Renewables on the rise

One of the realities of a warming world is that for the rest of our lifetimes (barring big, big changes in our priorities as a species), we will see records broken for the hottest month, year, and decade on record, both at a local and at a global level. A related, but more pleasant reality, is that we are now on an inevitable road to the end of fossil fuel use. That means that pretty much every year, at least for a while, we’re going to see records broken in renewable energy capacity as we shift away from coal, oil, and natural gas. This is a good thing, and the steady release of articles about some town or country breaking a record for renewable energy has helped me keep my spirits up over the last few years.

While I’ll probably share more articles about this sort of thing, one in particular caught my attention this week.

Overall, more than twice as much money was spent on renewables than on coal and gas-fired power generation ($130bn in 2015), the REN21 global status report found.

Christine Lins, REN21’s chief, said: “What is truly remarkable about these results is that they were achieved at a time when fossil fuel prices were at historic lows, and renewables remained at a significant disadvantage in terms of government subsidies. For every dollar spent boosting renewables, nearly four dollars were spent to maintain our dependence on fossil fuels.”

For the first time, emerging economies outspent richer nations in the green energy race, with China accounting for a third of the global total. Jamaica, Honduras, Uruguay and Mauritania were among the highest investors, relative to their GDP.

This means that while the United States remains a substantial obstacle to the progress we need on this issue, other nations are moving forward without us. That’s a good thing for humanity as a whole. This also means that there is less cause for concern over what will happen as poorer nations strive for a higher standard of living. For a long time, it was assumed that all nations that achieved a “high standard of living” in terms of technology and energy use would do so by mimicking the development of places like the United States and Western Europe. Doing so would mean rapid development of high-pollution energy sources, much as we’ve seen in China. Instead, we’re now looking at a future in which the path to a high standard of living bypasses fossil fuels altogether, and focuses instead on renewable energy as a safer, cheaper, and more scalable alternative.

One of the reasons I like renewable energy so much – and photovoltaics in particular – is that if you don’t have the millions of dollars to build a central power plant generating tens to hundreds of megawatts, you can spend thousands, or even hundreds of dollars on distributed power sources that would be enough to bring light, or cell phone charge, or refrigeration to a community that needs it. There’s not even a need for transmission lines. In the long run, and inter-connected power grid brings more benefits, but in terms of short-term, affordable improvement of access to technology that runs on electricity, photovoltaics can’t be beat.

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