The Great Transition to Renewable Energy

In his latest book, The Great Transition, Lester Brown and co-authors catalog the developments under way that are leading us away from fossil and nuclear fuels to renewable energy.

It’s easy to forget how far we’ve come, here are seven crucial milestones we have passed on our path to a green economy, laid out in the book:

Lester Brown Great Transition

1. Solar is so cheap that global adoption appears unstoppable.

  • The price of solar PV panels has declined 99% over the last four decades, from $74 a watt in 1972 to less than 70 cents a watt in 2014.
  • Between 2009-2014, solar panel prices dropped by 75%, helping global PV installations grow 50% a year.
  • As of early 2014, solar PV is competitive with average residential, commercial or industrial electricity rates in 14 countries, and in California – even without subsidies, according to Deutsche Bank.
  • As of late 2014, there are nearly 600,000 individual PV systems in the US, almost twice that of 2012, and we may well pass 1 million in 2016.
  • See more solar power facts here.

2. Wind is rapidly altering energy portfolios around the world.

  • World wind capacity has been growing more than 20% a year for the past decade, driven by falling costs and  supportive policies.
  • By the end of 2014, global wind generating capacity totaled 369,000 megawatts, enough to power over 90 million US homes. Wind has a big lead on solar PV, which has enough worldwide capacity to power roughly 30 million US homes.
  • China generates more electricity from wind than from nuclear energy, and should have little trouble meeting its official 2020 wind power goal of 200,000 megawatts. That would be enough to satisfy the annual electricity needs of Brazil.
  • See more wind power facts here.

3. National and subnational energy policies promote renewables, and many governments are considering a price on carbon.

  • Unfortunately, governments worldwide still subsidize the fossil fuel industry with over $600 billion a year, giving this aging industry five times the subsidy of renewables.
  • But by the start of 2014, some 70 countries, including many in Europe, were using feed-in tariffs to encourage investment in renewables.
  • 40 countries have either implemented or are planning national carbon pricing mechanisms, as are 23 subnational jurisdictions. Seven regional cap-and-trade pilot programs are under way in China, and when it goes national next year, roughly 25% of global carbon emissions will be priced.
  • See more energy policy facts here.

4. The financial sector is embracing renewables and starting to turn against fossils and nuclear.

  • Barclays downgraded the entire US electricity sector in 2014, in part because utilities are unprepared for the challenges posed by distributed solar power and battery storage.
  • In 2013, Warren Buffett gave solar a huge financial boost when his MidAmerican Energy Holdings Company announced an investment of up to $2.5 billion in California’s Solar Star project. At 580 MW, it will be the world’s largest PV project, coming online late this year. MidAmerican also owns the 550 MW Topaz solar farm in California.
  • See more financial sector facts here.

5. Coal use is declining in the US and will likely fall sooner than expected globally.

  • US coal use fell 21% between 2007-2014 and more than one-third of coal plants have or will close.
  • Market values are down for major US coal producers, such as Peabody Energy and Arch Coal, down 61% and 94%, respectively, as of September 2014.
  • See more coal facts here.

6. Transportation will move away from oil as electric vehicle fleets expand rapidly and bike- and car-sharing spreads.

  • More than 800 cities in 56 countries have bike-share programs, with over 1 million bikes. In the US, 70 cities will have programs by the end of 2016.
  • The share of carless households increased in 84 out of 100 US urban areas, and this will rise as urbanization increases.
  • See more transportation facts here.

7. Nuclear is on the rocks thanks to rising costs and widespread safety concerns.

  • Worldwide, nuclear power generation peaked in 2006, and dropped by nearly 14% by 2014.
  • In the US, the country with the most reactors, nuclear generation peaked in 2010 and is declining.
  • See more nuclear facts here.

In his previous book, World on the Edge, Lester Brown showed that it would take a mere $110 billion a year to restore the economy’s natural support systems – reforest the earth, protect topsoil, restore rangelands and fisheries, stabilize water tables, and protect biological diversity. A bargain by anyone’s standards.


Read Chapter 1 of The Great Transition: Shifting from Fossil Fuels to Solar and Wind Energy: 

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