The Inevitability of Renewable Energy

by John Brian Shannon

Renewable Energy costs have fallen to such a level over the past ten years that it now competes, sans subsidies in some locations, against heavily-subsidized fossil fuel power generation, nuclear power generation and hydro-electric dams which receive billions of dollars of subsidies every year.

Many people might be surprised to hear that; It certainly hasn’t been reported by a majority of the mainstream media.

Fuel Subsidies: The Elephant in the Room

Historically, the reason given for subsidies was to allow new industries to move past the typically turbulent first few years of operation, until they reached a sort of ‘steady-state’ when the business model was fully functional and profits alone could sustain the business, yet the conventional energy industries that have been an important and profitable part of the energy sector are still receiving billions in subsidies annually — while the new kid on the block finds that their much-smaller subsidies are tapering.

Since the first oil wells were struck in Pennsylvania in the late 1890’s, subsidies of one form or another have been an important factor in our primary and secondary energy world.

After the coal price crash in 2014 and the oil price crash of 2016, total volumes of coal and oil deliveries dropped significantly, while the actual subsidy regimes in place for those fuels did not change significantly. Therefore, any perceived subsidy drop must be viewed in the context of lower production which affected the total subsidy amounts received by those industries.

At the same time, many countries that have supported the development of renewable energy have lowered or eliminated their renewable energy subsidies. Germany is an telling example of an early-adopter that discontinued their renewable energy Feed-In Tariffs, while the United States has canceled their lucrative Production Tax Credit for wind energy projects.

And nobody seems to notice! Renewable Energy installations are continuing, the rate of new RE installations is at an all-time high and increasing on a month-to-month basis.

Renewable Energy vs. Conventional Energy

Global Energy Subsidy Totals WEO-2016

The value of subsidies to fossil fuels fell sharply in 2015 to $325 billion, down from almost $500 billion in 2014. Lower fossil-fuel prices were the main reason for the drop, but lower prices have also given additional impetus to pricing reforms in many countries, both fossil fuel importers and exporters. Even with the drop in 2015, the amount going to subsidise fossil fuels is still more than double the $150 billion spent on subsidies to renewable energy.

Renewable energy is the growth story of WEO-2016

In our main scenario, nearly 60% of all new power generation capacity to 2040 comes from renewables and, by 2040, the majority of renewables-based generation is competitive without any subsidies. In a scenario compatible with 2°C, significantly faster growth means that, in the four largest power markets (China, the United States, the European Union and India), variable renewables become the largest source of generation. — International Energy Agency | Fact Sheet: World Energy Outlook 2016

Renewable Energy jobs vs. Conventional Energy jobs.
Renewable Energy jobs vs. Conventional Energy jobs in the U.S. Image courtesy of Statista.

“According to a new report from the U.S. Department of Energy, solar power employs more people than coal, oil and gas combined.

Last year, solar power accounted for 43 percent of the Electric Power Generation sector’s workforce, while fossil fuels combined employed 22 percent. The statistic will be welcomed with open arms by those trying to refute Donald Trump’s assertion that renewable energy projects are bad news for the U.S. economy.

Around 374,000 people were employed in solar energy, according to the report while generation through fossil fuels had a workforce of just over 187,000. The solar boom can be attributed to construction work associated with expanding generation capacity.

The report states that the employment gap is actually growing with net coal generation decreasing 53 percent over the last 10 years.

During the same period of time, electricity generation through gas expanded 33 percent while solar went up by an impressive 5,000 percent.” — Niall McCarthy | Statista

Power to the People!

Conventional energy producers in business for over a century can’t seem to survive without huge subsidy amounts — while Renewable Energy barely topped $150 billion globally, and those RE subsidies are now disappearing.

Energy Darwinism:

It’s one more reason why it’s a great time to be a Renewable Energy blogger!

Energy Darwinism: The Case for a Level Playing Field

Power to the People! Renewable Energy in the U.S.A.

by John Brian Shannon – Originally posted at JBSNews.com

U.S. renewable energy has made impressive strides in recent years

“According to a new report from the U.S. Department of Energy, solar power employs more people than coal, oil and gas combined.

Last year, solar power accounted for 43 percent of the Electric Power Generation sector’s workforce, while fossil fuels combined employed 22 percent. The statistic will be welcomed with open arms by those trying to refute Donald Trump’s assertion that renewable energy projects are bad news for the U.S. economy.

Around 374,000 people were employed in solar energy, according to the report while generation through fossil fuels had a workforce of just over 187,000. The solar boom can be attributed to construction work associated with expanding generation capacity.

The report states that the employment gap is actually growing with net coal generation decreasing 53 percent over the last 10 years. During the same period of time, electricity generation through gas expanded 33 percent while solar went up by an impressive 5,000 percent.”Niall McCarthy | Statista


Renewable Energy | Solar power now employs more people in the U.S. than coal, oil and gas combined according to a new U.S. Department of Energy report.
U.S. employment by energy generation source in 2016. Find more statistics at Statista

Solar Power and Wind Power combine to provide 475,545 U.S. jobs — while Nuclear Power and Fossil Fuel Power generation combine to provide only 255,293 U.S. jobs — but in recent years the Fossil Fuel industry gets 4 times more subsidy than Renewable Energy


Renewable Energy = Clean Air and Twice as many Jobs on 1/4 the Subsidy!


Here is a look at historical U.S. federal subsidies paid from 1918 to 2009 for various energy producers.

Renewable Energy vs. Non-renewable energy subsidies in the U.S.A.
Cumulative U.S. Federal Energy Subsidies from 1918 – 2009 | What Would Jefferson Do?

What Do Americans Think About Fossil Fuel vs. Renewable Energy?


Solar power and wind power (alone!) employ almost twice as many Americans as all nuclear and all fossil fuel power plants combined, but renewable energy gets only one-quarter of the subsidies in from 2010 onward.

Which might be a factor in the minds of Americans who look forward to renewable energy meeting their future energy demand.

Renewable Energy | Fossil Fuels are Falling Out of Favor in the U.S.
Percentage of U.S. adults who favor/oppose expanding these energy sources. Find more statistics at Statista

Renewable Energy Continues to Grow in the U.S.


This renewable energy statistic represents the cumulative non-hydropower renewable capacity in the United States from 2008 to 2016, by technology.
Cumulative non-hydropower renewable capacity growth in the U.S. from 2008 to 2016. Find more statistics at Statista

Despite the low subsidy amounts paid to renewable energy in the United States, non-hydropower energy continues on its growth trajectory and it’s now cheaper to build new solar capacity, than to build new coal capacity.


New Solar Now Cheaper Than New Coal


Costs for new solar power plants continue to plummet (without subsidy) vs. new coal power plants (with a small subsidy) is reflected in the Levelized Cost of Electricity (LCOE) per Kilowatt Hour price.

“As early as 2018, solar could be economically viable to power big cities. By 2040 over half of all electricity may be generated in the same place it’s used. Centralised, coal-fired power is over.”Solar has won. Even if coal were free to burn, power stations couldn’t compete — The Guardian


Billions of Gallons of Water Used Monthly by Conventional Energy


Renewable Energy vs. non-renewable energy by water consumption.
Renewable Energy vs. Non-renewable Energy by water consumption. Image courtesy of climaterealityproject.org

Many coal-fired power plants and several nuclear power plants produce well over 1000MW (1 GW) of electricity and it is easy to extrapolate their water usage.

For instance, a 1.6 GigaWatt(GW) coal-fired power plant (for the purposes of this discussion there’s a 1.6GW coal-fired power plant in Texas) uses 1,760,000 gallons of water per hour, while an equivalent-sized nuclear power plant uses 1,280,000 gallons of water per hour.

Meanwhile, a natural-gas-fired power plant producing the same 1.6GW of electricity would consume 480,000 gallons per hour, while a 1.6GW solar or wind power would consume zero gallons per hour.

Of course hydro-power does not consume any water during its decades of reliable power production, water merely falls through turbines and back into the river a bit further downstream — although during the construction of the dam, spillways, and hydro-electric turbine rooms, millions of gallons of water are used to make the concrete.


The Future of Energy in the United States


Renewable generation capacity expected to account for most 2016 capacity additions in the U.S.

The chart below shows just how much wind power in the United States has grown in recent years.

Renewable Energy | U.S. Wind Power Generation Capacity Surpasses Hydropower Capacity in 2016. Image courtesy of EIA
U.S. Wind Power Capacity Surpasses Hydropower Capacity in 2016. Image courtesy of EIA

The chart below shows the expected growth of solar photovoltaic power in the United States (does not include solar thermal)


Renewable Energy | U.S. Solar Power Installations Photovoltaic 2010 to 2020. Image courtesy of GreenTech Media and Solar Energy Industry Association.
U.S. Solar PV Power Installations 2010 to 2020. Image courtesy of GreenTech Media and Solar Energy Industry Association.

The chart below displays total utility-scale capacity additions from 2010 to 2016. For the third consecutive year, more than half of the capacity additions are renewable technologies, especially wind and solar.

A Majority of Energy Capacity Additions in 2016 Will Be Renewable Energy in the United States -- EIA
A Majority of U.S. Energy Capacity Additions in 2016 will be Renewables. — EIA

From 2013 through 2040, U.S. electricity demand is expected to grow approximately 1 trillion kiloWatt hours(kWh) with natural gas and renewable energy showing steady growth, while coal-fired power generation and nuclear power show slight declines according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Renewable Energy vs. Non-renewable energy demand. Image courtesy of the U.S. EIA
Renewable Energy vs. Non-renewable energy demand. Image courtesy of the U.S. EIA

If the United States converted their existing coal-fired power generation to natural gas by 2020, the U.S. could easily meet every international and domestic clean air target until 2050 as coal burns 10,000 times ‘dirtier’ (anthracite, or black coal) to 1,000,000 times ‘dirtier’ (lignite, or brown coal) when compared to natural gas.

Full cost accounting for the life cycle of coal — Harvard Medicine

It goes without saying that if the United States replaced coal-fired power generation with renewable energy, it would surpass every U.S. international and domestic clean air target, lower U.S. heathcare and infrastructure spending by billions of dollars annually, save the U.S. billions of gallons of fresh water per month, provide millions of good-paying jobs for American workers — and prove the United States is still an exceptional power in the 21st-century. Not bad!

Poland’s unhealthy coal addiction kills 50,000 annually

Poland's coal industry. Fill photo courtesy of REUTERS/Ina
Poland’s coal industry is responsible for 50,000 premature deaths annually and is a major contributor to air pollution in the country. File photo courtesy of REUTERS/Ina Fassbender

The soupy gray smog shrouding Polish cities this winter is one of the most visible symptoms of the European Union member’s addiction to coal, a deadly habit forcing many to stay indoors or don masks before venturing out.

A report issued last month by the International Energy Agency (IEA) identified air pollution as “one of the largest environmental health risks” facing Poles.

It also urged Warsaw to rethink its dependence on coal and focus instead on developing cleaner energy sources.

According to the IEA, coal accounted for 81 percent of Poland’s electricity generation in 2015 and the heavily indebted coal-mining sector—one of Europe’s largest—provided more than 100,000 politically sensitive jobs.   Read more at: phys.org

Professor Anna Doboszynska, a specialist with more than two decades of experience treating lung disease, minces no word minces no words about the health risks that large-scale coal burning in Poland poses… Continue reading Poland’s unhealthy coal addiction kills 50,000 annually

Coal Suddenly a Major Talking Point in the US Election

In late 2015, report after report after report emerged showing that coal consumption on the global scale was headed for an impressive decline, and possibly that dependence on coal had peaked all over the world. For example, China, one of the largest consumers of coal on the planet, was rapidly decreasing their dependence on the fossil fuel, and when this decline was paired with declining reliance in other countries and here in the U.S., it made the coal industry significantly weaker…

Continue reading Coal Suddenly a Major Talking Point in the US Election

Success at COP21! Now What?

Success at COP21! Now What? | by John Brian Shannon

Sincerest congratulations are due to COP21 (Conference of the Parties) for inking a remarkable agreement to limit global warming to 2 degrees by 2050/2100

It’s a global achievement, one that saw 200 countries come together in a unified purpose to protect our Commons

By agreeing to unprecedented GHG emission targets at COP21 in Paris, world leaders have shown the man-made problems that we alone have created are not above our ability to solve

Our leaders are bigger than our problems — and that is a very comforting sign indeed!

COP21 Paris logo
Following the successful COP21 event, what are the next steps, and which steps will give us the ‘most bang for the buck’ as we pursue our CO2 reductions?

We’ve Got Our CO2 Targets. Now What?

As laudatory as all of that sounds, it begs the question, “Now that we’ve agreed on strict GHG limits, how do we actually set about achieving those limits?”

Listed in the order of maximum effect, irrespective of convenience or cost, the following proposal must rank among the least costly ways to achieve our COP21 targets within the timeframe specified.

ONE: Eliminating coal-fired primary power generation by 2020

By far, coal-fired power generation is the largest single contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, and aside from the obvious heavy CO2 load, many toxic gases are produced due to the impurities found in raw coal.

Things like mercury, heavy metals, sulfur and nitrogen when burned, become very toxic and scatter soot and noxious gases over hundreds of square miles, downwind from each coal-fired power station. Gases such as sulfur dioxide, oxides of nitrogen, and particulate matter (soot) are incredibly damaging to human life, livestock and wildlife, and to agriculture.

Not only that, but billions of dollars of damage to exterior metal and concrete occurs every year due to the effects of coal-fired acid rain hitting everything from bridges to skyscrapers to outdoor art installations.

Read: Harvard Medicine | Full Lifecycle of Coal – Epstein et al

Almost worse, is the heavy water usage (to control coal dust migration and to lower the burn temperature at coal-fired power generation facilities) which average 1100 gallons per MegaWatt(MW) of electricity produced.

For the record, natural gas-fired power generation requires 300 gallons of water per MW, while nuclear power generation uses 800 gallons of water per MW and solar power and wind power generators use 0 gallons per MW.

Water used by power plants
Missed at COP21 — Water usage by power plants.

Another serious problem in regards to coal burning is the disposal of millions of tons of toxic fly ash, which is the ashes left over from burning millions of tons of coal annually.

Each year, millions of tons of toxic fly ash must be cooled, transported tens or hundreds of miles away, and then buried deep underground far from aquifers.

TWO: That’s not to say that the coal industry should die. Far from it. Some of the purest liquid fuels on the planet are already made from coal by employing the Fischer-Tropsch (catalytic) process. Such fuels are known as CTL fuels (Coal-to-Liquid) fuels and are noted for their almost clinical purity

Some countries, notably South Africa, have been blending the very clean-burning CTL fuel (30%) with conventional petroleum-sourced gasoline (70%) since the 1950′s in order to create an exceptionally clean burning gasoline (petrol) for use in cars and trucks. That mixture lowers CO2 and other GHG emissions by more than half with the potential for 50/50 CTL and gasoline blends in the future!

In addition to that, the aviation fuel ‘coal oil’ that is produced from South African coal — is purer and therefore, cleaner-burning than conventional petroleum-sourced ‘kerosene’ aviation fuel.

Over 2% of the world’s CO2 emissions are produced by general aviation. By switching to coal oil blended with conventional kerosene, global aviation emissions would drop by half, or better.

We could decrease our automotive and aviation emissions by half thanks to coal! and instead of witnessing the death of the coal industry, we would witness a coal renaissance!

THREE: All coal-fired power generation over 1MW should be switched to natural gas which upgrade is known as Coal to Gas (CTG). It’s already a mature business model in the U.S. where many coal-fired power plants have been converted to natural gas in order to meet increasingly stringent air quality standards

The benefits of this are quite obvious. All of the infrastructure is already in place to deliver the electricity from the existing power plant to demand centres.

Natural gas-fired power generation (thermal) operates similarly and can use the same facilities as coal-fired power generation.

Natural gas burns up to 1,000,000 times cleaner than lignite coal (brown coal) and up to 10,000 times cleaner than the highest quality black coal (anthracite coal).

The news gets even better for aquatic life as natural gas uses only 300 gallons per MW — and there is no dirty, black, coal-dust-laden water pouring into ditches, streams and rivers downstream from coal mines, coal-fired power stations, and along the thousands of miles of railway tracks that transport coal.

The bigger the natural gas market, the lower the per unit price for natural gas. Until now, natural gas-fired power generation has been used to add expensive ‘peaking power’ to the grid as it can ramp up quickly to provide additional power during peak demand sessions, such as happens when many air conditioning units suddenly switch on in the afternoon.

However, as more coal power stations have converted to natural gas, the (Henry Hub) spot price for natural gas has lowered accordingly. We’re now seeing natural gas prices falling to historic lows (under $2.00) due to increased baseload demand.

FOUR: As great as it is to add biofuel to transportation fuels in order to help them become (much) more clean-burning, all ethanol that is obtained *from corn* must be stopped by 2020

By a significant margin, corn is the worst plant to grow in order to produce biofuel due to the obscene water and pesticide use required to grow corn.

Corn must be replaced with a less demanding crop such as sugarcane. In Brazil, sugarcane is grown for sugar (primarily) and biofuel (secondarily) and the technology has advanced to the point where even the leaves and roots of the plant (the ‘stover’) are used to produce biofuel via the cellulosic biofuel method.

In Brazil, by law, a minimum of 24% of each gallon of gasoline must be bio-ethanol sourced. Costa Rica and some other Latin countries have advanced bio-ethanol programmes and likewise show corresponding drops in vehicle emissions.

Other crops, such as sweet sorghum are even more promising than sugarcane and are only a few years away from making a massive impact as an ethanol feedstock.

By banning corn for biofuel use and replacing it with sugarcane or sweet sorghum, water usage levels would fall by billions of gallons per state, annually. Pesticide use, land management and other environmentally costly processes would be dramatically minimized.

Every gallon of gasoline that is sold in the world should have a 50% biofuel or CTL component and it should be noted that CTL fuels are just as clean-burning as ethanol derived from biofuel crops such as sugarcane or sweet sorghum.

FIVE: The shipping industry produces over 2% of the world’s emissions only because old ships burn incredibly toxic bunker fuel — while newer ships burn clean natural gas. Regulating global shipping to upgrade to natural gas can dramatically lower emission levels across the industry

If these bunker-fuel-burning ships (‘old clunkers’) are no longer allowed in the world’s ports, they will be useless to their owners and will be sold for their scrap metal value.

By recognizing that our use of coal must change by 2020 we can employ natural gas in place of coal for our primary power generation — while adding CTL fuels and 2nd-generation biofuels to our transportation fuel — for a ‘cleaner burn’ to meet our electricity and transportation energy needs while easily meeting our GHG emission reduction goals.