Renewable energy in decline, less than 1% of global energy

Wind and solar in Germany, photo by Kubelbeck

CHICAGO, February 28, 2014 – The global energy outlook has changed radically in just six years. President Obama was elected in 2008 by voters who believed we were running out of oil and gas, that climate change needed to be halted, and that renewables were the energy source of the near future.

But an unexpected transformation of energy markets and politics may instead make 2014 the year of peak renewables.

In December of 2007, former Vice President Al Gore shared the Nobel Peace Prize for work on man-made climate change, leading an international crusade to halt global warming. In June, 2008 after securing a majority of primary delegates, candidate Barack Obama stated, “…this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal…” Climate activists looked to the 2009 Copenhagen Climate Conference as the next major step to control greenhouse gas emissions.

The price of crude oil hit $145 per barrel in June, 2008. The International Energy Agency and other organizations declared that we were at peak oil, forecasting a decline in global production. Many claimed that the world was running out of hydrocarbon energy.

Driven by the twin demons of global warming and peak oil, world governments clamored to support renewables. Twenty years of subsidies, tax-breaks, feed-in tariffs, and mandates resulted in an explosion of renewable energy installations. The Renewable Energy Index (RENIXX) of the world’s 30 top renewable energy companies soared to over 1,800.

Tens of thousands of wind turbine towers were installed, totaling more than 200,000 windmills worldwide by the end of 2012. Germany led the world with more than one million rooftop solar installations. Forty percent of the US corn crop was converted to ethanol vehicle fuel.

But at the same time, an unexpected energy revolution was underway. Using good old Yankee ingenuity, the US oil and gas industry discovered how to produce oil and natural gas from shale. With hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling, vast quantities of hydrocarbon resources became available from shale fields in Texas, North Dakota, and Pennsylvania.

From 2008 to 2013, US petroleum production soared 50 percent. US natural gas production rose 34 percent from a 2005 low. Russia, China, Ukraine, Turkey, and more than ten nations in Europe began issuing permits for hydraulic fracturing. The dragon of peak oil and gas was slain.

In 2009, the ideology of Climatism, the belief that humans were causing dangerous global warming, came under serious attack. In November, emails were released from top climate scientists at the University of East Anglia in the United Kingdom, an incident christened Climategate. The communications showed bias, manipulation of data, avoidance of freedom of information requests, and efforts to subvert the peer-review process, all to further the cause of man-made climate change.

One month later, the Copenhagen Climate Conference failed to agree on a successor climate treaty to the Kyoto Protocol. Failures at United Nations conferences at Cancun (2010), Durban (2011), Doha (2012), and Warsaw (2013) followed. Canada, Japan, Russia, and the United States announced that they would not participate in an extension of the Kyoto Protocol.

Major climate legislation faltered across the world. Cap and trade failed in Congress in 2009, with growing opposition from the Republican Party. The price of carbon permits in the European Emissions Trading System crashed in April 2013 when the European Union voted not to support the permit price. Australia elected Prime Minister Tony Abbott in the fall of 2013 on a platform of scrapping the nation’s carbon tax.

Europeans discovered that subsidy support for renewables was unsustainable. Subsidy obligations soared in Germany to over $140 billion and in Spain to over $34 billion by 2013. Renewable subsidies produced the world’s highest electricity rates in Denmark and Germany. Electricity and natural gas prices in Europe rose to double those of the United States.

Worried about bloated budgets, declining industrial competitiveness, and citizen backlash, European nations have been retreating from green energy for the last four years. Spain slashed solar subsidies in 2009 and photovoltaic sales fell 80 percent in a single year. Germany cut subsidies in 2011 and 2012 and the number of jobs in the German solar industry dropped by 50 percent. Renewable subsidy cuts in the Czech Republic, Greece, Italy, Netherlands, and the United Kingdom added to the cascade. The RENIXX Renewable Energy Index fell below 200 in 2012, down 90 percent from the 2008 peak.

Once a climate change leader, Germany turned to coal after the 2012 decision to close nuclear power plants. Coal now provides more than 50 percent of Germany’s electricity and 23 new coal-fired power plants are planned. Global energy from coal has grown by 4.4 percent per year over the last ten years.

Spending on renewables is in decline. From a record $318 billion in 2011, world renewable energy spending fell to $280 billion in 2012 and then fell again to $254 billion in 2013, according to Bloomberg. The biggest drop occurred in Europe, where investment plummeted 41 percent last year. The 2013 expiration of the US Production Tax Credit for wind energy will continue the downward momentum.

Today, wind and solar provide less than one percent of global energy. While these sources will continue to grow, it’s likely they will deliver only a tiny amount of the world’s energy for decades to come. Renewable energy output may have peaked, at least as a percentage of global energy production.

Steve Goreham is Executive Director of the Climate Science Coalition of America and author of the book The Mad, Mad, Mad World of Climatism:  Mankind and Climate Change Mania.

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Steve Goreham is a speaker, author, and researcher on environmental issues and a former engineer and business executive. He’s a frequently invited guest on radio and television as well as a freelance writer. He is the Executive Director of the Climate Science Coalition of America, a non-political association of scientists, engineers, and citizens working to inform Americans about the realities of climate science and energy economics. Steve is also author of two books on climate change, The Mad, Mad, Mad World of Climatism: Mankind and Climate Change Mania and Climatism! Science, Common Sense, and the 21st Century’s Hottest Topic. Steve holds an MS in Electrical Engineering from the University of Illinois and an MBA from the University of Chicago. He has more than 30 years of experience at Fortune 100 and private companies in engineering and executive roles. As a white water kayaker, he paddled many of the great rivers of North America. He is a husband and father of three and resides in Illinois.
  • Carbonicus

    You mean to tell us that the utopian Leftist “alternative energy” scheme has crashed headlong into the laws of physics and economics and the latter are winning?

    Who woulda thunk it?

    (anybody who understands energy density, physics, and economics, that’s who…..)

    • Immortal603

      The laws of physics has nothing to do with it .

  • Immortal603

    Unfortunately in his analysis Mr Goreham forgot to include hydro in his calculation of “renewable” energy sources.

    • olinlpr

      Probably because much of the environmental movement downplays hydro, wanting to remove dams and reservoirs as anti-environment, and limiting the degree to which utilities should be allowed to include existing hydro facilities in reaching required percentages of renewables.

    • Steve Davidson

      Hydro is not categorized as “renewable” where it counts… in the Pacific Northwest where about 70% of the electricity is hydro. Washington, Oregon, California and most western states, where most of the hydro is generated, exempt it from consideration in their RPS (renewable portfolio standard) that require a certain percentage of their electricity come from renewable sources.

      That is probably why Gorman didn’t include it in his analysis.

  • nylon76

    “We can’t drive our SUVs and eat as much as we want and keep our homes on 72 degrees at all times.”
    – Barack Obama

  • Mervyn

    The eco-bullies have had the stage for just over two decades now. Well, reality bites. The appalling thing, however, is that as reality bites one cannot forgive the insanity of inefficient and ineffective green dogma policies, and the obscene amounts of money squandered on utopian green dreams that are turning into nightmares as a consequence of the giant catastrophic man-made global warming deception.

  • mf

    global warming is nonsense. And fossil fuels are still a dead end. Fracking notwithstanding. You can not produce enough of them, at a reasonable cost, to support economic growth for the developing world. Just do the numbers.

  • Dan E

    Mr. Goreham:

    Given the global importance of energy and environment, both today and looking toward the future, this is a very informative and interesting piece. I am an undergraduate student working toward a degree in Civil Engineering, and reading your piece enlightened me on the declining investment in alternative energy. I surely would have assumed the opposite given most headlines in the media on this topic. Although I have no doubt all of your facts and figures are correct regarding current trends in renewable energy, I find that your article advocates a sense of complacency, while disregarding what many experts refer to as the energy crisis. Clearly written in a derogatory tone, you state recent developments in alternative energy were nothing more than “an international crusade… driven by the twin demons of global warming and peak oil, causing world governments to clamor to support renewables.” It is troubling when compelling scientific evidence is ignored and you denounce the more environmentally conscience, forward-looking movement toward alternative/renewable energy. Despite the criticism your article alludes to regarding the 2009 “Climategate” incident, today, 97% of climate scientists agree that human activity in fact contributes significantly to global warming. With the leading contributor in CO2 emissions being none other than fossil fuel use, contributing 57% of total global emissions as reported by the EPA.

    I acknowledge the widely held belief that 2008 marked “peak oil” is incorrect, but although the increase in fossil fuel production through hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling provides security for the near future, there also exist many risks that your article fails to mention. Sustainalytics published a report titled “Fracking Under Pressure: The Environmental and Social Impacts and Risks of Shale Gas Development.” They focus on increased GHG and other added air emissions, land and habitat impacts, health and social impacts, and most notably risks and impacts related to water. The study states, “The most significant impact of shale gas development results from the use and disposal of the water needed to fracture wells. Fracturing requires tens of millions of liters of water, and local withdrawal sites must be able to support massive and often ongoing water removal.” The pressing issue comes when looking at the future of water resources. According to The Water Resources Group, “many countries face water scarcity as a fundamental challenge to their economic and social development… including many of the countries and regions that drive global economic growth.” So my question is how can we be comfortable shelving alternative energy subsidies, and investments because they may not be as convenient or lucrative as “fracking?” Especially when considering renewable energy possesses fringe benefits to global economies like job creation and new markets rather than the aforementioned fringe risks. You mention, “major climate legislation has faltered across the world… and Europeans have discovered that subsidy support for renewables is unsustainable,” however, today leaders like Secretary of State John Kerry are working tirelessly to bring global climate change and environmentally responsible legislation to the forefront in the UN by 2015. The truth is global energy will depend on fossil fuels for decades to come just as you assert, however we can not falter in our commitment to implementing alternative and renewable energy infrastructure worldwide because that too will take decades. Combatting climate change as well as the increase in energy demand requires proactivity for if we are reactive; it’s already too late.

  • Clyde Brenson

    It is Nukes and gas for the foreseeable future.
    For those who wish to change the dynamics on their own, please take it upon yourselves to install your own solar panels, a wind mill or two at your house, lower your energy usage and insulate well.
    Bet you won’t , for you do not wish to be Inconvenienced .
    For the rest of us, please Exxon, continue fracking full bore for our nations sake.
    Also, get those nuke storage facilities built , so we can get real reliable energy to the masses cheaply .
    XL pipeline, all the way please!
    And for goodness sake , make this president a lame duke in November.

  • The amount of money invested is falling because the cost of Solar PV has been plummeting 75% / decade for 70 years. At the longstanding rate of cost decline, Solar PV will soon become the cheapest form of energy world wide. The Solar Revolution is nigh!

    • james

      THank you for your logical response to those who don’t understand. I work in solar, and there is no reason whatsoever we should be using coal or natural gas in 10 years.

    • Steve Davidson

      Solar provided about 0.03% of all the electricity used in the United States last year.

      The 550 Mw Topaz Solar Farm, just built, near San Luis Obispo is the largest Solar PV facility in the world. At a cost of $2.5 billion, it has 9,000,000 panels that occupy 9.5 square miles.

      Coal supplied 37% of all U.S. electricity in 2012. If the United States decided to replace all that electricity with Topaz-scale solar farms in 10 years, as james suggests, we would have to build approximately 1,800 Topaz solar farms at a cost of $4.5 TRILLION and they would occupy a space more than twice the size of the state of New Jersey.

      If roof-top solar were added as part of a mix, the cost would be higher. It’s more expensive to build 100s of thousands of little roof-top solar farms than fewer utility-scale Topaz ones. Roof-top, being on existing structures though, has the advantage of requiring less physical space.

      Replacing all natural gas (27% of all U.S. electricity) in 10 years, as james also suggests, bumps the cost up about 80% to around $8 trillion and occupies a space close to the size of South Carolina.

      Who would have to pay for that? (Hint: taxpayers and ratepayers)

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