Energy Trends That Will Continue in the Foreseeable Future

Dec 13th, 2015 | By | Category: Climate Change

EHS Journal - Petronas Towers by Night by Samuel Ducroquet

2015 will pass by soon. While we live our day-to-day lives and careers, it’s easy to miss trends that establish themselves in a small number of years or even in a single year. Yet this is happening with energy. Some new “realities” that are likely unstoppable, even by those who prefer the status quo or actively resist change, are coming into the marketplace. It’s possible that this month’s Paris Climate Summit will cause the establishment of these changes as both developed and developing nations are starting to unify on the need to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and encourage more renewable energy.

Here are some of the new solid trends in public opinion and the market that have occurred recently and will likely influence how we live and work in the future.

 

Energy Trends

1. Renewable energy use has and will rise significantly

In just the last few years, solar panel prices have fallen over 80% and, therefore, the overall cost of energy from solar per kilowatt hour (kwh) has dropped by more than half. The market has taken notice, and there are now major private investments in solar, wind, and other renewable sources, an over 6-fold increase. Development is not just confined to homes, but includes whole solar and wind power plants. In 2009, the International Energy Agency predicted that solar would produce about 20 gigawatts of power worldwide by 2015. They were wrong. Solar now produces nearly 10 times that amount! Who would have predicted that nearly half of the new electricity installed in the U.S. in 2014 would be solar? And look at the massive wind farms being constructed in Texas. In Texas!

Power companies, besides helping states meet renewable power commitments, are also learning that the upfront costs of building solar plants and wind farms are lower than the cost of building a new fossil fuel plant, and the energy source is and should remain free. Some companies, such as Apple, are even building their own renewable power plants.

 

2. Energy storage will be the ultimate game changer 

Of course, solar and wind have one major drawback, their variability. The sun does not shine at night, when most residential users have their greatest demand for electricity; wind varies from hour to hour and may also be out of sync with demand. What can be done with the excess power that a renewable power plant generates while the energy source is plentiful but the demand is not?

The answer is energy storage. Hundreds of millions of dollars are currently being invested in energy storage research and development by major firms like GE, Tesla, Lockheed Martin, and others. Energy storage is currently available on a small scale. It is inevitable that breakthroughs will be achieved on a grander scale allowing solar and wind farms to independently deliver electricity to meet variable demands over time. Given that the cost of renewable energy is now comparable to or cheaper than fossil fuel-powered energy, economical storage would be the breakthrough renewables need to (1) eliminate fossil fuel-fired units required to balance load and (2) allow renewable plants to operate competitively and at a lower cost than a fossil fuel-only powered plant.

 

3. New energy regulations are coming in the U.S. and many see additional benefits 

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) recently published the final version of its Clean Power Plan containing GHG emission limits for U.S. power plants that are estimated to cut GHG emissions by over 30% by 2030. This rule will further encourage greater renewable power and conversion to less polluting fossil fuels, resulting in significant reductions in emissions of other air pollutants, many of them toxic. Public health studies predict this will greatly reduce the incidence of asthma attacks and lung and other cancers, resulting in great economic benefits, such as people living longer, being more productive, and saving governments money in Medicaid and Medicare payments.

While there are interests and certain states fighting the new rule in court, most states and companies appear to be accepting the new rule as here to stay. In fact, many prefer this to the uncertainty of an unregulated world. Governments and businesses like certainty for planning and financing reasons. States that are embracing renewable energy such as California and Texas are benefiting financially. California has a tradition of assertive climate change-based rules. Texans have benefited tremendously from large amounts of undeveloped land and the high incidence of sun and wind.

The USEPA has also proposed new rules specifically for methane emissions. Methane, the combustible portion of natural gas, is 21 times more potent as a GHG than carbon dioxide. While natural gas is thought of as the “bridge” to renewable power (a fuel source that emits less GHGs when combusted compared to coal or oil), it is recognized that natural gas infrastructure (its mining, capturing, and transporting thousands of miles) results in significant leaks of methane into the atmosphere meaning that the climate change impacts of methane may offset the gains of lower carbon dioxide emissions gained from switching from coal or oil. The USEPA is committed to getting more serious about controls to reduce methane leakage and driving up efficiency in developing natural gas.

 

4. Major corporations are embracing climate action 

As discussed in a recent blog post by this author (http://www.ccesworld.com/blog/giant-firms-demand-strong-carbon-deal/), a dozen of the largest companies in the world, including some thought to be totally against climate change action, have come out publicly in favor of a comprehensive climate change deal in Paris, so that they can smartly plan for the long-term future. A number of Fortune 100 U.S. firms have also issued statements in favor of climate change action. It is likely that the money and political weight of these large firms will influence government and public opinion in favor of meaningful climate change action, despite what some current U.S. presidential candidates are saying.

 

Conclusion

These signs of improved technology, acceptance by the public, favorability of the market, and acceptance of powerful corporate interests demonstrate that climate action is now here to stay, with tangible benefits for people and businesses in the future. The Paris Climate Summit is likely to be the crown for 2015 as the year that climate change became mainstream and becomes a portent of great changes in energy in our future.

 

About the Author

Marc Karell, P.E., CEM, EBCP, is president of Climate Change & Environmental Services, LLC, a technical consulting firm that has assisted companies and buildings to not just perform energy upgrades or comply with current energy and environmental regulations, but to do so reliably and for the greatest cost benefit. CCES also provides assistance in developing robust sustainability, climate change, and energy saving programs. Specialties include energy audits, retro-commissioning, sustainability, smart engineering, problem solving, climate change, greenhouse gas emission inventories (carbon footprinting), air and hazardous air pollutant emissions inventories, regulatory compliance assessments (audits), strategies for compliance or emission reduction, and design of air pollution control equipment.

Photograph:Petronas Towers by Night by Samuel Ducroquet.

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