I was not around when the oil lamps of Europe and North America shifted from using the traditional fuel of spermaceti (found in the head cavities of sperm whales) to some newfangled alternative fuel called coal oil (or kerosene) that was just beginning to become available in commercial quantities from the oil fields of Pennsylvania. That change, according to some, saved sperm whales from extinction. It also transformed the energy business.
According to a recent article in Bloomberg Business, the future of energy use has arguably reached a similar inflection point. Renewable-energy-capacity growth now outpaces fossil-fuel-capacity growth for the first time.
Beginning in 2013, the world is now adding more capacity for renewable power each year than coal, natural gas, and oil combined.
According to a report shared at the Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF) annual summit in New York this week, that historic shift occurred in 2013, when 143 gigawatts of renewable-electricity capacity were added globally, compared with only 141 gigawatts in capacity in new plants that burn coal and natural gas and other fossil fuels.
The report claims this shift will continue to accelerate, with more than four times as much renewable capacity being added by 2030.
Citing International Energy Agency findings in his keynote address, Michael Liebreich, the founder of BNEF, stated that solar power, the newest major source of renewable energy and less than 1% of today’s electricity market, will be the world’s largest single source by the year 2050.
According to the Solar Energy Industries Association and GTM Research, solar power grew by 6.2 gigawatts in 2014, a 30% increase over 2013 (or some $18 billion in new investment).
Despite uncertainties about the future of US federal subsidies for the solar power industry, analysts forecast a continued boom in US solar markets in the near term, with a projected 31% growth target for 2015. Driving this growth are the falling costs of solar panels and modules, business model innovations that allow for more flexibility in ownership, a regulatory environment pushing for renewable energy to replace coal as a power-production fuel, and increased access to low-cost capital.
To renewable-energy enthusiasts, the question is not “Will the world shift to cleaner energy?” The only question is “How long will it take?”
Fossil-fuel carbon emissions from power plants are cited as a key factor in climate change and the warming of the planet. For renewable-energy true believers, this particular shift in energy use from fossil fuels to renewables is not just about saving the whales, it is about saving all of us.