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Is a US “renewables revolution” really “toppling” fossil fuels?

16 February 2016
Enthusiasm for good news has led a few reporters to scant important quantification.

“It is turning out to be less challenging than expected to incorporate more and more renewables into the electric grid—and to handle periods of time when demand is high but the wind isn’t blowing and/or the sun isn’t shining.” So declared MIT-educated physicist and former Energy Department official Joe Romm in his 1 February blog post “Why the renewables revolution is now unstoppable.”

In apparently unrelated coverage three days later, under the headline “A renewables revolution is toppling the dominance of fossil fuels in US power,” Bloomberg.com trumpeted a report from Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF). That report has stirred limited but fairly high-visibility media attention. Some of it emphasizes almost jubilant enthusiasm for the report’s good news, while downplaying sober quantification. Even if Romm is right, the BNEF report itself establishes only an encouraging trend concerning renewables.

Part of the enthused skewing lies in a blurred conflation in assessing contributions to decarbonization. The effective contribution of a comparatively low-carbon fossil fuel—natural gas—is being mixed with the outright contribution of renewables. Natural gas use is rising and coal use is declining, but that doesn’t mean that renewables are reaching the power-output scale of the major sources.

Nevertheless, at Mashable the headline about the BNEF report proclaimed that the “renewable energy revolution is already upon us.” The article reported breathlessly that “we are now in the midst of a far more rapid shift away from fossil fuels, such as coal, to renewables, including solar and wind power, than anyone has realized, including the candidates for president.”

But consider the BNEF report bar graph reproduced in the article, similar to one reproduced in the Washington Post by science writer Chris Mooney. It actually shows US electricity generation by fuel type in percentages from 2007 through 2015. Renewables did go up by 5%, but still represented only 13% in 2015—with coal and natural gas each representing about a third of the total. The Mashable article’s blurred conflation of the effective decarbonization contribution of a fossil fuel—natural gas—with that of renewables stands out in this passage:

Coal-fired power plants emit more greenhouse gases than natural gas, wind and solar plants do.

“We’re seeing what we’re calling the decarbonization of the U.S. power sector,” said Colleen Regan, a BNEF senior analyst.

A similar spin appears in the Huffington Post article “Renewable energy is trouncing fossil fuels.” Trouncing? That’s accurate only if you judge by new US power capacity. As the Bloomberg article and most others reported, including Huffington, solar and wind accounted for 68% of that in 2015.  Bloomberg quoted BNEF analyst Colleen Regan: “This is a long-term trend. System costs have really come down for renewables, which makes the case for installing them a lot stronger.”

Stronger case? No doubt that’s true. Nevertheless, notably sober coverage of the BNEF report appeared in Mooney’s Washington Post piece.National Geographic article questioned whether the US has “really reached an epic turning point in energy.” And the century-old Christian Science Monitor, though it celebrated the good news—going so far as to declare that this “decade may well be remembered as one in which the clean energy transition reached critical mass”—qualified its reporting with quantification. Renewables “still have a long way to go to match the dominance of fossil fuels,” that article stipulated. “The usual caveats remain: Wind and solar remain a small fraction of the broader US electricity mix (6.3 percent and 1.2 percent, respectively).”

Still, whatever is to be said about media coverage of the BNEF report, Romm’s kind of optimism for renewables had already spread to New York Times columnist Paul Krugman before Romm’s post appeared. In his own blog, Krugman called Romm’s piece “a primer on the background” for his own 1 February Times column, which said that “we’re now achingly close to achieving a renewable-energy revolution.”

“The numbers are really stunning,” that column declares. They “show progress at rates we normally only expect to see for information technology. And they put the cost of renewable energy into a range where it’s competitive with fossil fuels.” Krugman dismisses renewables’ intermittency challenges as mostly solved. And he asks, “So what will it take to achieve a large-scale shift from fossil fuels to renewables, a shift to sun and wind instead of fire? Financial incentives, and they don’t have to be all that huge.”

His conclusion merits quoting:

Now, skeptics may point out that even if all these good things happen, they won’t be enough on their own to save the planet. For one thing, we’re only talking about electricity generation, which is a big part of the climate change problem but not the whole thing. For another, we’re only talking about one country when the problem is global.

But I’d argue that the kind of progress now within reach could produce a tipping point, in the right direction. Once renewable energy becomes an obvious success and, yes, a powerful interest group, anti-environmentalism will start to lose its political grip. And an energy revolution in America would let us take the lead in global action.

Salvation from climate catastrophe is, in short, something we can realistically hope to see happen, with no political miracle necessary. But failure is also a very real possibility. Everything is hanging in the balance.

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Steven T. Corneliussen, a media analyst for the American Institute of Physics, monitors three national newspapers, the weeklies Nature and Science, and occasionally other publications. He has published op-eds in the Washington Post and other newspapers, has written for NASA's history program, and was a science writer at a particle-accelerator laboratory.

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