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A Tipping Point: Our Energy, Investments and Future

Image Cred: TomoNews/survival-spot.com/Claire Reyes

As public attention focuses on the upcoming presidential election, trade disputes and gun control, another development will have a sweeping impact on the global economy, our lives and our future.

Mounting evidence shows that unsubsidized renewable energy generation coupled with storage is now more cost-efficient than existing fossil fuel generation — despite the massive and often hidden subsidies for fossil fuels. As a result, “these lower costs are expected to propel the mass adoption of renewables even further,” James Ellsmoor wrote in Forbes in June. 

The International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) reported in May that renewable energy is already cheaper than fossil fuels “for many locations and markets” and will be the most cost efficient source of energy generation by 2020. A report by Energy Innovation and Vibrant Clean Energy in March found that “wind and solar (already) could replace approximately 74 percent of the U.S. coal fleet at an immediate savings to customers.” 

The U.S. EIA forecasts that 66% of new electric generating capacity in 2019 will come from solar and wind, with 34% from gas, while 54% of system retirements will come from coal, 27% from gas and 18% from nuclear. Moreover, 61 countries now have 100% renewable electric laws. “Solar plus storage will provide at least half of electric power generation globally by 2030,” ScienceDirect forecast in May.The economics of renewables are impossible for oil to compete with when looked at over the (25-year) cycle,” BNP Paribas reports.

Renewable energy increasingly makes business sense for policy makers and investors,” says Adnan Amin, Director General of IRENA. Renewables will continue driving the global energy transformation, while benefiting the environment and our collective future.”

We are at a tipping point that will drive massive shifts in the way we generate, distribute, store and utilize energy. It’s now time to reevaluate why we should continue  paying billions of taxpayer dollars for fossil fuel subsidies.  

These subsidies are embedded in government policies that range from direct cash payouts to free or below-market rates on the extensive use of our public land, water and other natural resources. They also include tax breaks that inadvertently incentivize companies to pollute our air, water, food systems and health, dump carbon into the atmosphere, and write off the costs of exploration, depreciation and clean up of repeated oil spills and gas leaks. None of these costs are included in the price at the gas pump or electric meter. But make no mistake: you are paying for them on the back-end through your tax dollars or with your declining health. 

The IMF recently estimated global fossil fuel subsidies were an unfathomable $5.2 trillion in 2017 alone - 6.5% of global GDP. Coal and oil received 85% of those subsidies. That is something like $10 million a minute. That same IMF Report indicated that eliminating those subsidies “would have lowered global carbon emissions by 28% and fossil fuel air pollution deaths by 46%, and increased government revenue by 3.8 percent of GDP.” 

As the economic benefits of renewable energy and distributed generation + storage become harder to refute, it’s critical that we transform government policies and business decision-making to better protect our economy, health, environment, and future.  

The securities markets have remained invested in fossil fuels. But that might change. “A quick analysis of the energy sector vs. the S&P 500 over the past five years reveals dramatic underperformance,” notes Hunter Lovins, a sustainability movement founder, asset management consultant, author, professor and SimpliPhi Power board member. 

Vanguard’s Energy ETF (VDE) returned a cumulative market return of negative 41.18% from 8/1/14 to 8/1/19, while the S&P 500 returned a positive 53.42%. Blackrock’s fossil fuel investments have wiped out $90 billion in investor value, according to the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis. Energy stocks now make up 5% of the S&P 500 Index, down from 13% a decade ago, according to Bloomberg.

Major investors are taking notice, and beginning to divest from fossil fuels. LGIM, one of Britain’s biggest fund managers and one of Exxon’s top 20 shareholders, dumped $300M of ExxonMobil stock in June, after the oil giant refused to take carbon-reduction steps it had requested. LGIM, which manages about $1.3 trillion, said it will use its remaining stake to vote against the reappointment of CEO and Chairman Darren Woods.

BNP Paribas has said it will divest $1B from coal stocks. Mark Lewis, who leads climate change investment research at BNP Paribas Asset Management, told Bloomberg that divestment from fossil fuels is gaining momentum. He likened it to the global campaign that forced companies participating in apartheid-era South Africa to divest. Energy and climate journalist Gregor MacDonald says the BNP Paribas study demonstrates that “the current fossil fuel system runs at a loss, and will amass losses every year.”

“It is entirely plausible, even predictable, that continuing to hold equities in fossil fuel companies will be ruled negligence,” Bevis Longstreth, former SEC Commissioner, wrote in The Financial Case For Divestment From Fossil Fuel Companies by Endowment Fiduciaries

To keep up with this enormous and accelerating change in our energy markets, technology and climate change goals, it is imperative that we overcome inertia and vested interests, restructure our government incentives, and shift investment to the winners in the energy wars: renewable energy, distributed infrastructure and battery storage.

Catherine Von Burg's picture

Thank Catherine for the Post!

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Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Aug 14, 2019 12:34 pm GMT

Thanks for sharing, Catherine.

“It is entirely plausible, even predictable, that continuing to hold equities in fossil fuel companies will be ruled negligence,”

This rings true, as anyone paying attention knows there's a new story every week about a different bank, insurance company, investor, or other financial institution that announces their divestment from fossil fuels and/or a commitment to take CO2 output into account in all future decisions.

Even with the massively built-in fossil fuel subsidies that are considered simply the baseline state of 'how things work,' renewables are starting to win the economic battle (to say nothing of the customer preference, environmental, self-reliance, and other battles they already take the cake in). 

Lily Li's picture
Lily Li on Aug 22, 2019 11:46 am GMT

Nicely said!!  As Energy Industry professionals, we must be force behind the change we wish to see.

"To keep up with this enormous and accelerating change in our energy markets, technology and climate change goals, it is imperative that we overcome inertia and vested interests, restructure our government incentives, and shift investment to the winners in the energy wars: renewable energy, distributed infrastructure and battery storage."

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Aug 22, 2019 8:06 pm GMT

Agreed, Lily. It seems like there's typically universal agreement with that sentiment, but unfortunately it falls aside in practice sometimes. Do you have any thoughts on where that disconnect might come from? Understanding the shortcomings are surely the best way to tackle them

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