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The unstoppable force – renewable energy

NuClear News No.96 June 2017,   What was remarkable about Donald Trump’s announcement on 1st June that the US would abandon the Paris climate agreement was not the almost universal condemnation of the move, but the number of stories about how successful renewable energy has become and how its advance has now become unstoppable.

Donald Trump is so wrong to be taking the US out of the Paris accord on climate change, says Jeremy Warner in the Daily Telegraph. The renewables train has already left the station and won’t now be stopped. Non binding targets for reducing greenhouse gases are no longer relevant and will almost certainly be naturally exceeded of their own accord without any help from inter-government actions. There is therefore absolutely no reason for the US to withdraw. (1)

Although President Donald Trump has presented his energy policy decisions as being focused on creating jobs, the solar and wind industries that could be threatened by leaving the Paris accord employ many more people than the coal industry that is likely to be the principal beneficiary. About 374,000 people spend at least some of their time working in the solar power industry in the US, with 260,000 of those working there more than half the time. A further 102,000 work in wind power. Together that is almost three times the 160,000 people employed in the coal industry, with about 86,000 of those at coal-fired power plants and 74,000 in coal mining and distribution. The number employed in coal mining has dropped from about 89,000 of those at coal-fired power plants and 74,000 in coal mining and distribution

The number employed in coal mining has dropped from about 89,000 at the start of 2012 to about 50,500 in April, following a slight bump of about 1,000 over the past year. Solar power is so labour-intensive in part because the rapid growth of the industry has created a lot of construction jobs installing systems. About 37% of US solar jobs are in construction, with about 27% in wholesaling. Only about 19% of US solar jobs are in manufacturing, and the industry has been heavily reliant on low-cost imported panels, mostly from China, Malaysia and Korea, to enable it to compete against fossil fuel generation. (2)

The US solar industry alone employs more than twice as many workers as the coal sector. Manhattan has more Tesla charging spots than petrol stations, though many are in fee-paying parking garages. And across the US, where power companies are facing lower wholesale prices thanks to cheaper natural gas, renewables are adding pressure too – even in unlikely spots such as oil-rich Texas. Texas now has more installed wind power capacity than Canada and Australia combined. If it were a country, it would rank as the world’s sixth-largest wind power, after China, the US, Germany, India and Spain.

The irony about Mr Trump’s inclination to back old industries, says Magnus Linklater in The Times, is that the US is an innovator in renewable energy, creating hundreds of thousands of jobs. When you add in all the spin-offs, such as electric forms of transport, employment in renewable energy is starting to outstrip that in the declining oil and gas industries. Now is not the time to slow down. Wind turbines are proving a remarkable success. On some days they produce more electricity than Scotland needs, allowing it to export the remainder. In places like Denmark and Germany, where there has been a massive expansion of wind farms, they manufacture so much renewable energy that electricity prices have turned negative, with customers paid to use it. Alternative energy is beginning to turn in some remarkable statistics. On 26th May solar energy produced one quarter of Britain’s energy needs, more even than nuclear and coal-fired power. There is much more of this to come. (3)

Many U.S. states and private companies announced that despite Trump’s decision, they would continue their own existing policies, such as restricting greenhouse gas emissions, as well as pursue new ones to demonstrate urgency in addressing the climate threat. US states accounting for almost 30% of national gross domestic product have pledged to meet the country’s climate commitments. California, New York, Washington and five other states have said they are committed to cutting emissions by 26-28% from 2005 levels, which was the reduction proposed for the US by Barack Obama. (4) City leaders of 102 cities across the US have announced they are adopting the Paris Climate Agreement. Mayors who have signed on to the Mayors National Climate Action Agenda represent roughly 50 million Americans in 34 States. (5)

What is striking is how much of a financial impact this is already having on some companies says Per Lekander, a portfolio manager at London’s Lansdowne Partners hedge fund, who has tracked global energy markets for more than 25 years. Government efforts to tackle climate change and smog have driven down costs and spurred huge technical advances.

Global renewable power generation capacity rose by 9% last year – a fourfold increase from the start of this century – buoyed by the growth of solar power that shot up by more than 30%. For the second year in a row, renewable energy accounted for more than half the new power generation capacity added worldwide. These advances have become too significant for the oil and gas industry to ignore. Saudi Aramco talks about a “global transformation”; Shell says it’s “unstoppable”. Isabelle Kocher, chief executive of French power and gas group Engie, calls it a new “industrial revolution” that will “bring about a profound change in the way we behave”.

Brian Marrs, director of policy and strategy at NRG, the second-largest US power producer says: “I think what we’re seeing in the US now is the German postcard from the future finally arriving across the Atlantic.” Yet fast-growing industrialising nations are seeing some of the most profound changes. Towering over them all is smog-choked China, which has become a green energy juggernaut after designating renewables a strategic industry. China has more than a third of the world’s wind power capacity; a quarter of its solar power; six of the top 10 solarpanel makers; four of the top 10 wind turbine makers and more battery-only electric car sales last year than the rest of the world combined.

India is eager to follow: it built one of the world’s largest solar photovoltaic farms last year; ranks fourth in the world for wind power capacity; and could become the world’s third-biggest solar market this year. It also wants to boost its use of electric cars.

The cost of wind turbines fell by nearly a third since 2009 and solar panels by 80%, according to the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA). “It is as if every country in the world woke up one bright morning to find that it had a North Sea at its disposal”, says London energy analyst Kingsmill Bond. Costs are already lower than widely understood. “In 2010 we financed a 15 megawatt solar plant in southern California that cost $55m to build,” says Jim Long, a partner at Greentech Capital Advisors, a global clean energy advisory firm. “This year we have done another one the same size in the same area that has cost $15m and will produce at least 40 per cent more energy.”

Costs are expected to fall further as expensive subsidies guaranteeing set prices are replaced by competitive auctions or tenders. The amount of auctioned renewable electricity tripled last year compared to 2015, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance, while the average global price of auctioned solar power has plummeted fivefold since 2010. One of the most striking auction results came in Germany in April when Denmark’s Dong Energy, the largest builder of costly offshore wind farms, said it would build two new schemes without subsidies, relying instead on market prices alone. Advances in wind technologies – including the prospect of much more powerful turbines – were one reason for Dong’s move, a step others are expected to follow. “Renewables have reached a tipping point globally,” says Simon Virley, of KPMG. “A subsidy-free future is now in reach for a number of technologies and geographies.”

Even the experts have been caught out by the pace of the shift. In 2010, IEA projections suggested it could take 14 years before there were 180 gigawatts of installed solar capacity. It took less than seven years for the world to reach more than 290 gigawatts, nearly the entire generating capacity of Japan. “Fossil fuels have lost,” says Eddie O’Connor, chief executive of Irelands’s Mainstream Renewable Power. “The rest of the world just doesn’t know it yet.” (6) http://www.no2nuclearpower.org.uk/nuclearnews/NuClearNewsNo96.pdf

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June 7, 2017 - Posted by | 2 WORLD, renewable

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