Energy is the quiet backbone of society, driving our economies, communities, businesses and homes. The energy landscape is currently undergoing transformation in every aspect, from the sources and technologies used, to the investors and beneficiaries, to the impacts on our environment and communities. Climate change is not the only driver: new technologies and applications are forcing countries and cities to rethink how they manage their energy infrastructure, while communities are recognising the potential for local empowerment. One critical factor is the staggering drop in the costs to produce renewable energy over the past ten years: a 49% decrease for wind power, and around 84% for solar photovoltaics (PV). Costs are expected to drop by 20% every time production doubles. Transistors saw a similar trajectory, allowing the range of financially viable applications to increase year-on-year. In 2018, the total installed solar PV capacity globally was around 500 GW, but this is expected to more than double by 2023, with upper estimates at around 1,600 GW installed. In 2018, over 560 GW of wind energy was produced, compared to 150 GW in 2009. The global offshore wind market inspecific is set to grow sixfold by 2030. In the same year, global production of bio energy (from solid biofuels, renewable waste and bagasse) was 115 GW, double that of 2009. The global market for bioenergy is projected to reach USD 132 million by 2030, with innovations in algae and seaweed.
Other important technologies driving the transition to renewable sources, such as Lithium Ion batteries for storage, have also developed rapidly, enabling the prices of EV batteries to drop 75% from 2012. There are already 1.9 million EV batteries being used today, and 1.5 million people in emerging economies have off-grid battery solar systems.
One of the major obstacles remaining in the energy revolution is subsidies for fossil fuels. In 2017, these were worth more than $5.2 trillion (6.5 percent of global GDP). Such institutionalized problems give the oil monoliths such as Chevron, Phillips 66, Valero and Exxon (all within the 30 largest market cap companies in the US) unprecedented influence and power to resist change. Given the significant gap in investment needed to reach carbon neutral by 2050, countries must be ambitious in their policy in order to fuel the coming energy revolution.
In spite of the rapid fall in prices for renewables, when it comes to their share in the global energy mix, the numbers are sobering. In 2020, of the 14,301 million tonnes of energy consumed (measured in tons of oil equivalent), renewable energy made up just 5%. By 2040, renewables are still only expected to make up 15%, and even if you add in hydroelectric and nuclear only 26% of energy will come from non-fossil sources. While forecasts for solar production have been consistently undershot, these numbers show the magnitude of change needed.
China started its own carbon market in 2017, now the largest in the world. Currently the program applies emissions caps only to power plants but it’s expected to expand to companies in the coming years. According to a new study, this market is integral to projections that China will peak in emissions before 2030.
In 2019 Energiesprong is trailing a net-zero property scheme across the UK. Refurbishing and integrating every aspect of homes, from solar roofs to electrical heating systems. There are nearly 150,000 of these schemes already implemented in the Netherlands and the global market is expected to grow significantly over the next 10 years.
On May 1st 2019, Britain went for a full week without generating any electricity from coal plants for the first time since 1982.
By 2020, 7 million African households will utilize off grid solar fans and 15 million will use off-grid solar TV, no longer is the technology limited to just solar lights and off grid charging kits. Solar systems will also play a vital role for new SMEs.
In 2020 Oxford will begin construction of the world’s first ever Energy SuperHub. The hub will be retrofitted with giant batteries, EV charging points and ground source heat pumps, allowing residents of the city to halve their carbon footprint
In 2019 Hitachi cancelled their latest nuclear plant in the UK after an agreement on costs couldn’t be struck. The 15 billion pound power plant was one of the last projects still on the table for Britain’s nuclear campaign.
Royal Dutch Shell will link their executives’ compensation plan to the three and five year reduction targets included in their “energy transition” plan following a 2020 shareholder vote.
Rise of renewables
Scottish power, one of the largest energy providers in the UK, in 2019 generates and supplies 100% wind power.
China drove global solar production up significantly in 2018, increasing their solar capacity four times more than the world's second largest market.
In the UK, new projects in the battery storage pipeline have shown growth of over 240%, with forecasted installations in 2018 predicting a rise of more than 200% each year.
The World Bank has given $225 million in cash and credit for off-grid electricity projects in 19 countries across West Africa.
Start-ups such as Sunrun and Vivint Solar have not only helped millions of Americans install residential solar panels but Solar City’s latest versions are nearly indistinguishable compared to normal tiling.
In Germany renewables passed coal as the main source of energy production for the first time in their history as of 2018.
In 2019 India cancelled plans for 13.7 gigawatts of coal production. The price of solar in India has expedited the transition, as it’s now cheaper than coal across the country.
The United States new proposal, the New Green Deal, calls for a “10 year mobilization”, stimulating invest and jobs in sustainable energy and infrastructure across the countries and pushes the United States to take a “leading role” in achieving net zero emissions by 2050.
New market mechanisms have been applied across the world for a more systemic and policy-oriented approach. Tools for reigning in and regulating carbon intensive producers include renewable portfolio standards (RPS), renewable energy credits (REC), feed-in tariffs (FiT) and carbon markets. Simpler policy tools, such as congestion taxes, have also been implemented in large cities across the world, from San Diego to Singapore to Stockholm.
What role will nuclear energy is set to play a role in the energy revolution? Many experts expect that it will be used more as a transitory source due to its wastage problem, the massive upfront capital required, particularly to install complex, new technology.
Developing economies are leapfrogging the heavy grid and cable infrastructure that is holding back many developed countries. The global capacity for off-grid solar has tripled from 2008-2017, where it can support rural livelihoods and agricultural communities in ways impossible for centralised power stations.
Smart alternatives to current systems promise a radically different future for energy production and consumption. An increasing number of ‘non-energy’ businesses are now taking bets on how this new system will work, including big players such as Google, GE and IBM. Integrated energy grids are also transforming domestic energy models, enabling the customer to become the producer, by generating your own electricity and selling it back to the grid, or to peers. This brings into question the role of utility companies, and demonstrates that the ‘rise of digital’ is complementary to many disruptive energy technologies.
The on-the-ground ‘success’ of distributed renewables, alongside growing concern for the climate, makes international action to reduce emissions more likely, adding further impetus to the energy transformation.
How valuable is it to engage the public in driving the energy transition?
How might fossil fuel companies to transition fast enough to become part of the solution, rather than remaining a major barrier?
What role can advances in nuclear technology play in the transition?
How can emerging economies leapfrog the West’s broken and inefficient grid energy structure?
How might international bodies better integrate the world’s energy infrastructure?
What will it take to win public and government backing for large infrastructure bills in order to rebuild our energy systems? And is this necessary in more decentralised systems?