Clean Energy Stagnation

Growth in Renewables Outpaced by Fossil Fuels

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Long before climate policy became fashionable, global energy consumption data shows that from 1965 to 1999 the proportion of carbon-free energy more than doubled to more than 13 percent. Since then, there has been little if any progress in expanding the share of carbon-free energy in the global mix. Despite the rhetoric around the rise of renewable energy, this stagnation suggests how policies employed to accelerate rates of decarbonization of the global economy have been largely ineffective.

July 09, 2013 | Roger Pielke Jr

The world was moving faster towards reducing its reliance on carbon intensive energy consumption in the 1970s and 1980s than in the past several decades. In fact, over the past 20 years there has been little if any progress in expanding the share of carbon-free energy in the global mix. Despite the rhetoric around the rise of renewable energy, the data tells a far different story.

Policy makers around the world have frequently expressed their desire to reduce the emissions of carbon dioxide to a level consistent with stabilizing the amount in the atmosphere at a low level. Conceptually, the challenge is akin to stabilizing the amount of water in a bathtub by modulating the amount filling the tub from a spigot. If there is an open drain at the bottom letting a bit of water out, then stabilization of the water’s height occurs when the amount coming into the tub equals the amount draining out.

The carbon dioxide is akin to the water filling the bathtub and the oceans and the land surface provide some take-up of carbon dioxide, serving like a small open drain at the bottom of the tub. For the stabilization of carbon dioxide, this means that emissions of carbon dioxide, which result primarily from the combustion of fossil fuels (oil, natural gas and coal), must be reduced by something like 80 percent or more.

However, instead of looking at the issue through the lens of emissions, another way to look at the challenge of stabilizing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is through energy consumption. Whatever the total level of future energy supply turns out to be, to be consistent with stabilization – metaphorically stopping the rise of the water in the bathtub – the proportion of global energy that comes from carbon-free sources needs to exceed 90 percent. 

So how are we doing working towards that 90 percent?

BP, in its excellent annual statistical report on world energy, provides data that allows us to answer this question. The figure above shows the proportion of global energy consumption that comes from carbon-free sources. These sources include nuclear, hydro, solar, wind, geothermal, and biomass. The graph shows that from 1965 to 1999 the proportion of carbon-free energy in global consumption more than doubled to more than 13 percent, coincident with nuclear power increasing by a factor of 100 and hydropower by a factor of 6.

However, since 1999 the proportion of carbon-free energy in the global mix has dropped slightly. In fact, 1999 was the peak year for non-carbon energy. From 1999 to 2012 consumption of nuclear power dropped by 2 percent. While solar has increased its contribution to consumption by a factor of 100 and wind by 25 from 1999 to 2012, these sources remain at about 1 percent of total global energy consumption, and are dwarfed by the resurgence of coal.

Much is often made about the rise of renewable energy, but the data tells a more sobering story. In the ten years that ended in 2012, the world added about 2,500 million metric tonnes of oil equivalent (in layman’s terms, a lot) to its total energy consumption. Of that increase about 14 percent came from non-carbon sources. Compare that to the ten years ending in 2002, during which about 19 percent of the new energy consumption over the previous decade came from non-carbon sources. The figure above shows the proportion of annually added energy consumption that comes from carbon-free and carbon-intensive sources.

The data shows that for several decades the world has seen a halt in progress towards less carbon-intensive energy consumption, at about 13 percent of the total global supply. This stagnation provides further evidence that the policies that have been employed to accelerate rates of decarbonization of the global economy have been largely ineffective. The world was moving faster towards decarbonizing its energy mix long before climate policy became fashionable. Why this was so and what the future might hold will be the subject of future posts in this continuing discussion.


Comments

  • I suppose when anything bumps into economic reality, economics win out. I notice that the US administration expects renewables to continue at between 9.3% and 10.8% of US energy generation between now and 2040.

    I also note that NASA Climate Change research has been defunded by $3.8 billion while space research has been un-funded by a similar amount. It begins to look as if AGW is no longer as fashionable as it once was.

    By Craig King on 2013 07 10

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  • Sorry that should have been UP-funded for space research.

    By Craig King on 2013 07 10

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  • USA and China have greatly increased renewables especially wind but the world can’t get enough renewables to keep up with increased demand.  The world’s on fire, ice caps are melting and as they said on the Titanic,  “And the band played on”.  Sad.

    By Randall Smith on 2013 07 10

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  • The world may be on fire (or not), but what doesn’t work, doesn’t work, an no amount of panic mongering will make wind and solar substitute our carbon energy sources.
    We can’t live without energy, and wind and solar aren’t capable to provide the energy we need in sufficient amounts.
    So, coal and gas and oil it is, until a technological breakthrough comes along, to give as a better energy source.
    Wasting more money on wind and solar won’t do the trick.

    By Jacob on 2013 07 10

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    • We can’t live without energy, and wind and solar aren’t capable to provide the energy we need in sufficient amounts.

      Actually we can, and wind and solar can too, but that is besides the point: What we can’t live without are functioning ecosystems, which provide air to breathe, liveable temperatures and a relatively stable weather system.

      By Honegger Matthias on 2013 07 30

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    • Jacob, we have the capacity in this day and age to replace the world’s power grid with solar alone. The energy of the sun radiates the earth with 10000 times the energy that is used by the world’s consumers today. Just a few centralized locations can provide the world the 18 TW of electricity it needs. And the prospects of solar do not stop there. Passive systems have been tested and proven that use the winter sun’s angle of incidence to heat the inside of a house with minimal energy inputs, use the dynamics of convection currents to heat water without a tank, and, on a larger scale, use mirrors to generate power in a similar manner that coal-burning does. Many technologies exist beyond photovoltaic panels that can both produce electricity and make our use of it more efficient. What it needs is MORE funding to become even more efficient- and to be competitive with the ‘business as usual’ fuels.

      By William Z on 2013 11 19

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      • We often see figures about how much energy the earth receives from the sun in comparison to how much energy we need.  That figure is about as useful as knowing the distance of Jupiter’s moon Titan from Jupiter.

        Most of the energy the earth receives from the sun falls over the oceans and other areas where there is no practical way to utilize it.  What is left is very diffuse which makes harvesting it very expensive.  Moreover, it is intermittent.

        Although the are situations in which harvesting solar energy is reasonable, it just is not practical to use solar energy as a major source of power for most large countries.

        By Frank Eggers on 2013 11 26

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      • William The sun’s energy that meets our outer atmosphere is 1370 Watts per square meter,. then only 10% of it reaches our earth’s surface, and only 1% is converted by PV into electricity, then only 25% of the time this works in zero latitude, then as you increase latitude this 25% decreases drastically in the winter when power is needed mostly, then transmitting power over long distances costs 7% per 100 km in loses.
        It is good to dream but sometimes we have to use math,logic & reality..

        By cosmos V on 2013 12 28

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  • The BP chart of energy supply over time shows an earlier rise in non-carbon supply because of nuclear and hydro. Other sources of non-carbon were practically non-existent then. Today, hydro growth is limited to more efficient turbines rather than new dams, with a few exceptions such as China’s Three Gorges project. Nuclear is stalled because of cost and unresolved waste disposal issues.

    As I see it, new supply needs to come from renewable sources. Progress is quite good in the developed world. Now to get the developing world headed in the right direction as well.

    Critics will question this assessment, but consider that countries serious about renewable energy are supplying around 20% of their electric power from renewables. In our own country, investors are now flocking to giant power-purchase agreement projects that supply 200-400,000 homes with renewable energy. As usual, all eyes are on Warren Buffet:

    http://www.sustainablebusiness.com/index.cfm/go/news.display/id/25018

    By Lee James on 2013 07 10

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    • You wrote, “Nuclear is stalled because of cost and unresolved waste disposal issues.”

      These are problems only because R & D on better nuclear technologies was halted, else we would already be using better, safer, and more economical nuclear technologies.

      What many people do not understand is that our present pressurized water reactors are not the only possible type of reactor.  There are many possible types of reactors.  The liquid fluoride thorium reactor (LFTR) looks especially promising but unfortunately, after a few years of successful testing with a prototype, R & D funds were cut off.  Another promising approach was the integral fast reactor (IFR).  Both approaches would generate only about 1% as much waste as our present horribly inefficient reactors and could even use our present nuclear waste for fuel.

      Before taking a long motorcycle trip a few years ago, I strongly favored renewables, but then I saw many wind farms with stationary turbines.  I began to wonder whether the intermittent nature of renewables had been considered.  After spending countless hours searching, I could find no evidence indicating that renewables could provide the power required by most large prosperous countries.

      We need power at all times, not just when the wind is blowing or the sun is shining.

      By Frank Eggers on 2013 12 28

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  • The chart does not show an important factoid—nearly all of the non-carbon resource has been hydro and nuclear. Hydro has remained steady at aropund 6%—it was the addition of nuclear power that accounts for nearly all of the increase since 1965. Only in the last couple of year have renewables begun to make a dent in the numbers.

    By Paul Lorenzini on 2013 07 11

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  • Noted the same as Paul Lorenzini. Here’s the breakdown by energy source for those interested:

    http://jmkorhonen.net/2013/07/12/the-stagnation-of-clean-energy-with-more-detail/

    By J. M. Korhonen on 2013 07 12

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  • I’m not sure what might make one think, as Craig puts it, that “AGW is not as fashionable as it once was”. The science is getting better, not worse, and public opinion in North America and the rest of the world is trending toward acknowledging human-influenced climate change. The IPCC and other developed-world scientific communities are coalescing around a consensus, not splintering.

    I can’t say for certain why NASA climate change budget was cut, probably something to do with large government deficits, or whether and where it was made up for in another area. Government budgets are complicated, messy things. What I can say with certainty is that it’s a faulty conclusion to equate a $3.8 bil cut with the idea that AGW is now “less fashionable”- whatever that does indeed mean.

    As for clean energy stagnation, the point that many have made about the fall of nuclear energy is on the nose. JM Korhonen provides a great link. Another question to be asked is simply the arithmetic of it all. Renewables are rising relative to where they were before; fossils are simply rising more. Greater consumption and more extraction from the developing world is likely to be the culprit.

    By Eric on 2013 07 12

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    • There are reasons for the increase in CO2 emissions.

      Germany is phasing out nuclear power and building more coal-fired power plants to replace it.  In addition, they are importing more power from France where almost 80% of it is generated with nuclear reactors, but of course that does not increase CO2 emissions.  Their renewable energy stations are insufficient to do the job.

      Japan is also increasing coal imports to replace nuclear power.

      China has increased coal burning to generate more power.  It is also, with the cooperation of the U.S. and other countries, doing R & D work on different nuclear technologies, especially on the liquid fluoride thorium reactor (LFTR).  Because we halted R & D on the LFTR decades ago, we may end up buying the technology from China.

      Other countries are burning more fossil fuels as their demand for power increases.  This will continue until or unless we greatly expand generation using nuclear reactors, very preferably with better nuclear technology than we are now using.

      By Frank Eggers on 2013 12 28

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  • Heh. After a certain point, usually reached fairly early on, the futility of shooting yourself in the lower limbs becomes evident.

    By Brian H on 2013 07 14

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  • The consensus isn’t what you think it is.

    Pew polls

    Top Policy Priorities for 2012
    % considering each as a “top priority” for the president and Congress this year
    <pre>
                                  Five       One     Today   Five
                                  years     year             year
                                  ago       ago             chg
                 
                                  Jan       Jan     Jan
                                  2007       2011   2012

                                    %        %      %
    Economy                       68         87       86     +18
    Jobs                           57         84       82     +25
    Terrorism                       80         73       69     -11
    Budget deficit                   53         64     69     +16
    Social Security                 64         66       68
    Education                     69         66     65
    Medicare                       63         61       61
    Tax fairness                   —        —      61
    Health care costs             68         61     60       -8
    Energy                       57         50       52
    Help poor and needy           55         52       52
    Crime                         62         44       48     -14
    Moral breakdown             47         43       44
    Environment                 57         40       43     -14
    Lobbyist influence             35         37       40
    Illegal immigration             55         46       39     -16
    Strengthening military         46         43       39       -7
    Global trade                   34         34       38
    Transportation               —        33       30
    Lower military spending       —        —      29
    Campaign finance             24*      —      28
    Global warming               38       26       25       -13

    PEW RESEARCH CENTER Jan. 11-16, 2012.
    * Campaign finance reform trend from Jan. 2004.

    By Brian H on 2013 07 14

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  • Sorry, the fixed font tag didn’t work.

    In 2013, still last, Climate Change fell to 8% rating as “Top Priority”.

    The Wisdom of Crowds is finally starting to bite.

    By Brian H on 2013 07 14

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  • Nov 2009 American Scientific Article by Mark Z Jacobson & Mark A Delucchi A plan to power 100 percent of the planets with renewables http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=a-path-to-sustainable-energy-by-2030

    By Randall Smith on 2013 07 14

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    • Mark Jacobson’s plan includes no real economic analysis or technical analysis for providing relaible load following electricity from such a heavy penetration of variable generation. It simply means nothing.

      By Joe on 2013 09 20

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      • Quite so.

        At one time, I was somewhat opposed to nuclear power and strongly supported renewables.  What changed my mind was a 5,500 mile motorcycle trip I took from here in Albuquerque to Savannah, Georgia.  I saw many wind farms and noticed that in many, the blades were stationary.  I began to wonder whether the intermittent nature of renewable power sources had been adequately considered.  Previously I had incorrectly assumed that there would not be a push for renewables unless they had been demonstrated to be practical; I should have known better than to make such an assumption.

        Upon returning, I spent countless hours searching for thorough and objective quantitative studies that indicated that renewables could adequately meet the power requirements of most large countries.  I was not able to find even one such study!!  It appears that we are expected, on faith alone, to spend countless billions of dollars on renewable systems.

        A believable study might require putting wind and solar sensors in many places where installing wind farms and solar power systems would be practical, and transmitting the data to a central location for careful analysis.  It would be necessary to demonstrate that for a period of several years, there would not be even a momentary lapse in the ability to supply the necessary power.  There has been no such study.

        By Frank Eggers on 2013 11 26

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  • What climate policies? What clean energy policy? Not one was named. Until you do name the policies that were such an abysmal failure, I’m inclined to think climate change and energy policies are just what we need to make real impacts. Pretty obvious you’re pro-fossil fuel industry.

    By Anne Chastain on 2013 07 14

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    • What climate policies? What clean energy policy? Not one was named. Until you do name the policies that were such an abysmal failure, I’m inclined to think climate change and energy policies are just what we need to make real impacts. Pretty obvious you’re pro-fossil fuel industry.

      The Earth Summit in 1992 (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_Nations_Framework_Convention_on_Climate_Change)
      which was followed on by The Kyoto Protocol in 1997 (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kyoto_Protocol)
      The goals of Kyoto on GHG emissions have been entirely missed overall.

      “World Bank (2010)[139] commented on how the Kyoto Protocol had only had a slight effect on curbing global emissions growth. The treaty was negotiated in 1997, but in 2006, energy-related carbon dioxide emissions had grown by 24%.”

      See several graphs & charts in the article.Some countries have reduced their emissions by providing heavy subsidies to solar or wind installations. The most notable of those countries - Germany - seems to be in the process of unfunding the subsidies. Time will tell what the outcome of that will be, but it is predictable that investment in new installations will decline there and across Europe.

      By BJH on 2013 08 08

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      • In response to public attitudes, Germany is reducing nuclear power generation.  As a result, it is building more coal generating plants thereby increasing its reliance on coal.  Making matters even worse, the kind of coal they are burning is lignite which is the dirtiest form of coal.

        In addition, Germany is increasing its importation of electricity from France which produces most of its electricity from nuclear reactors.

        Considering Germany’s unquestionable dedication to wind and solar power, and the fact that it is increasing its CO2 emissions, it is reasonable to question the practicality of renewable energy sources as a major source of power for most large countries.

        By Frank Eggers on 2013 11 26

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  • Correct me if I’m wrong, but this chart doesn’t seem to jibe at all with the ones from IEA; http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/plugged-in/2013/07/10/the-global-outlook-for-renewable-power-in-one-graph/

    Either one of them is wrong or the growth in renewables comes all from biomass or other not-carbon-free renewable sources. Not that there is such a thing as entirely “carbon-free” method of energy production if you look at the entire system.

    By Sami on 2013 07 16

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  • No energy density….http://m.nationalreview.com/nro-energy/364885/wind-turbines-are-climate-change-scarecrows-robert-bryce….
    Moreover windmills don’t work most of the time as noted above…http://www.ieso.ca/imoweb/marketdata/windpower.asp
    Compare installed capacity to power generated in real time.  Wind and solar are ancient technologies which were abandoned by previous generations for a reason.

    By Paul Bell on 2013 12 29

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  • Roger, the rate of “decarbonization” that occurred in the 70s and 80s, did so for reasons completely separate from carbon.  Little things like dollars, and cents.  “Decarbonization” has no value in the real world, so rational folks responding to market forces, continue to basically not give a darn about however much carbon a Kilo-watt of energy liberates to the atmosphere.

    you started off with an analogy that didn’t hold true, and the article went down hill from there. 

    “stabilizing the amount of water in a bathtub by modulating the amount filling the tub from a spigot. If there is an open drain at the bottom letting a bit of water out, then stabilization of the water’s height occurs when the amount coming into the tub equals the amount draining out.”

    Each and every time I’ve filled up MY tub, it’s started empty.

    By Frank From Texas on 2013 12 29

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About Roger Pielke Jr

I am a professor of environmental studies at the Center for Science and Technology Policy Research at the University of Colorado at Boulder. I also have appointments as a Research Fellow, Risk Frontiers, Macquarie University; Visiting Senior Fellow, Mackinder Programme, London School of Economics; and Senior Visiting Fellow at the Consortium for Science, Policy and Outcomes of Arizona State University. I am also a Senior Fellow of The Breakthrough Institute, a progressive think tank.

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