UN climate negotiations ‘15 years out of date’ on renewables

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World leaders negotiating global climate change policies are “10 to 15 years out of date” when discussing renewable energy technology.

CEO of the Global Wind Energy Council, Steve Sawyer, told the UN Climate Change Conference (COP20) 2014, being held in Lima, Peru, today that negotiations on renewable energy targets are a decade or more behind the advances in renewable energy.

A 100% renewable energy future is far closer than “where most negotiators at these climate talks reckon is possible”, added Jeremy Leggett, representing the European Photovoltaic Industry Association (EPIA) and chair for developer SolarCentury and charity SolarAid.

A proposal for full energy system decarbonisation by 2050 has just entered UN negotiating drafts. Sawyer told the press conference: “A decarbonised energy system by 2050, or sooner, seems more and more likely with each passing year.”

Sawyer attributed much of the technical feasibility in reaching 100% renewables to advances in the solar industry. 

“Five years ago I would, and did say, the majority [of renewables] would come from hydro and wind power, but with the dramatic up-take in the solar industry in the last five years, and the cost reductions in that period of time, solar is already making a substantial contribution and rising faster than anyone thought it would five years ago” said Sawyer.

Leggett added that the price decrease of solar “has taken everybody by surprise, including the industry itself.”

Leggett explained that solar prices have fallen by two-thirds in six years, and according to the International Energy Agency, prices will come down another two thirds by 2050, placing solar “in competitiveness with fossil fuels today in many markets”.

“We can renewably power the world well before 2050,” he said.

During the question and answer session of the press conference, Leggett explained that the 100% target was feasible because wind and solar match each other on grid load, with wind power providing energy when there is no solar power, and vice versa.  

Citing the news earlier this month that German utility E.ON is to switch from fossil fuels to renewables, Leggett said: “Solar poses an actual real existential threat to the business models of electric utilities today.”

In comparison to fossil fuels, solar energy also offers price predictability, safety, security, emissions reductions, is more democratic, accessible to all, and empowers people, said Leggett. The combination of electric vehicles, batteries and solar “will change the energy sector in ways we cannot imagine.”  

However, former oil consultant Leggett said oil and gas lobbyists are “playing dirty to try and hold [renewables] back very successfully, but it is just delaying the inevitable, and the longer they hold out, the worse it will be for them, the writing is very clear on the wall.”  

When questioned on the inclusion of Carbon Capture Storage (CSS) technology and nuclear energy, Sawyer said to include nuclear or CCS in future energy plans is “purely political”, and just based on economics. “You would not even dream of [CSS and nuclear].”

Sawyer then mocked the expense of the UK Hinkey C nuclear power plant development planned for 2023. “Just look at the latest UK nuclear deal, [renewables] would kill for those prices, they are three, four, five, six, seven times what we are currently paying per kWh for wind electricity, and the same for solar.”

On CCS, being used to scale, coordinated with an existing coal fired power plant, Sawyer said: “I have yet to see one, I would like to see one.”

Leggett said: “The oil and gas industry, and the coal industry particularly, have been deploying this technology, the prospect of it, as a smoke screen, knowing it will never get to industrial scale, just to bide time.”

Citing models from Germany and California, Leggett said that 100% renewable energy is technically feasible, with existing technology, by 2030. “Political and emotional barriers” from “an energy incumbency that is fairing very badly” is the real barrier to 100% renewables, he said.

EPIA has recommended to the UN negotiations: phasing out fossil fuel subsidies which, according to the IEA, currently stand at US$110 per tonne of CO2; aggressive emission reduction targets, effective carbon emissions pricing; and for functioning electricity markets that accurately value wind and solar, clean air and water.

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