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Published on February 27th, 2014 | by Guest Contributor

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The Global Shift To Clean Energy Is Not Just An Idea Anymore



Originally published on The Tyee.
By Geoff Dembicki.

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Clean energy has earned the right to not be called ‘alternative’ anymore, says Bloomberg’s Zindler. Wind turbines near Denmark, photo via Shutterstock.

We’re not totally screwed. I doubt Ethan Zindler would use those exact words to describe the rapid global transition to cleaner forms of energy he’s spent the past eight years or so tracking for Bloomberg New Energy Finance. But that’s the feeling I was left with after reaching him by phone recently at the market intelligence firm’s Washington, D.C. offices. Zindler, its head of policy analysis, doesn’t advocate for clean energy. His job is to make sense of the sector’s latest financial data.

These days the data tell a powerful story. Recent price declines for solar energy have been “massive,” he explained, while merely “substantial” for wind, meaning that a global shift away from fossil fuels is no longer “theoretical.” It’s happening, and fast. Zindler will describe B.C.’s potential role in that transition March 4 at a Vancouver lunchtime event organized by Clean Energy Canada (click here for tickets and further details).

Read on to learn other surprising insights from The Tyee’s recent Q&A with Zindler: why libertarians are embracing solar power, what renewables providers really think of carbon taxes, and how clean energy has earned the right to no longer be called “alternative.”

On why Bloomberg New Energy Finance exists:

“Our view is there’s a major and very abrupt transition underway in the energy sector and so we’re interested in the ‘new’ part of energy, which is new technologies that are changing how energy is produced, and also delivered and consumed.

“We’re best known for our research on renewables, but we do also track… energy efficiency, and we’re increasingly focusing on natural gas, but really the new and novel uses of natural gas.”

On profound changes underway in 2014:

“I’ve been with [Bloomberg New Energy Finance] for eight years. Typically the way things work is governments put in place a supportive policy, private capital quickly thereafter flows in and you have a clean energy industry that’s built up.

“That’s really been more or less the history. But we’re entering a new phase in the sense that these technologies are starting to become cost competitive without subsidies. Now, that’s not something that’s happening everywhere at the same time by any means, but it’s starting to happen in different places at different times.

“We’re entering a period now where its no longer theoretical that these technologies [like wind turbines and solar panels] are going to compete [with fossil fuels]… and so that’s why it’s such an interesting period and so much change is underway.”

On libertarian support for solar power:

“I think there’s definitely a libertarian flank on all this, which is people like the idea that they are producing their own energy and using it themselves. And they don’t like the idea necessarily that they have to pay some kind of fee for this opportunity.

“We’ve seen some of that particularly in Georgia, where regulators have tried to crimp on solar development… and also in Arizona, where one of the groups really supportive of the solar industry is run by the son of Barry Goldwater, [who was] a quite conservative presidential candidate.”

On the ‘serious’ money invested in clean energy:

“If you just look at investment in power projects that use renewables and you compare that to fossil fuel projects that generate power, we’re getting closer to parity…. This should earn [clean energy] the right to not be called ‘alternative’ anymore, because it’s not particularly marginal, it’s a serious amount of money.

“We’ve tracked over a quarter trillion dollars invested in the industry last year and you know that was a down year compared to a couple of years ago…. So this is real money, it’s not insubstantial. [The sector] is starting to make real headway.

“But to some degree [this shift] is just getting started, because the real scale-up happens as these [clean] technologies truly become cost competitive to fossils without subsidies, and they’re getting there, but they’re not entirely there yet.”

On the promise and peril of Asia’s modernization:

“It’s a different game over there. The question is whether you can build new clean [energy] capacity instead of building new coal capacity…. Can these [clean] technologies be used in countries that are rapidly modernizing, where they’re trying to get literally millions of new people onto the grid for the first time?

“I don’t know if you’ve seen the recent numbers out of China. It kind of blew the rest of the world away in terms of new solar installations…. While there definitely was still growth in new coal generation in China last year, it was at a slower rate than it had been in a quite a number of years. That’s a very positive sign for sure.”

On the true impact of carbon pricing:

“I think it’s clear that a carbon tax that is on the books, that has longevity and some political commitment to it sends a very important signal over the long term. But it’s not the only way to support a clean energy industry.

“In Europe we did a survey of our clients several years on this question and asked them what was motivating them to do clean energy in the EU…. The answer in most cases was that it was things like feed-in-tariffs or policies that were explicitly pro-renewables that were stronger drivers than a carbon policy.

“So carbon policy is definitely helpful. It sort of sets the right background music. But in the foreground if you really want a utility — like this year — to add clean energy capacity, often the best way is to simply mandate it.”

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  • sambar

    I would like to know per Gigawatt, the employment numbers for each of these industries.

  • Will E

    To me it seems so stupid
    dig for coal transport it over the world pay for it and than burn it and pollute the globe.
    pump oil transport it pay a lot and than burn it
    renewables clean and easy

    • http://zacharyshahan.com/ Zachary Shahan

      Think that’s why renewables continuously get great public support in polls. Common sense. But the political system is run by money except when us little folk really speak up or innovators totally disrupt the market.

    • Banned by Bob

      Well, when oil and coal were cheaper than renewables it made plenty of sense if you thought economically. Like just about every electrical utility does.

      Now renewables have become economically competitive and things are changing.

      The beauty of markets.

      • Altair IV

        Of course, it only ever made economic sense because the cost for disposal of the waste products isn’t borne by the either seller or the user. We’ve been allowing the fossil fuel industry to dump its toxic waste directly into the environment for over a century without any kind of charge or repercussion, and it’s society as a whole that has to pay for it, in the form of air pollution, health problems, and global warming instigated climate change.

        In short, it’s “economic” only because it privatizes the profits and socializes the expenses. If the true, total cost of FF use were ever factored in to the selling price, it would be dead in a heartbeat. The fact that renewables are actually becoming cheaper to use even in these unbalanced conditions is a true testimony to just how much better they really are.

        • https://www.facebook.com/daniel.laliberte Daniel LaLiberte

          Not paying the full costs for fossil fuels is cheating, stealing from the public and from the future.

      • http://electrobatics.wordpress.com/ arne-nl

        “The beauty of markets”

        Ah, still wearing the rosy coloured glasses ;)

        Climate change is the biggest market failure this world has ever seen and I fail to see the beauty in that.

        Markets can only be beautiful if everything (incl for example environmental pollution) is accounted for in the price of the product. That has never been the case and never will be. So we’ll have to put some lipstick on the pig.

        • Dan Hue

          I would not call it a market failure, because the absence of a cost to polluting is a basic distortion that inevitably leads to a bad outcome (aka the tragedy of commons). The failure is moral, and due to our inability to properly value the natural environment and a stable climate. Markets need rules.

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