Act: Inspiration

The Test: Excerpt

September 14, 2017

Ed. note: This post is an excerpt from Jeremy Leggett’s latest e-book in progress: The Test: Solar Light for All: A Defining Challenge for Humanity.  The following excerpt is from Chapter 1.

More than a billion of the world’s poorest people, having no electricity, are forced to waste $27 billion a year on kerosene and other unsustainable forms of lighting. If every one of their households could buy a single solar light, they would save at least $78 billion over three years, and spend it on basic necessities, not least food in a time of famine. They would also avoid kerosene’s dire health assaults and high carbon emissions, while significantly lifting their education prospects via more than a trillion extra homework hours.

If we cannot collectively banish this particularly crazy dysfunction from our world, Jeremy Leggett argues, what chance do we have with all the many other global problems we face?

From the front lines, he chronicles society’s efforts to pass this test, in serialised chapters as the story unfolds.

Astana, Kazakhstan, 10th – 11th July, 2017
The Expo of 2017 has the topical theme of ‘Future Energy’. Astana, the city in the steppe, is adorned with banners the length of the road in from the airport, and many of them suggest that solar and wind energy are the centrepiece of this future. This is somewhat remarkable, considering that Kazakhstan is plentifully endowed with oil, coal and gas.

But these days even major oil producing nations appreciate that a great global energy transition is looming before them. The Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi has told his people they will be exporting no more oil by 2050, and will not be unhappy about it, given all the clean energy they will have invested their oil money in in the interim. The ruler of Dubai has signed his nation up to fully 75% of national energy from clean sources by 2050, and a solar roof on every building by 2030 en route. Even Saudi Arabia is getting in on the game of late, with a $50bn push into solar and wind. Kazakhstan is in good company.

Five years ago, I helped Astana win the Expo, in competition with other short-listed cities around the world. The Kazakh government invited me and a renewable energy expert from the International Energy Agency to make the opening pitch to the judges: commissioners from the Bureau International des Expositions. Our brief was simple: paint a picture of the clean energy revolution in as wonderful a light as you can. Now I have been invited back, to do essentially the same thing, updated, at a conference in the Expo itself.

Much has changed in those five years. The Expo site looks as though it has been descended on by every eminent architect in the world, armed with a simple brief to avoid straight lines and very few other instructions. The brand new mini town they have collectively designed is a polymict eruption of curved walls, domes, and spheres. The conference centre I am speaking in is a marbled marvel of bends. Kazakh families and foreign visitors wander the boulevards and pavilions where the nations of the world are staging exhibitions of their versions of what Future Energy looks like. Again, images of solar and wind abound.

Since the night in the Albert Hall, I have been thinking hard. The idea has grown on me that fixing the conundrum of expensive and high-carbon kerosene vastly outselling inexpensive and zero-carbon solar is a defining test for humankind. If we cannot quickly replace oil-for-lighting with solar lighting, given all the blindingly obvious economic and social imperatives for so doing, what chance do we have with all the many other global problems we face? In an age of climate treaties and UN Sustainable Development Goals, where we are making progress on many fronts, how can we be taking so long to kick this open goal? How can we be failing this test?

One of the 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals sets a target for when we should pass it by. Goal 7 entails ensuring “universal access to affordable, reliable and modern energy services” by 2030. 190 world leaders signed off on that, in 2015. At the rate of progress since, with a grand total of less than 30 million lights in the hands of the 1.2 billion, there is precisely zero chance of achieving it. We must greatly accelerate the deployment.

I ponder the message to deliver in Astana. I could easily portray the global energy transition today in even more upbeat terms than were possible five years ago, both in terms of accelerating progress with clean energy – other than solar lights – and snowballing setbacks for fossil-fuels. But I dare not leave out the story of kerosene versus solar. It is simply too much of a thorn in the side of optimism.

I have been asked to give two presentations on two consecutive days. I elect to make the first a bullish celebration of how fast the solar element of the clean-energy revolution is unfolding, and the second a tale in two parts: initially an optimistic exploration of how battery storage, electric vehicles and energy efficiency can accelerate the clean-energy revolution, followed and much tempered by The Test.

The first morning. My first presentation, the second of two opening keynotes.

I suggest that the global energy transition is unfolding much faster than most people realise. New global renewable power generation capacity exceeded new fossil fuel capacity in 2015 & 2016. Onshore wind and solar will become the cheapest two options in many nations by 2020, analysts profess. Solar seems set to become the cheapest power on Earth, Bloomberg reports: it is already less than half the price of coal in recent auctions. Many nations, states, cities, and corporations are eagerly leaping aboard the revolution. In California, the Senate passed a mandate for 100% renewable power by 2045. More than 1000 cities and 100 major companies target 100% renewable power. Canberra plans to hit 100% by 2020, Google by 2017. Employment reflects all this. There are now many more US workers in solar and wind than in coal and gas: 475,000 compared to 55,000 in coal mining.

Meanwhile, fossil fuel investments are nosediving. It is easy to see why.

Coal looks to be in terminal decline. China’s new coal plants make “no economic sense”, the International Energy Agency has concluded. Despite huge cuts in expenditure, most oil majors couldn’t even cover their costs in 2016, even at an average $50 oil price. The industry is piling up a mountain of debt just to keep operating. Its business model is broken at a systemic level. France now intends to ban all oil and gas exploration. The oil company with the highest share price in North America, Suncor, is favoured by investors because it has said it will stop looking for oil, and give the expenditure saved back to investors as dividends. Meanwhile long-term oil investors have begun giving up on the industry, and switching to renewables.

Bullish as clean energy industry practitioners like me are about all this, Silicon Valley gurus are more so. By 2030, Tony Seba professes, all new energy will be solar and wind, all new cars will be electric vehicles. Oil and gas demand will be in steep decline.

This is total system change, and it has happened before, in little more than a decade, when the the horse-drawn carriage was displaced by the horseless carriage, otherwise known as the motor car.

You don’t have to believe enthusiasts like me on this, I tell the audience. As the popular BBC tech programme Click concluded recently, “The solar revolution is coming… fossil fuels could be facing extinction.” Kazakhstan has chosen the theme of its Expo well.

On the afternoon of the first day I take some time to explore the Expo site. The first pavilion I come to, walking clockwise from the main gate, is not a national exhibition, but a company one. Shell’s logo adorns a tent with the theme “Make The Future”. The exhibition inside subtly advances Shell’s view that oil and gas have to be the backbone of making the future, when it comes to energy. The only putative future vehicles on display are all designs by students. They look like amateur night at the whacky races. There is not a hint of what is going on at Tesla, Daimler, and all the carmakers whose innovation permits nations and cities realistically to contemplate and in some cases already begin setting targets for completely banning internal combustion engines, diesel and otherwise.

Similarly with the treatments of solar and wind: no sense at all that these technologies are the cheapest available in some countries, and set to be the cheapest in most countries in just a few years. As for oil, not a hint of the debt mountain being built up by the oil industry as it doggedly pursues its flawed business model. A big picture of the Kashagan oilfield in Kazakhstan, in which Shell has a major stake, is prominent in the exhibit. There is no mention of how many years that project was delayed by, in the face of costly and unforeseen technical problems, and how many billions of Euros it was over budget. Shell employees came to dub the Kashagan project CashAllGone. I know because they told me.

Shell might just as well have been honest and put up a statement of their basic message: “Grown ups get their energy mostly from fossil fuels, and their motive power mostly from the internal combustion engine, and so they will for decades to come.”

Here, then, is one aspect of The Test. Can a company like Shell switch from being a barrier to future clean energy, to being part of the solution? In the case of the kerosene-solar conundrum, can it play a material leadership role in getting rid of an entire, indefensible, category of oil use?

Other oil companies are doing better than Shell are, as things stand, when it comes to renewable energy. Norway’s Statoil has set up a renewable energy division, and is playing to its offshore engineering strengths by pioneering the development of floating wind farms. This work holds the potential for dramatic reductions in the cost of offshore wind. Total, the French oil and gas major, has invested hundreds of millions in solar, batteries and other elements of the clean energy revolution. It also sells solar lights of its own design and production. The company recently sold its 2 millionth light, outstripping SolarAid’s 1.9 million. It sells most of its lights from petrol forecourts across Africa. Total targets 5 million lights by 2020: not enough, in my view, but miles better than any other oil company. I sent a note of congratulations to the Senior Vice President for Sustainable Development & Environment, Jerome Schmitt, when they passed 2 million. I received a charming reply. “We definitely share a comparable journey”, he said.

Could I ever imagine such an interaction with Shell? Not today. But history is not destiny. And the global energy-transition drama is playing out so very fast.

The next day, in my second presentation, I continue the theme of the first. This isn’t just about renewable supply, I say, its about battery storage and electric vehicles. Things are moving rapidly in every leg of this trio. Take the events of the recent week. On 5th July the first major carmaker called time on internal-combustion-engine-only cars. Volvo will use electric motors in all cars from 2019. The next day, Bloomberg’s annual prediction of electric vehicle growth significantly exceeded last year’s estimate: EVs will be cheaper than conventional cars in most countries by 2020-2025, and by 2040, 54% of new vehicles and 33% of all light vehicles on roads will be EVs. The same day France announced a plan to ban sales of petrol and diesel cars by 2040. That would have sounded radical a year ago. Now, Tony Seba suggests that it is actually irrelevant: there won’t be any petrol and diesel cars left to ban by 2040!

Meanwhile, in breathtaking contrast, the oil majors are arguing that the vast majority of global primary energy will still be coming from fossil-fuels at that time. Good luck with that, in the face of the daily news about renewable energy and electric vehicles.

Where does the developing world sit in my tide of bullishness about a clean energy future, I ask?

And so to The Test.

I make the basic case, and repeat the question that frustrates me so much. How can it be that, collectively, we are missing such an open goal? I am sure that the reasons are multi-faceted. But there is one simple over-arching answer. None of us are trying hard enough. Not governments, not companies, not international organisations, not non-governmental organisations.

In this respect, I observe, the Expo has a plan for real-life projects to follow up the theme of the event. I have one for the organisers to consider, I say. Help SolarAid in our quest. Let’s together figure out a way to play a lead role in eradication of the kerosene lamp. What a great way to cement the legacy of the Expo.

An ambitious notion is beginning to take shape in my mind, triggered in part by my experience in the Albert Hall a week ago. Sitting in that hall, that night, were executives from companies and organisations that could eradicate the kerosene lamp from the world within a matter of years, if they chose to work together with seriousness of intent. There were plenty not present who could add considerable fuel to such a campaign. It seems clear to me now what SolarAid should do in the next few years. We should try to work with enough of those companies and organisations, in clever enough ways, that we play a useful role in ensuring that civilisation passes The Test.

Jeremy Leggett

Jeremy Leggett is a social entrepreneur and author. He has been an Entrepreneur of the Year at the NewEnergy Awards, a CNN Principal Voice, and is founder and chairman of renewable energy company Solarcentury, and SolarAid. He chairs the financial think tank CarbonTracker, contributes to the Guardian and the Financial Times, and is an Associate Fellow at Oxford University’s Environmental Change Institute.

Tags: renewable energy transition, solar power