Virtually every clean energy record in the world has been broken in the past year. The most investment in clean energy ($329 billion in 2015), the most new renewable capacity (a third more than in 2014), the cheapest ever solar power (in Chile, where it’s half the cost of coal), the longest a country has been run entirely on renewable electricity – 113 days over this summer in Costa Rica.
The pace of the shift to a clean economy is astonishing. This year, half a million solar panels have been installed every day, while China has erected two wind turbines an hour. Wind farms off Denmark, solar farms in Morocco, wave farms off Scotland – everywhere you look, an unparalleled global effort is taking place, one that dwarfs the achievements of the space race.
Nevertheless, the scale of the problem is immense. Even as Barack Obama was announcing the ratification of the historic Paris Agreement on climate change, which aims to hold global temperatures to no more than two degrees above pre-industrial levels, he had to concede, ‘Even if we meet every target embodied in the agreement, we’ll only get to part of where we need to go.’ This is also the first year in which global CO2 levels crossed the symbolic 400ppm threshold.
Never before has our species contemplated a task so vast: to change the composition of the air itself. And when the history of this great green leap comes to be written, it will presumably be told as a story of technologists, of activists, of Elon Musks saving the world from itself. But in fact no greater part is being played than by government, the only kind of institution we have evolved that can co-ordinate an effort of this magnitude, and that is ultimately responsible for doing so.
Jigar Shah, founder of the global clean energy company SunEdison and more recently of investment firm Generate Capital, put it like this: ‘When you think about the spread of technology like the iPhone, it didn’t really replace anything. It wasn’t something that people even considered they needed till they got it. It was greenfield. But clean energy is providing the exact same service you’ve relied on for a hundred years: kilowatt hours. So, how do we get to 100% clean energy? The only answer is government regulation.’
Here we’ve combed through the myriad initiatives, plans, projects and targets to pick out the most groundbreaking innovations from around the world, both to give credit where it’s due – and so others can learn from the comparison.
1. The Texas Grid
If Texas were a country, it would be the world’s sixth largest generator of wind power, right behind Spain. That’s partly because of reliable winds, but also because the state built a gigantic transmission system to carry energy from its desolate northwest to the metropolises of the south and east. The power lines were agreed in 2007, costing nearly $7 billion dollars, and their construction means there are three primary grids in the US: the Eastern Interconnection, the Western Interconnection and the Texas. Spurred on by federal wind subsidies, private companies have proliferated across the lone star state, such that on a windy winter’s day, more than 40% of its electricity comes from turbines.
But even the Texas grid is now approaching capacity, bringing the same problem that has arisen in Germany, one of the pioneers of large-scale renewable energy. Earlier this year, the German government had to announce moves to slow the pace at which renewables, especially offshore wind turbines, are built because the industry’s rapid growth has outpaced the construction of cables to carry energy from the north coast to the cities of the south. Meanwhile, China has proposed a global long-range super-grid tapping everything from Arctic wind to equatorial sunlight, costing an estimated $50 trillion and taking until at least 2050 to construct.
2. Simply banning fossil fuels
Nobody likes coal any more. Once the driving force of the industrial revolution and the purpose of whole coal-mining communities from the Appalachians to Wales, the Saarland to South Australia, it is now the obvious enemy: dirty, replaceable and lacking obvious defenders. Countries like the UK and Holland have announced plans to shut their coal fleets early, and in May this year the UK was powered without recourse to coal for the first time since the its first steam-driven power station opened in 1882. In the US, too, regulations are pushing the coal industry towards extinction: 94 coal-fired plants closed in 2015 and another 41 are due to have closed by the end of this year, together equivalent to all the coal plants in Kentucky and Colorado. Only three are scheduled to open by 2021.
There have also been tentative moves towards banning petrol. Norway, Denmark and the Netherlands have all considered proposals to ban internal combustion vehicles by 2025. And a few weeks ago, the council of federal states in Germany – lest we forget, the country of BMW, Porsche, Volkswagen, Mercedes and Audi – voted to ban petrol and diesel cars by 2030. The vote is non-binding, but hugely significant of the direction things are heading.
That said, the International Energy Agency estimated global subsidies for fossil fuels at $493 billion in 2014. And the IMF calculates that if you factor in the costs borne by governments because of pollution causing ill health and climate change, the subsidies total £5.3 trillion annually, or $10 million per minute. In 2009, the G20 pledged to phase them out, and didn’t. This year, the G7 pledged to do it, and haven’t.
3. The technology of tomorrow
At the Paris climate talks, Presidents Obama, Modi and Hollande, together with Bill Gates, announced that 20 countries would be doubling their budgets for research into clean energy over the five years to 2020. Including the world’s five most populous countries – China, India, the US, Indonesia and Brazil – the Mission Innovation cohort in June declared that this would make more than $30billion available for research into the new technologies that will make an energy transition possible.
Cameron Hepburn, Professor of Environmental Economics at Oxford University, told Apolitical, ‘This is a long-run game. It’s about starting to shift the tanker immediately, but the technologies we’ll be deploying in twenty years’ time will be ones that we’re developing now. One area that’s super important is technologies to integrate renewable energy into the grid, whether it’s the rapidly falling cost of batteries and new sorts of batteries, or chemical storage or use of industrial gas and hydrogen systems. Doubling that spend is hugely significant.’
Bill Gates was on the stage because he and a group of other billionaires, including the head of Amazon Jeff Bezos and the financier George Soros, have formed the Breakthrough Energy Coalition, pooling $20 billion to invest in high-risk clean energy companies that traditional investors might shy away from, and make them commercially viable.
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4. Electric filling stations
Around a fifth of global greenhouse gas emissions come from road vehicles and the most feasible solution is to replace them with electric vehicles (powered by a clean energy source). But if you buy an electric car, where do you charge it?
To make the switch to a transport infrastructure built for electric cars, Russia last year made it mandatory for every petrol station to include an electric charging port, and the EU has announced plans to make it mandatory for every new house to include one. The Obama administration is investing $4.5 billion to create a coast-to-coast network to reduce ‘range anxiety’ and encourage consumers to go electric.
A survey by Nissan found that Japan already has more electric car charge ports than petrol stations, and several reports have predicted that electric cars will dominate by 2030. It’s also worth noting that the UK and South Korea are testing ‘electric motorways’ that recharge cars as they drive over them.
5. Boring but important
In 2014, better insulation, more efficient appliances and greater fuel economy saved the European Union as much energy as is used by the whole of Finland. And Finland is a cold country. Energy efficiency is obviously far less fun than a shiny new solar plant or a Tesla sports car, but the potential gains are enormous.
Professor Martin Beniston, Director of the Institute for Environmental Sciences at the University of Geneva, told Apolitical, ‘When we think about energy, we always think about generating power. But some estimates are that European cities could actually save 60% of their energy bill by retrofitting offices, houses, and apartment blocks. If you could get some large fraction of that, you wouldn’t need additional sources of energy to supply households and offices and so on.’
6. Clever kettles
Last month, the UK became the first country to successfully transmit data across the national grid. If that continues to work, it will mean that the grid can balance out the fluctuations in supply and demand that bedevil renewable energy. The way it works is that information and power are sent over the same cable – as in a USB lead – meaning that electricity could be priced differently at different points on the grid. So if there’s a drop in supply because, say, a bank of cloud has covered the nation’s solar panels, the price would go up. And you could set your smart kettle or computer or any other appliance so that, if the price rises above a certain point, it will switch to battery or power-saving mode. In that way, demand would drop, easing strain on the grid.
Jigar Shah said, ‘It wasn’t until 1970 that the electric utility industry thought that it knew how to provide reliable electricity without power outages and blackouts. And now what happens if every single person on your block gets a Tesla? That’s 20kw worth of power draw per car. So instead of each home drawing 7kw, it draws 27kw, and you can imagine that the electrical infrastructure on your street is not equipped for that. So the question becomes, do you let the utility company spend a million pounds upgrading it or, for eighty thousand pounds, have everyone put in some next generation software that regulates how many cars can be charging at any one time?’
7. A price on carbon dioxide – or even a tax
For the past couple of years, China has been running seven separate pilot schemes for carbon trading, and seemingly plans to launch a nationwide emissions trading scheme in 2017, while the EU has an emissions trading scheme covering 11,000 factories, power plants and other big installations.
The most forward-thinking development, however, is in Canada, which has unveiled plans to levy a tax of ten Canadian dollars (around $7.50) per tonne of carbon emitted by 2018. That would rise to around $37.50 by 2022.
The point of all this is to integrate the social costs of carbon into the economy, so that it influences the decisions of people who are not primarily interested in climate change.
Kate Gordon, Vice Chair of Climate at the Paulson Institute, which specialises in sustainable economics, told Apolitical, ‘I don’t think most businesses can or should be thinking about the global health impacts of climate change in their pricing, right? But governments can and should, because that’s the kind of problem that governments are for. The crucial economic measure is somehow internalising the risks of carbon, and how you do that comes down to a political question in each country, whether its taxes or carbon trading or whatever, so that people act with the short and long-term impacts in mind.’