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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Comments on “The Great Transition to Renewable Energy”

  1. Arthur Sevestre

    At the basis of the quest for energy, be it more coal or oil or nuclear, or what is called Renewable Energy™, is that there is one single main goal: maintaining this culture of civilisation and making sure it remains possible to use ever more energy. And the ‘ever more’ is very important, because that’s what this culture’s economy is based on. It can’t continue long when growth stagnates, let alone collapses, as we’re seeing all around us now.

    And what does this culture do with ever more energy? Sure, it powers some handy appliances for us people (although about a third of the whole human population has never seen a socket or doesn’t have anything to plug into one), but mostly it’s used by industry, military, totalitarian intensive agriculture and other big businesses. In a very real way, there is a quest for ever more energy to power this culture’s main busy-ness of converting ever more of the living planet ever faster into dead products for the profit of a few and into toxic waste and wasted land.

    This is true even if there would be a source of practically limitless energy, the production, use and direct effects of which are in themselves harmless. I haven’t seen a single sign that this at all possible, but if it would be, this energy would power chainsaws to ‘sustainably’ cut down the last old-growth forests; mining equipment to ‘sustainably’ remove mountaintop after mountaintop, bringing no end of toxic and radio-active waste to the surface; fishing boats to ‘sustainably’ catch what’s left of fish in the oceans (less than 10% compared to the 1960s); car cuture to ‘sustainably’ lay down roads (made from ‘sustainably’ removed mountaintops) to cut into pieces the remaining undeveloped lands and to drive over them, ‘sustainably’ killing ever more of what’s left of wildlife on those roads; fighter/bombers to ‘sustainably’ wage totalitarian warfare on poor brown people to keep feeding the increasing greed of the almighty but ‘sustainable’ war machine; etc….

    But, like I said, I’ve seen no sign whatsoever of there being such a clean source of power. Indeed, the assumption that Renewable Energy™ (which is NOT renewable energy and shouldn’t ever be called it) is better than fossil fuels (let alone the total abomination of nuclear energy) includes the assumption that Renewable Energy™ does not require energy from fossil fuels. But it does. It is absolutely impossible to produce Renewable Energy™ without energy from fossil fuels and/or nuclear energy. The whole infrastructure with which the Renewable Energy™ industry is built; which it needs to function, and which it needs for the eventual use of that energy, IS fossil fuels and/or nuclear energy.

    So many people trying to work out what the best way of producing energy is to keep this culture going is a terribly sad thing, if you know that at the very best it will achieve a source of energy which may be slightly less harmful in itself than fossil fuels and nuclear energy (mind you, we’re NOT even talking about what the energy will be used for here). What if all that time and energy would be put into working out how humans can survive without a destructive culture? It can’t be that difficult, because roughly a third of all humans on earth still lives without or with hardly any energy of that kind, and those of us arguably lucky enough to have that source of energy and to have become totally addicted and used to it have only had it for a few decades at best! But to come up with a really sustainable (not Sustainable™!) way of living requires that you see through the premises which are planted in our brains and hearts, such as that we NEED energy and that we NEED a monetary economy and that we NEED cheap fast transport, etc.

    These premises have to be recognised, and then obliterated if there is any kind of future for the living world, let alone us humans.

  2. Arthur Sevestre

    To take an example from your own text:

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

    Energy is ultimately a tool for the financial sector. A tool to use in the effort of growing the financial sector to the max. This process IS what I described above as ‘the rich few forcing the poor masses to work away health and life to convert ever more of the living planet ever faster into dead products for the profit of the few and into toxic waste and a dead planet’. Using the tool that is energy coming from inherently destructive sources such as fossil fuels and nuclear is double bad, but even if that power is clean, it will still be used to ultimately produce a dead planet. It is the underlying principle, the root of the problem, which has to be addressed, not the tools and/or symptoms used.

  3. Arthur Sevestre

    And while I’m at it, in my previous post I mention that even if clean energy is used to destroy the world, the end result is still a destroyed world.

    That is assuming that clean energy exists, and as I argue in my first post, it doesn’t on the scale and of the kind we tend to talk about when “renewable energy” is mentioned.

    It DOES exist of course. The most efficient and beneficial solar plants are…. plants, but also bacteria and algae. For billions of years they have converted solar energy into what life is made out of. And it has fuelled the rise of dinosaurs as well as of humans. Pretty powerful stuff!


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