By Lowell Feld, Guest Columnist
Now is an exciting time to be in the clean energy space, with several powerful vectors – technology advances; rapidly dropping costs; continued fossil fuel price volatility; environmental imperatives, such as climate disruption and water shortages; and the resulting national security implications - converging to create a hot house for renewable energy growth and opportunity.
Case in point, check out this news from the past few days:
- Two new reports by GTM Research forecast "dramatic [renewable energy] growth in nearly every region of the world over the coming decades," with wind power becoming the "least-cost option almost universally" within a decade, and with solar power dominating new capacity additions by 2020;
- India set a 100-gigawatt target for solar power by 2022;
- The global solar power market can triple in 5 years;
- The U.S. can achieve its "Sunshot," with solar power "competitive with fossil fuels by 2020, if not before;"
- China is likely to install 230 GW of wind power by 2024.
No wonder, as Ceres noted in August 2014, that clean energy represents a multi-trillion-dollar opportunity for the 21st century.
So, the good news is that clean energy technology and economics keep improving both in absolute terms and relative to fossil fuels. The bad news is that the urgency to shift the economy to a clean energy footing is intensifying fast.
Several days ago, NOAA reported that May 2015 was the warmest May ever recorded, stating that it was the “warmest start to a calendar year in recorded history” (of course, this is a direct result of global warming driven by the combustion of fossil fuels). In addition, NASA just reported that "more than half of Earth's 37 largest aquifers are being depleted," a problem NASA stated is already "quite critical" and "likely to worsen as reliance on aquifers grows." Clearly, in a world of chronic, severe water shortages, the last thing we need is extremely water-intensive fossil fuel production ramping up.
In recent years, the amount of water used for fracking has skyrocketed and of course, coal power plants also use huge amounts of water. Additionally, we know that it takes as much as 120 gallons of fresh water to produce a single barrel of tar sands oil. In stark contrast, wind and solar power (not to mention energy efficiency) use little to no water at all, a major advantage over fossil fuels in a time of drought and water scarcity.
Unfortunately, what we've seen recently is public policy lagging - or even hindering - the tremendous strides being made in clean energy technology, cost, investment and scaling. In part, that's a result of pure political calculation by the fossil fuel industry and its allies, who have attempted to drive political polarization in an area that should not be politicized at all. Of course, as we know from the social science research, people bring differing value sets to their decision-making processes, placing emphasis on what matters most to them. Opponents of clean energy scaling have cynically preyed on this on this fundamental aspect of human nature, with fossil fuel industry shills like Rick Berman stating point blank that they "must be willing to exploit emotions like fear, greed and anger and turn them against the environmental groups" and the clean energy industry. That’s part of what drove the phony "Climategate" and Solyndra "scandals," and which drove climate science and clean energy technologies into a culture war, impeding the ability to develop bipartisan supports for solutions.
Fortunately, the Encyclical released last week by Pope Francis helps bring values and science into agreement, offering "moral guidance rooted in an 'integral ecology' based on fundamental Catholic teaching about care for all creation." As part of that care for creation, Pope Francis makes it clear that global warming and other serious environmental problems are "aggravated by a model of development based on the intensive use of fossil fuels, which is at the heart of the worldwide energy system." The answer, in Pope Francis' eyes, is clearly "an urgent need to develop policies so that, in the next few years, the emission of carbon dioxide and other highly polluting gases can be drastically reduced, for example, substituting for fossil fuels and developing sources of renewable energy."
“That’s what’s so encouraging about the Pope’s Encyclical – it’s a big step forward in the values conversation around the most important issue of our time,” said Mike Casey, president of Tigercomm, a marketing communications firm that serves the cleantech space.
As passionate clean energy communicators and advocates, Tigercomm of course agrees with Pope Francis on his call to switch rapidly from a dirty, unsustainable economy to a clean, environmentally and economically sustainable one. The greatest significance of Pope Francis' clarion call, however, is that it's not those of us in the cleantech and/or public relations industry delivering the message, but the respected, exalted spiritual leader of 1.2 billion Roman Catholics worldwide.
Now, we will see to what degree the confluence of Pope Francis' moral message with the clear scientific consensus on climate change will have an impact on policy debates, or if the fossil fuel lobby’s disinformation campaigns will prevail. If the Pope’s viewpoint wins, the result could be an even faster acceleration than we've been seeing towards clean energy technologies such as wind, solar, building energy efficiency and energy storage. Pope Francis specifically mentions several of these technologies in his encyclical, which urges us to move rapidly away from the 19th and early 20th-century fossil fuels that are making the planet "look more and more like an immense pile of filth."
The bottom line is that if we in cleantech are to win the battle, it will not be simply because of the powerful economic, scientific and technological vectors pushing in our direction, but with the blessings of a new and important moral player in this important fight for our shared future.