The Nuts And Bolts Behind How The World Will Deploy A Massive Amount of Clean Energy

Workers install a solar panel at a photovoltaic solar park situated on the outskirts of the coastal town of Lamberts Bay, South Africa, Tuesday, March. 29, 2016. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/SCHALK VAN ZUYDAM
Workers install a solar panel at a photovoltaic solar park situated on the outskirts of the coastal town of Lamberts Bay, South Africa, Tuesday, March. 29, 2016. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/SCHALK VAN ZUYDAM

Energy ministers from 23 countries and the European Commission, representing 75 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions and 90 percent of worldwide renewable power investments, will convene June 1–2 in San Francisco to encourage a new drive toward clean energy deployment, and further hasten the growing movement away from coal to the increasing use of green power.

“If you gather together a critical mass of energy leaders from the major investing nations and largest emitters of global greenhouse gases, through collaborations between and among those countries, you can end up with a lot of shared learning, and turn markets, helping to create new momentum in clean energy deployment,” said Jonathan Elkind, the Department of Energy’s assistant secretary for the office of international affairs.

Elkind has been interfacing with foreign governments on clean energy issues in advance of the forum, as well as serving as an advisor to Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, host of the conference and its top U.S. official representative.

The forum “can help countries around the globe accelerate how fast we deploy clean renewable energy to help meet the emissions commitments made in Paris,” Elkind said.

What is the CEM?

Begun in 2010, the Clean Energy Ministerial (CEM) meets annually, bringing global energy ministers together to collaborate on policies and programs promoting the transition to an international clean energy economy. The CEM grew out of the Major Economies Forum on Energy and Climate in July 2009, which agreed to launch a global partnership to drive transformational low-carbon and climate-friendly technologies.

CREDIT: Clean Energy Ministerial
CREDIT: Clean Energy Ministerial

CEM initiatives have strong private sector links, building on the technology action plans released by the Major Economies Forum Global Partnership in December 2009. But the CEM has adopted a “distributed leadership” approach, meaning countries are free to embrace initiatives of interest to them, but not required to participate in all of them.

This year’s meeting will focus on several issues, including follow-up actions to the agreements reached at the U.N. Paris climate conference, known as COP21. “The emphasis of the CEM is on deployment of clean energy technologies that are in the marketplace here and now,” Elkind said.

He cited, for example, the need to rely more on super-efficient equipment and appliances, which “can help to greatly reduce electricity demand while saving consumers money,” Elkind said. He pointed to the Super-Efficient Appliance Deployment program (SEAD), a CEM initiative in collaboration with the International Partnership for Energy Efficiency Cooperation (IPEEC), where governments try to find ways to encourage the manufacture, purchase, and use of energy-efficient appliances, lighting, and equipment worldwide.

Turning on the lights

Last year’s ministerial, for example, which took place in Mérida, Yucatán, Mexico, began this drive by establishing the CEM Global Lighting Challenge, a worldwide race to accelerate phase-in of high efficiency, high-quality, and affordable advanced lamps and lighting systems with a target of achieving cumulative global sales of 10 billion such units as rapidly as possible. The ministers noted that lighting accounts for 15 percent of global electricity usage and that using these improved products could save more than $100 billion in electricity costs alone, in addition to lowering carbon dioxide emissions.

In this photo taken Thursday, March 19, 2015, young South African “Ice Plants” are trimmed by a technician as they sit under LED light panels in the TingMao Agricultural Biotechnology grow room in Taipei, Taiwan. CREDIT: AP Photo/Wally Santana
In this photo taken Thursday, March 19, 2015, young South African “Ice Plants” are trimmed by a technician as they sit under LED light panels in the TingMao Agricultural Biotechnology grow room in Taipei, Taiwan. CREDIT: AP Photo/Wally Santana

“Lighting has been a particularly successful example involving lighting efficiency standards and testing protocols,” said Elkind, who worked as a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, focusing on energy security and foreign policy issues before joining the Energy Department.

“Our Indian colleagues, for example, became deeply familiar with the work of the Department of Energy and our labs on technical and analytic approaches — testing protocols and efficiency gains — from LED (light emitting diode) lamps systems, including assessments of benefits and costs,” he said.

India used much of that analytical work to accelerate by three to five years the development of the country’s own lighting efficiency standards, he said.

“In fact, India issued the first-ever comprehensive performance standard for LED lighting systems,” Elkind said. “Using that standard as the foundation, they undertook bulk buys of LEDs for distribution to hundreds of villages and saw the cost of LED lamps reduced from more than $4 per 9 watt bulb to just about $1 per bulb.’’

The Energy Department estimates that the LED standards alone could avoid 254 metric tonnes of CO2 emissions between 2015 and 2030, which is equivalent to shutting down roughly 90 standard sized coal fired power plants, he said. “So the CEM features collaboration that can be transformative in policy terms for many countries around the world, and have large impact in terms of scale,” he added.

Among other things, the CEM plans to similarly focus on ways to develop and deploy advanced cooling technologies at scale.

What’s next for the CEM?

In addition to U.S. Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz, confirmed energy ministers and other officials planning to attend the meeting include Wan Gang of China; Lars Christian Lilleholt of Denmark; James Carr of Canada; Motoo Hayashi of Japan; Máximo Pacheco of Chile; Vice President for Energy Union Maroš Šefčovič of the European Commission; Secretary Pedro Joaquin Coldwell of Mexico; Ollie Rehn of Finland; Tord Lien of Norway; Ibrahim Baylan of Sweden; and Juan José Aranguren of Argentina. Speakers and other attendees can be found on CEM’s website.

Simultaneously, the Department of Energy also will host the first meeting of Mission Innovation, an international effort to double research and development funding over five years for advanced low carbon energy technologies. The goal is to focus on new investments that can be scaled to different economic and energy market conditions, that can be scaled to varying economic market conditions that exist in participating countries and in the broader world.

In addition to the annual meeting, the CEM also helps run the Clean Energy Solutions Center, a global help desk available to any country — and used by more than 90 countries already — to get information online showing how to integrate more renewable energy into their systems in cost-effective, sustainable ways, as well as advice on dealing with issues related to financing, Elkind said.

During last year’s meeting, the ministers agreed to scale up the center by increasing the number of global experts available to respond to assistance requests, and by establishing a new section on clean energy finance. Both Australia and the United States promised additional funding, while Canada, India, Italy and Indonesia announced their countries would provide additional experts.

The result? Renewables are growing fast.

Increasing evidence in recent years already supports the growing acceptance and use of renewable sources both here and globally. Although fossil fuels likely will continue to be the dominant source of energy in the coming years — including natural gas, the fastest-growing fossil fuel — renewables are expected to be the world’s fastest-growing energy source through 2040, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration’s International Energy Outlook.

The momentum toward clean energy is unstoppable. You either adapt, or get run over.

Moreover, the EIA recently reported that wind, natural gas, and solar comprised almost all new electric generation capacity last year, accounting for 41 percent, 30 percent, and 26 percent of total additions, respectively, according to preliminary data. Also, 2015 saw a record amount of distributed solar photovoltaic (PV) capacity added on rooftops throughout the nation, according to the data. Furthermore, these trends are likely to continue this year, the report said.

While renewables are taking off, the appetite for coal has seriously waned. Both production and prices of coal declined in 2015, the EIA said. Since its high point in 2008, U.S. coal production has continued to fall, partly due to low natural gas prices, less international demand and the impact of environmental regulations.

“The traditional way of generating electricity, in large-scale fossil fuel plants, is getting more expensive in the United States due to a combination of aging infrastructure, imbedded system inefficiency and environmental policy,” said Richard Kauffman, New York State’s chairman of energy and finance who also served as a senior advisor to former Energy Secretary Steven Chu. “While the central station model is increasing in cost, ‘distributed’ energy generation from solar, batteries and other technology is continuing to experience dramatic cost declines.”

In this July 28, 2015 file photo, electricians install solar panels on a roof for Arizona Public Service company in Goodyear, Ariz. CREDIT: AP Photo/Matt York, File
In this July 28, 2015 file photo, electricians install solar panels on a roof for Arizona Public Service company in Goodyear, Ariz. CREDIT: AP Photo/Matt York, File

In the United States, policy is another factor encouraging the trend toward renewables: in particular, subsidies to industries producing the technology, which lowers their cost, said energy analyst Kevin Prouty, vice president of research for IDC Energy Insights.

“The question is: how long can subsidies continue to be part of solar and wind?” he cautioned. “If we shut all the coal plants down, and the subsidies get taken away — and the price of gas begins to skyrocket — there may be some clamoring to fire those coal plants up again.”

Clean energy advocates also warn against an over-reliance on natural gas which, while currently less expensive and cleaner burning than coal, nevertheless is still a fossil fuel — and one with its own dangerous emissions issues.

“While this can help drive down emissions in the near-term, the reality is that … the methane emissions associated with the production, distribution, and storage of natural gas could significantly worsen its greenhouse gas profile,” said Rachel Cleetus, climate policy manager at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

That said, however, “it’s great to see countries recognizing the tremendous economic opportunities of embracing a clean energy future,” she added.

Jim Marston, the Environmental Defense Fund’s vice president for clean energy, agreed, noting that the trends are now especially striking in the United States. “The solar and wind industries are booming, making homegrown clean energy more common and affordable than ever,” he said. “The momentum toward clean energy is unstoppable. You either adapt, or get run over.”

Marlene Cimons is a freelance writer who specializes in health, science and the environment.