Sunday, March 27, 2016

Wind and Solar Are Growing at a Stunning Pace (Just Not Enough to Stop Climate Change)

Global Trends in Renewable Energy Investment 2016 (Credit: Click to visit.
There's good news and sour news on climate change in this hefty new report on renewable energy from the UN and Bloomberg New Energy Finance.

First, the celebratory stuff.  Renewable energy — mainly solar and wind, with a tiny bit of geothermal and biomass tossed in — is growing at a record pace.  Last year, the world's nations plunked down $286 billion on renewable energy, twice what they spent on coal and gas.  For the first time ever, renewables made up fully half of all new electric capacity installed worldwide, with 118 gigawatts coming online.  Next time someone says renewables are a niche market, toss them this PDF.

All in all, renewable energy (excluding large hydropower dams) provided 10.3 percent of the world's electricity in 2015, up from 9.1 percent the year before:

If you include large hydropower, renewables made up roughly 22 percent of the world's electricity in 2015.  If you add in nuclear, another key carbon-free source, that goes up to around 33 percent. (The catch is that large hydro and nukes aren't growing as quickly.)

So now comes the sour "yes, but..."  This breakneck growth in clean energy isn't nearly fast enough to drive the sort of sharp CO2 reductions needed to address climate change.  Not yet.

For one, the world continues to build lots of carbon-belching coal and gas plants.  The fact that wind and solar remain pricey and don't run 24/7 means there's still ample demand for fossil-fuel generation.  The report estimates that countries added 43 gigawatts worth of coal capacity last year, on net, and 40 gigawatts worth of natural gas capacity.  (Countries also added 15 gigawatts of new nuclear, as well as 22 gigawatts worth of large hydropower dams.)

As long as fossil fuel capacity keeps expanding rather than shrinking, it will be tough to push down global CO2 emissions.  And this dynamic isn't set to change anytime soon:  the report notes that few forecasters think global power-sector emissions will peak before 2026.  (A separate new report from McKinsey & Company, meanwhile, predicts that coal and natural gas will still provide half the world's electricity in 2040.)

And keep in mind that this report mainly focuses on the electricity sector, which only accounts for 40 percent of energy-related CO2 emissions.  If you really want to whip global warming, you'd also need to clean up the transportation sector, too.  Plus figure out what to do about cement, steel, and other industries.  There are a few encouraging signs along those lines — the report notes that battery prices keep plunging and electric vehicle sales are expanding — but it's early days yet.

Read more at Wind and Solar Are Growing at a Stunning Pace (Just Not Enough to Stop Climate Change)

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