Renewables Projected To Add Triple The Capacity Of New Fossil Fuel Plants By 2030

Low oil prices won’t pull investment from renewable energy. CREDIT: AP/MATT YOUNG
Low oil prices won’t pull investment from renewable energy. CREDIT: AP/MATT YOUNG

The “world is already adding more renewable-energy capacity each year than fossil fuel capacity,” Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF) explained earlier this year. And BNEF’s just-released 2030 Market Outlook projects that disparity will skyrocket, concluding that “renewable energy may reap as much as two-thirds of the $7.7 trillion in investment forecast for building new power plants by 2030 as declining costs make it more competitive with fossil fuels.”

That means some $5 trillion in renewable investment over the next decade and a half. Of the 5 terawatts (5000 gigawatts) of generating capacity that will be added worldwide over the next 15 years, over 3 TW (3000 GW) are projected by BNEF to come from renewables. The capacity of plants powered by fossil fuels — coal, gas and oil — will account for under 1100 gigawatts.

Here is a chart from Bloomberg New Energy Finance founder (and former CEO) Michael Liebreich:

BNEF explains that since the sun doesn’t always shine, the wind doesn’t always blow, and fossil fuel plants don’t run non-stop, “the capacity factor for U.S. renewables is about 34 percent, compared with a capacity factor of 64 percent for coal, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.” On the other hand, “In coming years that distinction will matter less, as new renewable generation outpaces new fossil-fuel generation by a wide margin” — by over 7-to-1 in 2030 according to the chart above.

Another recent study from the Energy Department’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL) underscores how low the cost of this transition really is. Researchers found that the cost of rapidly expanding U.S. renewable power in recent years (due in large part to state Renewable Portfolio Standards) “was less than 1 percent of retail electricity rates on average.”

And that cost differential continues to shrink as renewables like wind and solar keep coming down the learning curve, shedding costs over 99 percent since 1977.

For more on the reasons behind the recent success of renewable energy, here’s a great video by Peter Sinclair, climate decrocker and award-winning graphic artist, illustrator, and animator:

So both wind and solar are “within striking distance” of being competitive worldwide unsubsidized, according to Liebreich. The result, he explained is that, “What we are seeing is global CO2 emissions on track to stop growing by the end of next decade, with the peak only pushed back because of fast-growing developing countries, which continue adding fossil fuel capacity as well as renewables.”

The bad news is this renewables Renaissance won’t be enough to stop catastrophic climate change by itself. That’s because as the International Energy Agency, among others, has explained many times, the fossil fuel infrastructure built by the year 2017 will, by itself use up the entire carbon budget needed to stay below 2°C (3.6°F).

The only way to avoid blowing past multiple dangerous irreversible thresholds would be to actually start retiring fossil fuel plants before they reach the end of their lifetime, which is to say, before they are allowed to destroy a livable climate. And that will in general require the kind of moderate and rising carbon price that almost everyone but Tea-Party-driven conservatives supports — including former Treasury Secretaries from the Bush administration.

The notion that pushing R&D; alone could possibly avert multiple catastrophes has been demolished by essentially every major study ever done on the subject, including this new one from BNEF.