As we all know, the most important task currently facing the world is the elimination of carbon emissions from energy consumption in order to save the planet from the existential crisis of climate disruption.
The world actually got started on this task back during the 1980s and 90s, with the creation of the IPCC (1988), the issuance of the IPCC’s First (1990) and Second (1996) Assessment Reports on the climate, and the signing of the Kyoto Protocol (1997) for emissions reductions. And then after 2000 things really started to get serious. In 2005 the Kyoto Protocol officially took effect. It was June 2008 when Barack Obama promised (in his speech accepting the Democratic Party’s nomination for President) that this would be “the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal …”). Two years later, in 2010, Germany adopted legislation formalizing its Energiewende program to replace fossil fuels with “renewables.”
So by today the U.S. and Europe have been hard at work for well over a decade on the real nitty gritty of getting rid of fossil fuels and replacing them with “renewables” like wind and solar power. It’s time for a Report Card on how things are going.
Fortunately there is an organization called REN21: Renewables Now that makes a business of tracking and reporting on the progress of converting the world’s energy consumption to renewables. This organization has just (June 15) issued what it calls its Renewables Global Status Report. Chapter 1 of the Report, the Global Overview, can be found here. This Report does the hard work of aggregating global energy consumption from all sources to give us an overall picture of how the campaign to replace fossil fuels is progressing.
First, the “good” news: (from the Global Overview):
- [R]enewable energy saw a record increase of new power capacity in 2020 globally and was the only source of electricity generation to experience a net increase in total capacity.
- Renewable energy reached its highest recorded share in the global electricity mix in 2020 – an estimated 29% – due in large part to low operating costs and preferential access to electricity networks during periods of low electricity demand.
- [M]ore than 256 gigawatts (GW) of renewable power capacity was added globally during the year, surpassing the previous record by nearly 30%.
- Costs of producing electricity from wind and solar energy have dropped significantly in recent years. In 2020, the global weighted average levelised cost of electricity from utility-scale solar photovoltaics (PV) declined 85% since 2010, while onshore wind power costs fell 56% during the same period. . . . These declines mean that for most of the world’s population, electricity production from new renewables is more cost effective than from new coal-fired power plants.
Wow, that sounds great. Surely then, the evil fossil fuels are well on their way to oblivion.
Actually, not so much. First, here is a sampling of some of the obstacles that just won’t seem to go away:
- “[I]nnovation is still needed to enable the widespread adoption of renewables in harder-to-decarbonise sectors, such as energy-intensive industrial processes and long-haul transport.” The phrase “innovation is still needed” means that as of today nobody has a clue how this is supposed to be done. Steel mills and tractor trailer trucks and airplanes powered by solar panels? Not happening.
- “Another key reason for the low penetration of renewables is the persistent lack of supporting policies and policy enforcement, particularly in the transport and heating and cooling sectors. . . . Targets also were more often achieved and set for the power sector than for heating and cooling or transport.” I think these people really believe that if governments will just do the right thing and require airplanes to run on solar panels, then it will promptly happen. As to requiring the people to give up natural gas for home heat and cooking, an effort in the UK to order that got reversed in under 24 hours after public blowback.
- In many countries, investment in new fossil fuel production and related infrastructure continued. Although some countries were phasing out coal, others invested in new coal-fired power plants, both domestically and abroad. . . . [B]y year’s end a steep increase in new coal capacity in China offset global retirements, resulting in the first annual increase in global coal capacity since 2015. In line with past years, public finance from China funded by far the largest amount of coal capacity in other countries, followed by funding from Japan, the Republic of Korea, France, Germany and India, nearly all of which was directed towards developing and emerging countries.
And that’s just a sampling of what was happening in 2020. The Report then contains this summary of developments in what they call Total Final Energy Consumption over the ten year period 2009-2019:
Whoa! In that ten year period fossil fuels declined all the way from 80.3% to 80.2% of TFEC. The share of what they call “modern renewables” (wind, solar, biomass (i.e., wood chips), geothermal, ocean power, hydropower) did go up marginally from 8.7% to 11.2% of TFEC, but that seems to have been mostly at the expense of the barely mentioned “non-modern renewables,” presumably mostly animal dung. While the fossil fuel share of the total went down, it was an almost imperceptible 0.1%. And meanwhile, since the developing world is in the process of rapidly joining the modern energy-based economy, the total amount of fossil fuels consumed went up dramatically — from about 260 Exajoules in 2009 to about 310 Exajoules in 2019. That’s an increase of close to 20% in the decade when I thought we were supposed to be rapidly reducing usage and indeed setting the world on the path to total elimination of these things.
Reuters covered the REN21 Report on June 14, in a piece titled “Global fossil fuel use similar to decade ago in energy mix, report says.” They quote Rana Adib, REN21’s Executive Director:
“We are waking up to the bitter reality that the climate policy promises over the past ten years have mostly been empty words,” said Rana Adib, REN21’s executive director. “The share of fossil fuels in final energy consumption has not moved by an inch,” she added.
I’ve got news for Rana: Elimination of fossil fuels, and even reduction in their use, is not going to happen. Fossil fuels are cheap and they work. Your assertion that “electricity production from new renewables is more cost effective than from new coal-fired power plants” is just self-deception resulting from ignoring the enormous costs imposed by the intermittency of the renewables. Nobody is going to buy these renewables other than by receiving huge government subsidies. According to America’s Power (trade association for the coal industry) the U.S. alone spent some $82 billion in just the period 2010-18 to subsidize the renewables — and all of that barely moved the needle.