Good riddance to 2020, but there was still cause for cheer

Given the flood of media we all experienced in 2020, in particular as we were stuck inside our homes, one of the challenges is finding and holding onto some of the good and positive developments in the stream. For his first blog post in 2021, our leader writer, L. Michael Buchsbaum reviews some of his energy transition highlights from 2020. This is by no means an exhaustive list. Once you’ve read through the end, please feel free to comment and share with us your own “good news” from 2020.

Global movement away fossil energy

For this blog post, I’d like to give a nod to Assaad W. Razzouk, host of The Angry Clean Energy Guy podcast, and his weekly listing of “good news,” that helped get me through the year.

According to the IEA, of all energy sources, only wind and solar will see an increase in demand this year, with all others declining year-on-year. Though these figures are preliminary, 2020 marks an important moment in the history of global energy markets: the first year ever in which wind and solar account for 100% of the increase in global energy demand. To put this figure into context, BP data show that in 2019 wind and solar accounted for only 34% of the increase in global energy demand.

In addition to a robust year for solar and wind, 2020 marks a real turning point for battery power too. Both lithium-ion models used for EVs and also 100MW and larger utility scale ones can now in many regions affordably take the place of fossil gas peaker plants.

Just the same, despite the necessity of swiftly addressing the climate crisis, as the Financial Times relates, “the underlying reason for the astonishing transformation of renewables over the past decade from niche to mainstream competing head-to-head with fossil fuels is economic rather than environmental.”

The average costs of utility-scale renewable installations has fallen by some 80% over the decade from 2010-19. “With wind and solar, there is no need to explore for reserves or drill a well to exploit them — you simply have to build the infrastructure in the right place to capture the energy that is already there and that is freely available once that has been built.”

Despite the terrible effects of the Coronavirus pandemic in the US, the solar industry has seen unprecedented growth as installations are expected to have soared over 43% higher compared to 2019. Together, America’s renewable energy output grew in 2020 by at least 5% overall from 2019. Nationwide, the U.S. installed a record number of wind and solar projects leading to surge in new jobs in the renewables sector, thanks in part to an expiring tax credit.

Also as the ET published earlier, 2020 will likely be the first year in which coal’s share of the energy pie has been really threatened by the rise of renewable energy.

National moves towards net-zero emissions

Throughout the year, more than 120 countries have announced plans for net-zero emissions by 2050 or 2060 including China, Japan, South Korea, South Africa and Canada. Though not an announcement per se, the election of Joe Biden as new US president will hopefully see the realization of his campaign promise to achieve net-zero by 2040 or sooner. India, the world’s third largest emitter behind China and the US, has also made several statements supporting such a mid-century transition as well.

More concretely, in December the EU announced its intent to cut emissions 55% by 2030. To meet and exceed these targets, in late November, the European Commission proposed to increase offshore wind targets some 25-fold by 2050.

But importantly, the EU also agreed that its green transition fund will not allow the finance the use or development of fossil gas. Envoys from the bloc’s 27 member states and the European Parliament agreed that none billions of euros included in the Just Transition Fund could be used for any fossil fuels, fossil gas pipelines or investments in nuclear energy. Going forward, the Just Transition Fund will have 17.5 billion euros ($21.33 billion) from both a coronavirus recovery fund and the EU’s budget for 2021-27. That money is meant to attract further private sector cash supportive of green industries and the retraining of workers from polluting sectors. This will go a long way in mitigating the consequences of the decarbonization of the EU’s economy, set to take place over the next 30 years.

Perhaps as a way to mark this change, French utility Engie announced the cancelation of plans to import fracked US LNG. One of many decisions against imported US LNG taken by European energy majors this year.

Additionally, several major European utilities have also announced decarbonization plans. A few standouts: In late October, Italy’s Enel increased their emissions reduction target to 80%. The next month, Spanish utility, Iberdrola put forth a €75 bn decarbonisation plan.

Though Brexit negotiations overshadowed much of the UK’s still somewhat dubious emissions reductions goals, even if the math behind Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s 68% cut by 2030 from 1990 levels seems shaky, it sends a strong message: even Conservatives are keen on acting around climate issues.

Just the same, Westminster has put forth several new CCS proposals—which we’ll discuss—as well as predicated this emissions math on shifting from burning coal to burning biomass and fossil gas.

Also in the fourth quarter, the Scottish government, which continues to pull away from Westminster and towards independence outside the United Kingdom, announced their own plans to hit net-zero emissions by 2045. They had already passed a bill in 2019 to have a 75% cut in emissions by 2030. Building upon these existing goals to drastically reduce emissions, Scottish Parliament this year passed new policies to develop more low carbon technologies, and bring forward a ban on the sales of new petrol and diesel cars by 2030. By that year ministers also want renewable energy generation to account for 50% of energy demand across electricity, heat and transport. Beyond this, there is also a goal of fully decarbonising the passenger rail network by 2035.

Perhaps the most consequential, though still aspirational announcements during the year came from China, India, Japan and South Korea (among other Asian nations), which all began developing plans to move towards net-zero emissions by at least 2060 (China) or much sooner.

In late November, Japan’s parliament called for the announcement of a climate emergency and leadership there announced the nation will adopt a goal of 40% renewable power by 2030, double nation’s current target range. As of the end of 2019, renewables accounted for only 18% of energy consumed in Japan, around half as much as in major European economies. The nation’s current renewables target stands between 22% and 24% by fiscal 2030.

Please add your own “good news” for 2020 in the comments section or contact this author directly.


L. Michael Buchsbaum is an energy and mining journalist and industrial photographer based in Germany. Since the mid-1990s, he has covered the social, environmental, economic and political impacts of the transition from fossil fuels towards renewables for dozens of industry magazines, journals, institutions and corporate clients. Born in the U.S., he emigrated to Germany and Europe to better document the Energiewende. He is also the host of The Global Energy Transition Podcast.

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