If public policy were wielded aggressively to make fossil fuels costlier and renewables cheaper, renewables could account for as much as 29 percent of global energy, and as much as 63 percent of global electricity by , the IEA projects. Other observers are even more bullish. The effect on the environment would, however, be beneficial and real.
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Some would like it and some would not. Either way, it would constitute arguably the biggest energy transformation in human history. The Rise of Renewables The rise of wind and solar, typically seen as a triumph of technology, is more about scale. Technological advances have markedly improved the efficiency with which wind turbines and solar panels convert breezes and sunshine into electricity. But this sector has grown largely because its costs have dropped. What has slashed its costs most dramatically are increases in manufacturing capacity and in operational know-how.
The transformation of wind and solar power from experiments into explosive industries can be broken down broadly into three stages. The first stage might be called the Age of Necessity. The use of windmills goes back a millennium or more; the first wind turbine built to produce electricity was installed in in Scotland. At first, these technologies were expensive, and so they were used where no other source of power was readily available.
Early electricity-producing wind turbines were built on isolated farms, on mountaintops, and on islands. Early solar panels were used in rural villages and in space. The second stage in the development of wind and solar power could be dubbed the Age of Subsidy. Now they were aiming to provide greener, though more-expensive, alternatives to towns and cities served by modern electricity grids.
It was this Age of Subsidy that turned wind and solar power from a science project into a global industry. The transformation began in northern Europe—in Denmark for wind and in Germany for solar. The feed-in tariffs socialized much of the cost of renewable energy, broadening it from individual investors to entire nations.
They all but guaranteed renewable-energy investors predictable, long-term profits.
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The European feed-in tariffs had two powerful effects. They enriched investors across Europe—not just bankers and lawyers, though they were among the beneficiaries, but also farmers, and business owners, and pensioners. In the process, by harnessing economic self-interest, European subsidies dramatically broadened the political constituency gunning for renewable energy. They also globalized the renewable-energy industry, attracting ambitious players from far beyond Europe who then expanded the renewable-energy market internationally.
Chief among those players were savvy entrepreneurs from China. Starting in the mids, China turned its sights to renewable energy, which policymakers and top corporate officials decided would be a strategic and lucrative industry. They believed China was well-positioned to dominate it, and that in the process it could produce vast numbers of Chinese jobs. In the decade since then, all levels of government in China—central, provincial, and municipal—have rolled out an increasingly coordinated and aggressive slate of policies to help the wind and solar industries. More than any other factor, it is this Chinese support that has transformed renewable energy from a European oddity into a global powerhouse.
Initially the Chinese incentives were all but exclusively for manufacturing: particularly in the case of solar panels, to build factories in China to make products for export to the West.
But as the Chinese renewable-energy manufacturing industry grew, China expanded its support in two ways that have reshaped the global renewable-energy market, and that offered lessons for other countries, including those in the MENA region, that are eager to jump aboard the renewable-energy bandwagon. Second, China boosted government spending on renewable-energy research and development. Nevertheless, a Stanford University study of the Chinese solar industry that I led in documented mounting evidence that China is narrowing the renewable-energy innovation gap with the West.
Today, China is a major player in the wind and solar sectors. And China produced 72 percent of all the crystalline solar panels sold globally in , estimates IHS Markit, a data-analysis firm. In , according to REN21, a global renewable-energy consortium, China added Similarly in , China added Critical Mass in the Age of Viability The upshot is that, though wind and solar energy represent a tiny percentage of total global energy, they have achieved critical mass.
They have arrived at a third stage, one with massive ramifications for the global economy: the Age of Viability. Driven first by Europe and then by China, the Age of Subsidy scaled up renewable energy. Wind and solar still are subsidized in major markets. And the wind and solar industries have assembled powerful lobbying machines gunning to preserve the subsidies. But many leading economies—the United States, and many countries in Europe, and even China itself—are reforming their renewable-energy subsidies in a bid to make them more economically efficient.
Yet something strange is happening: despite the rationalization of these subsidies, the percentage of electricity that these countries generate from wind and solar continues to grow. The Age of Viability, though just starting, already is transforming global energy markets. All these developments would, a decade ago, have been inconceivable. Trade fights between China and the United States are hardly new. Yet a trade fight over solar panels reflects a new world order.
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It began six years ago, when the U. This geopolitical tit-for-tat is only intensifying. In January , U. President Donald Trump imposed yet another round of tariffs on imported solar products. It is a farcical fight. Evidence shows that the U. It also suggests the tariffs are raising U. None of this comes as much of a surprise; the politics of tariffs often are more about slogans than about substance.
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Just as renewable energy in the Age of Viability is deepening tensions between geopolitical superpowers, it is upending the utility industry, a behemoth that once delivered returns so reliable it was seen as boring. Now the utility industry is besieged, forced by competition from renewable energy to scramble to remake itself. ON SE, saw their profits decimated by the flight of consumers who installed solar panels on the roofs of their homes and businesses and began to generate their own power. As a result, RWE and E.
ON each split into two.
The details of their breakups differ, but the upshots are broadly similar: one entity now focuses on old energy sources, particularly coal and gas, and the other now focuses on building a business in renewables. The same structural threat faces utilities in the United States, and they are responding in part by fighting the change and in part by embracing it.
In several U. Meanwhile, some of these same utilities are trying to enter the renewable-energy business. Nowhere in the world, however, are these twin trends in renewable energy—the boost in support from erstwhile utility foes and the drop in price—as striking as in the Middle East.
The New Age of Renewable Energy
The region is home, according to the World Bank, to five of the ten countries with the highest per-capita carbon dioxide emissions. Things in the Middle East, however, are changing. Though still high by global standards, fossil-fuel subsidies in the region have fallen significantly over the past two years. And the region is beginning to embrace renewable power. What is motivating the Middle East is what has always driven energy transformations: economics. The IEA expects that, from through , renewable-energy generation will grow faster in the MENA region than in any other part of the globe.
And that regional average encompasses higher rates for certain countries: 64 percent for Saudi Arabia, 63 percent for the UAE, 31 percent for Jordan, and 16 percent for Morocco. Two caveats are crucial to keep in mind. First, these forecasted growth rates start from a baseline that approximates nil. That range is cavernous.
One end represents a continuation of the status quo. The other represents a radically new energy future. Which future materializes will depend almost exclusively on the trajectory of wind and solar. Anecdotally and rhetorically, the signs are bright. A slate of large renewable-energy projects—particularly solar—now under construction in the region has drawn robust investor interest. Seemingly every few months bring an announcement that yet another MENA project has been awarded through competitive auction to investors who have contracted to build it, operate it, and sell its electricity at a price that sets a new world-record low.
A Widening Sun Belt Buoyed by this market response, governments in the region are falling over each other to pledge increasingly ambitious national renewable-energy targets. Like fossil fuels, algae fuel releases carbon dioxide when burned, but unlike fossil fuels, when growing from algae or plants, it releases only carbon dioxide removed from the atmosphere by photosynthesis.