The video here is quite gripping: you should watch it!
Despite the title, Gore starts with a long and terrifying account of what climate change is doing. So what’s his case for optimism? A lot of it concerns solar power, though he also mentions nuclear power:
So the answer to the first question, “Must we change?” is yes, we have to change. Second question, “Can we change?” This is the exciting news! The best projections in the world 16 years ago were that by 2010, the world would be able to install 30 gigawatts of wind capacity. We beat that mark by 14 and a half times over. We see an exponential curve for wind installations now. We see the cost coming down dramatically. Some countries—take Germany, an industrial powerhouse with a climate not that different from Vancouver’s, by the way—one day last December, got 81 percent of all its energy from renewable resources, mainly solar and wind. A lot of countries are getting more than half on an average basis.
More good news: energy storage, from batteries particularly, is now beginning to take off because the cost has been coming down very dramatically to solve the intermittency problem. With solar, the news is even more exciting! The best projections 14 years ago were that we would install one gigawatt per year by 2010. When 2010 came around, we beat that mark by 17 times over. Last year, we beat it by 58 times over. This year, we’re on track to beat it 68 times over.
We’re going to win this. We are going to prevail. The exponential curve on solar is even steeper and more dramatic. When I came to this stage 10 years ago, this is where it was. We have seen a revolutionary breakthrough in the emergence of these exponential curves.
And the cost has come down 10 percent per year for 30 years. And it’s continuing to come down.
Now, the business community has certainly noticed this, because it’s crossing the grid parity point. Cheaper solar penetration rates are beginning to rise. Grid parity is understood as that line, that threshold, below which renewable electricity is cheaper than electricity from burning fossil fuels. That threshold is a little bit like the difference between 32 degrees Fahrenheit and 33 degrees Fahrenheit, or zero and one Celsius. It’s a difference of more than one degree, it’s the difference between ice and water. And it’s the difference between markets that are frozen up, and liquid flows of capital into new opportunities for investment. This is the biggest new business opportunity in the history of the world, and two-thirds of it is in the private sector. We are seeing an explosion of new investment. Starting in 2010, investments globally in renewable electricity generation surpassed fossils. The gap has been growing ever since. The projections for the future are even more dramatic, even though fossil energy is now still subsidized at a rate 40 times larger than renewables. And by the way, if you add the projections for nuclear on here, particularly if you assume that the work many are doing to try to break through to safer and more acceptable, more affordable forms of nuclear, this could change even more dramatically.
So is there any precedent for such a rapid adoption of a new technology? Well, there are many, but let’s look at cell phones. In 1980, AT&T, then Ma Bell, commissioned McKinsey to do a global market survey of those clunky new mobile phones that appeared then. “How many can we sell by the year 2000?” they asked. McKinsey came back and said, “900,000.” And sure enough, when the year 2000 arrived, they did sell 900,000—in the first three days. And for the balance of the year, they sold 120 times more. And now there are more cell connections than there are people in the world.
So, why were they not only wrong, but way wrong? I’ve asked that question myself, “Why?”
And I think the answer is in three parts. First, the cost came down much faster than anybody expected, even as the quality went up. And low-income countries, places that did not have a landline grid—they leap-frogged to the new technology. The big expansion has been in the developing counties. So what about the electricity grids in the developing world? Well, not so hot. And in many areas, they don’t exist. There are more people without any electricity at all in India than the entire population of the United States of America. So now we’re getting this: solar panels on grass huts and new business models that make it affordable. Muhammad Yunus financed this one in Bangladesh with micro-credit. This is a village market. Bangladesh is now the fastest-deploying country in the world: two systems per minute on average, night and day. And we have all we need: enough energy from the Sun comes to the Earth every hour to supply the full world’s energy needs for an entire year. It’s actually a little bit less than an hour. So the answer to the second question, “Can we change?” is clearly “Yes.” And it’s an ever-firmer “yes.”
Some people are much less sanguine about solar power, and they would point out all the things that Gore doesn’t mention here. For example, while Gore claims that “one day last December” Germany “got 81 percent of all its energy from renewable resources, mainly solar and wind”, the picture in general is not so good:
This is from 2014, the most recent I could easily find. At least back then, renewables were only slightly ahead of ‘brown coal’, or lignite—the dirtiest kind of coal. Furthermore, among renewables, burning ‘biomass’ produced about as much power as wind—and more than solar. And what’s ‘biomass’, exactly? A lot of it is wood pellets! Some is even imported:
• John Baez, The EU’s biggest renewable eneergy source, 18 September 2013.
So, for every piece of good news one can find a piece of bad news. But the drop in price of solar power is impressive, and photovoltaic solar power is starting to hit ‘grid parity’: the point at which it’s as cheap as the usual cost of electricity off the grid:
According to this map based on reports put out by Deutsche Bank (here and here), the green countries reached grid parity before 2014. The blue countries reached it after 2014. The olive countries have reached it only for peak grid prices. The orange regions are US states that were ‘poised to reach grid parity’ in 2015.
But of course there are other issues: the intermittency of solar power, the difficulties of storing energy, etc. How optimistic should we be?