Is This the Dawn of a Renewable Energy Revolution?
Peter Sinclair says that utilities in time will become managers rather than owners of energy, and that the emerging systems are inherently anti-monopolistic
ANTON WORONCZUK, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Anton Woronczuk in Baltimore.
Germany recently reached a major milestone. On a single day, it was able to obtain 75 percent of its electricity from renewable resources. And according to an April 2014 report from the Pew Charitable Trusts called Who’s Winning the Clean Energy Race?, China is the world leader in clean-energy investment, having invested $54 billion in renewables during 2013, well above U.S. investment of $36.7 billion. So is the world in the middle of a renewable energy revolution?
With us to discuss his latest video on this topic is Peter Sinclair. Peter is a videographer and regular contributor to Yale Climate Connections. He Is also media director of the Dark Snow Project, an international team of researchers and climate communicators. He also runs the highly popular website ClimateCrocks.com that debunks climate change deniers. And his videos on climate change have been viewed by millions. Thanks for joining us, Peter.
PETER SINCLAIR, VIDEOGRAPHER, DARK SNOW PROJECT : Thank you very much. I’m glad to be here.
WORONCZUK: So, Peter, let’s first take a look at a clip from your latest video “Birthing the Solar Age”, posted on the Yale Climate Forum YouTube channel. In this clip, Jeremy Rifken discusses a recent achievement of Germany, that in a single day it was able to get 75 percent of its electricity from renewable resources.
SINCLAIR: Two weeks ago on Sunday–and I want everyone to hear this–75 percent of the electricity that powered all of Germany–and Germany’s the most powerful economic capitalist market system in the world per capital–75 percent of that electricity that powered all of Germany two weeks ago was solar and wind.
Then when we have something like lots of wind creating a lot of supply, that is more than the demand, and so prices can fall negative.
SINCLAIR: And that’s why that day, the actual prices for electricity on the German grid went to negative, ’cause the electricity was free.
WORONCZUK: So, Peter, this sounds pretty incredible. Energy prices apparently went negative. Tell us how Germany got to this point.
SINCLAIR: Well, Germany actually was kind of sparked by the United States. And this was some 30 some years ago, back in the Carter administration, when this country really started devoting a lot of money to developing renewable energy. And many people in Germany, for a number of reasons, found this to be very compelling.
The difference is they got started on it, took our lead, and they didn’t stop. Here in the U.S., during the Reagan administration, investment in renewables plummeted, and it’s taken us a long time to rebuild from that. But Germany started putting a number of policies in place at that time. And then in the recent decade or so most especially, they put into place what they called a feed-in tariff, which is a program of compensating people for installing renewable energy–small businesses, individuals, farmers, co-ops. And the program has been far more successful than anyone would have predicted in the early days. And so it has brought a torrent of renewable energy onto the German system that has–as you say, on some days, there’s so much energy coming in that electric prices go negative in Germany.
WORONCZUK: Okay. And your latest video also features a TED talk by businessman Eli Musk, where he talks about solar energy shifting not just electrical power but financial power away from utility companies, who currently rely on coal, natural gas, and nuclear energy sources.
But, Peter, we also saw a recent bill passed in Ohio that froze the mandate for renewable energy use in that state. So what are the obstacles right now that are preventing the United States from doing what Germany has done?
SINCLAIR: Well, Ohio’s a bit of an outlier. A number of other states have renewable portfolio standards, and there has been an effort on behalf of the Koch brothers and their related organizations to turn those laws back, but Ohio is the only state that they’ve been successful in so far. Most of those places, the renewable energy, it remains overwhelmingly popular, even among conservative numbers of the population. And that’s one of the major messages of this video, that even very, very conservative people see the advantages of renewable energy in terms of creating more competition, keeping prices low, and empowering small businesses, individuals, farmers, and communities.
WORONCZUK: So another thing that was discussed in the video was that some people are working towards a shift in the role of utility companies from being energy providers to energy management services. Now, what does that mean? And where do we see this happening right now?
SINCLAIR: Well, the renewable energy technologies have sprung up more or less in tandem with the information technologies that we utilized that we’re utilizing right now. And there is an understanding that we’re moving from an era of sort of hub-and-spoke energy, where a big power plant supplies a whole bunch of individual consumers, we’re moving to a network of small power producers–prosumers would be one way to call it: people with solar panels on their roof or hundreds and hundreds of wind turbines spread over a broad area, biogas generators, all the different flavors of renewable energy as a seamless Internet-like web. And the idea is that utilities are going to be less and less the primary generators of power and more and more the facilitators of moving that power around from many, many producers to the various users according to the need.
WORONCZUK: But then we might see some problems in the shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy in terms of, you know, technical, political, or economic control. I mean, for example, will we see the rise of big green monopolies over the solar and wind industries?
SINCLAIR: Well, the distributed nature of the power sources kind of mitigates against monopolistic practices. For instance, in the video, one of the people I interviewed, Paul /gaɪt/, points out that of the $100 billion or so invested in new energy infrastructure in Germany, half of that is owned by people like you and me, individuals, small businesses, communities, co-ops. And this is strikingly different from the breakdown we see in the United States. Only a small percentage of that renewable energy is owned by the big utilities in Germany, who now freely admit that they missed the boat, they totally miscalculated how successful this energy would be, and they’re in a bit of a pickle right now try to figure out how to manage this transition.
WORONCZUK: Okay. Peter Sinclair, media director of the Dark Snow Project, thank you for joining us.
SINCLAIR: You bet. Thank you.
WORONCZUK: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.
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