While President Trump’s executive order turning back many Obama-era climate change policies is great optics for his energy policy conservative base and fossil fuel donors, it doesn’t change the facts of the new energy economy. Since we know President Trump likes short briefings, here are the hard truths about the future of energy in this country and many other parts of the world that are driven by market forces rather than politics.
- In the USA, 2016 was the first year in which more electricity is generated from gas than from coal. Coal is seeing a tremendous decline in the US, with coal power plants shutting down by the dozens, not because of Obama-era policies, but due to the abundance of cheaper (and slightly cleaner) natural gas. The Trump order may keep a few coal plants open for a short time, but the economics of energy are against coal in the long run.
- With the recent executive order, China is now the defacto leader on climate policy. The nation continues to take steps to move away from coal and has renewed calls to continue global action on reducing carbon emissions. The largest greenhouse gas producer is at the forefront of renewables, with a PV installed capacity of 43,000 MW at the end of 2015, and then 77,000 MW at the end of 2016. That’s the equivalent of 38 large nuclear power plants, which typically have a capacity of 2,000 MW). This is not a Chinese hoax. It’s actually “a beautiful thing,” as President Trump would say. The world owes China more credit for its efforts on the clean economy front.
- Natural gas is at best a “transition” fuel — a bridge between a fossil-powered world to a world where energy needs are mostly covered by renewables (excluding shipping, primarily maritime, which constitutes 5.6% of global carbon emission).
- It’s about fossil fuel peak demand, not peak oil. In other words, demand for fossil fuel will peak long before oil deposits run dry. There is no political agenda driving this. Instead, it is pure market forces and economics.
- The most accessible oil, and therefore cheap drilling, on the planet is in politically volatile regions. Meanwhile, drilling in the arctic or the North Sea is expensive. Oil companies in the North Sea are decommissioning drilling platforms and are deploying deep water 6MW wind turbines farms. That’s roughly enough power to light up 6,000 average American homes. Saudi Aramco, Shell, and Statoil are all getting in on the action, too.
- Considered in some circles the “fifth fuel,” energy efficiency curtails the need for building new fossil fuel (or nuclear for that matter) power stations. In 2015, ACEEE estimates that utility-sector energy efficiency programs have saved about 200 billion kWh, more than 5% of retail electric sales in the United States that year. In some leading states, the savings from these programs exceed 10% of retail electric sales already and could reach more than 20% by 2020. Utilities are working to manage their demand throughout the year, and during peak times which prevent them from turning on expensive, inefficient peaker plants. Demand Side Management (DSM) is an integral component of meeting state energy efficiency mandates and a holistic clean energy portfolio.
- The wind and solar industries employ more people than workers that are employed at coal, oil, and natural gas power plants. Solar employment rose 26% in 2016, to a total of 260,077 people, reports the US Department of Energy. Meanwhile, the wind industry cracked the 100,000 mark and is expecting to add almost 400,000 in the next thirteen years. The DOE report says 187,117 workers are employed at coal, oil, and natural gas power plants compared to nearly 374,000 people in the solar industry. The future of energy jobs is in renewables. Overall, solar and wind jobs have been growing 12x faster than the overall economy. Renewables have been over 50% of new global electricity capacity for a few years too.
- In recent years, new generation capacity is coming from solar and wind. In 2015, two thirds was from these new sources. of new generation capacity was made of solar and wind. Windswept red states, such as Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas are amongst the beneficiaries from the Republican-controlled Congress actions to extend the 2015 federal incentives for wind and solar. In 2016, solar and wind again accounted for over 60% of new US electricity generation capacity, with #1 solar alone accounting for 39% of capacity growth.
- Methane leakage from oil and gas extraction is real and acute, even if the EPA chooses not to request data from oil and gas well operators about their equipment and its emissions of methane. Methane’s heat-trapping power is 86 times greater than carbon dioxide over a 20-year period. However, since old wells are outside the greenhouse gas inventory system, little is known about the ways old wells contribute to methane emissions. In 1987, nations adopted the Montreal Protocol and societies weaned themselves off certain agents and the Ozone layer is well on its way to full recovery. It’s time for the world to come together on methane leaks as well.
While “alternative facts” may distract for a short time, renewable energy (once termed “alternative energy”) is cementing its foundation in the 21st century. Big Oil, Fortune 500 companies, and the public at large know this, which is why they continue to make moves that advance the clean energy economy. It’s time for many of our elected officials to catch up with the times.
The President’s overarching agenda is “America First” and “making America great.” My recommendation to the President in pursuit of this vision is to make America energy independent from volatile petro-geopolitics. The clean energy economy is the most responsible, economic, and conservative way to get there.
Udi Merhav is the CEO of energyOrbit, the market leading cloud solution for demand-side management operations for utilities and third-party implementers in North America since 2007. A seasoned technology executive and entrepreneur, Udi has spent 21 years designing and implementing e-commerce and information technology solutions for high growth sectors.