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

Energy subsidies | Levelling the Subsidy Playing Field

Originally published at JBS News by John Brian Shannon John Brian Shannon

By now, we’re all aware of the threat to the well-being of life on this planet posed by our massive and continued use of fossil fuels and the various ways we might attempt to reduce the rate of CO2 increase in our atmosphere.

Divestment in the fossil fuel industry is one popular method under discussion to lower our massive carbon additions to our atmosphere

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 much so, that the tobacco industry is now a mere 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.

Another way to curtail carbon emissions is to remove the massive fossil fuel subsidies

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.

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 and not institute a 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.

Renewable energy received 1/4 of the total global subsidy amount enjoyed by fossil fuel (2014)

Global Energy Subsidies (2014, in billions USD). Image courtesy of IISD.
Global Energy Subsidies 2014. (billions USD). Image courtesy of IISD.

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.

Summary

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’

Investors will simply migrate from fossil fuel energy stock, to renewable energy stock, 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.

Related Articles: