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Renewable Energy Investment Ramps-up in 2014, Even Though Fossil Fuels Receive Larger Subsidies
According to a new report, renewable energy investment grew to $391 billion in 2014, an increase of 18 percent over the previous year. The report also highlighted China’s rapidly expanding green sector, which racked up growth of 36 percent in installed solar and wind energy in 2014.
The green tide has provided a strong hope that the COP 21 Climate Summit in Paris could represent a turning point in the global fight against climate change.
by John Brian Shannon | February 2, 2015
By now, we’re all aware of the threat to the well-being of life on this planet posed by our massive use of fossil fuels and the various ways we might attempt to reduce the rate of CO2 increase in our atmosphere.
The First Option: Economic Incentives to Lower Fossil Fuel Use
Disinvestment in Fossil Fuels (A) or Outright Elimination of Fossil Fuel Subsidies (B)
A) Divestment in fossil fuels is under discussion as one way to lower carbon emissions
The case for divestment generally flows along these lines; By making investment in fossil fuels seem unethical, investors will gradually move away from fossil fuels into other investments, leaving behind a smaller, but hardcore cohort of fossil fuel investors.
Resulting (in theory) in a gradual decline in the total global investment in fossil fuels, thereby lowering consumption and CO2 additions to the atmosphere. So the thinking goes.
It worked well in the case of tobacco, a few decades back. Over time, fewer people wanted their names or fund associated with the tobacco industry — so that the tobacco industry is now a shadow of its former self.
Interestingly, Solaris (a hybridized tobacco plant) is being grown and processed into biofuel to power South African Airways (SAA) jets. They expect all flights to be fully powered by tobacco biofuel within a few years, cutting their CO2 emissions in half. Read more about that here.
b) Another way to curtail carbon emissions is to completely remove fossil fuel subsidies from the equation
In 2014, the total global fossil fuel subsidy amounted to $548 billion dollars according to the IISD (International Institute for Sustainable Development) although it was projected to hit $600 billion before the oil price crash began in September. The global fossil fuel subsidy amount totalled $550 billion dollars in 2013. For 2012, it totalled $525 billion dollars. (These aren’t secret numbers, they’re easily viewed at the IEA and major news sites such as Reuters and Bloomberg)
Yes, removing those subsidies would do much to lower our carbon emissions as many oil and gas wells, pipelines, refineries and port facilities would suddenly become hugely uneconomic.
We don’t recognize them for the white elephants they are, because they are obscured by mountains of cash.
And there are powerful lobby groups dedicated to keeping those massive subsidies in place. Ergo, those subsidies likely aren’t going away, anytime soon.
The Second Option: Reducing our CO2 footprint via a carbon tax scheme
But for all of the talk… not much has happened.
The fossil fuel industry will spin this for decades, trying to get the world to come to contretemps on the *exact dollar amount* of fossil fuel damage to the environment. Long before any agreement is reached we will be as lobsters in a pot due to global warming.
And know that there are powerful lobby groups dedicated to keeping a carbon tax from ever seeing the light of day.
The Third Option: Levelling the Subsidy Playing Field
Continue fossil fuel subsidies at the same level – without any carbon tax.
Quickly ramp-up renewable energy subsidies to match existing fossil fuel subsidies.
Both divestment in fossil fuels and reducing fossil fuel subsidies attempt to lower our total CO2 emissions by (1) reducing fossil fuel industry revenues while (2) a carbon tax attempts to lower our total CO2 use/emissions by increasing spending for the fossil fuel industry
I prefer (3) a revenue-neutral and spending-neutral solution (from the oil company’s perspective) to lower our CO2 use/emissions.
So far, there are no (known) powerful fossil fuel lobby groups dedicated to preventing renewable energy from receiving the same annual subsidy levels as the fossil fuel industry.
Imagine how hypocritical the fossil fuel industry would look if it attempted to block renewable energy subsidies set to the same level as fossil fuel subsidies.
In 2014, renewable energy received 1/4 of the total global subsidy amount enjoyed by fossil fuel
Were governments to decide that renewable energy could receive the same global, annual subsidy as the fossil fuel industry, a number of things would begin to happen;
- Say goodbye to high unemployment.
- Say goodbye to the dirtiest fossil projects.
- Immediate lowering of CO2 emissions.
- Less imported foreign oil.
- Cleaner air in cities.
- Sharp decline in healthcare costs.
- Democratization of energy through all socio-economic groups.
Even discounting the global externality cost of fossil fuel (which some commentators have placed at up to $2 trillion per year) the global, annual $548 billion fossil fuel subsidy promotes an unfair marketplace advantage.
But instead of punishing the fossil fuel industry for supplying us with reliable energy for decades (by taking away ‘their’ subsidies) or by placing on them the burden of a huge carbon tax (one that reflects the true cost of the fossil fuel externality) I suggest that we simply match the renewable energy subsidy to the fossil subsidy… and let both compete on a level playing field in the international marketplace.
Assuming a level playing field; May the best competitor win!
By matching renewable energy subsidies to fossil fuel subsidies, ‘Energy Darwinism’ will reward the better energy solution
My opinion is that renewable energy will win hands down and that we will exceed our clean air goals over time — and stop global warming in its tracks.
Not only that, but we will create hundreds of thousands of clean energy jobs and accrue other benefits during the transition to renewable energy. We will also lower healthcare spending, agricultural damage, and lower damage to steel and concrete infrastructure from acid rain.
In the best-case future: ‘Oil & Gas companies’ will simply become known as ‘Energy companies’
Such Energy Darwinism will reward investors that simply but profoundly migrate from fossil fuel energy stocks, to renewable energy stocks within the same energy company or group of energy companies.
At the advent of scheduled airline transportation nearly a century ago, the smart railway companies bought existing airlines (or created their own airlines) and kept their traditional investors and gained new ones.
Likewise, smart oil and gas companies, should now buy existing renewable energy companies (or create their own renewable energy companies) and keep their traditional investors and gain new ones.
- The Responsible Investor’s Guide to Climate Change (Project Syndicate)
- Full Cost of Coal $500 Billion/Year in U.S., Harvard Study Finds (CleanTechnica)
- The Social Cost of Carbon Six Times Higher Than Estimated – Stanford Study (CleanTechnica)
- Duke Energy Takes Equity Stake in REC Solar, Embraces Distributed Generation (Renewable Energy World)
- Southern Company subsidiary acquires two Georgia solar projects totaling 99 MegaWatts (PRNewswire)
Germany, a thriving economic powerhouse under the Chancellorship of Angela Merkel, is also a renewable energy superstar and a country that is loaded with potential.
Lately, the Germans have taken a break from aggressively adding renewable energy to their grid by ending a lucrative feed-in-tariff (FiT) subsidy program that ramped-up the adoption of solar, wind and biomass installations across the country.
Not that these so-called ‘lucrative’ subsidies approached anywhere near what fossil fuel and nuclear power plant operators receive and have received since the postwar period began, as all energy in Germany (like most countries) is heavily subsidized by taxpayers but only the (much smaller) renewable energy subsidies get the headlines. Go figure.
Chancellor Angela Merkel made the courageous decision to accelerate the shutdown Germany’s nuclear power plants in the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster in 2011 after stress tests of German nuclear power plants showed safety concerns existed within their nuclear fleet. She ushered in meaningful FiT subsidies to speed the German Energiewende program towards its goal of transition to renewable energy and greater energy efficiency — which had received only sporadic subsidies prior to Merkel.
Snapshot of the German Energiewende program
- A popular Germany-only program to move towards a highly industrialized, sustainable green economy
- Full phase-out of nuclear energy by 2022
- 80-95% reduction in greenhouse gases by 2050
- Minimum of 80% renewables in the power sector
- 50% increase in energy efficiency by 2050
Germany’s utility companies haven’t seen change like this since WWII. After a century of serving conventionally-generated electrical power to a captive electricity market — approximately 1/3 of all German electricity is now generated via renewable energy if you include nuclear, biomass and hydro-power. That’s historic change by any standard.
Although solar panel outputs are lower during the winter months, over the late spring and summer of 2014 renewable energy generated more than 75% of total demand on many of those days. Not bad, for 5 years of relatively minor renewable energy subsidy euros provided by a (now ended) Feed-in-Tariff!
Another benefit of the switch to renewable energy was the added billions of euros of economic activity generated annually by European solar panel and wind manufacturing companies like Vestas, SolarWorld, Siemens, ABB, and the jobs created for hundreds of SME renewable energy installation companies in the country.
Exports of German solar panels and wind turbines went through the stratosphere — once Germany proved to the world that solar and wind could replace lost nuclear power generation capacity at a much lower cost than building new, multi-billion euro, nuclear or coal-fired power plants with their massive footprint on the land and their obscene water usage levels.
For Germany, installing their own solar, wind and biomass power plants proved to the world that large-scale renewable energy could add huge capacity to a nation’s electrical grid and that different types of renewable energy could work together to balance the over-hyped ‘intermittency problem’ of renewable energy.
It turns out that in Germany, during the long, hot days of summer when solar panels are putting out their maximum power the wind actually tapers off, but at night the wind blows at a very reliable rate. Karmic bonus! That about covers the summer months.
During the winter months in Germany, the wind blows day and night, adding significant amounts of reliable power to the national grid.
And now, all of that renewable energy capacity is operating without FiT subsidy — quite unlike the coal, nuclear, and oil and gas power generation in the country which require huge and ongoing subsidies every day of the year to continue operations. That’s every day since 1946, meine Freunde!
Also a factor with coal-fired power plants are the massive healthcare spending to combat the adverse health effects of fossil fuel burning/air pollution on humans and animals, on the agriculture sector. And the hugely expensive security infrastructure necessary to preclude theft of nuclear materials and nuclear related terror attacks.
While the rest of Europe (with the exception of notables like Norway, Sweden and Luxembourg) wallowed in recession or near-recession since 2008, the German economic powerhouse not only set global export records year-on-year, it bailed-out numerous other EU economies like Greece, Spain, Portugal, Italy and others, and began an unprecedented domestic renewable energy program. And now, Germany is an electricity net exporter.
That’s heady stuff, even for this industrious nation of 82 million.
Where to next?
Not only has Germany added many TeraWatt hours (TWh) of clean, renewable energy to its electrical grid to replace lost nuclear power generation, it is now an electricity net exporter — raking in millions of euros per year at present — and make that an electricity exporting superpower if they ever decide to revive their now defunct Feed-in-Tariff subsidy for renewable energy.
Replacing coal with renewable energy in Germany:
If Germany revived the previous FiT regime for 5 years, *all brown coal electrical power generation* could be eliminated within 10 years.
If Germany revived the previous FiT regime for 10 years, *all brown coal and black coal electrical power generation* could be eliminated within 10 years.
Replacing coal with renewable energy in Germany would save millions of Germans, Polish, Swiss, Austrians and others living downwind of German smokestacks from breathing toxic coal-fired air pollution. Think of the health care savings and the taxes involved to support this. Some people believe that the health care savings alone could far exceed the cost of any FiT subsidy.
Not only that, but as a result of leaving coal behind, historic buildings, concrete bridges and roadways would require less maintenance to repair the spalling caused by the acid rain from coal burning. Additionally, Germany would save the millions of litres of water consumed annually by the coal industry.
Replacing coal with renewable energy in Germany would create thousands more jobs for solar, wind, and biomass manufacturing and construction, the agriculture sector would begin to show ever-improving crop outputs and importantly, leave clean air to breathe for tourists, expats and German citizens!
A note about (renewable energy) Hybrid power plants
An energy policy stroke of genius for Germany could come in the form of a new subsidy (a FiT or other type of subsidy) that could be offered to promote the installation of Hybrid power plants — whereby 30% of electricity generated at a given power plant site would come from solar and the balance could come from any combination of wind, biomass, or hydro-electric generation. (30% solar + 70% various renewable = 100% of total per site output)
As long as all of the electrical power generation at such a site is of the renewable energy variety and it all works to balance the intermittency of solar power, then it should receive automatic approval for the (hereby proposed) Energiewende Hybrid Power Plant subsidy.
When all the different types of renewable energy work in complementary fashion on the same site, energy synergy (the holy grail of the renewable energy industry) will be attained.
More jobs, billions of euros worth of electricity exports to the European countries bordering Germany, lower health care spending, less environmental damage and better agricultural outputs — all at a lower subsidy level than coal and nuclear have enjoyed every year since 1946 — are precisely why Germans should renew their commitment to renewable energy.
Seriously, what’s not to like?
Bonus energy graphic shows the various kinds of energy extant in Germany at the end of 2014.
- Energiewende: energy transition in Germany (The Guardian)
- Sustainable Energy has Merit in Germany (JohnBrianShannon.com)
- German solar ambitions at risk from cuts to subsidies (The Guardian)
- German energy giant E.ON to focus on renewables (Deutsche Welle)
- Hybrid Energy Systems Key To Future Of Renewable Energy (CleanTechnica)
- Fraunhofer ISE Electricity production from solar and wind in Germany in 2014 (Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems ISE)