The signs are in the stats

There have been many stories recently about the progress that has been made in the deployment of renewable energy. This is a very good one by Don Skinner, chaplain emeritus of Allegheny College and a longtime environmentalist. The article is in the Meadville Tribune in Meadville, Pennsylvania. EID would love to see comparable articles on renewable energy and energy efficiency in other small town newspapers. Then we may be seeing much more progress. Hope you enjoy.


Stats show that this is age of renewable energy

Almost unnoticed, the world turned a corner in 2015, one as important as it was silent: For the first time in history, investment in renewable energy systems outpaced new money spent on fossil fuels. And the total price tag was considerable: $329 billion.

To be clear: fossil fuel systems continue to dominate the world energy scene — a troublesome reality that we’re going to have to live with for a while longer. But now, for the first time, the world is spending more money developing wind, solar, hydro and biological systems than it is being invested in coal, oil and gas.

This wasn’t supposed to happen. The cost of fossil fuels dipped severely in 2015. Crude oil dropped 67 percent, from $112 a barrel to $37. That’s a two-thirds fall-off. European coal fell 35 percent, from $74 to $48 per ton. And, thanks in large part to the glut in production brought about by the rapid expansion of fracking technology, the price of U.S. natural gas declined from $4.22 to $2.31 per million BTUs (a BTU, or British Thermal Unit, is the amount of heat energy required to raise the temperature of one pound of water by one degree Fahrenheit). So a million BTUs will bring about 7,900 gallons of 60-degree tap water to the boiling point. That’s a whole bunch of five-minute showers.

Common wisdom dictated that consumers, blessed by such a drop in prices, would forget their momentary distraction with clean energy and take advantage of cheap fossil fuels. By that logic, a resurgence of confidence in fossil fuels would seem a foregone conclusion. Surprise! It didn’t happen.

It is worth noting, too, that this shift in priorities was not caused by a lot of small-scale stuff like photovoltaic installations on suburban roofs. There was a lot of that, to be sure. And its growing. But the big money ($199 billion of the $329 billion committed) was spent on utility-scale projects: wind farms, solar parks, biomass-to-energy plants and hydro-electric schemes.

And take note: by far and away the largest wind projects were not in the U.S. They were in the North Sea and off the coast of China.

We’re talking big money, too. Data gathered by Bloomburg New Energy Finance, which keeps a self-interested eye on this field, reveals that investment on a global scale grew 600 percent between 2004 and 2015, from $62 billion a year to the 2015 figure of $329 billion. By comparison, the level of new investment in fossil fuels last year basically stalled.

Why is this happening? Why have dropping fossil fuel prices not resulted in an upsurge in consumption, as traditional economic models would predict, while investment in supposedly costly renewable systems exploded? There are several reasons.

First, regulations adopted over the past few decades are having a discernible impact. Motor vehicles and appliances of all types, required to deliver better results while consuming less energy, are performing at levels that a few generations ago were considered not just unnecessary, but impractical. As a result, most people have no incentive to purchase more energy because they’re already getting what they require without it.

Second, a generation ago, proponents of fossil fuel predicted that renewable energy would be too costly to be competitive. Those assertions neglected a fundamental law of industrial economics: that prices shrink as mass-production kicks in. For example, Bloomberg New Energy Finance found that the cost associated with photo-voltaic power has been shrinking at 15 percent per year on a global scale. This downward shift is especially strong in emerging markets that have a lot of sunlight but insufficient funds to buy fossil fuel where it remains too expensive.

Third, more and more national and international commitments to cleaner energy are being adopted into policy and law. At the same time, improvements in smart energy delivery systems continue to reduce overall costs.

Finally, developing countries are increasingly leery of volatility in fossil fuel prices, especially when supplies are subject not only to manipulation by petroleum-producing countries, but to disruption by war and terrorism. At the same time, they have discovered that they can satisfy unfulfilled electricity demand far more quickly and cheaply by erecting renewable energy devices than by building huge and costly fossil fuel plants.

All this considered, it comes as no surprise to learn that over half the investment in clean energy last year went toward projects in developing countries. China, for example, surpassed the U.S., the United Kingdom and France combined in bringing new sources of renewable energy on line, single-handedly adding 35 gigawatts of new capacity. That’s equivalent to more than 3 percent of the current electricity production of the U.S. And China accomplished it in a single year.

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