The Renewables Revolution tipping point
Mostly real progress is slow. It took decades to end slavery (which gave way to wage slavery in many places). It took longer to get even some of the most basic rights for women in this country. It took a decade of protest to end the Vietnam War. Decades for gay marriage. I am doubtful multi-partner marriages will be legalized in my lifetime.
Early in my clean energy campaigning career (the 1990s), a renewables expert explained that they preferred we not call it “alternative energy” because this was not our long term objective. And for decades we have heard “wind is not ready from prime time” or “solar is too expensive for utility scale application”. But when someone says that to you these days, you should respond with the same incredulity you would if someone suggested we strip women of the right to vote. “Hey, have you been living under a rock?”
The triple meltdown at Fukushima hit the accelerator for clean energy solutions in a number of countries. Perhaps most dramatically in Germany, where parts of this shift have been underway for decades. If you stay closely on top of the German energy transition (called Energiewende) you will have no doubt heard that in the early stage after closing reactors after the Fukushima disaster the country was actually opening more coal fired power stations.
But as the bar chart above shows, the “Fukushima means more coal in Germany” story is old news. These distortions were caused in part by their being a number of incomplete high tech coal plants in the pipeline when Fukushima hit and distortions in the European carbon tariffs which (hopefully temporarily) were favoring coal. As the longer term graph above shows, unlike many countries, Germany is serious about reducing it’s carbon footprint. Central to it’s success is that more than half of the renewable investment in Germany in recent years has been from individuals (including farmers) rather than large utilities or governments.
Japan is arriving later to the party, but is still showing up in significant ways. Most recently there has been an explosion in the number of companies registering to sell electricity. These include Honda Motors, Panisonic, Softbank and some giant Japanese homebuilding companies. This is critical, because unlike Germany, Japan has 10 nuclear power utilities which have had a monopoly on electricity sales. The government for it’s part has (like Germany did) created above market pricing for power which is generated from renewables. Even before the opening of the market, Japan has seen a surge in home/business electric generation for personal/industrial use. The Japanese court just handed anti-nuclear activists a rare victory in stopping the restart of 2 reactors.
Japan, unlike the US, does not have a single authority to restart it’s currently closed 48 reactors. Even the newly restructured safety authority is telling the Abe administration that they need to check with local governments before restarting reactors, even if the safety authority says it is okay. Recently elected anti-nuclear provincial governor Taizo Mikazuki of Shiga prefecture on July 13th, indicates that the Abe governments plans to restart reactors are far from secure. The longer Japan continues to function will all of it’s reactors off and without blackouts, the less plausible the utilities arguments are that they are completely necessary to run the country.
Germany has the solar profile of Alaska. Japan has very few conventional energy resources. Both countries are using tax structures, market mechanisms, feed in tariffs and public education campaigns to change the ways they produce energy. Germany is ahead of schedule to close all it’s reactors by 2022. Japan currently has all its reactors closed. These were the number 3 and number 4 nuclear countries in the world (after the US and France).
It is far form a done deal, but the above graph shows an important trend. It is worth pointing out that at a 25% capacity factor, the installed wind power worldwide represents the equivalent of 35 full size reactors – which is still a long way for replacing the almost 400 operating reactors worldwide, but if you compare it to 6 reactor equivalents in place in 2009, you can see that this real progress in energy is moving right along.