It should come as no surprise that the fossil fuel industry has many defenders willing to step up to the plate and bat for them — it is, after all, a multi-billion-dollar industry with long-standing relationships and a desire not to collapse into infamy and oblivion.
The simple reality is that, for a large part of the planet, the fossil fuel industry is on its last legs. Developed nations are wholesale turning to renewable energy — either by federal impetus or through the work of sub-national players such as local governments and corporations — and developing nations are looking to renewable energy as a means to jump over the fossil fuel step altogether, avoiding the need to build up costly nationwide infrastructure and preventing further emissions increases.
Fear & Ignorance
This new reality, however, is apparently difficult for some people to comprehend. Most recently, BP CEO Bob Dudley, speaking as the “Petroleum Executive of the Year” at the Oil & Money conference in London, raised his fears of the global divestment and disclosure movements that are impacting the fossil fuel industry, suggesting that they “could lead to bad outcomes.” His rationale, however, was based on faulty assumptions and blind ignorance of the realities.
However, Dudley can at least be given credit for admitting the need for change, and presenting a path forward which he claimed was “not a call for business as usual” and one that “requires significant and rapid disruption to our industry.”
The same credit cannot be given to Lawrence Solomon, however, a columnist for Canada’s National Post section (which bears the name Financial Post after the business newspaper of the same name) and the Executive Director of Energy Probe, the consumer and energy research team of Canada’s Energy Probe Research Foundation.
Writing an op-ed recently for the Financial Post, Solomon set aside any dignity or professional integrity he may once have grasped to and penned what can only be described as a hit-piece on the renewable energy industry with all the internal consistency of a wet tissue. Solomon’s article — entitled “Trudeau stands alone as Canada — and the world — abandons green energy” — ran with the witty lede, “Wind and solar have become the fossils of the energy industry; oil, gas and coal remain the fuels of the future.” An entire fact-check article could be written about the opening paragraph on its own — not bad, considering it boasts only 109 words in four sentences.
Solomon’s article was brought to our attention here at CleanTechnica by a frustrated reader who asked that we investigate the claims Solomon made in his piece — described by the reader as “so untruthful and so far from reality that I think it deserves to be called out.”
More than simply “calling out” Lawrence Solomon, however, I think it’s worth being completely upfront and honest about Solomon and his opinions — and opinions they are, make no mistake about it, in the true spirit of the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition of the word — “A view or judgement formed about something, not necessarily based on fact or knowledge” — for, it would appear that Solomon’s opinions have never even heard of the concept of “facts” and “knowledge.”
Lies, Lies, & More Lies
To be fair, the issue is not so much with Lawrence Solomon in and of himself, rather, he is simply representative of a number of such pundits who occupy their own little space of real estate in magazines, newspapers, and on television the world over. Solomon is in no way particularly special for the absurdity of his views, but he serves as a convenient example of the types of lies that are spread, and the way in which people opposed to renewable energy and in denial about global warming make their arguments.
In his opinion article, Lawrence Solomon attempts to make the argument that renewable energy is not only on the back foot around the world, but that it is in full retreat. To support this argument, Solomon refers to several pieces of so-called evidence which he has pulled kicking and screaming out of context. I’ll handle them one at a time.
Solomon claims that China has “begun to throw in the towel by cutting subsidies to renewables, an augur of the demise of investment in its renewables sector.” Solomon also points to recent reporting from green campaigners CoalSwarm which claimed that 259 gigawatts (GW) of new coal capacity are currently under construction.
While Solomon accurately reported the findings from CoalSwarm’s new satellite imagery report — which showed construction ongoing at coal plants across the country, the result of a permitting surge between late-2014 and early-2016 — he incorrectly blames the reason for China’s decision to cut subsidies to renewables.
It’s important to remember the context of China’s current reliance on coal. The new capacity currently under construction is the result of local authorities approving new projects, and actually flies in the face of China’s Central Government’s decisions to halt construction of new coal-fired power plants. Toward the end of 2016 and over the first few months of 2017, China announced the cancellation of 30 large coal-fired power plants amounting to 17 gigawatts (GW), followed soon after by the cancellation of 104 more under-construction and planned coal projects amounting to 120 GW. In March of this year, a report showed that the development of new coal plants in 2017 had declined in China, thanks in part to the Central Government’s decision to suspend construction across hundreds of projects.
Unfortunately, CoalSwarm’s recent report might suggest that China’s Central Government no longer has the control it once had to make these sweeping cuts, but a report published earlier this month by Carbon Tracker shows that 40% of China’s coal plants are already losing money and that the country could save nearly $390 billion by closing plants instead of keeping them operational.
Further, it’s important to look at the whole of what is happening in China. In September, China’s National Development & Reform Commission (NDRC) wrote a draft policy that paved the way to increase the country’s renewable energy target from 20% to 35% by 2030.
Later that same month, China’s National Energy Administration (NEA) issued draft guidelines that would look to phase out power generation subsidies — just as Solomon highlighted, except, the intention of the decision was to provide the country’s renewable energy sector with further technological and policy support so that those technologies can compete against other technologies on their own. Specifically, the draft guidelines seek to incentivize renewable energy technologies in regions where they can operate without help from government subsidies.
“The reason China’s cutting subsidy is mainly because of the huge deficit in the national renewable subsidy fund,” explained Yali Jiang, a solar analyst with Bloomberg New Energy Finance, who spoke to me via email. “By the end of 2017, the deficit amounted around $19 billion including those for wind and solar projects. As a result, the government expects to, for instance, restrict new solar installations that require national subsidy immediately.”
“China’s solar installation contracted in 3Q due to the policy change,” Jiang added. “The grid-connected PV capacity halved in July and August compared with last year. But the country remains to be the largest investor in clean energy in 3Q ($26.7 billion), a fraction above the same period of 2017.”
Far from being “an augur of the demise of investment in its renewables sector,” as Solomon so dramatically put it, China’s decision to cut subsidies is actually based in a desire to minimize the financial strain caused by subsidizing new power generation, while at the same time providing technological and political support that will help renewable energy compete on its own — much as it does in other parts of the world, such as throughout Europe and North America.
Lawrence Solomon, far from being happy with one example, decided to add another to the mix, explaining that, “With the cutting of subsidies to renewables in the [European Union], investment last year dropped to less than half of its peak six years earlier.”
Again, Solomon correctly looked at the chart, sourced from Bloomberg New Energy Finance and highlighted by the World Economic Forum in May of 2018 — an article, mind you, which highlights the success of the investment in China’s renewable energy sector, and betrays Solomon’s contention that China has suffered a decline in investment in its renewables sector (made literally the sentence beforehand).
While it is true that investment in Europe’s renewable energy industry has fallen off in recent times, it’s doubly important to look at the region’s capacity installations over the same time. Between 2011 and 2017 — the six-year period Solomon highlighted — generation from renewable electricity across the 28 Member States of the European Union skyrocketed.
The share of renewable energy sources in the final consumption of energy has also steadily increased over the past decade, as can be seen in the table below.
Complete renewable energy capacity additions for Europe are difficult to come by — unsurprising, given the nature of a supranational governing body — but we can mitigate that somewhat by looking specifically at the two dominant renewable energy technologies, wind, and solar.
Annual wind energy installations across Europe have steadily ticked up each year, declining only once since 2011, in 2013.
It’s worth noting, though, that new capacity additions for 2018 are on a worrying downward trend, as seen by half-year figures published by WindEurope in July.
Europe’s solar industry has similarly suffered from recent investment figures, as can be seen in the graph below, published by SolarPower Europe in June (as part of a global outlook).
Evolution of Global Annual Solar PV Installed Capacity 2000-2017
So while from a certain point of view, Lawrence Solomon can claim that Europe’s clean energy investment has fallen, resulting in lower solar capacity additions and moderate wind additions, it’s worth seeing this in light of the whole. Solar has begun growing again across Europe — with a total of 9.2 GW worth of new capacity added in 2017, a 30% increase on the year before — and offshore wind continues to increase its share. Europe was also one of the first regions to double-down on solar, and accounts for 28% of the global total, with a total of 114 GW worth of installed capacity.
Additionally, even though investments have decreased, this does not necessarily speak to a larger fall-off for the renewable energy industry. Rather, as technologies such as solar PV and onshore wind mature, their costs have decreased, which means that less money is needed to build even more capacity.
Lawrence Solomon may have struck closer to the mark with this particular example, but it does not serve to bolster his argument any, considering the impact of Brexit and the UK’s shift away from solar towards wind, the declining cost of mature technologies, and natural market dynamics and political malfeasance from politicians who share Solomon’s point of view.
Investment in Japan’s clean energy industry has indeed slowed since 2016 — essentially falling off a financial cliff at the end of 2015. Much like China, however, Japan’s situation is not as clear-cut as a graph might show.
“After years of record-breaking investment driven by some of the world’s most generous feed-in tariffs, China and Japan are cutting back on building new large-scale projects and shifting towards digesting the capacity they have already put in place,” said Justin Wu, head of Asia for BNEF, said in January of 2017.
“China is facing slowing power demand and growing wind and solar curtailment. The government is now focused on investing in grids and reforming the power market so that the renewables in place can generate to their full potential. In Japan, future growth will come not from utility-scale projects but from rooftop solar systems installed by consumers attracted by the increasingly favorable economics of self-consumption.”
It’s ironic, however, that Solomon decided to use Japan as throwaway proof of “a worldwide trend rejecting renewables.” If he had made the argument even a year ago, it might have held more weight, but given recent moves by Japan’s government, and corporations and utilities within Japan, it loses all importance.
In July, the Tokyo Electric Power Company, better known as TEPCO, announced that it intends to pursue the development of between 6 and 7 GW worth of renewable energy capacity worth tens of billions of dollars in an intentional move away from nuclear power. Speaking to Nikkei, TEPCO’s president Tomoaki Kobayakawa announced his company will look to develop 6 to 7 GW of renewable energy across Japan and overseas in a move expected to yield 100 billion yen ($8.98 billion) in profit. “We must gain a competitive advantage in renewable energy,” he said.
Meanwhile, in September, Japan’s Electric Power Development Co., better known as J-Power, signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with French multinational electric utility ENGIE to collaborate on power projects, specifically offshore wind and floating offshore wind projects — a further sign of Japan’s turn away from nuclear, and specifically towards contending with Taiwan as an offshore wind hub. And only last week, the Fitch Group published a forecast which expected Japan to add 17 GW worth of new solar capacity by the end of 2020, before the sector begins to slow.
For Lawrence Solomon, Japan also does not prove his belief that renewable energy is on the back foot.
The UK, et al
I could go on. Solomon points to Germany, the UK, and Australia as further proof that the world is turning away from renewable energy. While both Germany and Australia serve as good examples of this, they are about the only two countries that do — and only from a national point of view, with sub-state actors serving to pick up where the nation’s governments left off (or, in Australia’s case, never picked up to begin with).
Solomon’s citing the UK as an example of a flagging renewable energy industry, however, truly beggars belief. Not only is the UK home to one of the world’s most persistent and dominant renewable energy countries, Scotland, but the UK is also the world’s offshore wind energy leader, boasting a portfolio of projects in operation, under construction, or in development, of 35.2 GW.
Agreed, the UK’s investment is likely to fall, a point made by the Green Alliance in January of 2017, analyzing the UK Government’s own numbers. The government has proven lackluster at best when it comes to preparing for a post-Brexit world, and it has thoroughly mishandled commitments to various technologies (onshore wind and solar, in particular). However, it’s important to look at the long-term — the Green Alliance’s analysis only looks to 2020, and a July announcement from the Department for Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy could mitigate some of these short-term losses, by setting a timeline for new offshore wind auctions starting from 2021.
“The renewables sector in the UK has seen pretty dire policy from government: solar and onshore wind projects have been effectively blocked, despite the fact that they’re now the cheapest form of new power,” explained Dustin Benton, Policy Director at Green Alliance. “By contrast, dirty power stations, supported by the UK’s flawed capacity market, have seen several hundred million pounds of government contracts over the past few years.”
“The exception to this generally gloomy picture is in offshore wind: despite irregular auctions, the sector has reduced prices by two-thirds over the past two years, and the government has committed to procuring around 16 GW of new offshore wind during the 2020s, putting the country on track for 30 GW by 2030 – a level consistent with meeting the UK’s carbon targets.”
It’s also worth remembering that Great Britain currently boasts its lowest ever share of fossil fuels in its energy mix, accounting for only 41% of total generation, down from 71% only 7 years ago.
How Do You Solve A Problem Like Lawrence? Lie!
An argument against renewable energy and climate change is not complete, however, without mentioning the biggest elephant in the room — the United States. Solomon reserves an entire paragraph for the US but barely manages to come close to the truth.
Solomon sets the scene — the Democrats are out of power and Donald Trump is in, and quickly moves to exit from the Paris Agreement. What did the country manage to do with this new paradigm shift?
Right out of the gate, Solomon … well, he pretty much rushes headlong into the gate. Solomon starts out by claiming that the US has revived its coal industry. One wonders exactly where to start on this. In January, Reuters obtained preliminary US government data which showed that the coal industry continues to shed jobs. In February, figures published by the US Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) revealed that not only had there been no new coal capacity added during 2017 (and only 3 units in 2016) but that coal’s total share of generating capacity has declined by 17.83% over the past five years. In fact, according to figures published in June by the US Energy Information Administration, coal has dropped to providing only 27% of total electricity generation.
The cause for coal’s steep decline? According to researchers from North Carolina State University and the University of Colorado Boulder writing in May, the responsible party is not renewable energy but is in fact the decline in natural gas prices. And only this week, the White House — the very center of Donald Trump’s power — has reportedly shelved a plan to bail out the coal (and nuclear) sectors.
The final point to make is, possibly, the most absurd. Written and positioned as if it was the final nail in Solomon’s argument, he writes that “The once-powerful United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, formerly a fixture in the news, is defanged and forgotten, having lost its US funding and its relevance.”
Solomon’s article was published on September 28, only 11 days before the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published a report warning that limiting global warming to 1.5°C will “require rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society.” Putting aside the fact that the IPCC works in long-term cycles and is not beholden to publish material regularly (nor has it ever), Solomon must have regretted that particular sentence.
It takes something special to be able to so blatantly and casually lie in public as Lawrence Solomon manages. To so clearly and repeatedly mishandle the facts and misconstrue the evidence requires either an almost champion level of ignorance, or a complete disregard for the truth. Solomon squeezes at least a dozen lies and half-truths into only 750 words — that’s at least one every 62 words.
Is the global renewable energy industry on the back foot? No — in fact, in many parts of the world, it is progressing faster than ever before, and well above any other energy technology. The industry is maturing, however, and with that naturally comes some bumpy patches — stagnation, political intervention and misappropriation, and economic fluctuations; to think otherwise is naive.
But to think that these bumps in the road represent some global shift away from renewable energy is to ignore all common sense and historical evidence. Renewable energy isn’t going away, nor is it declining in popularity. It is the future — not just because we need it to be, but because it is economically better.