The Rise of Renewables

In this Issue #7

  • An update from the climate change negotiations 
  • Competitive cities and climate change
  • The rise of renewables 
  • Featured network: 100 Resilient Cities  

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An update from the climate change negotiations 

Screen-Shot-2015-02-17-at-09.40.46On Friday, February 13th, delegates concluded a special round of negotiations on the draft text leading up to the climate change talks in Paris in December, the same day that hundreds of actions around took place as part of the Global Divestment Day , an initiative of 350.org. The UN text grew from 36 pages that were negotiated in Lima to 86 pages as different options were added. The document still maintains a reference to a phase-out of net  greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, in contrast to another option which would seek a peak in emissions as soon as possible.  Media reports indicated that negotiators were generally upbeat but nervous about the numerous details still to be addressed prior to Paris. The next meeting is in Bonn in June. The United Nations released an interesting infographic to celebrate 10 years of the Kyoto Protocol and a 22% drop in GHG emissions for those countries with binding targets!

Image: Global Divestment Day in Marshall Islands, courtesy of Go Fossil Free

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Competitive cities and climate change

Climate talks are usually a time when prior research resurfaces to a context that is ready to listen and revise policies accordingly. One such conversation piece of late is this OECD report from 2009, Competitive Cities and Climate Change by Lamia and Alexis.

This paper follows SSG’s urgency for implementing land-use zoning with spatial, building and transportation policies to reduce transportation distances, increase mass transit linkages and adapt communities to climate change.  As non OECD countries urbanise rapidly, so their emissions rapidly rise. Cities are not to blame for this, but as this paper describes, it is the means by which cities are designed, the lifestyles of its population, how people move around and how this is powered that are the source of problems.

The good news is that despite being entrenched in a single mode of development, it is one we created it thus we can undo it. In non OECD countries, energy sources used to be more neutral using biomass and waste and have now transitioned to carbon and energy intensive production. One example they use is South Africa which sources 92% of it’s energy from coal and though per capita consumption may be lower compared to Switzerland for example, their emissions are far higher as the latter use cleaner hydropower.

Other than energy, urban planning affects the population and environmental health. In OECD countries, 66 of the 78 largest cities experienced faster growth in suburbs than their core over 1995-2005 than before, showing this is an increasing pressure upon our land use and energy consumption. For instance, Japan’s urban areas are around five times denser than Canada’s, yet the consumption of electricity per capita in Japan is just 40% that of Canada.

As a result of previous trade needs, many cities were built along the coast or rivers, and 70% of the largest cities have parts that are less than 10 meters above sea level. Sea level rise, flooding, and other extreme weather events cause wide disruption directly affecting infrastructure and transport that can lead to job losses, create riskier investment opportunities, and then there are the hidden costs of ecosystem damage, emergency aid and lost heritage. It doesn’t help that financial inequality can also lead to further devastation, with poor communities settling on floodplains and using cheaper building materials vulnerable to a changing climate.

In some jurisdictions, cities are able to make non partisan decisions, and are empowered by their responsibilities and fixed boundaries to influence change over urban concerns, such as land-use zoning, transportation, natural resources management, buildings, waste and water services. However, there are many reluctant to make full use of their regulatory authority to achieve climate goals, despite the opportunity to be service providers, such as methane gas capture in Toronto, to Stockholm’s use of District Energy. Financially too, the costs of not addressing climate change are felt; shoreline retreat in the United States is projected to cost between $270 billion to $475 billion per metre climb in sea level.

This is where international city networks, some of which we have featured in this briefing, provide the support, knowledge sharing and progress to cities who are struggling against such barriers. Climate action in cities goes beyond inventories and risk assessments tools to a strategic plan with “an assessment of local capacity to respond to urban GHG emissions and climate change vulnerabilities [that] is also critical to planning future responses.”. This now makes up the majority of our work at SSG, where we’ve been involved in such planning for many years.

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The rise of renewables

“Every three weeks, we bring online as much solar power as we did in all of 2008,” said President Obama drawing attention to the increase in renewable energy capacity in the US. This is supported by a new report issued by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s (NREL) that in the US in 2013 the growth in renewable energy development increased to 61% of all new electricity capacity installations, resulting in 14.8% total capacity and 13.1% actual power generation (in 2004, it was just 9.5% of total generation). In solar especially, the report shows solar photovoltaic installed capacity jumped from 7.3GW in 2012 to 12.1GW in 2013 and continues to increase exponentially with 4GW in the third quarter of 2014. In addition, high profile advocates have put their money where their mouth is, with Michael Bloomberg, philanthropist and former New York City mayor, announcing his foundation will invest USD$48 million to support efforts to transition the U.S. power grid towards cleaner electricity sources.

Aside from solar, wind too saw the most upswell (wind by a factor of 18 while solar grew by a factor of 68 between 2000 and 2013), and geothermal and hydropower remained constant, despite confusing messages from the the US federal government. First, it abandons their first offshore wind farm, and at the same time auctions off 1160sq/miles to wind farm development off Massachusetts. Yet, 2015 is looking promising with already 13.6GW under construction. Hydropower is still the largest source of renewable energy in the US, and in Canada, Ontario announced the upgrade to it’s 438MW Lower Mattagami Complex plant, that is also 25% owned by the Moose Cree First Nation.

It is China however, that is going all out for wind. At the end of 2013, China had 91.4GW of cumulative wind power capacity, compared to 61.1GW in the US, Spain 23GW, India 20.2GW. Then in 2014, it added another 20.7GW, while the US installed just 4.7GW. In solar too, China represented 64% of global of solar 40GW PV module production, and Asia as a whole with 86%, making Europe and the US, at 9% and 2% respectively, meek players in the field. This article explains why. In Europe, it is Germany that claims the crown for the leader in solar energy with 35.9W by the end of 2013, though Asia is hot on their tails.

The heavy-industry, construction, and manufacturing sectors are investing the most capital in the shift to 100% renewable energy, particularly in Europe and are seeing the best returns according to RE100 Initiative’s The Journey to 100 PercentBusinesses also have access to a free online tool to assess country-specific clean energy statistics, create charts, graphs etc, launched by International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) REsource

Finally, an important find in the NREL research was the enormous wastage from faulty power lines. 52% of commercial and 42% residential of power demand is wasted! Referred to “losses as electricity moves across power lines…” this provides a neat case for our work on local district energy supplies and more smart grid technologies.

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Featured network: 100RC

The Rockefeller Foundation has launched a global network for cities to work closer to address the urgent impacts of climate change, 100 Resilient Cities. They fund a Chief Resilient Officer role within city councils to exchange knowledge amongst the network and disperse at city level. The concept of resilience has its critics, but it largely addresses the effects we discussed above in the 2009 OECD paper. Cities have to apply to be a member of the network, which offers not only financial and strategic support in the form of this role within council, but also access to their partners and to the fellow members across the world to share experience and knowledge with. Our city bases Bristol (UK), New York and Montreal are members.

Next briefing

The insurance issue

* Changing notions of fiduciary responsibility

* Flood insurance in Canada

* Featured Network: Eco City

A briefing prepared by SSG’s Office of the Research

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