With 1.4 million megawatts of coal plants planned, and some people questioning Germany's push for renewables, it sometimes feels like fossil fuels are staging a come back.
Even as the world's biggest investors urge rapid action on climate change, we hear naysayers claim that a near-term shift to clean energy will cost too much and/or is not yet technically feasible.
In a letter published in Nature last month, three prominent experts on renewables called for an immediate moratorium on building new fossil fuel infrastructure. The three scientists—Keith Barnham, of the Physics Department at Imperial College London; Kaspar Knorr, of the Fraunhofer Institute for Wind Energy and Energy System Technology, in Kassel, Germany; and Massimo Mazzer of the CNR-IMEM, Parma, Italy—argued that the solar component of a global 100% renewable energy supply could be installed as early as 2020 using existing technology, little energy storage, and subsidies no higher than Germany's current Feed In Tariff scheme.
Citing research from the Kombikraftwerk Project—an initiative to model interconnected renewable energy sources—the letter also questions the assertion that Germany's renewables boom has been costly, arguing that it has actually brought down the cost of peak energy prices:
Electricity prices are highest at the time of peak demand. Data from the Kombikraftwerk project show that PV&supply in&Germany peaks within an hour or so of the peak daytime demand on the majority of days, summer and winter.
Whether Barnham, Knorr and Mazzer's calculations can be taken at face value or not will be something for the engineers, the data heads and the scientists to figure out. (I am none of the above.) But I was reminded of an observation Alex Steffen made when I was talking to him for a forthcoming interview, namely that a huge part of the climate change battle is simply defining what is possible.
We are learning each day how massively underpriced fossil fuels are in the face of the destruction they cause. We are seeing new and exciting ways to generate energy develop all the time. And, crucially, from collaborative consumption to homes that require almost no energy to run, people are fundamentally rethinking how we organize our culture and build our homes. As these interconnected solutions come together, it seems almost absurd to think that the best we can hope for is incremental improvement of an unsatisfactory status quo.
Those urging us to "stay realistic" are ignoring the alarm bells that reality has been ringing for some time. It's time to aim big or give up.