Andreas Späth

Renewables beat fossil fuels

2015-04-20 08:36

Andreas Wilson-Späth

Last week, an article published by the Bloomberg news agency (not exactly a radical environmental organisation) declared “the beginning of the end” of the global reign of fossil fuels. Clean, renewable sources of energy are winning the race “and there’s no going back”.

The author, Tom Randall, bases his analysis on the fact that worldwide, renewable energy capacity is now being added faster than the rate at which new oil, coal and gas power plants are coming online. The historic turning point actually happened back in 2013, when a total of 143 gigawatts of new renewable electricity became available compared to only 141 gigawatts of new fossil fuel power.

And the trend continues. While hydropower is still the biggest supplier of renewable energy around the globe by far, wind and especially solar power have been growing faster than all the rest. In 2014, global wind and solar capacity were over 6 and 50(!) times higher, respectively, than a decade ago.

The International Energy Agency (another institution not known for its tree-hugging tendencies) forecasts that by mid century, solar power could be the single biggest source of electricity on the planet, up from just 1% today.

There are a number of good reasons why renewables are thrashing fossil fuel butts:

- No longer just high school science projects and geeky gadgets to charge cellphones, solar and wind power have truly become mainstream technologies increasingly accepted as viable, large-scale solutions.

- The cost of solar and wind power continues to drop. In many parts of the world they are already on par with or even below those of their fossil fuel competitors.

- The renewable energy sector is providing a steady growth of new jobs, millions of them, in fact.

- Global investment in renewables keeps going up – by 16% in 2014 alone, to a cumulative total of $310bn.

- An increasingly vociferous international movement is pointing out the moral and ecological bankruptcy of the fossil fuel industry and the need for right-thinking people and companies to withdraw their financial support from it. Those who have done so are discovering that their investments in oil, gas and coal free alternatives are paying off.

- Old coal-fired power plants are increasingly being mothballed around the world.

- Renewables are, well, renewable. Fossil fuels are not and we will eventually run out of them.

So renewable energy is the way forward. It has to be, if we want to ensure our own survival in the long run. A growing number of businesses are looking at renewable alternatives for supplying their own electricity needs. Trend-setters and thought-leaders, like SA-born US industrial innovator Elon Musk, are investing heavily in a cleaner energy future and even the South African government is giving solar and wind power a reluctant, if limited, nod of approval.

Let’s not kid ourselves about the latter’s long-term intentions though. They might look to renewables in times of load shedding, but they are still very much invested – financially and ideologically – in the old world of dirty, non-renewable coal, oil and gas. The big fossil fuels companies, too, have no intentions of replacing their oil, coal and gas investments with green energy options. On the contrary: given half a chance, they will suck every last drop of fossil fuel out of the ground, pollution, climate change and wholesale environmental obliteration or not.

It’s our job to drag these irresponsible dinosaurs, kicking and screaming, into a renewable energy future, or, failing that, to shut down their destructive operations for good.

- Andreas is a freelance writer with a PhD in geochemistry. Follow him on Twitter: @Andreas_Spath

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