Published on June 24th, 2018 | by Joshua S Hill0
The Changing Face Of Clean Technology: My 10 Years At CleanTechnica
June 24th, 2018 by Joshua S Hill
This month marked ten years at CleanTechnica, and over that decade the clean technology industry has undergone seismic shifts, plural. Ten years ago clean and renewable energy technologies were justified for the lack of their impact on the environment. Today, they are simply the most sensible option — both economically, environmentally, and in many cases, politically and socially.
On June 4, 2008, I published my first article at CleanTechnica at a time when the company name was Green Options. I had been writing for our sister site Planetsave since September of the previous year, but my first article for CT … well, considering how long ago, I’m not going to give you any hints as to how to go find that first article.
Over the last decade, I have written over 3,700 articles for CleanTechnica (plus nearly 1,500 across the rest of the network) and have covered a range of topics that have been instrumental to the industry. I was never much of a car guy, and as I lived in Australia (while many of my co-workers lived and worked in the United States) I didn’t naturally veer towards the US (though the US nevertheless was and remains an important region, so I’ve done my fair share of work covering it) which let me highlight efforts and accomplishments across Europe and Asia, as well as the developing world. Add a couple more years before I started at Green Options and I’ve been covering climate science and the clean technology industry for nearly 15 years, and on my tenth anniversary here at CleanTechnica I wanted to take a look back at the industry to highlight some of the most important trends that I covered which have shaped the face of the industry in that time.
Wind Energy (Onshore & Offshore)
For anyone who pays particular attention to these sorts of things, my personal pet project is to reliably cover and spur on the global wind energy sector. I understand that wind energy is not as much the democratic clean energy solution as solar PV is, but I nevertheless believe that it is the key to a 100% renewable energy future and, in particular, will require the offshore wind energy sector to be a leading source of clean electricity generation in the coming decades.
However, ten years ago, the chances of this happening were less conclusive than they are now — though this is a trend that will be repeated throughout this article.
At the end of 2007, there was only 93 gigawatts (GW) worth of wind energy installed around the globe (up from 23 GW in 2001). According to figures eked out of the annual report for 2008 by the Global Wind Energy Council, 2008 saw a total of 357 megawatts (MW) worth of offshore wind added, bringing the cumulative total up to just under 1.5 GW. As can be seen below, however, cumulative global wind energy capacity had increased to 539 GW at the end of 2017 and annual capacity additions for the past five years averaged out to 51 GW, with a peak of 63.6 GW in 2015.
The total installed costs for onshore wind projects have seen a similarly healthy trend. According to the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), the estimated global weighted average cost for wind farms fell from $4,880 per kW in 1983 to just under $2,000/kW in 2007 down to $1,477/kW at the end of 2017.
It’s a little harder to so simply classify the offshore wind industry’s cost declines over the past decade, given the nuances of how the sector has behaved — costs decreased as technology innovated which allowed developers to move further out to sea which in turn increased the costs until costs decreased as technology innovated … and so on and so forth, ad nauseam. Suffice to say, recent zero-subsidy auction results across Europe highlighted the competitive nature of the offshore wind energy sector and its potential to provide a significant percentage of the globe’s electricity generating capacity.
Given the incredible strides made by the industry, it is unsurprising to note that the Global Wind Energy Council (GWEC) expects cumulative installed wind capacity to hit 840.9 GW by the end of 2022 with average installed capacity over the next five years tipping at 60 GW and peaking at 66.5 GW in 2022. Prices will continue to fall for both the onshore and offshore markets as technology innovation continues and expertise increases, showcasing the technology’s importance and viability.
Global Divestment Movement (& Fossil Fuel Financing)
One of the most genuinely exciting developments over the past decade has been that of the global divestment movement — and its attendant impact on financing for fossil fuel projects and companies. Again, much like clean technology, what started out as a campaign spurred by environmentalism and green campaigners became an economic imperative for many companies, institutions, and organisations around the world. Similarly, fossil fuel financing, while still wildly excessive, is beginning to decline in the face of the economic barriers and expected decline in the industry.
The divestment movement — as a globally defined ‘movement’ — didn’t really kick off until 2014; before that, it was certainly something many of us wished people and institutions would commit to, given the serious nature of investing in fossil fuels, but it was not really until 2014 that it became more than a pipedream and a decision made simply for a company’s public image.
According to a report from Arabella Advisors in December of 2016, what was “once seen as a niche movement of student groups and mission-driven nonprofit organizations in the United States, fossil fuel divestment has developed into a truly global movement spanning a broad range of sectors.” At the time of the report, 688 institutions and 58,399 individuals across 76 countries had committed to divest from fossil fuel companies, bringing the value of divested fossil fuel assets up to over $5 trillion. That figure has only continued to grow and sits at over $6 trillion as of the end of 2017.
Alongside fossil fuel divestment — which, in its simplest definition, is simply the opposite of investing in fossil fuel companies — financing fossil fuel projects and companies by financial institutions has similarly come under increased scrutiny. Over the last couple of years several big-name banks have implemented new policies to severely constrict their financing of fossil fuel projects, and in some cases have backed away almost entirely. JPMorgan Chase announced in early 2016 that it was halting investment, placing coal on its list of Prohibited Transactions along with forced or child labor, and illegal logging. In February 2017 Deutsch Bank announced it too was halting investment of all new coal financing in an effort to reduce its exposure to the thermal coal mining sector. This April HSBC announced it was ceasing financing for all new coal-fired power plants around the world (with the exception of Bangladesh, Indonesia, and Vietnam), as well as for new offshore oil and gas projects in the Arctic and new greenfield oil sands projects. And in May the Royal Bank of Scotland announced changes to several policies which will see it halt project-specific financing for new coal-fired power stations, coal mines, and oil sands and Arctic oil projects.
Unfortunately, though these big-name banks are making the effort, the same cannot be said for the rest of the financial industry, according to a March World Bank report which showed that 36 of the world’s biggest banks funneled $115 billion into fossil fuels in 2017, an 11% increase on 2016 levels.
The reality, however, is that as we move forward into the next decade, more and more banks will look askance at the fossil fuel industry, fearing the inevitable stranding of fossil fuel assets, and move to reduce their exposure to massive financial losses. This will most likely hit the coal industry first, and hardest, as coal continues its sharp decline in the global energy mix. However, the oil industry will not be left unmarred, and the natural gas industry will need to stay fleet-footed in an effort to avoid facing a similarly harsh reality.
Clean Energy Investments
It should come as no surprise that, to meet the needs of the clean technology industry, tremendous levels of investment dollars are necessary. While we have a long way to go, the picture in 2018 is a lot different than it was in 2008.
According to Bloomberg New Energy Finance’s (BNEF) Clean Energy Investment Trends 2017 report, clean energy investment in the years leading up to 2008 was comparatively small — $61.7 million in 2004, $88 million in 2005, $129.8 million in 2006, and $182.2 million in 2007. It was kicking up around then and jumped to $205.2 million in 2008 before skyrocketing to peak at $360.3 million in 2015. In 2017, clean energy investment rebounded somewhat to $333.5 million.
However, while the levels of clean energy investment have been impressive, not everything is as it should be. BNEF’s Chief Editor Angus McCrone in January predicted that clean energy investment for 2018 would again hit $330, but clean energy investment for the first quarter was down 10% on the same period a year ago to only $61.1 billion, which could put a spanner in McCrone’s forecasts. Further, a new paper released only last week showed that an extra $460 billion is needed annually over the next 12 years if we are to limit global warming to 1.5°C.
This is one of those areas that, over the past decade I have covered this industry, has grown dramatically — which is obviously a good thing — but it has simply not grown fast or far enough. And at the moment, there simply does not seem to be the political willpower to do anything about it — at least not at a general, global consensus level.
We’ll (Mostly) Always Have Paris
If you had asked me ten years ago if I thought that every nation in the world could come together to agree upon a global climate agreement to seek to limit global warming to 2°C with an aspirational target of 1.5°C, I would have thought you were joking. If you had then told me that one of the principal architects of said-agreement would then pull out of the agreement, I would have been baffled to the extreme.
The Paris Climate Agreement is, by any standard, a tremendous achievement while simultaneously being relatively lackluster. It was thus by necessity, of course — tough enough to get everyone in a room to agree on something, even harder to make them go home and change how they live their lives according to the whims of someone else.
So when, in December of 2015, at the United Nations Climate Change Conference, or COP 21, the Paris Agreement was signed, there were mixed responses. It is the very definition of “better than nothing,” but the fact that it relied on individual nations making their own targets took its teeth out from the start.
This de-clawing was apparently lost on US President Donald Trump, however, who in June of 2017, only a few months after taking office, decided he had had enough of being told what to do and announced that he would withdraw the United States as a signatory of the Paris Agreement. His rationale went as follows:
“In order to fulfil my solemn duty to protect America and its citizens, the United States will withdraw from the Paris Climate Accord. But begin negotiations to reenter the Paris accord or an entirely new transaction on terms that are favourable to the United States, its businesses, its workers, its workers, its taxpayers. So we’re getting out. But we will start to renegotiate, and we’ll see if we can make a deal that is fair. And if we can, that’s great. And if we can’t, that’s fine.”
The situation took a turn for the worse — at least from the standpoint of America’s public image to the world — when in September Nicaragua announced it was signing on to the Paris Agreement. The country was one of only two countries who had refused to sign the Agreement — though, its rationale was that the Agreement did not go far enough, rather than that it didn’t agree with it. Syria, the other country not to sign, didn’t agree, but even it a month later, announced that it was signing on to the Agreement, subsequently leaving the United States as the only country in the world not a part of the landmark Paris Climate Agreement.
It’s important to note that the United States’ exit from the Agreement won’t take effect until one day after the 2020 US Presidential Election, which theoretically means the US may never exit at all, or that the next President can simply re-sign. This is likely, regardless of which party takes the Presidency from Donald Trump, but only time will really tell.
Another Ten Years?
There is so much more that has happened over the past decade that I could have touched on — the solar, battery, and EV industries, for starters — and so much that is rapidly changing from year-to-year. Global greenhouse gas emissions levels don’t seem to know what they’re doing in the long-term, political ambition to support renewable energy development seems to have hit a brick wall of late, and while the global power sector is working hard to cut its impact on the environment, the same cannot be necessarily said for other industries.
At the same time, however, the offshore wind industry is beginning to finally make inroads outside of Europe, solar and battery storage technology is taking hold in even the harshest of political conditions (read: Australia), and while political ambition has stonewalled, corporate ambition to support the growth of renewable energy seems to be gaining momentum each year.
The next ten years will, in all likelihood, be dominated by these issues. In my humble opinion, it’s very difficult to predict exactly what will happen across this broad spectrum of industry and politics: We can extrapolate from current trends, but the past decade has shown us that current trends do not necessarily remain current forever, or even for very long.
If over a decade of covering climate science and the clean technology industry for a living has taught me anything, it’s that we need to do all we can in the moment, because the long-term inevitably yields its own surprises and bumps in the road. We cannot put off for tomorrow, or for the next generation, what needs to be done now.