Some good news on energy

Source: By Ivan Penn, New York Times • Posted: Sunday, October 30, 2022

Renewable sources made up the vast majority of new generating capacity last year, a new report found. But the world’s energy transition still needs to speed up.

A vast array of solar panels in a desert, seen from high above. Glare from some of the panels is causing lens flare, so part of the photo near the center is washed-out. Mountains rise in distance.
The Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System in the Mojave Desert near Nipton, Calif.Bing Guan/Reuters

A common refrain from people opposed to renewable energy sources like solar and wind is that they aren’t reliable, because they only generate power when the sun shines or the breeze blows.

It’s a persistent complaint. I’ve been reporting on energy issues for years now, and I recall one utility executive in Florida dismissing solar power because, despite having the official nickname the “Sunshine State,” the place can be partly cloudy sometimes.

But here’s some good news: Those views haven’t stymied the steady growth of renewable energy, according to data from the International Renewable Energy Agency.

Renewables are now way ahead in new capacity.

A new report from the agency, which helps governments to move away from fossil fuels, shows renewable energy dominating new power production worldwide. And solar power is leading the way, despite its critics.

In 2021, renewables made up 81 percent of new electricity capacity (all the new plants and other infrastructure that generate power), according to the agency’s report. That compares with 79 percent in 2020. Over the same period, renewables increased to more than 38 percent of total capacity (all the infrastructure, new and old) from just under 37 percent.

But: Most actual electricity still comes from fossil fuels.

Overall, fossil fuels continue to account for the majority of the power we use. And new carbon-emitting plants are being added in places like Asia, the Middle East and Africa. Reducing fossil fuel use and developing more renewables in Africa is expected to be a major focus next month at COP27, the global climate summit meeting in Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt.

Cause for optimism?

I spoke with Doug Vine, director of energy analysis at the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, a group focused on accelerating the global transition to net-zero greenhouse gas emissions, about the report. He said he was guardedly encouraged.

“It is true that we are seeing a rate of decline in new coal and natural gas, but still, there’s a lot of existing coal plants and natural gas plants,” Vine said. In some countries, like India and China, 70 percent or more of the mix is still fossil fuels, he noted. “We need to structurally change the system or retire that.”

Part of the appeal of coal-fired and natural gas units stems from their ability to provide power on demand, no matter the weather or time of day. Plus, in the past, they were among the most affordable sources of electricity.

Resolving the reliability problem.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine demonstrated the economic volatility of fuels like natural gas, which was already losing the price war to solar and wind power.

The same utility executive in Florida who spoke dismissively of solar power a decade ago told me privately at the time that the “holy grail” of electricity was inexpensive, long-lasting storage — a statement that virtually everyone in the energy sector would still probably agree with. Better battery technology will further enable the growth of solar and wind power and, eventually, solve what some consider the problem of reliability.

Solar already leads the growth in renewable energy with more than half of the new capacity, about 133 gigawatts of the 257 total in renewables added in 2021. Wind power was second, affirming a longtime trend. Though hydroelectric power provides the largest percentage of renewable electricity capacity, it contributed a little more than 7 percent of the new renewable energy generation.

Still, Vine said the renewable energy growth would need to continue to accelerate by as much as three or four times the current annual pace by 2030 to meet global climate goals. Last month, the Solar Energy Industries Association said that solar power was poised to do its part. According to the association, solar installations will nearly triple to 336 gigawatts by 2027, from 129 today.

At the same, renewables have been facing strong headwinds related to the global supply chain shortages brought on by Covid-19, regulatory hurdles and construction delays linked to long delays in securing permits.

And some of the gains in renewables have been offset by the retirement of nuclear power plants across the world — a steep loss in electricity generation because of the technology’s ability to produce large amounts of power around the clock.

“There’s a lot of challenges,” Vine said. “One of the things we need to see is the world coming back to normal again.”