The landscape is shifting even more dramatically toward renewables around the world. Solar was the leading source of new capacity in 2016, according to the International Energy Agency, as developing countries increasingly look toward photovoltaic cells and wind turbines to provide electricity for the more than 1.2 billion people who still lack power.
The Middle East and North Africa in particular could be solar superpowers, Jacobson said.
“Places that have a lot of land, that have deserts, and that are running on fossil fuels, they’re targets for transition to clean, renewable energy,” Jacobson said. “In pretty much every country that has buildings, solar can be very cheap, You can add batteries to your buildings and even provide electricity 24 hours a day.”
China has fueled the boom by pouring money into solar and wind power, becoming a clean-energy superpower and driving down prices worldwide. And as costs fall, they’re drawing more investment.
“Countries are taking a step back on coal,” David Schlissel, who directs resource planning analysis at the Cleveland-based Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, told Seeker. “There are new coal plants being proposed and built, but they’re taking a step back on their plans for coal and moving toward renewables.”
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In August, the US financial giant JP Morgan Chase announced it was pouring $200 billion into clean energy between now and 2025 — and would power all its operations with renewables by 2020. The company’s offices total about 75 million square feet, the equivalent of 27 Empire State buildings. It’s also curtailed investment in coal, swearing off funding for new coal-fired plants in the developed world and limiting funds in the developing world to high-tech, cleaner generating units.
But while other countries are moving toward wind and solar, Schlissel said, policies in the United States have lagged behind. Some public utilities have fought rooftop solar in the South, where their plants rely more heavily on coal. The Republican-led Trump administration is fighting market trends to revive the country’s moribund mines, while the bulk of the GOP now resists efforts to address carbon emissions — or calls the issue a hoax.
“I don’t think politically we’re going get from where we are today in 20 years to full renewables,” Schlissel said. “I think the future is going to be consistenly declining coal, though it won’t be a straight line down … and then the alternative is going to be a mixtures of renewables and natural gas.”
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The Trump administration has asked Congress to slash funding for renewable energy and announced plans to repeal the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan, the core of the US pledge under the Paris climate pact — which President Donald Trump has renounced as well.
Fanshaw said the Trump administration’s tack is “definitely concerning.” Energy Secretary Rick Perry’s call for rate subsidies for coal and nuclear plants that are losing ground in deregulated utility markets could pose a particular threat to renewable growth, he said. And the White House may soon be asked to decide whether to impose tariffs on imported solar panels, a choice that could pit the administration’s stated antipathy for trade it considers unfair against its disdain for renewable energy.
“For a long time, we’ve been saying we need to move to renewables because it’s the right thing to do,” Fanshaw said. “Now we can say it’s the right thing to do, and it solves your math problem, too.” But subsidizing coal and nuclear plants “would throw a wrench into the equation.”
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