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Don Pettit: Beyond predictions, beyond doom and doubt

Even with COVID-19, new renewable energy capacity rose to 260GW last year

donTwenty years ago, the International Energy Agency (IEA) predicted that by 2020 the world would have installed a grand total of 18 gigawatts (18,000 megawatts) of solar energy. Just seven years later, the world was installing 18 gigawatts of solar every year, and that number has been rising ever since.

Today, the total global solar installed has reached almost 800 gigawatts, and if that number continues to double every 3 to 4 years, as it probably will (at least!), it will reach 7,400 GW by 2040. That will make solar the largest single energy source on the planet. Way, way beyond predictions.

Pandemic? No problem.

Even the global pandemic has not slowed down this unbelievable growth. In fact, renewable energy of all kinds grew at its fastest pace in two decade last year. Even with supply chain disruptions and construction delays due to COVID-19, new renewable energy capacity rose to 260 GW last year alone, the largest year-on-year increase since 1999. Forecasts see roughly this same amount being added this year, and again next year.

Last year the renewable energies from solar, wind, geothermal and biomass accounted for 90% of the entire global power sector’s expansion. China accounted for 50% of this growth last year, and is expected to hold that lead as they move as quickly as possible to full electrification powered by clean energy generation.

The U.S. has just made a massive U-turn, and shows signs of catching up with China very quickly. Who knows, this may even give Canada (finally!) a kick in the right direction too.

Why so wrong?

The IEA was founded in 1974 to measure the world’s energy systems and anticipate change. It’s “World Energy Outlook” has been a must-read for energy managers and policymakers the world over.

Over the last 20 years, however, the IEA has not only vastly underestimated growth in renewables, but also overestimated the continued demand for fossil fuels.

It probably boils down to the limits of modeling based on a fossil and nuclear-based energy system with new sources of energy making only minor changes from year to year. A system shifting exponentially to almost all renewables, essentially overnight, was not part of the program. This shift requires a whole new way of looking at energy, something nobody has anticipated.

But here we go anyway, and there’s nothing in sight to slow it down. Solar has now become the cheapest energy source in the world in most places, and production is still ramping up, causing costs per installed megawatt to fall even lower. Wind power is close behind.

The reports put out by the organization Carbon Tracker are usually anything but encouraging. Somber would be a good word.

But their latest reflects some of the newest energy information and research and it can’t help but be encouraging. With existing technology, they say, we could easily produce a hundred times as much electricity from solar and wind as the world presently demands.

“The technical and economic barriers have been crossed and the only impediment to change is political,” says the report.

The discourse of delay

Of course, in this strange world of misinformation, nothing is certain. (For some real insight into what’s going on behind the energy scene, read the 2010 classic Merchants of Doubt by science historians Naomi Oreskes and E.M. Conway, or The New Climate Wars by climate scientist Michael Mann.)

While the doomists exclaim, “It's too late, we’re all doomed!” (just another way of saying there is nothing we can do so sit back and enjoy) the delayists, usually those most profiting from business as usual, are saying, “Don’t worry, we’ve got it all under control.”

And then, “But if there is a climate risk (they love the word “risk” rather than crisis or catastrophe), it’s not our fault. The consumer is to blame. If they weren’t using so much of our products, we wouldn’t be making them.” Reminds me of, “If smokers didn’t smoke we wouldn’t make cigarettes.” Shift the blame and pose as the good guys. Works every time.

Not this time

Well, not this time. Climate change is starting to nail everybody and everything. Clean energy alternatives are not only going to save the planetary environment and probably civilization as we know it, they will also provide the cheapest and most widely available energy ever made.

It’s going to be tough to compete with that.

Don Pettit is Executive Director of the Peace Energy Cooperative.

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