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Sadly, the time isn't right for clean energy

Two big cheers for The Guardian. The newspaper's "Keep it in the Ground" crusade, launched on Monday by editor Alan Rusbridger in partnership with the global climate movement 350.org, is compelling and righteous. It calls for the Wellcome Trust and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to unwind their fossil fuel investments and, by Friday, it had gathered more than 100,000 signatures.

In his letter, Mr. Rusbridger said: "Divestment serves to delegitimize the business models of companies that are using investors' money to search for yet more coal, oil and gas that can't safely be burned. It is a small but crucial step in the economic transition away from a global economy run on fossil fuels. … The physics of [climate change] is unarguable."

Let's leave aside the "unarguable" point, which apparently ignores the possibility that the Earth's natural, long-term warming and cooling cycles might have some influence on the profound climate change we are seeing. The third cheer for The Guardian's crusade has to go missing because the alternative to carbon-based fuels – clean fuels such as solar and wind power – can't possibly fill the gap any time soon. The hype surrounding the growth of clean energy borders on the ridiculous. Yes, clean energy is growing. But its share of the global energy market is still minuscule despite the lavish subsidies it receives in many countries, such as tax breaks and feed-in tariffs – the above-market rates paid to producers of clean energy.

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Obtaining a true picture of the clean energy market is exceedingly difficult. The statistics from some countries are unreliable because they are sloppy, purposely exaggerated or simply difficult to collect and decipher. Britain's Renewable Energy Foundation, which tries hard to produce reliable statistics, does not include solar power in its charts even though Britain's solar power installations are multiplying. "Unfortunately, we have no data source for output from the U.K.'s solar fleet," it says.

The definition of energy from "renewables" is fluid and often misleading. The statistics sometimes include hydro and nuclear power, which are old technologies that come with horrendous environmental risks and were around well before solar and wind power became popular. Another problem is that clean energy companies love to boast about "capacity," not actual output. Big difference. Installed wind and solar capacity counts for nothing when the wind doesn't blow and the sun doesn't shine.

In that sense, wind and solar power is like farming. When the weather conditions are bad, crop production falls. It's the same for wind and solar – reliable wind and sunshine, or lack thereof, can make or break clean energy production targets. And since the wind and sun are erratic, they have to come with reliable backup power, usually in the form of electricity plants fuelled by coal, natural gas or oil. Without that backup power, you might freeze in the dark even if forests of wind and solar farms cover the landscape. Another problem is too much power. Electricity grids sometimes cannot handle the sudden surge in production when the wind and sun come on hard.

Fortunes are being funnelled into renewable energy, which essentially got its start after the 1973-74 Arab oil embargo quadrupled oil prices and sent governments and investors scrambling for alternative fuels. For a global view on clean energy trends, the Renewable Energy Policy Network for the 21st Century (Ren21), the Paris institution that collaborates with the United Nations and the International Energy Agency, is as good a source as any.

In its latest report, Ren21 said global investment in renewable power and fuels, excluding hydro projects greater than 50 megawatts, was $214-billion (U.S.) in 2013, down 14 per cent from 2012, but still an enormous figure (the drop was in good part due to plummeting technology costs and uncertainty over incentive programs in then recession-struck Europe).

So is renewable-power market share soaring? Capacity sure has. For example, from 2004 through 2013, wind power capacity around the world has climbed to 318 gigawatts from 48 gigawatts (one gigawatt equals one billion watts). Still, fossil fuels supply the vast majority of total energy use, according to Ren21.

In 2013, fossil fuels and nuclear power made up 77.9 per cent of the global electricity production. Renewables made up 22.1 per cent, but the figure is meaningless unless you break it down into its component parts. Hydro power made up most of that 22.1 per cent. The amount from wind was only 2.9 per cent and the solar share, at 0.7 per cent, was negligible. Hundreds of billions of dollars of investment in wind and solar over the decades has barely made a dent in the global market.

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Mr. Rusbridger's crusade at The Guardian is praiseworthy. Climate change is a real and present danger and is at least partly, perhaps largely, due to human activities such as driving SUVs to the doughnut shop.

But if carbon is to be left in the ground for the sake of the planet, vast amounts of renewable energy have to be installed quickly. The cost will be truly horrendous, maybe unaffordable.

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About the Author
European Columnist

Eric Reguly is the European columnist for The Globe and Mail and is based in Rome. Since 2007, when he moved to Europe, he has primarily covered economic and financial stories, ranging from the euro zone crisis and the bank bailouts to the rise and fall of Russia's oligarchs and the merger of Fiat and Chrysler. More

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