Clean energy will be a $50-trillion industry, but Trump policies mean the U.S. won’t benefit

2016’s year in charts shows that clean energy revolution is unstoppable.

CREDIT: Department of Energy
CREDIT: Department of Energy

The best charts of 2016 reveal the clean energy revolution is unstoppable. At least, it is unstoppable globally.

But if the United States makes a historic blunder and shifts its focus back toward dirty energy just when the rest of the world has made a $50 trillion (or higher) commitment to a carbon-free future, then it won’t reap the vast job-creating benefits of the remarkable ongoing cost reductions shown in chart above.

Ironically (or tragically), the cost reductions described in the 2016 DOE report “Revolution…Now: The Future Arrives for Five Clean Energy Technologies” were made possible in part by DOE investments over many decades. Indeed, accelerated deployment driven by smart government policies around the world have created economies of scale and brought technologies down the learning curve faster than almost anyone expected.

These price drops have, in the past decade, led to an exponential explosion in clean energy installations globally.

The good news is that the price drop and the sales volume increase are directly linked — so they will continue no matter what the U.S. does domestically. Over the past four decades, for every doubling in scale of the solar industry, the price of solar modules has dropped roughly 26 percent.

The master chartists at Bloomberg New Energy Finance said in their New Energy Outlook (NEO) from June, “The chart below is arguably the most important chart in energy markets. It describes a pattern so consistent, and so powerful, that industries set their clocks by it”:

CREDIT: BNEF
CREDIT: BNEF

BNEF projects that by 2040, the world will invest an astonishing $3.4 trillion in solar alone — more than the projected cumulative investment for all new fossil fuels and new nuclear combined. Therefore, learning and cost drops will continue, meaning solar, wind and other technologies will become the cheapest ways to produce power in more and more places.

These price drops by themselves make the renewable revolution unstoppable, globally. Indeed, the December 2015 Paris climate agreement represents a commitment by all of the world’s leading countries toward even greater investment in clean energy in the coming decades.

What’s happening in solar (and wind) globally is happening in electric cars, batteries and energy efficiency, such as LED lights. This summer, Goldman Sachs compared LED adoption with the adoption of hybrid and electric vehicles and solar PV and wind.

The battery revolution has been particularly transformational — both in cost and performance. The IEA’s “Energy Technology Perspectives 2016” explains, “Since 2008, battery costs [in US dollars per kilowatt-hour] were cut by a factor of four and battery energy density [in watt-hours per liter] had a fivefold increase.”

CREDIT: IEA
CREDIT: IEA

BNEF projects that “batteries capable of storing power at utility scale will be as widespread in 12 years as rooftop solar panels are now, revolutionizing the way consumers use energy.” They offer this projection:

CREDIT: BNEF
CREDIT: BNEF

The synergy of the solar revolution and battery revolution are yet another reason why the clean energy revolution is unstoppable.

As for electric vehicles (EVs), both BNEF and IEA projection that, within a decade, we could well see sticker prices for long-range EVs directly competitive with that of gas-powered cars, while offering zero tailpipe emissions and much lower per-mile costs even running on carbon-free power.

But just because you can’t stop a revolution, doesn’t mean you can’t slow it. Tragically, voters have elected a science-denying President committed to killing U.S. and global climate action and zeroing out federal clean energy funding, a guy who is in bed with the enemies of clean energy, such as as Big Oil and Vladimir Putin. Trump has nominated ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State.

Consider this BNEF chart, which includes oil forecasts the IEA has made since 1994:

CREDIT: Bloomberg
CREDIT: Bloomberg

So EVs pose an existential threat in the medium term to oil companies like ExxonMobil, which require rising demand to keep prices from simply collapsing. Putin himself might well also consider EVs a threat to Russia’s economic future, one key to which is a $500 billion deal Arctic drilling deal with ExxonMobil that Obama’s sanctions stopped.

Exactly how hard will Trump and his Cabinet work to subvert the EV revolution — and the entire clean energy revolution? How hard will Trump work to promote coal use, which was one of his cornerstone campaign promises?

Will team Trump keep its promise to kill EPA and state regulations that help renewables compete with cheap gas and that could reduce methane leaks from fracking — leaks that help to entirely erase the climate benefit of gas? Will he facilitate drilling in the Arctic?

After a quarter century of ignoring the warnings of climate science, the world’s ability to avoid catastrophe is on a knife’s edge. If we have four, let alone eight, years of concerted effort by team Trump to squelch climate action and slow the clean energy revolution, then we will virtually eliminate any chances of avoiding devastating sea level rise, Dust-Bowlification, and the like.

The clean energy revolution is unstoppable, but climate chaos is not.