‘Never mind Trump, the global clean energy transition is racing forward’

As fossil fuel diehards take over the White House, the evidence of a fast-moving global energy transition has never been clearer, says clean energy pioneer Jeremy Leggett

As captains of the fossil fuel industries and their lobbyists prepare to take over the White House – appointed by a president elected by a minority, claiming to represent the people on an anti-elite ticket yet possessing by far the highest cumulative wealth of any cabinet ever – they will face evidence breaking out all around them of a fast-moving global energy transition threatening to strand the fossil fuels they seek to boost.

‘World energy hits a turning point’, a Bloomberg headline read on 16 December. “Solar power, for the first time, is becoming the cheapest form of new electricity,” the article marvelled. Analysis of the average cost of new wind and solar in 58 emerging-market economies – including China, India, and Brazil – showed solar at $1.65m (£1.34m) per megawatt and wind at $1.66 (£1.35m).

Bloomberg reported in December that solar power is the cheapest form of new electricity for the first time. Photo credit: Activ Solar

Google leads the giant corporations eagerly going with this flow. The largest corporate buyer of renewable energy announced on 6 December that it expects to hit its target of 100 per cent renewable power in, wait for it, 2017. Google is a huge consumer of power, and going solar means deep emissions cuts. Especially when solar infrastructure is hooked up with all the digital efficiency enhancement fandangos that Silicon Valley giants are zeroing in on in the fast emerging era of artificial intelligence in an internet of things.

Google’s emissions reductions will be meaningful even considering full product life cycles. Solar panels made today pay back the energy used to make them in little more than a year, a Belgian research team from the University of Louvain reported in December. “For every doubling of installed photovoltaic capacity”, Atse Louwen and his colleagues write, “energy use decreases by 13 and 12 per cent and greenhouse gas footprints by 17 and 24 per cent, for poly and monocrystalline-based photovoltaic systems, respectively.”

This means that solar panels now return more energy than American oil: an average energy-return on energy-invested of around 14 (and rising) versus around 11 (and falling).

This is excellent news not just for rich Californians but for the developing world, where “solar lanterns and rooftop photovoltaics are becoming the energy of choice”, so Bloomberg reports. In India, “the millions not connected to the grid may never connect” now, dooming much coal to be stranded underground in the process. The cumulative market of new Indian households accessing small-scale energy is potentially 200 gigawatts, with only a tiny fraction currently served. In Myanmar the government needs no further persuasion: it announced plans to bring solar to all as soon as 2030.

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The technical advances in batteries and electric vehicles also became ever clearer in December. ‘Diesel faces global crash as electric cars shine’, the Financial Times announced. According to a UBS report, this whole category of oil use will be gone from the global market within ten years.

The positives of electric vehicles (EV) synergise with the negatives of air pollution to create a perfect storm for diesel. At the C40 cities summit, Paris, Mexico City, Madrid and Athens all vowed to ban diesel vehicles by 2025. In China, the worst air pollution this year put 24 cities on red alert, with schools shut and flights grounded. Half a billion people were affected by this ‘airpocalypse’. In Chengdu, protestors took to the streets, putting smog masks on statues in the city centre. A heavy handed response by the police suggested that the government is super sensitive to this issue.

Trump’s prospects of resurrecting coal, and giving the oil and gas industry the expansionist dream ticket most of it wants, are very low

Which is not to say that the Chinese authorities aren’t trying to abate the problem at source. I have summarised their rapid advances in renewables in earlier monthly reports. This month, a presentation in London by Zhang Gang, counsellor of the State Council of China, revealed that China’s efforts to use electricity more efficiently, cutting the need for coal, now involve 317m smart meters in operation across 100 per cent of urban areas and 70 per cent of rural areas. These are hooked up in smart coordination, spanning all aspects of grids, at all scales, in a vast project involving 230 million users. Part of this coordination involves China’s first expressway fast-charging EV network, stretching for 1,262 km between Beijing and Shanghai.

No other country comes remotely close to this kind of smart grid deployment. On 12 December, the International Energy Agency issued a report concluding that China’s coal fired power plants “make no economic sense”. Small wonder.

India is on a similar rapid transition path. On 12 December the Central Electricity Authority there announced that India does not need more coal-based capacity addition until 2022. The authority now plans for non-hydro renewables to meet 43 per cent of electricity needs as soon as 2027. Such an ambition would have been inconceivable until recently. On 20 December, Bloomberg analysed the widening gap between projected and actual demand in the world’s third largest emitter, and put their conclusion in an encouraging headline: “India’s energy forecasts are falling short and climate could win.”

What are investors to make of all this? Well, it is rare for a report to hold the potential to change the world. But one published on 14 December did. The recommendations of the Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures (TCFD) aim to give investors, lenders and insurers visibility of how climate change risk will affect individual businesses, and a road map for reacting to it. The report presents the results of a year of deliberations by 32 representatives of companies with market capitalisation of $1.5tn and financial institutions responsible for assets of $20tn. Their intention is for the capital markets to behave consistently with the aims of the Paris Agreement on climate change, which is to say progressively retreat from fossil fuels, and increasingly favour clean energy investments, not least renewables.

The International Energy Agency issued a report concluding that China’s coal fired power plants ‘make no economic sense’

A reminder of the background. The target of the Paris Agreement, agreed by every independent nation on the planet in December 2015, is to keep global warming at less than 2˚C. If society is to do that, most reserves of fossil fuel will have to stay under ground, unburnt. Since companies view all reserves as having financial value, this means a risk – should governments do what they promised to do in Paris, or some it – of what investors call stranded assets: having money invested in a resource that you then can’t realise. Investing any more money to add to this stock of potentially unburnable reserves creates what can be thought of as a carbon bubble. The risk of stranded assets is growing with every decision made by fossil fuel companies to invest in yet more unnecessary fossil fuel projects: new coal mines, new oil and gas fields, new fracking, new fossil fuel power plants, and so on and so on.

The Bank of England awoke to this issue as a systemic risk in September 2015. After listening to arguments by Carbon Tracker, a financial think tank I chair, and other worried financial experts, they came to fear that fossil fuel asset-stranding would risk wasting a lot of investment capital, and might even threaten global financial stability.

Clean energy expert Jeremy Leggett says investment in clean energy is gaining more traction

The effort to stop this threat soon went international. The G20’s Financial Stability Board set up a taskforce in December 2015 with a brief to specify the information investors need to be provided with in order for them to avoid stranded-asset risk. It is chaired by no less a figure than Michael Bloomberg. As soon as his taskforce’s report came out, more than 30 organisations – including Aviva, Axa, BHP Billiton, JPMorgan and Daimler – announced their support for its conclusions. Many more will surely follow, because the starting point in the TCFD’s proposed roadmap is that companies should include climate-related financial disclosures in their public financial filings. Not to do so would be to ignore material risks to organisations, the taskforce professes.

Those disclosures should span the core elements of how organisations operate: governance, strategy, risk management and the setting of metrics and targets. Crucially, the TCFD advocates, companies should align business models with a 2°C future. Remuneration of chief executives and boards should be linked to the extent to which their companies are hitting targets aimed at a sub-2˚C world.

Even before the Paris Agreement was adopted last year, climate risk was high on the agenda of the world’s largest institutional investors and asset managers. Resolutions asking oil and gas companies to stress test their business models against a 2°C-consistent climate outcome were generally opposed by boards, but received record-high support levels from shareholders. Now there will be no hiding place. The TCFD report provides a template for best practices and a road map for better disclosure. Neither fossil fuel companies nor asset managers investing in them will easily be able to ignore it.

Some investors have not waited for the G20 taskforce’s advice. By the time of the December 2015 Paris climate summit, investment funds with collective assets of $3.4tn had either divested from all or some fossil fuels, or announced their intention to. This movement has continued to grow in 2016. On 12 December the value of funds divested passed $5tn. Some 80 per cent of the funds involved, spanning 688 institutions, are managed by commercial investment and pension funds. This shows that the campaign is now mainstream in the capital markets. Capital is fleeing fossil fuels just as the fossil fuel industries manoeuvre their representatives into the White House for the first time.

What damage can a Trump administration do to this analysis? According to a PWC report this month, the impact they can have on global greenhouse emissions will be “pretty small”, if others hold course. With the trends I have chronicled in 2016, and the declaration by all governments in Marrakech in November that the Paris process is “irreversible”, a holding of course seems a more than a reasonable assumption.

Trying to derail Paris, and revive coal, Trump will have to somehow suppress the progressive American states. His problem is that 33 states and the District of Columbia have cut carbon emissions while expanding their economies since 2000, including some Republican states. How do you persuade officialdom in those states to revert to a failed economic model that seeks essentially to recouple economic growth and fossil fuel use? Fifteen of the states, led by California, New York, Virginia, Vermont and New Mexico, have already told Trump that if he tries to kill US climate plans, they will see him in court.

My conclusion is that the global energy transition is progressing faster than many people think, and is probably irreversible

How has Big Energy coped on the transition frontier as 2016 came to a close? Two snapshots. The utility industry continues to be split into companies seeking to defend the fast shrinking status quo, and those now rushing to be part of the new world. One of the latter, Engie (formerly GdF Suez) announced that it sees the oil price falling to $10 as a result of current trends in energy markets, and the wave of clean energy investments it and other major corporates are making. That would be interesting, should it transpire. For example, on 1 December, BP gave the green light to a $9bn investment in a deepwater oilfield, rather appropriately named Mad Dog 2, due onstream (cue laughter, based on the industry’s record of delivering major projects on time) in 2021. Good luck to them in recouping their investment if Engie’s view of the world comes to pass.

My conclusion, as the new year begins, is that the global energy transition is progressing faster than many people think, and is probably irreversible. Trump’s prospects of resurrecting coal, and giving the oil and gas industry the expansionist dream ticket most of it wants, are very low.

There is a caveat, of course: that he doesn’t manage to blunder into a world war. All bets would be off then.

Jeremy Leggett is founding director at Solarcentury; founder of SolarAid; chairman at Carbon Tracker; and an author and climate and energy historian.

Main image: Kevin Krejci

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