Wind farm with solar panels in southern California

Renewable energy is winning. So now what do we do?

 April 24, 2019 

All this week, people the world over are celebrating Earth Week. Media headlines and social media feeds alike have been awash in coverage—what has changed since Earth Day 2018; things you can do to reduce your environmental footprint; urgent calls to action to do more, faster to avert the worst effects of climate change.

This year’s edition of Earth Week comes on the heels of sobering news. Late last month, the International Energy Agency (IEA) noted that in 2018 global energy demand rose 2.3% and worldwide energy-related carbon emissions rose 1.7%, the latter to their highest level ever. It’d be easy to despair and conclude doomsday climate scenarios are now inevitable. But at WattTime, the more deeply we look at the data, the more we’re starting to see an entirely different story emerging.

The game has changed—renewable energy is winning

It’s true that 2018’s numbers backslide slightly. But looking back in hindsight from a few year’s hence, we’ll likely soon conclude that 2018 was a minor speed bump in a larger story of rapid, powerful progress. We sit today on the precipice of a paradigm shift for the world’s electricity systems. Today, renewable energy accounts for over a third of global power capacity, per the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA). But it’s changing fast—both last year and the one before it, two-thirds of new electric generating capacity built worldwide was renewable, led by solar and wind.

The tides of the global energy system have already turned. Now we’re amidst the rush of its flowing waters, even if it hasn’t finished yet. It’s much like the camera market in the early 2000s. Digital cameras had just arrived on the scene. And while analog cameras still enjoyed majority market share and briefly looked strong, in reality they were just a few short years away from near-total extinction.

Granted, power plants don’t turn over as fast as consumer goods like cameras. But similar writing is on the wall. If you look at the power generation mix forecast from Bloomberg New Energy Finance’s New Energy Outlook 2018it’s plain to see that we’re right at the threshold of a tidal shift that’s already begun. Coal, oil, and to a lesser extent natural gas are the analog camera equivalent; renewables are the shiny, new digital camera taking over the global market with impressive speed.

So what happens next?

The second renewable energy revolution: from generation hardware to timing software

In places where the renewable energy tides have advanced the furthest the fastest, we’re already seeing the need for new ways of thinking. Consider the case of California, which has more than 22.5 GW of installed renewable generating capacity. Over the past 3+ years, California has begun having moments of too much renewable energy, more and more frequently. In March 2019, California had to throw out or “curtail” a record 122,225 MWh of surplus solar and wind energy. Comparing Q1 2016 v2. Q1 2019 saw an incredible growth of 190% in California curtailment—all driven by a mismatch in timing, if people weren’t using energy at the same exact moments the wind was blowing or the sun was shining.

The world should and will continue installing more and more renewable energy generation—mostly solar panels and wind turbines. But scenarios like California’s strongly suggest that a second renewable energy revolution is on our doorstep. If the first revolution was about deployment of generation hardware, we’d argue the second revolution will be defined by the deployment of timing software.

Energy storage isn’t the (only) answer

Renewable oversupply like California is experiencing is generally—and rightly—considered a success story. We’ve deployed enough clean energy generation that at least in certain places, times, and/or seasons, we have even more renewable energy than we can use. But, obviously, if we are to continue adding more clean energy at the furious clip we need to stop climate change, the next step has to preventing that waste from growing and growing.

A common assumption is that energy storage (often, but not necessarily, batteries) is the solution. And, when deployed properly, storage can definitely help. But Earth neither has the time, nor even the need, for us to go out and buy billions of new batteries. Turns out, they’ve already been built! Literally tens of billions of smart devices in our buildings and on our roads—from thermostats to electric vehicles—are already deployed and have the physical hardware capable of soaking up excess renewable generation through smarter timing. As Rocky Mountain Institute and others have shown, flexible demand is a key, not-so-secret weapon. All it takes to give these devices such planet-saving capability is a software update.

Making ‘smart’ smarter with Automated Emissions Reduction

The final part of the equation is hidden in that word ‘smart.’ It’s used to describe everything from the latest generation of thermostats to grid-interactive water heaters to common appliances. But what does ‘smart’ really mean?

Here at WattTime, the definition is simple. A smart device is one that can be updated, now or later, to time its own energy consumption to run on clean energy. It’s capable of what we call Automated Emissions Reduction.So the next time you’re buying a smart light or a smart coffee machine that brews your cappuccinos on time, think about what else you’re really buying. Today, we think of that physical piece of hardware as a glorified toy. But this Earth Week, pause and appreciate that the massive proliferation of billions of such devices has also created the physical infrastructure for a global system to massively accelerate the growth of renewable energy and, before much longer, eliminate the need to ever use fossil fuels again.

It’s easy to see one bad year of news and get lost in despair. But if we want them to be, the days of fossil fuels are as numbered as analog cameras were not long ago.