solar panels

Gopalakrishna Devraj inspects the solar panels at the Fortum solar park in Karnataka state, one of India's biggest solar energy producers.

(Photo: Jonas Gratzer/LightRocket via Getty Images)

When It Comes to the Green Transition, Can Human Intelligence Beat Human Greed?

When we were busily converting to color television there was not a giant industry pulling out every trick to stop us making that choice.

Regular readers of this column know that I think we’re engaged in the most desperate race in human history—a race between a rapidly unraveling climate, and a rapid buildout of renewable energy. The outcome of that race will determine just how many people die, how many cities drown, how many species survive. Pretty much everything else—efforts to restore corals, say, or worries about how exactly we’ll power long-haul aircraft—is noise at the margins; the decisive question is how those two curves, of destruction and construction, will cross. Oh, and the relevant time frame is the next half-decade, the last five or six “crucial years.”

So even amid all the desperate news from climate science, I have some legitimately good numbers to update you on this morning. They come from the veteran energy analyst Kingsmill Bond and colleagues at the Rocky Mountain Institute, and they demonstrate that the world has moved on to the steep part of the S curve, which will sweep us from minimal reliance on renewable energy to—we must hope and pray—minimal dependence on fossil fuel. The angle of that curve may prove to be the most significant geometry of our time on Earth, competing only with the slope of the Keeling Curve which documents the growing accumulation of CO2 in the atmosphere above Mauna Loa.

It seems pretty clear, according to Bond’s team, that last year or this we will hit peak fossil fuel demand on this planet—the advent of cheap solar and wind and batteries, combined with rapidly developing technologies like heat pumps and EVs, has finally caught up with the surging human demand for energy even as more Asian economies enter periods of rapid growth: The question is whether we’ll plateau out at current levels of fossil fuel use for a decade or more, or whether we can make fossil fuel use decline enough to begin to matter to the atmosphere.

If we meet the challenge, we may have survivable trouble to deal with. If we don’t—well, let’s meet it.

And the numbers in the new report give at least some reason for hope: Sun and wind are now growing faster than any other energy sources in history, and they are coming online faster that anyone had predicted, even in the last few years. In the last decade, “solar generation has grown 12 times, battery storage by 180 times, and EV sales by 100 times.” This charge has been led by China, where “solar generation up 37 times and EV sales up 700 time.” and which as a result is “poised to be the first major electrostate.” Europe, and indeed the whole OECD group, are now seeing rapid growth too, and the best news is that there are increasing signs that countries like India and Vietnam, where growth in demand will be fastest over the rest of the decade, are figuring out how to electrify their economies. Fossil fuel for generating electricity has peaked in Thailand, South Africa, and in all of Latin America.

Solar power in particular is about to become the most common way to produce electricity on this planet, and batteries will this year pass pumped-hydro as the biggest source of energy storage; the supply chain seems to be in place to continue this kind of hectic growth, as there are enough factories under construction to produce the stuff we need, and investment capital is increasingly underwriting cleantech (though a treacherously large supply of money continues to flow to fossil fuels). Pick your metric—the number of cleantech patents, the energy density of batteries, the size of wind turbine rotors—and we’re seeing rapid and continuing progress; the price of solar power is expected to drop by half again in the course of the decade, reinforcing all these trends. The adoption curves for cleantech look like the adoption curves for color tv, or cellphones—that is to say, from nothing to ubiquitous in a matter of years.

A big reason for the ongoing change—and for ongoing optimism—is the simple efficiency of the technologies now ascendant. A second report from Bond’s Rocky Mountain Institute, this one published last week, focused on these numbers, and they’re equally astounding. By their calculations, we waste more than half of the energy we use:

Out of the 606 EJ (an exajoule is roughly the annual energy consumption of New York City) of primary energy that entered the global energy system in 2019, some 33% (196 EJ) was lost on the supply side due to energy production and transportation losses before it ever reached a consumer. Another 30% (183 EJ) was lost on the demand side turning final energy into useful energy. That means that of the 606 EJ we put into our energy system per annum, only 227 EJ ended up providing useful energy, like heating a home or moving a truck. That is only 37% efficient overall.

We’ve invested mostly in increasing the volume of energy we use, not its efficiency—because that was what made big money for Big Oil. But cleantech is inherently more efficient: When you burn fossil fuel to make power, you lose two-thirds of the power to heat, which simply doesn’t happen with wind and sun. An EV translates 80-90% of the power it uses into propulsion, compared with well less than half for a car that runs on gas. A gas boiler is 85% efficient, which isn’t bad—but a heat pump is 300% efficient, because its main “fuel source” is the ambient heat of the atmosphere, which it translates into heating and cooling for your home. That means that the higher upfront costs of these technologies quickly translate into serious savings. And these kind of numbers bend curves fast:

The rapid uptake of these technologies can be a key driver of more demand-side efficiency gains as well. Installing a new heat pump is the perfect time for households to consider additional building envelope retrofits such as insulation: Enough insulation can shrink if not eliminate the heat pump. When engineers design new EVs, better aerodynamics and lightweighting are essential to improve range and save batteries. As an industrial site undergoes a major retrofit to switch to heat pumps, new pipe designs with less friction (fatter, straighter pipes) or other more efficient process designs can be implemented. The exponential uptake of renewables, localization, and electrification hence also means an exponential increase in potential intervention moments for designers and end users to consider demand-side efficiency opportunities.

Just to give an example, the EV maker Rivian—which only produced its first models three years ago—last week announced a redesign, which will remove 1.6 miles of wiring from each vehicle. That’s among other things a lot less copper—and indeed the price of copper has remained relative stable even as electrification proceeds.

Oh, and by the way, if someone tries to tell you that the conversion to clean energy is the reason for increases in the price of electricity, they’re wrong. As Fatih Birol, the head of the International Energy Agency just pointed out in a new report:

The global energy crisis that escalated in early 2022 was not caused by clean energy. Since the early days of the crisis, I have been speaking regularly with energy policy makers from around the world. None of them have complained of relying too much on clean energy. On the contrary, they wish they had more, because the result of investing in these technologies today is a more affordable energy system for consumers tomorrow—as well as less severe impacts from climate change, major improvements in air quality, and greater energy security. When people misleadingly blame clean energy and climate policies for the recent spikes in energy prices, they are, intentionally or not, moving the spotlight away from the main cause—the major cuts that Russia made to natural gas supply.

The numbers I’ve been outlining here are splendidly hopeful. They’re the signs that human intelligence, as encoded in solar panel design and battery development, can combine with human practicality, as encoded in economics and policy, to produce real change.

But our species has other qualities—human greed being a prominent one, and that greed can shade over into sociopathy as we’ve seen from too many world leaders of late. In this case that greed is exemplified in the fossil fuel industry, which will not give up its business model without a tenacious fight; when we were busily converting to color television there was not a giant industry pulling out every trick to stop us making that choice. (Just the opposite). That greed could fatally slow down the cleantech side of this race, giving the victory to unchecked global heating. That’s why this year is so important—if we join with Big Oil and elect Trump, and people like him in the other elections underway around the planet, they can slow this transition markedly. If we had 50 years to make this transition that would not matter—sheer economics make it eventually inevitable. But “eventually” does us no good if the global ice sheets have collapsed in the meantime, or the Gulf Stream shut down, or the Amazon turned to savanna. To make this remarkable moment matter we have to move fast.

2030 is, I’ve long thought, the relevant deadline. And so back to that IEA report, which gives us the play by play on the race. As Fiona Harvey summarizes in The Guardian:

Countries agreed last December on a tripling of renewable power by the end of this decade. But few have yet taken concrete steps to meet this requirement and on current policies and trends global renewable generation capacity would only roughly double in developed countries, and slightly more than double globally by 2030, according to an analysis by the International Energy Agency.

I’m going to go over those numbers once more. At the moment, we’re on a path to double renewable power by the end of the decade. That’s great. But we need to triple renewable power by the end of the decade to meet even the modest targets we set at Paris for holding the temperature in check. That gap likely defines the human future. If we meet the challenge, we may have survivable trouble to deal with. If we don’t—well, let’s meet it. That’s our work together in the crucial years, and keep tuned here for more in the months ahead about how we’re going to make it happen.

You can get a sense of the tensions in, say, the latest data from the U.S. solar industry, which shows utility scale solar continuing to accelerate, but residential solar slowing down, as government policy (especially California’s incomprehensible decision to restrict its development) begins to kick in. (Here’s some more data from the invaluable Michael Thomas on the rise of the clean-energy megaproject in the U.S.) We have no time for these kinds of stop-start policies—we must (and I realize this is the most internal combustion metaphor ever) go full gas, no brakes.

Here’s a graphic representation from the RMI study, and it’s worth scrutinizing. The difference between “fast” and “faster” is what I’ve been describing—the shaded areas between them may well be the most important shade on an ever-warmer Earth.

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