Fossil fuels' 'unfair' advantage over renewables: report

THE global economic system is unfairly weighted heavily in favour of incumbent fossil at the expense of more sustainable energy sources, with very little in the way of support for renewables, a new report has claimed.

Haydn Black

Two new studies published by Carol Olson and Frank Lenzmann in MRS Energy and Sustainability—A Review Journal claim to shed light on the true economic, social and environmental impacts of photovoltaics as compared to those of the fossil fuel supply chain, and concludes that support for renewable energy sources is dwarfed in magnitude as well as in duration in comparison to the subsidies shoring up fossil and nuclear fuels.

Olson and Lenzmann, who work at the Energy Research Centre of the Netherlands, compared the economics associated with all the major fuel supply chains, looking at the complete subsidy chain both for production and consumption of fossil and nuclear fuels.

The pair believe that for the first time it is possible to compare all the energy options fairly, revealing costs that have historically been hidden along the supply chain.

“The entanglement of the fossil fuel supply industry, banks, commodity traders, and the financialisation of commodities currently allows fossil fuel supply transactions to be made in non-competitive ways,” they wrote.

“The immense capital available to those operating the fossil fuel supply chain affords not only economic advantages, but also allows them to side-step regulation.”

In a context where there is broad consensus in the scientific community that fossil fuels are largely responsible for global warming – with 85% of CO2 emissions coming from fossil fuel combustion – the authors argue there needs to be a “fundamental redesign” of the energy market to make it fit for purpose.

“The electricity market, which is unnecessarily complex, is fundamentally only suited for a small club of fuel-conversion electricity providers, not for the large number of providers, the public engagement, or the renewable electricity generation required in the 21st century,” the report said.

They argue that the true costs of the externalities of electricity generation, including the environmental impacts, must be kept in sight if the world is to avoid catastrophic global warming.

And they say that consumers are over-paying for fossil fuel infrastructure through a large variety of subsidies even though fossil fuel electricity prices are often kept artificially low.

The cost savings of renewable energy generation for consumers, especially with wind and photovoltaics, is extremely competitive especially with a level comparison, they wrote.

However, pressing that point in South Australia might be difficult as the state grapples with sky-high electricity prices – a result of the state’s long-term investments in wind energy and a short-term impact of a planned upgrade of the Heywood Interconnector with Victorian coal-fired power plants.

Given the information they presented, however, Olson and Lenzmann suggest that SA is on the right track.

“When consumers steer decisions themselves, as evidenced in many regional and community-based actions, they more and more frequently choose for renewable wind and photovoltaics not only because of the economic benefits, but also because of the resilience these electricity generation technologies bring to the energy supply,” they said.

“Policy makers should find ways to address the imbalance of subsidised infrastructure, including the energy market, which gives advantages to the fossil fuel supply chain, and which may obscure the economic advantages of renewable energy technologies, such as photovoltaics.”

Global investment in renewable energy fell 23% in the first half of this year as the cost of installing solar panels declined and China paused the pace of its spending.

Wind, solar and other clean energy industries attracted $US116.4 billion ($A153.3 billion) in the first two quarters of the year including $61.5 billion in the second quarter, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance, a London-based researcher that tracks investment.

It also revised up 2015’s total by almost $20 billion to a record $348.5 billion.

“It is now looking almost certain that the global investment total for this year will fail to match 2015’s runaway record,” BNEF founder Michael Liebreich said.

Cheaper photovoltaic panels and lower financing costs have reduced capital spending needs of developers even as installations of the technology have hit a record.

BNEF also said there’s been a shift toward more utility-scale projects and away from smaller-scale installations, which was the reason for the revisions for 2015 data.

Investment in small solar projects fell 32% to $19.5 billion in the first half of 2016, also driven by a marked slowdown in Japan.

Last year’s surge in investment came as almost 200 countries agreed on a landmark deal in Paris to rein in fossil-fuel emissions blamed for global warming.

Europe and Brazil were the only regions to see an increase in investment in the first half of this year, with Europe’s 4% gain driven by a number of major offshore wind projects reaching financial close.

China’s investments dropped 34% to $33.7 billion, partly because 2015 wind and solar investments were higher than previously thought.

Lower power demand and government policy changes also held back investment there, Liebreich said.

In the Middle East and Africa, investment dropped 46% to $4.2 billion, and the U.S. fell 5% to $23.1 billion.

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