Renewables beat coal 2 to 1 in China and Obama accelerates on climate issues

The worldwide energy framework is rapidly changing. Different signals highlight the already happening energy transition. Are China and USA the leading actors of this epic change? An article of Gianni Silvestrini, scientific director of QualEnergia.it.

06/02/2015
Renewables beat coal 2 to 1 in China and Obama accelerates on climate issues

The 2015 will be a very important year. It could mark the start of the decline of fossil fuels subsequent to the Paris agreements, an appointment preceded by very interesting signs. Beside a slightly weary Europe, which has fixed its own reduction goals in line with the 2°C target, but which seems to have lost the enthusiasm it had in Kyoto, it is worth noting the active approach of Obama, anything but a "lame duck".

For him, the threat posed by climate change is the most dangerous for future generations. This is why, also stung by the disappointment of the 2009 Copenhagen conference, he is touring the world, signing decisive agreements like that with China, and softening up the stance of the Indians. Today, at the Vatican, EPA Director Gina McCarthy met Cardinal Turcson who deals with climate issues. Pope Francis will be another protagonist on the environmental front, with the encyclical to be made public in June.

At home, Obama wants to double the pace of the reduction of emissions, despite the hostility of the majority: “I will not let this Congress endanger the health of our children by turning back the clock on our efforts”. The Republicans find themselves in difficulty as regards this issue, but on the contrary it seems that the Democrats will use this powerful tool in the 2016 Presidential campaign.

The accusation that the fight against climate challenge would weaken the economy is in fact entirely blunted in the USA, in view of the unemployment levels that have halved and the significant results obtained by renewables.

In 2014, photovoltaic energy allowed for the creation of 31,000 new jobs in the United States, thanks to the installation of 6.5 GW – a strong upward trend, as this year 8.5 GW will be added followed by another 12 GW in 2016.

The other element of change, very promising as regards climate change, comes from China, where the signals are loud and clear. Last year, coal consumption fell by 2% and the relative energy intensity by 4.8%. The reduction is linked to the new electric power that has been installed, 60% of which comes from renewable sources, with coal power stations relegated to little more than one quarter of the increase.

Overall, in 2014 China consolidated its world leadership, investing 90 billion dollars in green energy, with an increase of 32% on the previous year. Second place, in terms of investment, is taken by the United States, with 51 billion dollars.

But it is the entire international scene that is rapidly changing: day by day the extent of the energy transition in progress can be seen. In 2015, total wind power will exceed atomic power for the first time (420 GW against 385 GW). In terms of electricity produced, solar and wind will exceed nuclear at the beginning of the next decade.

It is the fast price reductions of a series of technologies – from solar to wind, from batteries to LED – that make the de-carbonisation that has begun credible.

Resistance is huge, however, as huge as the interests involved, starting with the world of fossils fuels which is beginning to maintain that a future devaluation of the underground reserves is possible where there is an agreement on climate change.

The decision taken by Saudi Arabia which, unlike its decisions in the past, has not reduced its own production of crude oil, leading to the slump in oil prices, has a logic of its own, eliminating unwanted competitors. It can also be seen as an expression of the concern for finding itself with enormous reserves, 38% according to a recent survey published in Nature, that may become totally unusable.

In short, the world finds itself being propelled through a momentous energy transition which is undergoing strong acceleration, capable of offering extraordinary opportunities and which will produce more than a few wounded. To understand the forthcoming evolutions means launching intelligent strategies also in Italy and avoiding short-sighted decisions regarding fossil fuels (importing Canadian tar sands, drilling) and regarding efficiency and renewable energies.

Considering the experience gained (Italy is the first country in the world for electricity demand satisfied by solar energy, 7.5%), we have to accelerate the creation of an avant-garde smart grid and reinforce our international presence, where there is already a growing number of companies from the enterprising Enel Green Power to many small- and medium-sized companies, engaged in spreading the use of renewables.

(An Article by Gianni Silvestrini, Scientific Director of QualEnergia.it)