Massive gains in global renewable energy generation capacity last year

The other day Chris from made an interesting comment on my post on coal power as the “saviour” of those in Third World poverty.  You can see my response here, but she got me thinking that I should look into how renewable energy generation has been going recently.

This morning ABC News saved me the trouble.  They have a post on the global expansion of renewable energy generation which provides a good overview of what is happening.  As they show, if you strip out the figures for hydropower which distort the calculation of annual percentage growth because of the very large existing base of “old” hydropower plants, the expansion of other, newer, forms of renewable energy is very impressive.

Despite tumbling fossil fuel prices, global renewable energy experienced its greatest surge in capacity last year, growing 9 per cent or around 147 gigawatts (GW) of power.

Stripping out hydro – the world’s largest source of renewable energy – other technologies such as solar, geothermal and wind grew by 18 per cent according a report published by REN21, a network of global government, non-government and research organisations involved in the sector.

“The world now adds more renewable power capacity annually than it adds from all fossil fuels combined,” the report noted.

“By the end of 2015, renewable capacity in place was enough to supply an estimated 23.7 per cent of global electricity, with hydropower providing about 16.6 per cent.”

While the growth was supported by several factors – including better financing, more sympathetic policies, as well as energy security and environmental concerns – the key driver was that renewables were now cost competitive in many markets.

“This growth occurred despite tumbling global prices for all fossil fuels, ongoing fossil fuel subsidies and other challenges facing renewables, including the integration of rising shares of renewable generation, policy and political instability, regulatory barriers and fiscal constraints,” the report said.

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) estimated fossil fuel companies last year received subsidies totalling around $US5.3 trillion ($7.3 trillion) worldwide, although the International Energy Agency put the figure at a more modest $US493 billion ($680 billion) largely due to a lower estimate of the potential costs of carbon pollution.

Solar PV capacity grew by 27 per cent to a total 227 GW capacity, while wind power was up by 17 per cent to 433 GW.

You can see the full ABC News article here.

It would be interesting to see the current figures for solar PV installation in the Lockyer Valley Region.  In a November 2012 post I calculated that 21.2% of the private houses in the Lockyer had solar power installations – up with the best in Australia at the time.


Australia’s coal is essential for overcoming Third World Poverty??

While I’m on a rave about coal, sustainability and myths (see Josh Frydenberg’s myths about the security of Peabody coal mines in Australia and his (unintentional) demolition of their employment contribution), let’s look at the myth of how our coal is essential to eradicating poverty in Third World countries.

The following is from Mike Sandiford, Professor of Geology at the University of Melbourne in The Conversation:

“Back in Australia, our coal lobby is fond of quotes of the ilk … “_Only when Third World children can do homework at night using cheap coal-fired electricity can they escape from poverty” .

And at least some in our government seem of a like mind.

Why, might we ask, does it matter that it is just “cheap coal-fired” electricity that alone will alleviate poverty? Why does not cheap hydro, geothermal, nuclear or whatever else, also do the trick?

No doubt coal has been a useful source of electricity in the third world, and will likely remain so for some time given that not all countries are endowed with the hydro resources of the Bhutanese. But is clear that Bhutan puts paid to the idea that coal alone can alleviate poverty.

But Bhutan also shows that there is something more fundamental that our coal lobby is loathe to acknowledge, and it speaks to the very paradox that lies at the heart of their claim – given that cheap coal has been around powering electricity systems for over 150 years, why are any children still living in poverty?

Could it be that the purported saviour of the world’s poor – the coal industry – doesn’t really have such a flash track record in the altruism stakes after all?”

Seems that no matter whether we are looking at our sustainable options here in Australia or at eradicating poverty in Third World countries, coal mining isn’t a critical component of either and may just be getting in the way of real solutions.

Australian coal mines as major employers?

We keep on hearing it – Australia needs coal mines, and more of them, in order to generate employment.

Here’s something to think about.

When Peabody Energy, the world’s biggest coal miner, sought bankruptcy protection in the US a little while ago there were ripples of concern in Australia over the possible loss of jobs from their coal mines here.

However the Federal Resources Minister Josh Frydenberg immediately reassured Australians that this was not a risk because of the importance of the local mines to the company.

“My primary concern is with the Australian operations of Peabody. They have 10 mines across Queensland and New South Wales, nearly 3,500 workers if you include the contractors and I spoke to the president of Peabody and they informed me that they will not be reducing their Australian workforce,” Frydenberg told the ABC.

“They have funding to continue with their Australian operations and they see their work in Australia as being core to their operations particularly the proximity their Australian mines have to key demand in Asia.”

So these aren’t tinpot little mines supplying local power plants, but part of the core of Peabody Energy’s operations supplying “key demand in Asia”.

Did you notice that these 10 key mines each employ an average of only 350 workers (including the associated contractors).

Apparently that’s not an unusual number.  The Glencore mine at Tahmoor in New South Wales is about to be closed, putting 350 people out of work.  Glencore produces coking coal (according to pro-mining lobbyists this is the key to the future of coal in Australia) and it also supplies overseas markets.

Just in passing, I wonder how many people are employed on average to deal with the environmental, climate change and human health impacts of just one of these coal mines.

In addition, it seems as if Frydenberg’s assurances about Peabody’s Australian mines might have been a bit of pre-election “voter calming” according to information now available from auditors Ernst and Young who drew attention to a note in the financial report “which details the principal conditions that raise doubt about the company’s and the consolidated entity’s ability to continue as a going concern”.

“As a result of these matters, there is significant uncertainty whether the company and/or the consolidated entity will continue as a going concern, and therefore whether they will realise their assets and extinguish their liabilities in the normal course of business and at the amounts stated in the financial report.”

Just how sustainable is Australia’s ongoing involvement in coal mining?