Over the past couple of years, a steady stream of good news has appeared on the renewable energy front. The latest comes from a couple of sources. Clean Energy Canada has released a new publication, “The Transition Takes Hold.” Bottom line: The transition from fossil fuels to renewable sources “now appears irreversible.” Meanwhile, the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) reports that renewable electricity-generating capacity of 161 gigawatts was added across the planet in 2016, bringing the capacity total of renewables above 2,000 gigawatts for the first time. The worldwide total electricity-generating capacity from all sources—fossil fuels, nuclear, renewables, biomass—is about 6,000 gigawatts.
China, the United States and India were responsible for half the world’s $348 billion total investment in renewables in 2016. That was down significantly over 2015, but produced about the same gains in renewable installations. Overall, in the past five years, $2 trillion has been invested in renewables worldwide. Fewer and fewer so-called experts are saying renewables will never amount to anything.
The Canadian group said that, globally, about 6.7 million people have jobs in renewables. The solar industry alone is now creating one of every 50 new jobs in the United States, one of out of every 80 since 2009. Expectations are that this transformation of the energy system will expand greatly in the next few years, with a huge drop of 57 percent by 2025 in the cost of large-scale solar plants—those of more than 200 gigawatts. Onshore and offshore wind costs are expected to fall by 26 and 35 per cent respectively.
Merran Smith, executive director of Clean Energy Canada, wrote in the report’s executive summary:
“Tipping points: those elusive moments when a technology goes mainstream. Much has been written in the debate over whether renewable energy has passed, is fast-approaching, or is still a ways from crossing that threshold.
“The true tipping point will only become apparent in the rearview mirror, and it won’t be defined by a single moment or breakthrough. It will be crossed at different times, in different countries, driven by different forces.
“But the clean energy transition now appears irreversible.”
While Democrats have been responsible for initiating and establishing most state policies that promote efficiency gains and renewable sources, the transformation of the energy system is not a red or blue issue. Texas and Iowa, for instance, two Republican-dominated states, are ahead of the other states in using wind resources. The Lone Star state has 20 gigawatts of installed wind-generating capacity, a fourth of the nation’s wind total 82 gigawatts. This has come about from $38 billion in wind investment, which supports more 25,000 wind jobs in Texas today.
Meanwhile, wind generated 36 percent of Iowa’s electricity in 2016. The American Wind Energy Association says 8,000 Iowans now work in direct and indirect jobs in the state’s wind industry. Some $11.8 billion in investment has built a wind-related infrastructure that includes 11 manufacturing and assembly plants. State authorities predict there could be as many as 17,000 wind-related jobs by 2020, with another $9 billion investment.
In a lengthy article by President Barack Obama published in the January 9, 2017, edition of Science magazine, the president pointed out that carbon-dioxide emissions from the U.S. energy sector dropped 9.5 percent from 2008-2015, at the same time the economy grew by 10 percent, and CO2 emitted per dollar of gross domestic product declined by 18 percent:
The importance of this trend cannot be understated. This “decoupling” of energy sector emissions and economic growth should put to rest the argument that combatting climate change requires accepting lower growth or a lower standard of living. In fact, although this decoupling is most pronounced in the United States, evidence that economies can grow while emissions do not is emerging around the world. [...]
At the same time, evidence is mounting that any economic strategy that ignores carbon pollution will impose tremendous costs to the global economy and will result in fewer jobs and less economic growth over the long term.
While it certainly seems true that the switch to renewables is irreversible, if Donald Trump were to succeed in the Koch-promoted efforts he’s already adopted to trash his predecessor’s climate-and-energy initiatives, the switch could be slowed in the states, giving China and Europe the same kind of advantage as the Danish Vestas company got when it moved ahead on wind technology after the Reagan administration abandoned America’s wind-power lead in the 1980s. The only difference between then and now being that the consequences of Trump’s actions would be for more damaging in the long run.
But Trump’s attack on Obama’s climate-related rules and other actions has many obstacles to overcome, including what likely will be a rash of lawsuits. It could be years before we know the outcome of his retrograde moves.
Opposition to Trump’s actions is, however, purely defensive. What’s needed is an accelerated approach to the transformation already underway.
The climate crisis is an emergency like no other, and it needs to be treated as such. Climate Mobilization and other environmental advocates, like Bill McKibben, co-founder of 350.0rg, say the United States should address the changing climate the way we addressed World War II. Sacrifices were made to topple the Axis. A nation already deeply in debt and far from fully emerged from the Great Depression took on far more debt and transformed its economy to meet the military threat. The reason: Most Americans didn’t think we had a choice.
The threat from climate change is greater than that of World War II. Denying it, ignoring it, failing to address it quickly are prescriptions for far more death and economic destruction than that war caused. Promoting the energy transformation, giving our agriculture and transportation systems deep makeovers, and reworking our cities are essential to fulfilling any hope that we can effectively ameliorate the impacts of climate change. Government policy at the municipal, state, regional and national level should be directed toward meeting the climate thread right now. Not in the 2020s. Not next week. Not tomorrow.
Fortunately, we have technology on our side, as the Canada Clean Energy folks point out. The claims made since the 1970s that wind and solar and other renewable sources of energy can never be anything more than niche technologies for hippies and tree-huggers can still be heard in some quarters like the Heartland Institute and, of course, the White House, but these grow ever less credible by the minute.
Adopting policies that speed up what is already happening—for instance, pushing for 100 percent renewables by 2040/50—ought to be at the top of the progressive agenda. Given who is currently in control of the federal government, the best way to do that for the short run is at the city and state level. But we need national policy to do the job right. And that obviously requires changes at the top.