The renewable energy resurgence: is it here to stay?

Rob Bentham

By Rob Bentham


In the past, economic downturns have significantly slowed efforts to increase clean energy investment and implementation. However, the coronavirus downturn seems to be bucking this historic trend as it has already shown signs of accelerating a global pivot towards cleaner, renewable energy.

Global carbon emissions have dropped by 17% since the coronavirus lockdown was introduced, which is equivalent to 17m tonnes of carbon dioxide per day, in comparison to last years figures. Levels of nitrogen dioxide pollution have also lowered across Asia and Europe; with some major industrial areas seeing as much as a 50% reduction.

After seeing the positive implications of these reductions in C02 and N02 has had on their air quality and environments, it’s little wonder why there has been a sudden surge in countries on a global scale wanting to utilise more low carbon energy sources such as wind, solar, nuclear and hydropower.

Significant increases in demand 

A recent study by the International Energy Agency (IEA), predicted that the demand for clean energy is expected to grow by 1% by the end of 2020- despite there being a 6% drop in global energy demand caused by tighter limits on businesses and movement. The need for renewable electricity in particular is set to increase by as much as 5%, as hydropower starts to play a progressively essential role in energy generation.

Investment banking company, Goldman Sachs, has predicted that green energy investments will account for a staggering 25% of all energy spending in 2021; a significant 10% increase since 2014. As a result of this growth, spending on green energy will surpass traditional fuel sources such as gas and oil for the first time. The demand for oil fell by 5% in the UK during the first three months of this year, as the pandemic cut car traffic in half and air travel by 60%. In contrast, renewable energy use increased by 1.5% in the same time frame.

The US is also currently experiencing a major decline in electricity generation using coal, as companies opt to utilise cheaper clean energy sources with coal plants being forced to close. This has caused oil prices to turn negative for the first time on record this April as oil producers were unable to store the oversupply caused by the coronavirus.

It seems that Covid-19 has become the unexpected, overnight catalyst that we’ve been waiting for. In a short space of time it’s shaken up the energy sector and accelerated transitions to renewable energy that could have taken years to achieve.

Will the resurgence last?

The current pandemic has created a strong environmental and economic case for increasing renewable energy production. But is this sudden increase in demand here to stay or just a knee jerk reaction to the coronavirus downturn?

There’s no denying that the pandemic has revealed various downsides to using fossil fuels, such as the need for extensive and often expensive storage systems, supply chains and distribution, as well the damage they cause to the environment. However, at the same time, the coronavirus crisis has also revealed our substantial need for reliable electricity to cater to new ways of working and our increased reliance on electrical items such as phones and computers.

Dr Fatih Birol, Executive Director at IEA has argued that governments can learn from the pandemic by putting clean energy technologies at the heart of their plans for economic recovery. He said, “Investing in areas such as batteries, hydrogen and carbon capture and renewables can create jobs, make economies more competitive and steer the world towards a more resilient and cleaner energy future.”

Thankfully, it seems that some countries have already show signs that they intend to follow Birol’s advice. The UK and Germany have said that environmental concerns, such as climate change, should inform all recovery efforts and South Korea has also recently called for a clean energy investment as a key part of its economic plans.

However, despite current enthusiasm, not all industry experts are convinced that this increased interest in renewable energy is for good. In his opening statement for BP’s 2020 Statistical Review of World Energy, Chief Executive, Bernard Looney shared his concerns that “as the economy restarts and our lives return to a sense of normality, there is a real risk that all of the gains achieved since lockdown began will be lost.”

He continued “As the world emerges from the COVID-19 crisis it needs to make decisive changes to move to a more sustainable path. To get to net zero by 2050, the world requires similar-sized reductions in carbon emissions every other year for the next 25 years. This can be achieved only by a radical shift in all our behaviours. By using resources and energy more efficiently. And by implementing the full range of zero and low carbon energies and technologies at our disposal – including renewable energies, electrification, hydrogen, CCUS (carbon capture use and storage), bioenergy and many more.”

If we want to continue making fantastic leaps and bounds when it comes to cutting carbon emissions and tackling climate change, clean technologies and a change in behaviour appear to be vital. The risk is that once the world opens up for business once more, many will forget about the progress that has been made and slip back into their old ways.

However, the silver lining in the entire coronavirus pandemic is that renewable energy has proven itself to be a strong and viable contender for traditional fossil fuels. Let’s just hope this monumental change is for the long haul.

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