Chapter 1. Changing Direction
|Earth Policy Release
The Great Transition
May 29, 2015
The worldwide transition from fossil fuels to renewable sources of energy is under way. As fossil fuel resources shrink, as air pollution worsens, and as concerns about climate instability cast a shadow over the future of coal, oil, and natural gas, a new world energy economy is emerging. The old economy, fueled largely by coal and oil, is being replaced with one powered by solar and wind energy.
We can now see this new economy starting to take shape. We saw it in 2013, when Denmark generated 34 percent of its electricity from the wind. In January 2014, wind supplied a whopping 62 percent of that country’s electricity. Portugal and Spain each got over 20 percent from wind in 2013, and Irel and, 17 percent. Indeed, on some days wind power supplies half of Ireland’s electricity. In Spain, wind is challenging nuclear power to become the country’s leading source of electricity. And for several days in August 2014, electricity generated from wind in the United Kingdom eclipsed that from coal.
We also see the new economy surfacing in the state of South Australia, where wind farms now supply more electricity than coal plants do. On September 30, 2014, power generation from the wind and the sun exceeded the state’s electricity demand. In China, electricity from wind farms has surpassed that from nuclear power plants. And water for 170 million Chinese households is heated by rooftop solar water heaters.
In the United States, the start of the energy transition is on display in the hundreds of utility-scale solar power plants under development or construction in the Southwest. And Iowa and South Dakota are each generating at least 26 percent of their electricity from wind farms. The wind share in Iowa could reach half by 2018. Texas, which now gets nearly 10 percent of its electricity from wind power, is building huge wind farms and the long-distance transmission lines that will facilitate the sale of low-cost wind-generated power in Louisiana and Mississippi.
Solar and wind costs are falling fast, undercutting fossil fuels in a growing number of electricity markets. A July 2014 study by the Danish government projects that new wind farms coming online there in 2016 will supply electricity at half the cost of that from new coal and natural gas plants. In parts of Australia, which is experiencing a solar boom, the cost of producing electricity from the sun has fallen well below that from coal. In fact, a 2014 analysis citing government data reported that high electricity delivery costs mean that coal-fired power still could not compete with solar, even if the coal itself were free.
The energy transition is advancing rapidly in some unexpected places. Falling costs for solar and wind energy are opening the door for massive investments in Africa. Bloomberg New Energy Finance reported in August 2014 that there would be more renewable energy installations in Africa in 2014 than during the preceding 14 years. Wind and solar projects in Latin America are advancing even faster.
Several concerns are driving the great transition from fossil fuels to renewables. One of these is climate change and its effect on our future. Another is the health impact of breathing air polluted by burning fossil fuels, as seen in the 3 million people who die each year because of outdoor air pollution. A third is the desire for local control over energy production and overall energy security.
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