Get Ready for the Great Clean Energy Acceleration

This is going to be a tough winter, but there is light at the end of the tunnel.

Germany Turns To Coal To Help Offset Russian Natural Gas Imports
Germany Turns To Coal To Help Offset Russian Natural Gas Imports.

Andreas Rentz/Getty Images

"Energy independence" became a big deal in the United States after the Arab Oil Embargo of 1973. Then-president Jimmy Carter called the energy crisis "the greatest challenge that our country will face during our lifetime." Carter called for long-term limits on oil imports, windfall taxes on oil companies, and the development of synthetic fuels. It worked: Oil imports dropped from 45% to 28% of oil consumed by 1982. Fuel efficiency in cars increased dramatically. Building codes mandated more insulation. Crises have a way of making change happen.

Meanwhile, the Ukraine war and the shutting off of gas supplies to Europe have caused a new energy crisis. As Treehugger contributor Eduardo Garcia reported in a recent post, this is leading to a boost in fossil fuel production. "Instead of accelerating the clean energy transition, U.S. President Joe Biden has chosen to cozy up to fossil fuel companies in a bid to lower gas prices," wrote Garcia.

In Britain, the minister in charge of energy says the country "must get every cubic inch of gas out of the North Sea." Germany fired up its old coal-burning power plants. It would appear we were going backward fast to a world where we were burning a lot more fossil fuels rather than less.

Michael Liebreich of consultancy BloombergNEF, who I have previously described as "one of my go-to sources for smart discussions about hydrogen and energy," takes a different and far more optimistic view, writing: "I believe this hellish year is going to lead to another similar acceleration, as it becomes clear that clean energy, and not fossil fuels, holds the key to energy security."

Liebreich said many countries are squeezing more life out of existing nuclear reactors, and have introduced emergency energy-saving measures, such as lowering thermostats and turning off lights. But longer-term changes are happening in what Liebreich calls "The Great Clean Energy Acceleration."

"Germany’s Chancellor may be talking up hydrogen, but his ministries are beavering away, demolishing planning barriers to renewable energy projects and accelerating the electrification of heat and transport. No new natural gas boilers may be installed after 2024. Heat pump installations across 21 of the 27 EU member states have doubled over the last four years and are now growing by 34% per year. Plug-in vehicles account for around 20% of new car registrations in the EU, up from less than 5% three years ago. Europe is not just going cold turkey on Russian energy for a couple of years – it is looking to go clean for good."

There is a high-voltage direct current cable being strung between Morroco and Britain that will bring in 3.6 gigawatts of electricity at half the cost of nuclear plants being built now. Global solar installations are up 38% over last year. Liebreich concluded:

"In summary, we are in the middle of tough times, particularly in Europe – and our thoughts are primarily with the brave people of Ukraine. However, we can take solace in the thought that the Great Energy Price Spike of 2022 should, in due course, give way to the Great Clean Energy Acceleration."

Fatih Birol, the executive director of the International Energy Agency, also noted Russia is making a big mistake in alienating its biggest customer. He thinks it is a mistake to believe that the energy crisis is a setback in the fight against climate change. He wrote in the Financial Times:

"This crisis is a stark reminder of the unsustainability of the current energy system, which is dominated by fossil fuels. We have the chance to make this a historic turning point towards a cleaner, more affordable and more secure energy system. And this is already happening."

Like Liebreich, he sees light at the end of the tunnel. Like me, he sees parallels to the Carter era.

"Don’t believe all the negative narratives about the energy crisis. Yes, there are some tough challenges ahead, especially this winter," wrote Birol. "But that doesn’t mean Russia is winning or that efforts to tackle climate change are doomed. And after winter comes spring. The oil shocks of the 1970s resulted in major progress in energy efficiency, nuclear power, solar and wind. Today’s crisis can have a similar impact and help speed up the shift to a cleaner and more secure energy future." 

Forty-five years ago, energy independence meant freedom from imported oil. Today, it means freedom from fossil fuels ... period. It may take wars to get people started, but then things move pretty fast.

View Article Sources
  1. "Oil Dependence and U.S. Foreign Policy." Council on Foreign Relations.