Have Fossil Fuels Officially Lost to Renewables?

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Janet Fang 21/04/2015, 21:29

We’ve passed the turning point! As a planet, we’re adding more capacity for renewable energy each year than for coal, natural gas, and oil combined, Bloomberg Business reports

It started in 2013, when 143 gigawatts of renewable electricity capacity was added; at the same time, 141 gigawatts were added towards new plants burning fossil fuels, according to work presented at the annual Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF) summit in New York last week. And it won’t stop there: More than four times as much renewable capacity will be added by 2030. 

"The electricity system is shifting to clean,'' BNEF founder Michael Liebreich said in his keynote address, according to Bloomberg. "Despite the change in oil and gas prices there is going to be a substantial buildout of renewable energy that is likely to be an order of magnitude larger than the buildout of coal and gas."

Wind and solar prices have continued to drop, and in many parts of the world, they’re equal to grid electricity (that is, the connection between homes and power lines)—and sometimes even cheaper. Just last year, researchers from the University of New South Wales converted over 40 percent of the total sunlight hitting (readily available) solar panels into electricity—that’s the highest efficiency ever reported.

“We’re not far off from the day when I can ask you how many of you no longer have a grid connection,” former Vice President Al Gore said in his address at BNEF, according to Climate Central. But cutting the wire between homes and power lines—called “grid defection”—is hotly debated. The needs of an off-grid household might very well be met with its own solar panels and batteries. On the other hand, keeping a grid connection means your lights stay on when your inverter breaks or when the sun just isn’t shining for prolonged periods. “The only thing you can get out of defection is a sense of independence,” Liebreich tells Climate Central. “You will the rest of the year produce a surplus… You need to sell that and you need a wire.”

Right now solar only makes up about 1 percent of the electricity market. But by 2050, solar could be the planet’s largest source of electricity, according to two 2014 reports issued by the International Energy Agency (IEA): Photovoltaic (PV) systems could generate up to 16 percent of the world’s electricity, while solar thermal electricity from concentrating solar power plants could add an additional 11 percent. Together, these technologies could prevent the emission of 6 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide a year by 2050. 

However, to minimize the effects of climate change, several hundreds of billions of dollars in investments are needed each year—but funding has fallen short by billions since the financial crisis. In Australia, for instance, investments in large-scale renewables fell 90 percent in 12 months, ABC Online reports. Only one large-scale renewable energy project was financed this year, for $6.6 million, following no investment in the last quarter of 2014.

So while it’s no longer a question of if the world will transition to cleaner energy, Bloomberg explains, it’s still a question of how long it will take.

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