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USA/Africa: Achieving 100% Renewable Energy
May 7, 2018 (180507)
(Reposted from sources cited below)
"We can’t have a working nation or a world if we don’t stop the climate from
careening out of control. That’s been clear for decades now, but what’s been less
clear is precisely what we should do about it. Happily, that’s no longer the case. We
now know exactly what to do, and we’re increasingly certain it can be done. We have
to switch off of coal, oil, and gas, and on to 100% wind, water, and sun energy
sources." - Bill McKibben
Prominent climate justice activist Bill McKibben, one of the founders of
http://350.org, puts it clearly in his most recent article, highlighting the
situation in the United States but also making a case that applies around the world.
And Joe Romm illustrated the point in another recent article noting that wind and
solar provided stunning 98 percent of new U.S. power capacity in January and February
this year, according to the latest statistics from the Federal Energy Regulatory
The trend line is clear, despite the fervent opposing actions of President Trump, EPA
Commissioner Scott Pruitt, and fossil-fuel industry and its tame politicians around
the world. But the pace is still much too slow, and technological progress must be
matched with political and grass-roots pressure to have a chance of staving off the
worst consequences, already disastrous for many of the most vulnerable.
This AfricaFocus Bulletin reposts these two short articles by McKibben and Romm.
Another AfricaFocus Bulletin released today (and available at
http://www.africafocus.org/docs18/clim1805a.php) contains excerpts from a number of
articles on both progress and protests on the African continent, including a review
of trends in the U.S. Power Africa initiative, the case of the Chinese-backed Lamu
coal plant being opposed by Kenyan environmentalists, and more.
The best source for documenting the advance of renewable energy worldwide is the
International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA,
http://www.irena.org/). Its latest progress report was published on May 2, 2018
(available at http://tinyurl.com/y9bxyoly).
For previous AfricaFocus Bulletins on climate and the environment, visit
++++++++++++++++++++++end editor's note+++++++++++++++++
Achieving 100% Renewable Energy
by Bill McKibben
Sanders Institute, April 2018
Last year, Hurricane Harvey dropped more rain on Houston than any storm has ever
dropped on any American city, ever. Hurricane Maria set back development in Puerto
Rico 25 years, according to early estimates. And the tab keeps mounting: in 2017
alone, the economic cost of hurricanes and wildfires was greater than the cost of
paying tuition for every American in a public college or university. We can’t have a
working nation or a world if we don’t stop the climate from careening out of control.
That’s been clear for decades now, but what’s been less clear is precisely what we
should do about it.
Happily, that’s no longer the case. We now know exactly what to do, and we’re
increasingly certain it can be done. We have to switch off of coal, oil, and gas, and
on to 100% wind, water, and sun energy sources. And though this drive for a
conversion to clean energy started in northern Europe and northern California, it’s a
call that’s gaining traction outside the obvious green enclaves. More and more major
US cities have taken the pledge to go 100% renewable by the year 2050, while others
have taken action to sever their ties with the fossil fuel industry, signifying a
global shift in how we’re thinking about our energy system.
What Medicare for All is to the health care debate, or Fight for $15 is to the battle
about inequality, 100% Renewable is to the struggle for the planet’s future. It’s how
progressives will think about energy going forward.
Former President Barack Obama drove environmentalists crazy with his “all of the
above” energy policy, which treated sun and wind as two items on a long menu that
also included coal, gas and oil. That’s simply not good enough. No more halfmeasures.
Scientists now tell us that at current rates, within a decade we’ll likely have put
enough carbon in the atmosphere to warm the earth past the Paris climate targets. And
in any event there’s no need any longer to go slow: engineers have in the last few
years brought the price of renewables so low that it would make sense to switch over
even if fossil fuel wasn’t wrecking the earth. In fact, that’s why the appeal of 100%
renewables goes well beyond the left: if you pay a power bill, clean energy is
increasingly the common-sense path forward. But that doesn’t mean it’s going to
happen automatically: the fossil fuel industry recognizes its peril, and is rallying
all the political power its cash reserves can buy to prevent the idea getting
traction. It’s going to be a hell of a fight.
To understand why it took a while to get here, consider the solar panel. We’ve
actually had this clever device for quite a while: Bell Labs produced the first
recognizable models in 1954. They were only about four percent efficient, and they
were incredibly expensive to produce, which meant that they didn’t find many uses on
planet Earth. In space, however, they were essential: Buzz Aldrin deployed a solar
panel on the moon not long after Apollo 11 touched down.
Improvements in efficiency and drops in price came slowly for the next few decades
(Ronald Reagan, you may recall, took down the solar panels Jimmy Carter had installed
atop the White House). But in 1998, with climate fears on the rise, Germany’s Green
Party found itself holding the political balance of power after a close election. In
return for its support, the Social Democratic government began moving quickly toward
renewable energy. German demand for solar panels and wind turbines coincided with
rapidly growing Chinese industrial capacity in the early years of the new millennia,
as factories across the People’s Republic learned to make the panels ever more
There are now days when Germany generates half of its power from the sun—and, more to
the point, the price of a panel began to truly plummet years ago, a freefall that
continues to this day. By 2017, solar or wind power had won most competitive bids for
electric supply, and India announced the closure of dozens of coal mines and the
cancellation of plans for dozens of new coal-fired generation stations because the
cost of solar power was badly undercutting fossil fuel. Even in places like Abu
Dhabi, the comparative advantage of free power from the sun is impossible to resist,
and massive arrays are going up amidst the oil fields.
One person who noticed the falling prices and improving technology early on was Mark
Jacobson, the director of Stanford University’s Atmosphere and Energy Program. In
2009 his team published a series of plans showing how the United States could
generate all its energy from the sun, the wind, and the falling water that produces
hydropower. Two years later, along with actor Mark Ruffalo and other coconspirators,
Marc co-founded The Solutions Project to take the idea out of academic
journals and into the real world. The group has since published similarly detailed
plans for most of the planet’s countries. (If you want to know how many acres of
south-facing roof you can find in Alabama, or how much wind blows across Zimbabwe,
these are the folks to ask).
With each passing quarter the price of solar and wind power has fallen farther,
moving the 100 percent target from aspirational goal to the obvious solution. I spent
the spring of 2017 in some of the poorest parts of Africa where people—for the daily
price of enough kerosene to fill a single lamp—were now installing solar panels and
powering up TVs, radios, and LED bulbs. If you can do it in Germany and you can do it
in Ghana, you can probably do it in Grand Rapids and Gainesville.
This minigrid in Niger can provide power to a village. IRENA is providing grids
and home solar kits to 100 rural villages.
That’s especially true since renewable energy is lights-on popular across the
American political spectrum. The polling data is almost unbelievable: in a country
with a yawning partisan gulf on virtually every issue, one poll after another shows
that massive majorities of Democrats, Republicans and independents favor government
action to develop renewable energy.
Even 72% of Republican voters want to “accelerate the development of clean energy” in
the United States. That helps explain why, say, the Sierra Club is finding dramatic
success with its Ready for 100 campaign. Sure, Berkeley was quick to sign on, and
Madison, Wisconsin. But by the early summer of 2017 the U.S. Conference of Mayors had
endorsed the drive, and leaders were popping up in unexpected places.
Columbia South Carolina mayor Steve Benjamin even said, “It’s not an option. It’s an
imperative.” Environmental groups from Climate Mobilization to Greenpeace to Food and
Water Watch are backing the 100% target, differing mainly on how quickly we must
achieve the transition, with answers ranging from 2028 to 2050. (The right answer,
given the state of the planet, is 25 years ago. The second best response: as fast as
is humanly possible.)
Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders joined with Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley in the spring
of 2017 to propose the first federal 100 percent bill. It won’t pass Congress any
time soon, but Congress is not the only legislative body that matters in America—you
could make an argument that in the Trump era capitals like Sacramento are just as
In a conscious bid to recreate the spirit of the Paris climate talks, California
governor Jerry Brown summoned the world’s “sub-national” leaders—governors, mayors,
regional administrators—to a giant San Francisco conference in September of 2018:
“Look, it’s up to you, and it’s up to me and tens of millions of other people to get
it together to roll back the forces of carbonization and join together to combat the
existential threat of climate change,” said Brown, as he invited the world to his
gathering. If activists have their way over the next few months, many of those cities
and states will arrive in the Bay bearing pledges to take their places totally
That’s not to say that this fight is going to be easy. The fossil fuel industry is
well aware that they’re not the future, yet they’re determined to keep us stuck in
the past as long as possible. Every year they can drag out the transition means
billions of dollars in revenue.
The arguments against renewables has always been: the sun goes down, the wind ceases
to blow. Indeed, one group of academics challenged Jacobson’s calculations last
spring partly on these grounds. But technology marches on: Elon Musk’s batteries
work in Tesla cars, but scaled up they also make it possible, and economic, for
utilities to store the afternoon’s sun for the evening’s electric demand. As one
California utility executive said at an industry meeting in May 2017, “The technology
has been resolved. How fast do you want to get to 100 percent? That can be done
The trouble, however, is that most utility executives think in very different ways.
The growth in new rooftop solar installations has come to what the New York Times
called “a shuddering halt,” largely because of “a concerted and well-funded lobbying
campaign by traditional utilities, which have been working in state capitals across
the country to reverse incentives for homeowners.” Instead of cutting residents a
break for helping solve the climate crisis, the utilities—led by the American
Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and the Edison Electric Institute (whose lobbying
efforts ratepayers actually underwrite)—are eager to end “net-metering” laws that let
customers sell excess power they generate back to the grid. That’s pretty much the
law that Germany used to make itself a renewable energy powerhouse—and in the process
cause huge losses for its utilities.
Rather than trying to adapt to renewable energy, says industry observer Nancy
LaPlaca, “utilities have a great monopoly going and they want to keep it.” They use
their political clout to make sure that state regulators roll over. Sometimes the
results are truly ludicrous—Arizona, for instance, whose capital lies in the “Valley
of the Sun” and whose sports fans root for the Suns and the Sun Devils, produces only
about 4% of its power from solar energy. Its biggest utility has showered state
regulators with dark money to keep it that way—in fact, in the spring of 2017 a
former utility commissioner and his wife were indicted by the feds, along with an
industry lobbyist, for their role in anti-solar shenanigans.
And it’s not just right-wing Republicans who want to keep business as usual chugging
along. Democrats have often found themselves supporting new fossil fuel plans because
they are beholden to the building trades unions for campaign support. That was the
case last fall when the AFL-CIO, reflecting those building trades members, released a
statement supporting the Dakota Access pipeline days after the security companies
hired by the oil industry had sicced German Shepherds on indigenous protesters:
“The AFL-CIO supports pipeline construction as part of a comprehensive energy
policy,” labor chief Richard Trumka said in a statement. “Pipeline construction and
maintenance provides quality jobs.” And of course Donald Trump approved the project
early in his presidency, shortly after a cheerful meeting with the heads of the
building trades unions. The first oil flowed through it the same afternoon that he
pulled America out of the Paris climate accords.
That means, of course, that renewables advocates need to emphasize the jobs that will
be created as we move towards sun and wind—and since those jobs aren’t always going
to be in the same places as the fossil fuel ones they replace, a just transition for
displaced workers is needed. There are already far more Americans employed in the
solar industry than in the coal fields, and we’re still near the start of the
conversion: Sanders and Merkley produced studies to show their federal 100 percent
bill, beyond its generous transition benefits, would produce three million net new
jobs over the coming decades.
Environmental justice advocates, who have been at the front of the climate fight, are
quick to point out that a push for renewables needs to means more than EV charging
stations and solar panels on the roofs of people who can afford big roofs. If a city
announces it’s going 100% renewable and then keeps buying diesel buses (or stops
buying buses altogether, relying on Lyft and Uber to create an alternate transit
system), then it would be an empty boast.
Meanwhile, renters need ways to join the renewable revolution, just like homeowners.
None of it’s easy. As Jacqui Patterson, who heads the NAACP’s environmental justice
work, says: “people now lose their lives for not being able to pay for
electricity—they’re burning down their houses by using candlelight, or because their
oil has run out and they have to use heaters, or they’re on respirators and their
electricity goes out. So as we’re transitioning to renewables, we need to make sure
there are not unintended consequences in term of rate increases--for those
communities ‘just transition’ means their bills don’t fluctuate upwards. Ideally
their bills would go down.” In the best of worlds, she adds, “just transition means
they’re owning part of the energy infrastructure. They’re not just a consumer writing
a check every month, but they see now a chance to own part of that infrastructure.”
There are signs that’s starting to happen. When Sanders and Merkley announced their
federal legislation in April of 2017, leaders of groups like Green for All and
Brooklyn’s feisty UPROSE were featured speakers; one of the most impassioned
endorsements came from Mustafa Ali of the Hip Hop Caucus: “This act gives our country
an opportunity to embrace a just transition, honor the innovation and hard work that
exists in communities that are often overlooked and forgotten, and revitalize
communities of color, low income communities and indigenous populations,” he said.
In May of 2017, the Wallace Global Fund, one of the big environmental philanthropies,
pointedly awarded the Standing Rock Sioux a million dollars to build renewable energy
on the reservation, a fitting commemoration to the bravery of protesters who tried to
hold the Dakota pipeline at bay and a reminder that private charities will need to
play a role in this transition as well. But the political battle will be hard-fought:
the New York Times reported last year that the Koch Brothers have begun to
aggressively (and cynically) court minority communities, arguing that they “benefit
the most from cheap and abundant fossil fuels.”
America’s twisted politics may slow the transition to renewables, but other countries
are now pushing the pace. In July of 2017, for instance, the Chinese announced that
Qinghai Province—a territory the size of Texas—had gone a week relying on 100%
renewable energy, a test of grid reliability designed to show that the country could
continue its record-breaking pace of wind and solar installation. (About the same
time the Chinese released aerial photos of their newest giant wind farm—which seen
from above depicts a cheerful black-and-white panda).
China is not alone:
One Friday in April of 2017, Great Britain managed to meet its power demands without
burning a lump of coal for the first time since the launch of the Industrial
Solar production has grown six-fold since 2014 in Chile
Santiago announced that starting this year, their subway system will be running
entirely on the sun.
Since January 1 of 2017, Holland’s train system has been entirely powered by the
These are all good signs—but set against the rapid disintegration of ice caps and the
record global temperatures set each of the last three years they also seem like too
little. It’s going to take a deeper level of commitment—including turning the federal
government from an obstacle to an advocate over the next election cycles. That’s
doable precisely because the idea of renewable energy is so popular.
“There’s a few reasons why 100% renewable is working—why it’s such a powerful idea,”
says Mike Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club. “People have agency, for one.
People who are outraged, alarmed, depressed, filled with despair about climate
change—they want to make a difference in ways they can see, so they’re turning to
their backyards. Turning to their city, their state, their university. And, it’s
exciting—it’s a way to address this not just through dread with something that sparks
Sometimes, he said, all environmentalists have to rally together to work on the same
thing: the Keystone pipeline, the Paris accord. “But in this case the politics is as
distributed as the solution—it’s people working on thousands of examples of the one
idea.” An idea whose time has come.
Wind, solar deliver stunning 98 percent of new U.S. power capacity in January,
Renewables to provide 69 percent of new capacity by March 2021, as dozens of coal
plants are retired
by Joe Romm
ThinkProgress, April 24, 2018
Solar and wind power was responsible for a remarkable 98 percent of all new U.S.
power generation capacity that came online in the first two months of 2018.
According to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s (FERC) latest “Energy
Infrastructure Update,” the overwhelming majority of new power plants set up in
January and February were renewable energy projects.
As FERC reports, during these two months, 1,568 Megawatts of wind and 565 MW of solar
power capacity were put into service — along with just 40 MW of natural gas.
While President Trump and Energy Secretary Rick Perry have been promoting policies
that favor fossil fuel generation over renewables, FERC reports that most of the big
new renewable energy projects came online in states that voted for Trump.
These projects include the 170 MW Beaver Creek Wind Project in Iowa, the 168 MW
Prairie Wind Project, also in Iowa, and the 81 MW Stuttgart Solar Project in
The stunning and ongoing price drops in solar and wind have shifted the economics of
new generation away from fossil fuels.
Indeed, FERC also projects that renewables will keep dominating the market for new
power generation over the next three years, while coal power plants will keep being
shuttered for the foreseeable future.
Of the nearly 212,000 MW of new net generating capacity — additions minus retirements
— proposed by March 2021, renewables comprise almost 147,000 MW, or 69 percent of the
Meanwhile, FERC reports that over the next three years, 70 coal power units will be
shut down while only 5 new ones are expected to be added. Net coal generation will
drop by more than 15,000 MW.
The coal and nuclear industries have been wooing both Trump and Perry to get an
emergency intervention, which is to say, a massive bailout.
But whatever the Administration does in the short term, the global shift toward
cheaper, cleaner energy is unstoppable.
AfricaFocus Bulletin is an independent electronic publication providing reposted
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