigawatts of renewable electricity capacity, compared with 141 gigawatts in new plants that burn fossil fuels, according to an analysis presented Tuesday at the Bloomberg New Energy Finance annual summit in New York. The shift will continue to accelerate, and by 2030 more than four times as much renewable capacity will be added.”
The Bloomberg article is headlined “Fossil fuels just lost the race against renewables” – which is exaggerating somewhat, as Brad Plumer explains in a counter-argument for Vox:
“The first thing to note is that… ‘electricity’ is not the same thing as ‘energy.’ We use electricity to power our homes and appliances. But most of the world’s cars and planes don’t run on electricity; they run on oil. A lot of buildings don’t use electricity for heat; they burn gas. Those non-electricity energy sources aren’t counted above.”
This is why the whole fracking versus renewables debate is such nonsense. Not only do we rely on gas-fired plant to provide back-up for intermittent power sources, for the time being we also need fossil fuels to heat our homes and run our transport systems. Until we go all-electric, it’s better that we get this energy from secure sources than from Russia or the Middle East.
Plumer also points out that because the sun doesn’t always shine and the wind doesn’t always blow, each unit of new renewable capacity generates significantly less power over time than each unit of new fossil fuel-fired capacity.
On the other hand, once you’ve built your renewable plant you don’t have to worry about paying to fuel it – the source energy comes free-of-charge from Mother Nature, not through a pipeline from Mother Russia. With capital costs coming down fast, the growth in wind and solar capacity is therefore set to continue.
There’s hope, too, of a solution to the intermittency of renewables – because the cost of battery storage is also in rapid decline.
The Bloomberg article was sub-titled “This is the beginning of the end”; but, to adapt the words of Winston Churchill, it may be more appropriate to describe the current state-of-play as the “end of the beginning.” The first stage in the war between fossil fuels and renewable energy is over. The concerted attempt by the defenders of the old order to kill off the new technology has failed.
Both wind and solar power are now firmly established and they’re getting more affordable all the time. The only question is how fast we make the transition to a mainly renewable energy system.
If we try to push too fast – or, conversely, raise unreasonable barriers – then that will multiply the technical and political risks for investors. For a technology whose economics are dominated by capital rather than fuel costs, unnecessary risk only pushes up the price.
One way or another the future is green – so let’s get there via the easiest, and therefore cheapest, route.