by Deborah Lawrence
The US has been in the throes of the “shale revolution” now for about 10 years. During that time, the financial press and investment sites have deluged investors with sound bites touting the enormous success of this self styled revolution. But has it really turned out as well as that?
Fossil fuels’ two biggest markets are transportation and electricity generation. By fossil fuels, I’m referring to coal, natural gas and oil. Electricity generation is the largest sector with roughly 39% of energy consumption as opposed to transportation with approximately 29% of energy consumed.
So what’s been happening quietly behind the scenes?
Fossil fuels have lost market share.
In 2007, fossil fuels accounted for about 71% of electricity generating capacity in the US. By 2017, that number had fallen to approximately 63%. Natural gas producers like to tout their growing domination over coal and that “clean burning natural gas” has replaced “dirty ole coal”.
Well, sort of. Natural gas has displaced coal to a large degree but it has lost overall market share to renewables. To put this into historical perspective, this is like saying my oil from sperm whales is superior to your oil from baleen whales and all the while the end use customer is putting in more electric light bulbs.
Renewables in 2007 accounted for about 8% of generating capacity. This includes hydro power. By 2017, this share had grown to 17%.
It is also interesting to note that renewables didn’t gain pricing parity with natural gas until 2016. So coal and natural gas were losing market share to more expensive competition. This may seem counter intuitive until one remembers that once wind and solar are in place, they have no ongoing fuel costs. This is very seductive to long term investment.
Now in 2018, onshore wind is the cheapest form of electricity generation on an unsubsidized levelized cost basis and solar is set to pass nat gas by year end if it hasn’t already. Combine this with no ongoing fuel costs to generate electricity and one can see headwinds beginning to blow for the fossil fuel industry. Kinda like those whaling ships...
News broke this morning that Donald J. Trump is planning to exit the Paris Climate Accord. Some are applauding this move based on political arguments and biases against global warming. Others are expressing dismay and even desperation and foretelling the end of the world. The interesting thing about this, however, is that it makes no difference what you believe politically about climate change. That's right. It makes zero difference whether you believe in climate change or not to make a good argument for the US pledging participation in the Paris Accord.
Here's why...renewables can now generate electricity at a cheaper price than fossil fuels. Period.
We don't need to discuss alternative facts. We can leave the Chinese hoax and the prognostications of the end of the world to the hair-on-fire conspiracy theorists. It makes no difference to the underlying facts. It does, however, beg very serious questions regarding leadership: both of this American President and of America's role in the global community.
And that's what we should be discussing.
Onshore wind surpassed nat gas for cost effectiveness in producing electricity several years ago. Solar PV has been rapidly catching up and is at parity with onshore wind now in parts of the world. To put this into perspective the unsubsidized levelized cost of energy for onshore wind stands as low as $32 MWh. Utility scale solar is running as low as about $48 MWh. Nat gas combined cycle, by comparison, which is the most efficient form of electricity generation using fossil fuels is running about $48 MWh. So utility scale solar costs are neck and neck with nat gas and onshore wind is considerably cheaper. Coal and nuclear run as high as $60 and $97 respectively. In short, they have been simply priced out of the market.
Further, globally we are adding more capacity for clean energy than coal and natural gas combined now. This denotes a turning point that mustn't be discounted. In other words, this renewable train has left the station and it ain't turnin' back.
In countries such as China and India which have set aggressive clean energy targets, renewable energy represents the most cost effective way to generate electricity. And as Bloomberg stated in an article dated December, 2016:
"...renewable energy will beat any other technology in most of the world without subsidies...Peak fossil-fuel use for electricity may be reached within the next decade."(emphasis mine)
So this train has not only left the station but it is a bullet train to boot.
Bloomberg went on to state:
"Auctions, where private companies compete for massive contracts to provide electricity, established record after record for cheap solar power. It started with a contract in January to produce electricity for $64 per megawatt-hour in India; then a deal in August pegging $29.10 per megawatt hour in Chile. That’s record-cheap electricity—roughly half the price of competing coal power."
And that happned within a 12 month period! The bullet train is starting to look like a land based rocket ship.
And that's not all. According to a recent article in CNN Money dated May, 2017:
"Solar employment expanded last year 17 times faster than the total US economy."
That's significant job growth in a industry that clearly has a global future. In comparison, almost half of all coal jobs have disappeared just since 2011. Executive orders can't turn those numbers around because they are based on economics that the President can't control no matter how much he may wish to control them. Coal is in systemic decline. It simply isn't cost effective any more. It has been priced out of the market. But there is no reason why those coal jobs can't be turned into solar jobs virtually overnight.
So you see, it doesn't matter whether you believe in global warming or not. That is irrelevant. The simple fact is that renewables are cheap and they will continue to get cheaper still as adoption increases. This means that there is very little economic incentive to continue to build and maintain fossil fuel generation plants.
And it means more than that.
It means that we are in the midst of a global energy revolution which will disrupt fossil fuel use. And it means that we the consumers will continue to benefit from cheaper electricity costs rather than higher. So why would any leader wish to make their country less competitive in the global marketplace, impose higher electricity costs on their constituents and willfully abdicate American leadership in both clean technology and market efficiency?
It makes zero sense. And I don't give a damn what your views are on climate change.
If you make widgets, you probably use electricity. Do you really think you will be better able to compete with your global competitors if you have to pay more for the generation of that energy? If you run a household on a budget and struggle to make ends meet, do you really think that having a higher electricity bill is going to help you?
So how can we possibly 'make America great again' if we are causing our manufacturing costs to go up on purpose and our home electricity bills to eat a bigger chunk out of our discretionary spending? And how can America possibly be considered great again when China and India blow us out for the water with new technological advances which are bound to come with increased renewable generation.
Dropping out of the Paris Climate Accord will mean that America gets left behind. Let that sink in for a moment. America has never been left behind. We are leaders and innovators and entrepreneurs. As such, we need to place ourselves squarely in the vanguard of this new energy revolution. We have too much to offer. And America doesn't sit on the sidelines, Mr. Trump!