Renewable energy: boosted or becalmed?

“… in terms of the electricity market we are at a moment of significant transition. The economics of every other potential source of supply will be measured against the falling costs of wind and solar…”
– Financial Times, 16 October 2017

“Spending on renewables in the UK is set to plummet 95% over the next three years…”
– New Scientist, 5 August 2017

So, who’s right? Are we entering a golden age of renewable energy, or is the growth of renewables faltering?

Falling short

One view, characterised by a New Scientist article published in August, is that renewable energy isn’t taking off fast enough to avoid major global warming. While acknowledging that globally renewables are growing extremely fast, largely thanks to China, the article notes that wind, solar, geothermal and bioenergy supply just 8% of the world’s electricity, and only 3% of total global energy use:

“Even counting hydro and nuclear, just 14% of or our energy isn’t from fossil fuels – and this figure has barely changed over the past 25 years.”

The article goes on to point out that most subsidy-free renewable projects remain unprofitable, even as they scale up. And the intermittent and variable nature of renewables calls into question the feasibility of getting all our electricity from wind and solar power.

An “unprecedented acceleration”

Others see the future of renewables in a rosier light. The International Energy Agency’s 2017 review of renewables noted that, as costs decline, wind and solar are becoming increasingly comparable to new-build fossil fuel alternatives in a growing number of countries.

The report highlighted the dominant role of China, which is responsible for 40% of global renewable capacity growth, and is also the world market leader in hydropower and, bioenergy for electricity and heat, as well as electric vehicles. But the IEA also noted the strong growth of renewables in India and the United States. And although the report indicated that renewables growth in the European Union would be 40% lower between 2017-22, compared with the previous five-year period, it pointed to significant progress in some EU countries concerning wind and solar power:

“By 2022, Denmark is expected to be the world leader, with almost 70% of its electricity generation coming from variable renewables. In some European countries (Ireland, Germany and the United Kingdom), the share of wind and solar in total generation will exceed 25%.”

Falling costs

Further signs that renewables are reaching a tipping point came in September, when the cost of offshore wind power in the UK reached a record low. The results of competitive auctions for new wind farm contracts to provide clean electricity showed that, for the first time, the cost of generating energy from offshore wind farms fell below the price that nuclear reactors will charge in future. The new wind farms will power the equivalent of more than 3.3 million homes.

The news prompted Liberal Democrats leader Vince Cable to call for a radical reappraisal of the government’s energy policy, while The Economist Intelligence Unit said the development showed “the trajectory of cheaper renewable technologies is irreversible”.

Government policy

However, while welcoming the announcement, cautious voices argue that renewables will not fulfil their potential without significant increases in government support. The Green Alliance – a UK environmental policy think tank – has called on the UK government for a rethink on renewables:

“…we are still in the midst of a renewables policy freeze, in place since 2015, under which onshore wind has been banned, solar auctions have been curtailed and energy efficiency measures have slowed. A rapid thaw is needed soon, the government can allocate the final five per cent it needs to spend to meet its climate targets (roughly £0.6 billion) to avoid the clean power gap that the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) warned of in its recent progress report.”

In October, the government published its Clean Growth Strategy, which sets out its proposals for decarbonising all sectors of the UK economy through the 2020s. While the Green Alliance welcomed the strategy’s aim to “secure the most industrial and economic advantage from the global transition to a low carbon economy”, the renewables sector was disappointed that the document contained little on the role of onshore wind to help move the UK towards its goal of reducing carbon emissions.

Putting things into perspective

Nearly a third of the UK’s electricity between April and June this year was generated from renewable sources – a new record, and up a quarter on the same period last year. But, while it’s clear that renewables are playing a greater role in UK energy generation, it’s important to maintain a sense of proportion. As the Financial Times has noted:

“Wind and solar are focused almost entirely on the production of electricity, which represents around 40 per cent of final energy demand worldwide and accounts for a slightly higher proportion of total emissions. The main areas of energy consumption — heat, transport beyond light vehicles and industrial use including the production of steel, cement and petrochemicals — are as yet largely unaffected.”

The outlook for renewable sources appears bright, but there’s clearly a long way to go before renewables can overturn the dominant position of fossil fuels in powering the planet.


If you enjoyed this article, you might also find this blog post of interest:

Is the sun setting on the UK’s onshore wind industry?

Fossil fuel divestment:an idea whose time has come?

Introduction

Within just a few years, fossil fuel divestment has overtaken previous campaigns targeting apartheid in South Africa and tobacco advertising to become the fastest growing divestment movement in history.

In September, a report from Arabella Advisors found that 436 institutions and 2,040 individuals across 43 countries and representing $2.6 trillion in assets had committed to divest from fossil fuel companies.

What is Fossil Fuel Divestment?

Organisations, communities and individuals commit to fossil fuel divestment (FFD) by making a public pledge to stop buying stocks, bonds and investment funds from energy companies whose primary business relies upon coal, gas or oil. They also promise to invest in climate solutions, such as clean energy and sustainable agriculture.

Who’s involved in FFD?

The roots of the FFD movement may be found in the college campuses of the United States, where student campaigning has resulted in around 40 educational institutions (including the universities of California, Georgetown and Stanford) making full or partial divestments from fossil fuels.

The movement has spread rapidly beyond the education sector, taking in religious groups, municipalities, NGOs and healthcare organisations. While most divesting institutions are US-based, FFD has also become a worldwide movement, with the cities of Oslo in Norway and Uppsala in Sweden, and the Australian Capital Territory Government making their own commitments. Pledges to divest from fossil fuels have also been made by some surprising sources, including the Australian city of Newcastle (home to the largest coal port in the world) and the Rockefeller Brothers Fund (heirs to the Rockefeller oil fortune).

In the UK, the FFD movement has also seen exponential growth. Last year, the University of Glasgow became the first academic institution in Europe to divest from the fossil fuel industry. Since then, other higher education institutions, including the universities of Oxford and Surrey and the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) have made pledges to reduce their fossil fuel investments.

Four UK local authorities – Oxford, Bristol, Kirklees and Cambridge – have committed to FFD, while councils in York, Bradford, Reading and Hackney are reviewing their fossil fuel investments.

Other high-profile organisations committing to FFD include the British Medical Association and the Environment Agency’s pension fund.

The factors driving FFD

Moral and economic arguments have converged to propel fossil fuel divestment. FFD advocates say it’s morally wrong to profit from climate change, a view powerfully expressed by Nobel laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu:

“Just as we argued in the 1980s that those who conducted business with apartheid South Africa were aiding and abetting an immoral system, we can say that nobody should profit from the rising temperatures, seas, and human suffering caused by the burning of fossil fuels.”

There is also a growing recognition in the business world of the financial risks associated with investment in fossil fuels. As the Arabella Advisors report observed:

“Reports by Citigroup analysts, HSBC, Mercer, the International Energy Agency, Bank of England, Carbon Tracker Initiative, and others have offered evidence of a significant, quantifiable risk to portfolios exposed to fossil fuel assets in a carbon constrained world. The leaders of several of the largest institutions to divest in the past year have cited climate risk to investment portfolios as a key factor in their decisions.”

At the same time, falling costs have made renewable energy more attractive both to consumers and investors, although investment in clean energy is far from the estimated $1 trillion annually needed to limit global warming to 2˚C.

Resistance and resurgence

FFD is not without its critics, and some organisations have resisted pressure to change.  Last month the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) rejected calls to divest its endowment from the fossil fuel industry. Instead, MIT argued that engaging with the fossil fuels industry was a more effective way to address climate change. Similarly, Harvard University has declined to stop buying fossil fuel company stocks, claiming its research and teaching contributes to a better understanding of global warming.

But FFD campaigners are not backing down. In May the University of Edinburgh ruled out a wholesale sell-off of its £27m investments in oil, gas and coal companies. However, after a 10-day occupation by students the university clarified its position, and announced it would fully divest from three of the world’s biggest fossil fuel producers within six months.

There is also growing pressure on local authority pension funds to reduce their fossil fuel investments. In September, it was reported that UK local government pension funds hold over £14 billion in coal, oil and gas companies.

The focus now shifts to the UN Climate Change Conference, starting today in Paris. Divestment campaigners are making it clear that they expect governments attending the Paris summit to follow the lead of the FFD movement by committing to phase out support for the consumption and production of fossil fuels.


 

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Further reading

A beginner’s guide to fossil fuel divestment

The case for fossil-fuel divestment