Tackling the climate crisis with the reality of renewable energy

Climate change is being felt in rising world temperatures and sea levels, as well as in high-cost weather events. It can feel so disempowering to be overpowered by the weather.  Yet when we look around the world, the potential for clean energy that is the solution to fighting climate change is very real. That’s empowering. That’s a strong message for our leaders as the climate talks in Warsaw conclude.

Take renewable energy as an example. Renewable energy has become a mainstream, major power source and not just an aspiration for the future. Renewable energy is gaining traction from the U.S. to Chile and from India to China. But it needs elimination of cost, policy and trade barriers to make the next leap forward. That is what we should be asking for as we demand clean power.

We can rightly demand rapid acceleration of clean power from our governments and we can help make it happen ourselves. We know that we cannot credibly fight climate change and still allow global fossil fuel subsidies to continue at roughly six times the amount of incentives for renewable energy. Having the reality of clean energy within our grasp, helps make it crystal clear that we cannot let predictions that fossil fuels will continue to be king in the market come true. What we can and must do, is to invest in what we know will make a difference: stop our dependence on fossil fuels, make our economy more energy efficient and get power from the wind, sun and other renewable resources that never run out.

It comes down to our energy choices. Dependence on fossil fuels makes no sense in a world of changing climate. We can’t have an “all of the above” policy that includes expansion of fossil fuels and still fights climate change. We can’t subsidize fossil fuels and still fight climate change. In a time of a changing climate, demanding clean power makes sense.

In October, the World Energy Council and Bloomberg New Energy Finance came out with a new report demonstrating that renewables, especially mature renewable technologies such as wind and solar, are cost competitive with fossil fuels. The report found that the global share of generation output from renewable technologies is expected to continue to rise. Wind and solar are the most dominant renewables in the market and their costs are expected to continue to decrease to make them increasingly competitive.

We are finding the same in our work with partners around the world.

NRDC did a similar set of analyses for Chile on the comparative costs and benefits of renewable energy. First, we worked with Bloomberg New Energy Finance and found that Chile's traditional energy choices – coal and large hydro – are not the most affordable options for the future. More recently, we worked with PricewaterhouseCoopers and the Chilean Renewable Energy Association and found that even under very conservative assumptions, renewable energy such as solar and wind would bring more benefits to Chileans than the government's "business as usual" scenario. The study concludes that a future with greater renewables deployment would add $1.6 billion more to the Chilean economy and 7,769 more jobs than a baseline scenario over the next 15 years. Further, the Inter-American Development Bank reported earlier this year that Latin America’s electric potential from geothermal, wind, ocean, biomass and solar resources is 22 times greater than the expected electricity demand in 2050. It is no wonder that Chile has passed a law requiring that 20 percent of energy generation be from renewable sources by 2025.

Similarly, India’s solar mission is moving into its second phase with new guidelines for solar projects. Solar power in India makes sense and rose from17.8 megawatts (MW) in early 2010 to a current cumulative installed capacity of approximately 2 gigawatts (GW). However, even this rapid growth has been affected by the economic downturn and government support remains critical. Certainly when compared to coal or diesel generators, solar is the better choice for pocketbooks and health and also to fight blackouts and increase energy access and security for India. Still, solar energy in India faces financing challenges to be able to go to the next level.

Recent International Energy Agency data shows that China continues to expand its renewable energy production. In the last 5 years, China has become the largest wind market and solar manufacturer in the world, with its total installed wind capacity reaching 75 GW in 2012 and generating 2% of its electricity. It is now turning its attention to developing its domestic solar photovoltaic market, especially distributed rooftop PV, with 12 GW of PV expected to be installed in 2014 and a goal of reaching 35 GW cumulative utility and distributed PV capacity by the end of 2015. This would put China in the ranks of the world’s largest PV countries, such as Germany. Because of its aggressive policies to become a leader in renewables, the International Energy Agency predicts that China’s future renewables growth will surpass that of the EU, United States and Japan combined, and that China will become the strongest driver in global renewable energy growth, in turn helping the cost of renewable energy decrease. China has an added urgency to increase its renewable energy production as air pollution has reached levels that make major urban areas unlivable. As China looks to step up controls on coal consumption, its reliance on renewable energy will increase. NRDC is seeking to help China expand its renewables resources and improve its renewables policies (see our recommendations here), with a focus on helping China develop its distributed PV market.

The U.S. is a leader in renewable energy investment, ranking 2nd behind China.  Additionally, the U.S. climbed into fourth place in solar installed, behind only market-leader Germany, Italy, and China. The cost of solar energy has dropped 80 percent in the past five years with the opportunity within easy reach to reduce the price still further with incentives and more sensitive policy structures. The U.S. already generates more renewable energy from wind power than any other country.

Clean energy doesn’t have to be a niche market that governments help out while still subsidizing and supporting coal, oil and gas. We can make the switch with a serious change in our incentives, policies, and political will to accelerate the place of renewable energy in our economies. We have a lot of good examples of how well it is already working. Internationally and at home, we need stronger political commitments to demand clean power and fight climate change by moving away from fossil fuels and embracing clean energy.

Thanks to Corinne Hanson and Alvin Lin for their contributions to this piece.