The future of energy looks sunny. According to the latest Renewables Global Status Report from REN21, more renewable power capacity was added in 2016 than all new fossil fuel capacity combined. In fact, for the fifth consecutive year, investment in new renewables was roughly double fossil fuel investments, with $264.8 billion invested in renewables worldwide in 2016.
Across the globe, renewable electricity costs are dropping, and of all the forms of renewable energy, REN21’s report asserts that solar energy-capturing technology was the most popular in 2016.
This report is big news for the planet. Burning oil, coal, and other carbon-based fuels generates carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change. A trend toward clean energy sources like solar, wind, and hydropower can only help the environment, but that’s not the only reason for the switch.
As Australian National University professor Andrew Blakers wrote in The Conversation, “It is probable that construction of new coal power stations will decline…because PV (solar photovoltaics) and wind are now cost-competitive almost everywhere.”
The financial benefits of renewables may not be enough to spur their adoption in the U.S., however. The current administration’s America First Energy Plan withdraws the nation from the Paris Agreement, rescinds the Clean Power Plan, and supports new investment in coal — three acts that could stymie the switch to clean energy. Additionally, President Trump’s position on trade has the solar industry, which manufactures mostly in China, nervous.
Despite being the star of the Global Status Report, solar faces its own environmental drawbacks, also. As IEEE outlines, huge amounts of energy are required to manufacture solar panels, and in China, that energy is often generated through the burning of fossil fuels.
The process requires lots of water, produces toxic chemicals, and can expose workers to unsafe working conditions. The price cuts that come from manufacturing solar panels abroad have been a huge boon to the industry, but it has further polishing to do before it can be considered truly green.
From mid-September onward, solar panels will be mandatory for new homes in South Miami, Florida. The law — which was passed with a four-to-one majority — states that builders must install 16 m² (175 ft²) of solar panel per 93 m² (1000 ft²) of sunlit roof area, or one panel with a 2.75 kilowatt capacity per 93 m² (1000 ft²) of living space; the rule also extends to some renovations.
The changes are affirmations that South Miami is marching towards a clean energy future, despite the topic causing friction due to the bent of its Republican leadership, complex deals with fossil fuel-based utilities companies, and numerous battles between citizens and energy suppliers concerning whether independent sellers can compete with energy suppliers.
Phillip Stoddard, the mayor of the city, told the Miami Herald: “We’re the first city in the United States outside of California to approve this […] It’s not going to save the world by itself, but it’s going to get people thinking about [solar].”
However, the law has caused controversy as some parties believe it de-incentivises new buildings. This is because the cost of implementing solar panels will fall on building companies rather than the government covering cost. Eric Montes de Oca, president-elect of the Miami chapter of the Latin Builders Association, further argued to the Miami Herald that the measure essentially means that “anyone who does not want to have solar panels, [is] not welcome to live in South Miami. This, I would argue, runs counter to our individual freedoms.”
South Miami joins a growing number of U.S. cities which have implemented similar rulings: in January, San Francisco began enforcing a rule that buildings 10 stories or shorter have to have either solar panels or water heaters, and Lancaster in California has passed measures to ensure that new houses are renewably self-sufficient.
Solar energy is becoming much cheaper all over the world according to a GTM Researchstudy by solar analyst Ben Gallagher. He predicts that the price of constructing solar power technology will decrease by 4.4 percent each year, meaning that by 2022 the price of projects will have dropped by 27 percent. This decrease in cost is causing more countries to adopt solar power as a viable means of supplying energy.
Gallagher attributes the falling price to the globalization of the tools and resources needed to construct the systems — like the investors, labor cost, modules, and trackers — which has meant that “regional hardware pricing [has] been eroded by market forces,” he wrote in the study.
The leader in this global price decrease is India which, according to the report, can produce solar energy at 65 cents per watt. This is the lowest price of solar energy that the world has ever recorded, in any region.
Japan had the highest construction cost worldwide, although its costs are still falling overall, with each watt of energy costing around $2. The price of construction for Japan, therefore, is roughly double the U.S.’s $1.10 and the U.K.’s $1, which was the lowest priced solar power in western Europe.
Progression or Regression?
On one hand, a decrease in the price of solar energy — and that of other renewable sourceslike wind energy — is a positive, because environmentally friendly options are unlikely to be accepted into general use unless they are also economically attractive. The lower cost means that both the environment and society benefit mutually, and that we can maintain our current standard of living without relying on fuels that cause severe damage to the planet.
However, on the other hand, this decrease in the price of solar energy may not be as promising as it first seems, as it may be caused by unethically cutting corners during construction. Gallagher claims in the report that the high level of market competition has lead to suspicion that many of the new solar tech, in India particularly, “were hastily constructed using poor-quality components.” In addition, the low cost may be due to paying workers very little.
Mark Twain once wrote, “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics” — we must be careful that we are not seduced by attractive figures without digging into the reasons and causes behind them. If we are to succeed in making the planet greener, we must ensure it is due to technological innovation rather than unethical manipulation of humans and poor construction.
There’s been a lot of scepticism about whether renewable energy can produce all our future energy needs. So last week, a Chinese province went out of their way to show it was possible for the entire region to run solely on green energy.
The stunt was part of a trial, conducted by the State Grid Corporation of China, designed to demonstrate that fossil fuels are not required to produce future energy needs.
Between 17 and 23 June 2017, the province generated all its power needs for its 5.2 million residents from clean energy sources, including solar, wind and hydro power.
Shifting the Nation’s Energy Supply
“Being the first trial of this kind in the country and a major step in the transformation of energy supply, it will be of great importance in promoting the use of clean energy in China in a sustainable and effective way,” Quan Shenming, general manger of Qinghai Electric Power Corporation, a subsidiary of State Grid Corporation, said in a statement to the press.
During the week of the trial, electricity use amounted to 1.1 billion kilowatt hours (kWh), which would have required about 535,000 tonnes of coal.
Of all that electricity, hydro power contributed about 72.3 percent, while newer energy sources, including wind and solar picked up the rest of the slack.
It’s important to note these figures haven’t been independently verified just yet, so for now we’re taking the State’s word for it.
But, if confirmed, the Qinghai trial supports the idea that the grid will be able to remain stable without needing coal or gas to supply ‘base load’ energy, which many renewable opponents claim. In fact, companies in Qinghai experienced no fluctuation in power during the trial.
The Qinghai province already relies heavily upon renewables and is well-prepared for a future founded on green energy.
Qinghai’s power grid has a total installed capacity of 23.4 million kW, and a whopping 83.8 percent of that power currently comes from solar, wind and hydro power.
Not satisfied with those numbers, the province is continuing to improve their clean energy infrastructure.
“Clean energy is the ultimate way. We need to reduce reliance on fossil fuel, improve our energy structure, and reduce carbon emissions,” Han Ti, vice general manger of Qinhai Electric Power Corporation, told Xinhua.
According to the 13th provincial Five-Year Plan, the news agency reports that Qinghai expects to expand its solar and wind capacity to 35 million kW by 2020, sharing 110 billion kWh of its clean electricity to central and eastern parts of China every year.
By no means is this move to renewable energy confined to the Qinghai Province, either.
Beginning in the 1880s, the personal and professional feud between Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla became a team sport. Business leaders and other scientists joined in the chant, battling over the creation of the electrical grid of the growing United States: would it rely on direct current (DC) or alternating current (AC)?
The War of the Currents was fought as wars typically are, with dirty tricks on the ground. Edison, whose DC patents were earning him a nice income, had a vested interest in DC being the answer to the riddle of the grid, and indeed DC was the earliest standard in the U.S. However, DC is not able to convert to different voltages easily.
Tesla both hated Edison and knew that AC was the answer to this problem. AC changes directions periodically, in the U.S. 60 times per second. It is easy to change voltages using a transformer, and it can power much larger areas, while DC was pretty much stuck within a one mile radius of the source.
While Edison resorted to electrocuting stray animals to keep the public in fear of AC, the Chicago World’s Fair really decided the issue in 1893. General Electric and George Westinghouse competed for the contract to power the fair. GE could have done it using DC for $554,000, but Westinghouse only needed $399,000 to power the fair with AC — and this turned the tide. By 1896 GE was also using AC, and the rest is history.
DC and Renewables
By the 1970s, power transmission technology improved, making DC an attractive option once again. For lines greater than 300-500 miles, DC is able to outcompete AC, going the distance without power loss. Today, DC is making a comeback, thanks to renewable energy sources. Many of them, such as large wind farms and solar arrays, are in rural areas, away from city centers.
These sources also naturally produce DC power, which is what many household devices run on. Electronic devices, including computers, flat screen televisions, LEDs, microwaves, and some variable speed devices with DC motors like fans, all run on internal DC power. In fact, up to 50 percent of total household power consumption may be DC power within 20 years. All of these factors fuel renewed interest in DC power.
In the near future, the few DC transmission lines which are now scattered all over the country may be connected by nine or more new long-distance lines. These high-voltage DC (HVDC) lines are a reflection of the geography of renewable power trends. Rural areas such as the Midwest now produce a large quantity of renewable energy that urban centers need — and power companies need to get it there.
“You have remote resources, and there’s just not enough infrastructure to move that energy to the market,” Clean Line Energy Partners executive vice president of engineering Wayne Galli told Scientific American. His organization plans to build four HVDC lines.
Building these lines will also help the renewable energy industry grow; this is why entities like Clean Line Energy Partners are investing in them. “Using DC lines is a much better solution for moving power from big, remote wind or solar farms,” University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Energy and the Energy GRID Institute director Gregory Reed told Scientific American. “It’s a rapid change in where we’re getting our resources from.”
According to a report from the research group Wood Mackenzie, the analysis of how worldwide changes in demands for energy will transform the sector in the next decade proves that the largest oil and gas companies should place at least one-fifth of their investments in wind and solar power. Dwindling demand for oil and other fossil fuels and rising demand for renewable energy will drive this change in the sector, which will, in turn, necessitate new investment strategies.
The biggest energy companies today now enjoy a market share in oil and gas of about 12%. To maintain that share, analysts say, the companies will need to spend more than $350 billion (£275 billion) on wind and solar power by 2035. Even if they don’t spend enough to maintain that market share, Wood Mackenzie forecasts that renewables may account for one-fifth, or more, of their capital allocation from 2030 onward.
This level of investment arises from a recognition, even by fossil fuel companies, that demand, availability, climate change, and policies designed to cope with climate change are all permanently changing the industry. “The momentum behind these [renewable] technologies is unstoppable now,” Wood Mackenzie director of research Valentina Kretzschmar told The Guardian. “They [the oil companies] are recognizing it is a megatrend; it’s not a fad, it’s not going away. There is definitely a risk to their core business.”
The world’s largest floating solar power plant is now online in China. Built by Sungrow, a supplier of PV inverter systems, the 40MW plant is now afloat in water four to 10 meters deep, and successfully linked to Huainan, China’s grid. The placement was chosen in large part because the area was previously the location of coal mining operations; and, as a result, the water there is now mineralized and mostly useless. The lake itself was only formed after years of mining operations, the surrounding land collapsed and created a cavity that was filled with rainwater.
Floating solar plants are advantageous because they put otherwise useless water and land to good use, and the water naturally cools the system and the ambient temperatures, improving generation and limiting long-term damage from heat. They also avoid taking up space in densely populated regions, which is especially an issue in China; the country is currently home to more than 100 cities with populations of at least one million people each. Finally, the floating PV arrays, customized to work efficiently despite higher levels of humidity, prevent the evaporation of fresh water.
China Leading The Way
Although it was once among the worst offenders worldwide in the realm of carbon emissions and climate change, China has turned the page in a serious way. Now, it has become a world leader in the adoption of renewables in its quest to lead the way toward a greener, more sustainable future. This kind of dedication is what each country needs to commit to. As climate change progresses, we continue to see negative trends and changes; the last three years have all set horrifying temperature records. The future of humanity is directly tied to the future of renewables. Fortunately, innovations like the floating solar plant prove that there are almost endless ways to approach the problem in a practical, effective way.
A new report released by the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) reveals that solar jobs in the U.S. (and other nations) are expanding quickly. As of November 2016, the American solar industry employed 260,077 workers. This is an increase of 24.5% from 2015, with a growth rate that is 17 times faster than the United States economy as a whole.
The lion’s share of these jobs (241,900) were in solar photovoltaics, with an additional 13,000 in solar heating and cooling, and the remaining 5,200 in concentrated solar power (CSP). More than half of all solar jobs in the U.S. were in installation. Another 15% were in manufacturing, with 13% in project development, 12% in sales and distribution, and a final 6% in other areas, including research and development.
The sunlight that is harvested by solar systems is, obviously, free. This makes labor costs and materials the main areas of spending in the solar industry. As costs for materials continue to drop, solar jobs remain a well-compensated area for blue-collar workers. The solar labor force is also becoming more diverse, with the number of women workers at 28% in 2016, up from 19% in 2013, with up to 33.8% in the sales and distribution area. This means more women have jobs in solar than in the conventional energy industry, although women in solar still lag behind their representative 47% of the U.S. economy.
A Renewable Future
Solar jobs aren’t the only thriving area in the U.S. economy right now. Wind industry employment produced around 102,500 jobs in 2016, which IRENA projects will grow to 147,000 jobs by 2020. Jobs in ethanol declined despite increased production due to rising labor productivity; most ethanol-related jobs (about 161,700) were in agriculture, with about 35,000 jobs in actual ethanol production. 23% more biodiesel production in 2016 meant a corresponding 23% in jobs, about 61,100 total, with almost 80,000 total in direct and indirect employment in solid biomass. Finally, there were about 7,000 biogas jobs in the U.S. in 2016.
Jobs in fossil fuels are going away as the sources of the fuels become scarcer and less expensive options become available. As R&D overcomes more of the stumbling blocks to bringing power from renewable sources into the grid and prices continue to drop, we can expect to see more jobs in renewables. They are safer, healthier, and more sustainable than jobs in the fossil fuel industry, so this is great for our labor force as well as the planet.
On May 13, 2017, California smashed through another renewable energy milestone as its largest grid, controlled by the California Independent System Operator (CISO), got 67.2% of its energy from renewables — not including hydropower or rooftop solar arrays. Adding hydropower facilities into the mix, the total was 80.7%. Sunny days with plenty of wind along with full reservoirs and growing numbers of solar facilities were the principal factors in breaking the record. The CISO controls 80% of the state’s power grid.
These are also the reasons why experts believe 2017 will continue to be a record-breaking year for renewables in California. The state also set a new wind power generation record on May 16, 2017, producing 4,985 megawatts.
“It’s going to be a dynamic year for records,” CISO spokesperson Steven Greenlee told SF Gate. “The solar records in particular are falling like dominoes.”
“The fact that the grid can handle 67 percent renewable power from multiple sources — it’s a great moment, and it shows the potential we have,” Center for Sustainable Energy director of policy Sachu Constantine told SF Gate.
The Renewable Energy Race
There are plenty of races we need to avoid as humans — the arms race, for example — but the renewable energy race is one that is producing nothing but winners across the board. This isn’t CISO’s first win — it broke its previous record in March 2017 when it hit 56.7% of the day’s demands with renewables. In September 2016, a California power company contracted with Tesla to ensure Powerpacks would keep the state humming during outages. BART, the public transit system in San Francisco, is on track to be running on clean energy by 2045, and is already reducing its fossil fuel consumption.
If you’d rather hear about goals that have already been achieved, New York State has increased its solar use by 800%. Block Island in Rhode Island has just switched entirely to wind power, shutting down a diesel plant. In fact, experts say that the eastern United States could get 13% of its energy from renewables by 2025, and we’ve already experienced days of more than 50% wind power running the entire country.
Our renewable energy goals are attainable. Look what we’ve already done.
Although it is not yet operational, the Dakota Access Pipeline has already experienced an oil leak. Approximately 84 gallons of oil leaked from the pipeline in early April, triggering a cleanup and a notation of the spill in the online database of the South Dakota Department of Environment and Natural Resources (SDDENR). The SDDENR did not report the spill through the media because, as reported by the Associated Press, it is their policy not to report spills unless they present “a threat to public health, a fishery or a drinking water system.”
“We realize Dakota Access gets a lot of attention. We also try to treat all of our spills in a consistent manner. We treated this as we would treat any other 84-gallon oil spill,” Brian Walsh, an environmental scientist with SDDENR, told the AP.
Some perceive this position to be a tacit acknowledgment of the high frequency of spills inherent to all oil pipelines. The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe takes this position: “These spills are going to be nonstop,” tribal Chairman Dave Archambault said to the AP. “With 1,200 miles of pipeline, spills are going to happen. Nobody listened to us. Nobody wants to listen, because they’re driven by money and greed.”
Dallas Goldtooth, an organizer for the Indigenous Environmental Network, commented in an emailed statement to The Huffington Post, “This spill serves as a reminder that it is not a matter of if a pipeline spills, it’s a matter of when a pipeline spills. The fact that this occurred before Dakota Access even becomes operational is all the more concerning.”
Toward A Sustainable Future
These ongoing conflicts highlight the importance of transitioning toward clean, renewable sources of energy. Transporting oil in pipelines is inherently risky, and there is no way to remove the risk. In January of this year a diesel spill in Iowa contaminated farmland with 138,000 gallons of fuel. The fallout from the Deepwater Horizon spill has yet to stop unfolding, but has been one of the most significant environmental disasters of our time.
Continuing to build and operate these pipelines is more than shortsighted. It is positively reckless in light of the undisputed risks to public health that oil spills cause to groundwater and land alike. Furthermore, fossil fuels like oil are dwindling, making renewables even more appealing. There is simply no reasonable position that includes building and operating more oil pipelines; transitioning to renewables is the only logical and reasonable option.
This May, the 2,000 residents of Block Island, Rhode Island are making a fresh start when it comes to powering their lives. As of May 1, Block Island is the first location in the U.S. to be powered by an offshore wind farm — a wind farm that has eliminated the need for a diesel plant that was burning about one million gallons of dirty diesel fuel annually. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), diesel produces more carbon emissions than every other fossil fuel except for fuel oil.
The Block Island Wind Farm is intended to bring significant change, and not just on Block Island. The project was designed to serve as an example of the tremendous potential that offshore wind power holds for the United States. The Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE) has created a wind resource assessment and characterization study, which depicts this potential.
Block Island residents, who are now connected to the larger grid will enjoy not only cleaner energy, but also lower and more predictable electric bills. “The simplest way to explain the immediate impact to the bills is that the Fuel Cost Adjustment is going to be replaced by a Standard Offer and Transmission Charge that will be a combined 12.44 cents/kWh,” Interim Block Island Power Company President Jeffery Wright told the Block Island Times. With prices that have risen to five times that amount, there’s no question that the wind farm is benefitting everyone involved.
Renewables Replacing Fossil Fuels
This is just one example of an overarching trend: all over, renewables are replacing fossil fuels on the power grid. Solar is now cheaper than fossil fuels, and experts believe that wind energy will also be competing with or beating fossil fuels in terms of cost within ten years. Even our military forces are making the most of renewables for field operations.
However, even though climate change is more pressing now than it has ever been, and immediate adoption of renewable energy sources is necessary to fighting it, change is coming slowly. The success of the Block Island Wind Farm will hopefully prove the viability of offshore wind in the U.S. for anyone who still has doubts. This global battle against the increasingly dire issue of climate change depends on our efforts.
Although Britain has historically run on coal-generated power, the country just went without any for a full 24 hours. This is a first for the area — and it will be the first of many such days to come.
The National Grid confirmed that April 21 was the first full day of coal-free power in 135 years, following a relatively long stretch of 19 hours in May 2016. This is not due to any one alternative power source, but to an increasingly varied range of power options.
Gridwatch observers estimate that about half of the energy used that day came from natural gas, while the rest of the power burden was shared by nuclear, imported, and renewable energy sources. In fact, half of the power in the U.K. on a day-to-day basis now comes from renewables and nuclear.
In other words, Britain didn’t go green for 24 hours, but it made a definitive step away from coal dependence. The U.K plans to close its remaining coal power plants by 2025 at the latest, which will mean longer and longer coal-free periods of time as we approach that deadline.
Renewables Powering Nations
The U.K. is far from the only country leading the way when it comes to renewables. According to Costa Rica’s National Centre for Energy Control, the last time fossil fuels were used in the country’s grid at all was June 2016, and before that, more than 98 percent of the nation’s energy came from green sources. Iceland runs on 100 percent renewable sources, 75 percent large hydro and 25 percent geothermal. Sweden is also 100 percent fossil-fuel free.
Other countries are coming close to 100 percent independence, too, and with so many ways to achieve freedom from fossil fuels, each country has to find the method that works best for it. As CleanTechnica points out, only two trends are shared by the countries leading in renewables: leaders who set, support, and invest in ambitious goals for renewable energy generation, and the recognition that there is no one-size-fits-all solution.
Even without subsidies, new wind and solar power plants are usually cheaper than new coal, nuclear, or natural gas power plants. In fact, they are often not only cheaper, but substantially so. According to Lazard, levelized cost of energy (LCOE) estimates based on averages for the U.S. as a whole show that utility-scale renewables are far less expensive than conventional power sources — even when historical subsidies for conventional power sources, or social costs such as healthcare for coal-related health problems, aren’t taken into account.
Solar is even cheaper outside the U.S.; its costs are dropping faster in India, China, UAE, Saudi Arabia, Australia, and elsewhere. The lowest costs reported by Lazar are far higher than those recorded around the world. However, even Lazard — with its often conservative measures — agrees that in many areas of the U.S., costs of coal and solar power have reached parity. Solar costs — which are connected to technology — are only going to drop, unlike coal prices.
Data on installed costs of solar confirm it’s at least on par with fossil fuels for the time being, and may well soon be cheaper. By the end of 2015, installed costs of solar power were, on average, less than $50 per megawatt-hour in four out of five regions. They were less than $60 per megawatt-hour in the fifth, which was the Midwest, where prices are expected to be higher due to cold temperatures. In the power industry at that time, the average market price of electricity was $30 to $40 per megawatt-hour. Solar has been dropping steadily ever since, and is therefore poised to match, and ultimately beat, the price of conventional power.
Nevertheless, most things still aren’t powered by solar. Energy changes we attempt are in conflict with our complex social and regulatory systems. There are multiple reasons why the transition is difficult at best: our nation has a history of heavily regulating utilities, disruption of the system draws disparate responses, the lack of financing for consumers, distracting focus on whether climate change is real and whether it is “right” for any funding for alternative fuel to come from public coffers, and finally, the slower development of energy storage solutions.
Electricity, a basic necessity, is sold as a heavily regulated public utility, but not just because we all need it. This regulation also stems from the history of our energy infrastructure, which was developed from the ground up at great cost more than 100 years ago. Now, power companies profit from the sale of electricity but also take on the responsibility of maintaining these aging power lines and grids. This is how regulators work to balance the needs of consumers with the needs of energy companies.
As a new technology like solar comes on the scene, some businesses and residences install panels. Suddenly, utility customers are drawing less power from the grid and demanding payment for the power they return to the grid. In contrast, the law in many places recognizes that unlike power companies, individual power users who install solar are not helping to maintain the power grid like a traditional power company does. As a reaction to this, they are charging customers a premium to use solar — even though the power is cheaper, or in some cases, free. Florida charges notably higher prices for its solar users. California requires all power customers to contribute at the same rate to grid maintenance, whatever power they use or contribute, and then calculates power charges.
Moreover, many electricity meters just cannot work in reverse, tracking flow in the outward direction from customers. An additional problem comes from trying to “plug in” new solar farms where coal-based plants used to be. The technology just isn’t the same.
Many argue that another substantial barrier to the solar transition is a basic lack of financing. Since it is a newer technology, there aren’t as many financing systems in place (although this is on track to change). Another issue that has fueled pushback against solar in the U.S. is the obsessive focus on whether climate change is real. Though, how the answer to that question would change the data on solar costs remains to be seen. Related to this distractor is the tired old argument that “the government” should not be promoting clean energy or subsidizing it — despite the fact that subsidies for conventional energy have been both magnanimous and numerous.
One final obstacle to the transition has been the uneven development of solar power collection and solar power storage solutions. In California, for example, at peak times solar operators must shut down. This is solely because they have no way to store excess power. This will soon change, though: Elon Musk has stated that the entire world could switch to renewables with the help of 100 Tesla Gigafactories. The technology exists, it just needs to be accessible, and people must be willing (or incentivized) to utilize it.
Realistically, how soon could the transition happen? Part of the answer to that question lies in how much pushback continues to exist, and how much progress on things like batteries and financing we see. The rest of the answer may hinge on how states like California and cities like Chicago, that have made major commitments to renewables, handle their own transitions. As these transitions happen and the rest of the nation watches, it seems more likely that other areas will follow suit.
The transition from one year to the next is always a little uncertain – an uneasy blend of anxiety and optimism, it’s also a time of retrospection, introspection, and even a little tentative prognostication. And since the latter is our stock-in-trade at Futurism, we believe now is the perfect time to look ahead at what 2017 has in store for us.
Here’s a look at some of the ways the coming year promises to revolutionize our energy future.
2017 may well be the year that some of the most promising emerging energy markets…well, emerge. Foremost among these is Africa, where we’ve seen the spread of pay-as-you-go (PAYG) solar startups—such as PEGAfrica—which provide solar arrays to households in West Africa on credit.
The business model obviates the need for a secure energy infrastructure by combining solar photovoltaics (PV) with energy storage and mobile pay technology—a simple, effective plan for supplying electricity where it’s most needed. PAYG solar is spreading through Africa like wildfire and 2017 promises to see more of it, with new startups getting in on the act, and new technologies refining the business model. Africa could be the new energy frontier, with a renewable energy infrastructure that might just become the envy of the world.
Major Corporations Go Green
If the use of renewable energy is to become economically competitive, then it’s incumbent on the largest energy consumers to commit to its development and consistent use—and this is just what we’re beginning to see the major Silicon Valley tech corporations start to do. Google has announced that it plans for all of its data centers to be powered by renewables no later than 2017. Facebook’s targets are more modest, but its newest data center—set to be constructed this year in Los Lunas, New Mexico—will receive 100 percent of its power from renewable energy.
All of this translates into a massive new injection of capital investment in renewable energy technology, which could make 2017 the tipping point for innovation and affordability as major energy companies and startups alike scramble to fill this huge unmet need. At the same time, the aviation giants are bankrolling something of a green revolution of their own—this time involving the use of renewable jet fuels.
Meanwhile, the coming year will see a number of new innovations in the evolution of cleaner, more efficient energy systems as scientists and startups leverage massive national investments in research and development to pioneer novel technologies.
And let’s not leave out fusion research: 2017 could be the year of remarkable new breakthroughs in fusion energy, with startups like General Fusion and Tri Alpha attempting to achieve on a (comparative) shoestring what lavishly funded behemoths like the ITER Project have failed to do.
The Fly in the Ointment
Extrapolating 2017 from the developments in 2016 is all very well and good; but when it comes to forecasting the future, it really boils down to the unanticipated. And there are many variables that could change the equation—perhaps none more important than the incoming Trump administration.
President-elect Trump has signaled a desire to shift the country’s energy policy away from the Obama administration’s commitment to renewable energy—in fact, reinvigorating the fossil fuel industry, particularly coal, was a major cornerstone of his campaign. But if his pledge to upgrade the country’s infrastructure is to bear fruit, it will have to include some degree of renewables, since the increasing efficiency and affordability of clean energy is making it more economically attractive. Ironically, 2017 may see tremendous private and public investment in alternative forms of energy, especially if Trump’s promise to wean the country off its OPEC dependency (holding one’s breath is not advised) is to have any chance of success.
And then there’s the Tesla wildcard—by which we mean that Elon Musk could change the rules of the game at any moment. Last year’s introduction of the Tesla “energy ecosystem” opened up the possibility of a future in which every home becomes a power plant; and we can only expect more similar developments in 2017. The cliché “game-changer” was coined for people just like Musk; look to see him further justify that sobriquet in the coming year.
Last year was full of surprises—some anticipated, others decidedly not. 2017 promises to be no different. Market forces and accelerating research and investment means the avalanche in disruptive new energy technologies will continue in the new year; we clever little apes will persist in finding extraordinary new ways to eke out more energy to power our thirsty civilization.
So stay tuned to Futurism—we’ve got everything hungry minds need to survive 2017.
The next few years are going to be rough on coal producers as nations are slowly shifting away from it as a source of electricity. Solar and wind power is becoming a much cheaper alternative to coal and countries have been making sure that new power plants to be constructed are for renewable sources.
The recent ratification of the Paris agreement has only accelerated this further with six more nations pledging to simply ditch coal in favor of cleaner forms of power generation. These six nations are Canada, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Austria, and Finland.
Germany has ratified its Climate Action Plan 2050 which lays out its plan to limit coal power to 50 percent by 2030 and by going coal-free by 2050. The Dutch parliament has approved a similar plan to go coal-free by 2030 through the closure of its 5 remaining coal power plants. Canada has also pledged to phase-out coal by 2030 which translates to the country’s reduction of CO2 emissions by 90 percent. For Austria, a target of 34 percent renewable energy by 2020 and a long-term target of 100 percent self-sufficiency are on the horizon. Finland plans to outright ban the burning of coal by 2030. Finally, France has a more aggressive timeline for the shift from coal by phasing it out by 2023.
Economic and Environmental Reasons
All these nations stand to gain a lot by phasing-out coal. Not only do these countries get cleaner air by the reduction of greenhouse gases which cause respiratory diseases, they could also save a lot of money by eliminating the need to purchase coal. Finland, for example, imports its coal from other countries. By banning coal, these countries can be more self-sufficient in their power generation.
Government policies may be one of the primary reasons for the gradual phase-out of coal but private companies are also a big part of this change. Companies like Tesla and Solar City take a big risk by providing cleaner energy to consumers but in the process, they are bringing renewables to the mainstream and showing the world that not only are renewables cleaner, they could also be more profitable.