The Turning Point

Former U.S. vice president and Nobel laureate Al Gore on how mankind can beat climate change

SOLAR REVOLUTION: The falling cost of solar means that regions of developing nations that have never had access to electricity – like in Bangladesh (above) – have skipped over traditional power grids and gone straight to solar.
Majority World/UIG/Getty Images
By Al Gore
Aug 06, 2014

IN THE STRUGGLE TO SOLVE THE CLIMATE CHANGE CRISIS, a powerful, largely unnoticed, shift is taking place. The forward journey for human civilization will be difficult and dangerous, but it is now clear that we will ultimately prevail. The only question is how quickly we can accelerate and complete the transition to a low-carbon civilization. There will be many times in the decades ahead when we will have to take care to guard against despair, lest it become another form of deni­al, paralyzing action. It is true that we have waited too long to avoid some serious dam­age to the planetary ecosystem – some of it, unfortunately, irreversible. Yet the truly catastrophic damages that have the po­tential for ending civilization as we know it can still – almost certainly – be avoid­ed. Moreover, the pace of the changesal­ready set in motion can still be moderat­ed significantly.

There is surprising – even shocking – good news: Our ability to convert sun­shine into usable energy has become much cheaper far more rapidly than anyone had predicted. The cost of electricity from pho­tovoltaic, or PV, solar cells is now equal to or less than the cost of electricity from other sources powering electric grids in at least 79 countries. By 2020 – as the scale of deployments grows and the costs con­tinue to decline – more than 80 per cent of the world’s people will live in regions where solar will be competitive with electricity from other sources.

No matter what the large carbon pollut­ers and their ideological allies say or do, in markets there is a huge difference between “more expensive than” and “cheaper than.” Not unlike the difference between 32 de­grees and 33 degrees Fahrenheit. It’s not just a difference of a degree, it’s the differ­ence between a marketthat’s frozen up and one that’s liquid. As a result, all over the world, the executives of companies selling electricity generated from the burning of carbon-based fuels (primarily from coal) are openly discussing their growing fears of a “utility death spiral.”

Germany, Europe’s industrial power­house, where renewable subsidies have been especially high, now generates 37 per cent of its daily electricity from wind and solar; and analysts predict that number will rise to 50 per cent by 2020. (Indeed, one day this year, renewables created 74 per cent of the nation’s electricity!)

What’s more, Germany’s two largest coal-burning utilities have lost 56 per cent of their value over the past four years, and the losses have continued into the first half of 2014. And it’s not just Germany. Last year, the top 20 utilities throughout Europe reported losing half of their value since 2008. According to the Swiss bank UBS, nine out of 10 European coal and gas plants are now losing money.

In the United States, where up to 49 per cent of the new generating capacity came from renewables in 2012, 166 coal-fired electricity-generating plants have either closed or have announced they are closing in the past four and a half years. An addi­tional 183 proposed new coal plants have been canceled since 2005.

To be sure, some of these closings have been due to the substitution of gas for coal, but the transition under way in both the American and global energy mar­kets is far more significant than one fossil fuel replacing another. We are witnessing the beginning of a massive shift to a new energy-distribution model – from the “cen­tral station” utility-grid model that goes back to the 1880s to a “widely distributed” model with rooftop solar cells, on-site and grid battery storage, and microgrids.

The principal trade group representing U.S. electric utilities, the Edison Electric Institute, has identified distributedgen­eration as the “largest near-term threat to the utility model.” Last May, Barclays downgraded the entirety of the U.S. elec­tric sector, warning that “a confluence of declining cost trends in distributed solar-photovoltaic-power generation and residential-scale power storage is likely to disrupt the status quo” and make utility in­vestments less attractive.

This year, Citigroup reported that the widespread belief that natural gas – the supply of which has ballooned in the U.S. with the fracking of shale gas – will con­tinue to be the chosen alternative to coal is mistaken, because it too will fall vic­tim to the continuing decline in the cost of solar and wind electricity. Significant­ly, the cost of battery storage, long consid­ered a barrier to the new electricity system, has also been declining steadily – even be­fore the introduction of disruptive new bat­tery technologies that are now in advanced development. Along with the impressive gains of clean-energy programs in the past decade, there have been similar improve­ments in our ability to do more with less. Since 1980, the U.S. has reduced total en­ergy intensity by 49 per cent.

This is an extract. To read the full story, pick up a copy of Rolling Stone Middle East

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