There’s a trend here.

This trend is clear: Solar and wind are already cheaper than coal and will become more so; and will beat out natural gas as well. Nuclear is so expensive it's off the chart. Chart from Bloomberg New Energy Finance.

This trend is clear: Solar and wind are already cheaper than coal and will become more so; and will beat out natural gas as well. Nuclear is so expensive it’s off the chart. Chart from Bloomberg New Energy Finance.

Every day I take an hour or two to scan dozens of articles from across the globe on nuclear power and clean energy issues; I select a handful of the best to post on NIRS’ Twitter and Facebook feeds as well as the COP 21 organizing page on Facebook, along with some Twitter-enforced pithy commentary.

Today I found myself using the word “trend” twice in a half-dozen post comments. Accurately.

Because the trend away from nuclear power and fossil fuels and toward clean energy is only accelerating, all across the world. Given how low we began, with clean energy even a few years ago providing only a microscopic amount of our electricity supply, rapid and accelerating growth is absolutely necessary. But the pace of the growth still is stunning. The dinosaurs’ day is coming, and the trend shows that it’s coming sooner than expected.

A few examples:

*The upcoming release of the annual and invaluable World Nuclear Industry Status Report 2015 indicates that 45% of the world’s people live in countries that now generate more electricity from non-hydro renewables than from their nuclear power. These include four of the world’s five largest economies: China, India, Japan and Germany, along with Brazil, Mexico, Spain and the Netherlands.

When hydro is included, the United Kingdom can be added to the list. The outlier on the list is obvious: the U.S. Although at least the U.S. is growing too, from 8.5 percent renewable (including hydro) in 2007 to 13 percent in 2014. All of that growth comes from non-hydro renewables.

Note that these statistics are not based on capacity (all of these nations have far more nameplate capacity of renewables than nuclear) but on actual generation, where until recently nuclear has been the leader.

*In a story titled The Latest Sign that Coal is Getting Killed, Bloomberg reported Monday that coal companies are finding it increasingly difficult to find needed financing from Wall Street; investors believe–with good reason–that coal is on the way out and they don’t want to risk their good money on it. That they are backing off financing for coal-related projects will only hasten the industry’s demise.

Bloomberg’s clients aren’t motivated by the environment, they’re motivated by profit. And they see solar and wind power–as the chart at the top of the page indicates–as already being more cost-effective than coal and becoming only more so. Nuclear, which is even more expensive than coal, doesn’t even enter the equation.

*As for the future, while Tesla may want to become the world’s largest electric car company someday (which in their view of the future means the world’s largest car company period), it may also become one of the world’s largest energy companies. Tesla CEO Elon Musk is usually the one who grabs the headlines, but this week it’s their Chief Technology Officer JB Straubel, who predicted to a solar energy conference that the costs of battery storage will go down faster and further than anyone now expects, making 24/7 solar (and wind, for that matter) even cheaper and faster than anyone now projects.

And don’t think these are simply self-serving or hollow words: Tesla is backing those up too. Its already giant Gigafactory being built in Nevada, before it is even completed, is being scaled up. Indeed, it looks like Tesla is planning to more than double its size. If it does, it will become the largest building (in terms of footprint) on the planet.

Battery storage can do more than make rooftop solar 24/7, or in larger amounts provide critical backup power to enable the grid to support large amounts of variable renewable energy. San Diego Gas & Electric has proposed lowering rates for consumers with battery storage who allow it to use their stored power during peak demand periods–reducing the need for new power plants or even operating older, expensive peak power plants.

Meanwhile, another potential source of battery power lies in all those electric cars Tesla and other manufacturers are making, and expect to make in the future. A pilot project is underway at Los Angeles Air Force Base, where the batteries in its electric vehicles are being used not only to power the vehicles, but to send power back to the grid. There are only 42 electric vehicles on the base, but when they’re all plugged in they’re providing 700 kilowatts of electricity–enough to power 140 homes on a hot summer day. Multiply that by possibly millions of electric vehicles on the roads within a few years and you get an idea of the potential.

*As one might expect with an administration flailing about trying to have it all ways with their ineffective and silly “all of the above” energy strategy and thus not making much progress in any direction, the real action in the U.S. on clean energy is at the state and local level.

Last month, Hawaii became the first state to adopt a law requiring it to be 100% renewable powered by 2050. New York and California both have been taking major steps, with somewhat different approaches, toward a renewable future.

On a more micro level, New York City last week announced its intent to become 100% renewable, although with no set date to achieve that goal.  Some smaller cities, like Georgetown, Texas, are already there; the most recent entry in the race to become 100% renewable is Bloomington, Illinois (perhaps motivated by the prospect of rate increases if Exelon gets its long-sought bailouts to prop up its uneconomic nuclear fleet in the state).

Efforts, largely supported by the Koch Brothers and their ilk along with nuclear and fossil fuel utilities, to push back against renewables continue to make little headway. Yesterday, a federal appeals court rejected a right-wing attack on clean energy and upheld Colorado’s Renewable Energy Standard as constitutional.

In Ohio, where Governor Kasich and the legislature have been openly hostile to renewables and succeeded in freezing that state’s Renewable Energy Standard until 2017, business is ignoring both the hostility and the freeze. Indeed, solar is growing so fast in the state that interest groups are having a hard time even measuring how much solar is going up there.

Even so, the fastest solar growth in the U.S. isn’t occurring in Ohio, or even in sunnier Hawaii or the southwest, it’s happening in the decidedly less summer-resort like climate of the Northeast.

One reason for the growth in solar there and elsewhere is federal tax credits that currently are set to expire next year–although it remains possible that Congress will extend them. Given their success, it certainly makes sense to. On the other hand, solar may turn out to be a victim of its own success. Another reason for its rapid growth is that solar, especially utility-scale solar, is getting just so darn cheap. On July 1, we reported (in Too cheap to meter? Not nuclear–solar) that the city of Austin, Texas had received bids for 600 MW of solar at just under 4 cents per kilowatt/hour. That record didn’t last long. Last week, Warren Buffett’s NV Energy signed a contract to buy 100 MW of solar power for 3.87 cents per kilowatt/hour.

President Obama talks energy behind a backdrop of solar panels.

President Obama talks energy behind a backdrop of solar panels.

Finally, a shout-out for something the Obama Administration is doing right: last week it announced a new program to help bring solar power to moderate and lower-income Americans, primarily through community solar projects (vital for renters who don’t own their rooftops, and for those whose rooftops aren’t suitable for solar) but also pledging to put up 300 MW of solar on the rooftops of federally subsidized housing. More details here.

There’s a trend here. It’s inescapable. But it doesn’t mean the renewable future is inevitable. Not when powerful forces continue to work against it.

The COP 21 climate summit in Paris this December will be a critical juncture in determining the world’s energy future, as well as the world’s climate future–and thus our planet’s future, period. A strong statement there for a 100% renewable future will accelerate the existing trend. Not to be apocalyptic, but another failure there by the world’s governments to face our future head-on would be more than disappointing and potentially disastrous.

You can help kick off the campaign for a nuclear-free, carbon-free future there by signing the international Don’t Nuke the Climate petition, and sharing it as widely as possible. The petition is longer than most Americans are used to these days, but that’s on purpose: the target is world leaders and a one-sentence or one paragraph petition won’t cut it. So please read it and sign it and share it. That’s just the first step, there will be plenty more to do as December draws closer (stay informed on our COP 21 action page here), but it’s an important first step.

Michael Mariotte

July 15, 2015


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2 thoughts on “There’s a trend here.

  1. Mark Robinowitz

    As a user of solar for a quarter century and wind for a decade and a half, it’s nice that made in China solar PV is cheaper than the made in Delaware panels I bought for my house. Too bad about the pollution there, but it’s rarely mentioned here.

    But the real metric is not the amount of digital dollars (or Euros) but the energy return on energy invested for any technology, and the fact that resources and technology are not interchangeable.

    The reason we use fossil fuels is they are incredibly concentrated. It’s more energy dense to use accumulated fossil fuels than to live on our solar budget. (The first thing I was taught when first experimenting with PV was to cut one’s usage before trying to figure out how to power something with solar, which applies to a societal scale as well as a household level.)

    I’ve been interested in energy since Three Mile Island became world famous and have concluded the most important energy shift is not solar electricity (as nice as that is) but relocalizing food production, since solar panels and wind farms do not power long distance transport of food across time zones and international borders. On the Maslow hierarchy of needs, food is more important than electricity. Even if electricity was free, required no inputs and climate change did not exist, we’re still at Peak Soil. The Green Revolution was a great shift in resource inputs but that has run its course in terms of agricultural increase.

    In his 1970 Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, Dr. Norman Borlaug, founder of the “Green Revolution” that produced those prolific hybrid grains, warned that saving millions from death by famine also meant that they’d live to bear millions more, who in turn would need even more food, and so on until demographic disaster eventually engulfed us – unless we learned to manage our numbers. For the rest of his life, Borlaug crusaded against overpopulation, including as an advisor to The Population Institute, a co-producer of this book that, vividly and unforgettably, shows exactly what he feared.

    1. Michael Mariotte Post author

      I’ll agree with the statement that “food is more important than electricity.” But Peak Soil–not really sure what that means–and other food issues are well beyond the scope of GreenWorld. We certainly won’t claim any particular expertise on food issues (other than cooking, where I’m pretty good…). We focus on what we know and are expert on: electricity and its generation and the ongoing, sometimes stumbling and still far from perfect transition to a nuclear-free, carbon-free energy system. And that’s what we will continue to report, analyze and comment on.


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