Category Archives: Revolt


Providing 100% Clean Electricity Through the Spread of Renewables

On November 13, 2014, the American Council on Renewable Energy (ACORE), held the panel event “Renewable Energy at Scale in the U.S. and Europe: Lessons Learned and Best Practices,” in collaboration with the Transatlantic Climate Bridge and hosted by the German Embassy in Washington, D.C. The discussion continued the dialogue from an earlier event, “Energy Transitions in Germany and the United States.” In addition to discussing market aspects of renewables (see related blog), participants highlighted another key to clean growth: the broad dispersal of renewables. Surprisingly simple, it is a key step to make renewables the power sources of choice, especially if done along several dimensions.

Distributing renewable power generation geographically helps to average out local fluctuations in wind and sunlight. In the U.S. state of Iowa, a nationwide leader in renewables, wind energy has reached 27.4 percent of statewide electricity generation. Key to this is the distribution of wind farms across most of the state’s more than 56,000 square miles (145,000 square kilometers). This enables high wind speeds in some counties to compensate for lower wind speeds in others, yielding steadier total electricity production than would be possible if all turbines were placed in a single location. Furthermore, the wind industry´s production and manufacturing businesses, located near several population centers, are helping to broadly distribute the benefits of a clean economy to Iowa’s populace.


Iowa’s Wind Farms and Wind-Related Businesses

Credit: American Wind Energy Association

In addition, using a diversity of technologies helps different renewable energy sources complement one another, such as wind power compensating for the lack of solar energy at night or reduced output on cloudy days. Biomass deserves particular attention in this regard. In 2013, in addition to its use in heat generation, biomass provided 31.4 percent of renewable electricity in Germany, and 24.7 percent in the United States—less than wind energy, but more than solar.

Biomass can be stored, and biomass plants can be ramped up and down. As a consequence, these plants can be used for distributed generation as well as to back up other renewables when needed, making them suited for providing base load power. The result: Clean energy does not need dirty fossil fuels or dangerous nuclear plants to supply 100% power reliably.

Spreading generation out across large numbers of distributed generators helps to further stabilize production. The German startup Next Kraftwerke aggregates and sells 1 gigawatt of renewable capacity from some 2,500 different generators into a “virtual power plant” (VPP). Using advanced and standardized control electronics, and without owning any of the generation itself, the company operates this swarm of generators like a school of fish: if one “fish” malfunctions, the others cover for it. Curtailment or adjustment of production—for example, using biomass units—is needed only when short-term trading is insufficient to match demand and supply on the market.

Dispersion across a large and well-connected network is instrumental for integrating high shares of renewables into the grid. Because storage technology is progressing, but still not fully sufficient, grid operators with the ability to dispatch power automatically and on short notice  are critical to help balance demand and supply. Iowa, for example, is administered by the Midcontinent Independent System Operator (MISO), whose footprint also covers many neighboring states. Collaboration between MISO and California’s large and advanced operator, CISO, expands the network, easing the distribution of clean power.

In Europe, grid upgrades and interconnections are helping countries dispatch and use clean power, such as wind power in Germany and Poland. To streamline this activity, participants at the panel event suggested creating a future central transaction platform for power markets. In Italy, grid upgrades have reportedly reduced curtailments of renewable generation, which previously were necessary because of the lack of dispatching options for local clean energy surpluses. Curtailments are down from 10 percent of renewable generation in 2009 to only 1.8 percent today, contributing to Italy’s success in achieving a more than 30% renewable share in total electricity production.

As distributed generation grows, flowing through smarter grids and across borders, it is sweeping away the business model of legacy utilities. Feeding power to consumers and exchanging information via monthly bills is being replaced with a continuous, bidirectional flow of power and data between professional service providers and self-producing consumers (“prosumers”). The future role of utilities is as energy integrators, tasked with providing ancillary services such as automated voltage and frequency control, forecasting and analytics, and rapid dispatching.

In November 2014, one of Germany’s big four energy giants, E.on, announced plans to abandon its fossil fuel and nuclear business and focus on renewables and services. The company says it has been priced out of the market by clean energy and lower energy prices on the stock market, resulting in lost profitability for conventional power suppliers.

Business models for services, as well as for grid maintenance and backup capacity, are in their infancy. Although abundant ideas exist, new models still need to be tested in reality. Still, the many success stories clearly demonstrate the feasibility of distributing clean energy benefits.

Designing a Sustainable Energy Roadmap for the Philippines

Climate change has been a constant reality for many Filipinos, with impacts ranging from extreme weather events to periodic droughts and food scarcity. The most affected populations are coastal residents and rural communities that lack proper disaster preparedness.

Tacloban City after Typhoon Haiyan. Credit: The Guardian

According to the Center for Global Development, the Philippines is the world’s fourth most vulnerable country to the direct impacts of extreme weather events. Averaging 20 tropical cyclones a year, it may be the world’s most storm-exposed nation. Last November, Supertyphoon Haiyan, the most intense tropical cyclone ever recorded, claimed more than 10,000 lives, affected over 9 million people, and left over 600,000 Filipinos homeless. With both the oceans and the atmosphere warming, there is broad scientific consensus that typhoons are now increasing in strength.

Like most developing countries, the Philippines plays a minor role in global carbon emissions yet suffers an inordinately higher cost. With over a third of its population living in poverty, the country emits just 0.9 metric tons of carbon per capita, compared to the United States’ 17.6 metric tons. “We lose 5% of our economy every year to storms,” observes Philippine Climate Change Commissioner Naderev Sano. The reconstruction costs of Haiyan alone are estimated at $5.8 billion.

As the Philippines embarks on a long road to recovery, sustainability is key for post-Haiyan rebuilding. “We must build back better and more resilient communities,” says Senator Loren Legarda, chair of the Philippines’ Senate Committee on Climate Change, who was named a Regional Champion by the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction. “We must prevent disasters and be prepared for the next natural hazards. This disaster also tells us about the urgent need to save and care for our environment.”

Bangui Wind Farm. Credit: Erik De Castro/Reuters

It is widely argued that taking early action against climate change through mitigation efforts outweigh the costs and economic impacts of inaction. In the Philippines, transitioning to a low-carbon economy has many challenges, but it also offers strong prospects for growth and development. The country has tremendous mitigation opportunities and is graced with significant renewable energy resources. According to the Philippine Department of Energy, renewable energy already provides 40 percent of the country’s primary energy requirements, and much of its potential has yet to be tapped.

To achieve an environmentally secure future, the Philippines must not only rebuild more sustainably but also create a sustainable pathway for future development. With one of the most progressive energy laws in Asia, the country has committed to a renewable energy target of 50 percent by 2030 under its Renewable Energy Act.

In 2013, the Office of the President’s Climate Change Commission (CCC), the primary executive office working on climate change, began a partnership with the Worldwatch Institute to lay groundwork for a Sustainable Energy Roadmap for the

Senator Heherson Alvarez from the Climate Change Commision meets with Esperanza Garcia to discuss creating a Philippinies Sustainable Energy Roadmap and communication project with Worldwatch.

Philippines, which aims to shift its electricity system to 100 percent renewable energy within a decade. The CCC also invited Worldwatch to help develop an education and outreach campaign on “communicating climate change” to boost environmental literacy and political support for addressing climate change within the country.

Worldwatch is already working on Sustainable Energy Roadmaps for the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Jamaica, Central America, and 15 CARICOM member states, and is eager to assist the Philippine government in building a sustainable pathway that addresses the country’s specific development goals. Many of the world’s developing countries have incredible potential to alleviate poverty through accelerated economic growth while also improving people’s quality of life through sustainable development. The Worldwatch-Philippines partnership aspires to move the country toward developing and deploying low-carbon technologies in order to achieve the deep cuts in greenhouse gas emissions that are needed to mitigate future climate-related risks.


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Storage Solutions Allow for Renewable Energy on Demand

One of the biggest challenges with using renewable energy for electricity generation—specifically wind and solar power—is intermittency. The wind doesn’t always blow and the sun doesn’t always shine. Affordable, reliable, and deployable storage is seen as the holy grail of renewable energy integration, and recent advances in storage technology are getting closer to finding it.

The current electricity grid has virtually no storage—pumped hydropower is the most prevalent, but is largely location dependent. As higher levels of solar and wind energy are added to the grid, however, storage will become increasingly fundamental to ensuring that the power supply remains stable and demand is met. Utilities and businesses around the globe are starting to use large-scale batteries to complement their renewable energy generation: in Texas, for example, Duke Energy installed a 36 megawatt lead-acid storage system to balance its wind power.

Storage technologies not only provide utilities with grid reliability for renewable integration, but also offer additional benefits such as ancillary services, ramp rate control, frequency regulation, and peak shaving, which can lower costs and improve the performance of the transmission system. Power system operators have always had to match electricity demand with supply, and energy storage is an additional tool in their grid-management toolbox.

Storage technologies vary by application, but most research and development is occurring in the realm of batteries, which compete mainly on cost, battery life, and safety. Lead-acid batteries are the oldest type of rechargeable battery and have a very low cost, but they suffer from a short cycle life. Newer batteries, such as lithium-ion options, have very high energy densities and efficiencies, but are hampered by high costs. Supercapacitors, meanwhile, have very long cycle life and high efficiencies, but lower energy densities, needing more space for the same capacity.

Different battery types have distinct discharge times and power capacities that lend them to different applications. Assuring continuity of quality power requires fast response times; assuring continuity of service when switching energy generation sources requires high levels of flexibility. Decoupling generation and consumption of electric energy—that is, charging storage when the cost is low and consuming energy on demand—requires high cycle life.

Beyond batteries

In addition to batteries, energy storage technologies include flywheels, pumped hydro storage, and compressed air energy storage. Flywheels store energy in the form of motion via a rotating mass that has very low frictional losses, making them best suited for high-power, low-energy applications that require frequent cycling. Pumped hydro storage is able to store energy in the form of water at a higher elevation by pumping water up while supply is high (and electricity is cheap) and using gravity to transport water down when demand is high (and electricity is expensive). Compressed air energy storage (CAES) is similar to pumped hydro storage in application, output, and storage capacity, but instead of using water as a storage medium, it uses ambient air.

CAES technology has been growing in popularity as a competitor to pumped hydro, since it offers large-scale storage without the geographic restrictions. In CAES, ambient air is compressed and driven into storage tanks or underground caverns, or stored underwater. When electricity is needed, the compressed air is expanded, driving a motor and producing power. CAES technology is not new—it has been used since the 1970s—but improvements in efficiency, air storage methods, and type of fuel used in compression has given it renewed attractiveness.
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Compressed Air Energy Storage system overview

One California-based company, LightSail Energy makes CAES more efficient by storing both the mechanical energy and the thermal energy created in compressing air through the addition of water mist to the air. Water captures the generated heat and returns the thermal energy when it is re-infused into the air, heating the air and thus delivering more power.

Similarly, the New Hampshire company SustainX captures the heat from compression in water and stores it until it is needed for expansion. By carrying out isothermal–constant temperature-compression and expansion in situ, this system yields higher round-trip efficiencies and lower capital costs.

A Canadian company, Hydrostor, uses an innovative air storage method. While most new applications of CAES use above-ground metal containers, Hydrostor stores the compressed air 100-500 meters underwater in large polyester bags or cement cavities, keeping the air at the pressure to which it was compressed. When energy is needed, the flow of the system is reversed and the weight of the water forces the air to the surface, where it can be expanded to produce electricity.

Real-world relevance

Islands are the perfect candidates for CAES systems, making this technology especially relevant to the Worldwatch Institute’s efforts to expand renewable energy use in the Caribbean. The region’s high fuel import costs and rich renewable resources make renewable energy competitive in price and the logical solution when socioeconomic and environmental factors are taken into account. High levels of renewable power, however, would require either oversized systems for which there is insufficient space or funding; backup diesel generation, which is expensive and dirty; or energy storage.

As the technology matures, CAES systems are becoming low-cost energy storage solutions with high scalability and negligible environmental impacts. Underwater CAES has lower capital cost requirements than other CAES systems and smaller onshore footprints, and it requires deep waters to store air, a characteristic that is well suited to the waters surrounding islands in the Caribbean. The sun can be used as a heat source to further increase expansion efficiency.

CAES has many advantages over other forms of energy storage, and if ongoing technological innovations succeed in making it as efficient as pumped hydro storage, it may well become the cheapest type of large-scale storage. The ambient air used is free; the materials and technologies used are abundant and well understood, and there are no siting restrictions. Moreover, CAES has scalable capacity—you can just add more storage containers.

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Warsaw Climate Talks: “You Say It Best When You Say Nothing At All”

While many participants had hoped for a rocking performance by negotiators, they left still straining to hear the sounds of success.

The most recent round of the United Nations climate change negotiations began early the morning of November 11. After a marathon final session that lasted more than 24 hours, talks concluded at nearly 9 p.m. on Saturday the 23rd. This dramatic finish has become an almost yearly occurrence of governments rocking all Friday night and partying every (Satur)day. With so much activity late in the game, observers might reasonably have expected a lengthy set of agreements to step up the fight against climate change. Or, at the very least, confirmation that Saturday night’s alright for fighting when nations can’t agree.

Instead, based on the reactions from many participants, the final agreements said more about the state of negotiations by what they left out than what they included. To be fair, these negotiations were not intended to reach a final decision on major climate change issues. Warsaw was built as a step toward agreement on a new climate change treaty at negotiations in Paris in December 2015. A successful agreement in Paris depends on countries making commitments to reduce their carbon pollution. Putting their cards on the table as early as possible would help even more. It would leave more time to assess if the commitments will be enough to stop dangerous and potentially runaway levels of climate change. And to negotiate stronger commitments if not.

Rather, governments, particularly the wealthiest and most polluting, spent all of Warsaw showing each other their best poker faces, with no new commitments pledged. Governments did manage to agree to state their commitments “well in advance” of Paris. They did not, however, clarify when exactly that would be.

Success in Paris will also depend on adequate financial support for climate action—in particular, support from wealthy countries to poorer nations for climate mitigation and adaptation. Governments did manage to pledge over US$100 million to replenish the Adaptation Fund for developing countries. But these funds will be money for nothing if the damages from climate change accelerate. And wealthy nations made little progress in how to achieve their promise of at least $100 billion in annual support by 2020. The Green Climate Fund, the home for much future adaptation and mitigation support under the negotiations, remains essentially empty. The Fund’s final press release from Warsaw was notable most for what it did not mention: any commitment of cash.

Not all negotiations left Warsaw in such dire straits for combating the industrial disease of carbon pollution. Progress was made on the forest protection system known as Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Developing Countries (REDD+). Decisions included technical agreements on reporting and verifying emissions from deforestation, and were supported by over $280 million from the United Kingdom, Norway, and the United States. Agreement was also reached on a means to address loss and damage. This is the term for climate damages that cannot be prevented by even aggressive mitigation, and cannot be adapted to.

Negotiators agreed to a last-minute set of mechanisms for increasing knowledge transfer, planning, and support for these impacts. No explicit funding was pledged. With the damage in their hearts still fresh from the ravages of Super Typhoon Haiyan, many developing country delegates called the decision weak. They succeeded only in forcing the negotiations to consider strengthening the loss and damage mechanism in 2016.

In all, many in civil society left Warsaw wishing that negotiators would have at least met each other halfway on key issues like mitigation and finance, while also recognizing that halfway isn’t good enough in the face of worsening climate change. While some took a more optimistic view of the negotiations, all agreed, as Worldwatch noted earlier in the talks, that much work still remains to keep the planet out of a climate danger zone. Negotiators will have plenty of opportunities for this next year, with at least two interim sessions, a fall summit overseen by the UN Secretary-General, and the next major climate talks in Lima, Peru, in December. With time running out for an agreement, those negotiations promise to be more rock concert and less piano recital than Warsaw.

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Notes from Namibia: Worst Drought in 30 Years Affects One-Third of Country

I arrived in Windhoek, the capital of Namibia, five weeks ago. In the days prior, I had read up on this southwestern African country and its tourist sites, learned about the wildlife conservation successes it has achieved since independence in 1990, and was even reminded that this was where Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie chose to give birth to their first child. But on my first night here, I was confronted with a different side of Namibia that isn’t making as many headlines.

A typical arid landscape in the Erongo region of Namibia.

Jet-lagged and disoriented, I stumbled out of my room at 2 a.m. and ran into Johannes Gabriel, the night guard at the guesthouse where I’m staying for three months. Gabriel, an Ovambo man from the village of Okapa, told me of the drought that is gripping the nation, the worst in three decades. “Many cattle and people are dying, schools are closing because children aren’t interested in education, people are waiting on long lines for food.” While much of the world may know Namibia for tourism, wildlife conservation, and famous babies, the drought has received relatively little media exposure. Greater international attention and support will be needed if these conditions are indicative of climate challenges to come.

Namibia is already the driest country in sub-Saharan Africa, making it one of the most drought-sensitive countries in the world. Flanked by two deserts, the country normally receives an average of only 10.35 inches (263 millimeters) of rainfall per year, a quarter of the global average and just above the official classification for a desert. Despite this meager precipitation, agriculture remains a critical industry for the country. Although commercial agriculture contributes only 6 percent of Namibia’s GDP, more than 70 percent of Namibians depend on subsistence agriculture for household food security, and wealth is traditionally measured by the number of cattle owned.

This year’s drought is a result of two years of failed rains and is concentrated in the country’s north, home to most of Namibia’s population but beyond most traditional tourist routes. In August, UNICEF estimated that nearly 780,000 people, representing over a third of Namibians and 65 percent of people living in the most affected regions, are moderately or severely affected by the drought, a number expected to increase as the drought wears on. An estimated 41 percent of schools in Namibia are without access to water, and some schools have not received sufficient food relief. This, together with a lack of food at home and families migrating to find better grazing land for livestock, has led to high rates of student dropout and school closures.

Overall, the government has tried to respond fairly aggressively to the drought. At least four boreholes have been constructed out of a planned 44 to provide groundwater access in drought-affected areas, and the military has sent vehicles to assist with food distribution. The Agricultural Bank of Namibia set aside US$9.1 million for loans to drought-stricken farmers, and earlier this year, the government declared a state of emergency and pledged US$20.1 million for drought relief, complemented by appeals by UNICEF for US$7.4 million and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies for US$1.4 million.

But it’s unclear to what extent these appeals have been met, and by many accounts a significant funding gap remains. Furthermore, allegations have emerged that at least some relief efforts are being mismanaged, with relief workers going unpaid and food for relief going missing, sold to businessmen, or distributed along party lines.

The increased frequency of extreme weather events is indicative of a changing climate, and in addition to the current drought, this same region was affected by record flooding just two years ago. As a result, the government has begun to recognize the need for a comprehensive climate adaptation and disaster risk management plan, and has received support from the Global Environment Facility and the United Nations Development Programme to perform assessments and outline basic policies. It has also developed region-specific adaptation toolkits, translated into the many different languages spoken here, to help individual communities plan adaptation measures.

However, the government might still be hampered by a mindset that views drought in isolation—divorced from larger, more systemic problems of poverty, malnutrition, and climate change. Prime Minister Hage Geingob recently shirked away from reports of drought-related deaths, distinguishing between “malnourishment and hunger caused by poverty and malnourishment and hunger caused by a lack of rain due to drought.” And at the 11th session of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification that Namibia hosted this September, Luc Gnacadja, the COP11 secretary, praised the country’s drought-response policy but stressed the importance of transitioning to a more long-term preparedness and risk management strategy.

But as Gnacadja highlighted, the lack of international support poses a greater challenge. While the country’s needs are substantial, its small population and recent promotion to “middle-income status” by the World Bank (despite having the third highest income inequality in the world) have made it a lower priority for international relief funding and climate finance. Although the frameworks may exist for an adaptation policy, educational programs like the adaptation toolkits, and proposed infrastructure projects such as a diversion reservoir near the northern city of Oshakati and a sea wall around the port of Walvis Bay, implementing them will require a significant amount of international funding and support.

Three weeks ago, I watched as the World Wildlife Fund presented President Hifikepunye Pohamba with its Gift of the Earth Award for the Namibian government’s successes in conserving wildlife at the opening of the 2013 Adventure Travel World Summit, the first time the event has been held in Africa. Namibia helped pioneer the community conservancy model, which has enabled it to now boast the world’s largest population of endangered black rhino, Africa’s only expanding free-roaming lion population, and 42 percent of its total land area protected under some form of conservation mandate.

But these successes came through continuous support from several international development agencies and nongovernmental organizations. During President Pohamba’s acceptance speech, and throughout the weeklong Summit, no mention was made of the drought currently affecting one-third of the country. As Namibia heads into yet another potentially poor rainy season, it will need to be just as proactive in taking responsibility at home and lobbying for support from abroad if it is to solve this problem and build resilience for future climate challenges.

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Negotiating Climate Change as if Development Really Mattered

Over the past twenty years, climate negotiations have been dominated by concerns that addressing global warming is anti-business and onerous to future development.  The insufficient progress we have made at the last 18 COPs towards ‘preventing dangerous human interference with the climate system,’ the ultimate goal of the UN Climate Convention, is a consequence of this – and the summit currently underway in Warsaw is not exactly on course to make a change. Working in many places around the world, from Haiti to India to Europe and the United States, I have witnessed little success in convincing people of the importance of sacrifice for the global commons.  This approach has proven ineffective.

I wrote in this publication a couple of years ago that ‘new energy for the negotiations’ was needed. The article’s title, of course, was a play on words: More than anything else we need to quickly transition to new energy systems built on efficient consumption and renewable resources, as well as decentralised and smart transmission solutions, in order to decarbonise our societies and help them to adapt to climate change. But we also need new, renewable and sustainable energy for the negotiations.  Discussing climate mitigation as what can be won, rather than what must be given up, and a strategy that at its core builds on the experiences that already have been made in many places around the world on the way to building low-emissions economies might not just inspire scale-up and replication of on-the-ground action but also revitalise international partnership and ambition.

Aristotle suggested that every human action has a goal (‘telos’), and that the ultimate goal of all human actions is our pursuit of happiness. Constructing sustainability as a cause for the constraint of human action certainly does not evoke the idea of a yardstick for achieving happiness, nor, most likely, unity among actors. On all levels of organisation, from individuals reflecting on their lifestyles to municipalities occupied with urban planning to provinces and federal governments facing vested interests in the unconstrained burning of fossil fuels – I am convinced that we will be able to change course faster and more consistently if we are aware of what can be won: a more peaceful world, sustained economies with better jobs, greener and safer cities, and happier and healthier lives in intact environments.

The recent pictures from the devastation that Typhoon Haiyan left behind gives us a sense of what more frequent and extreme weather events have in store for us. Without doubt, there are very real limits to our behaviour that we must consider; and science tells us with increasing confidence where these thresholds of our joint actions need to be, suggesting a maximum global temperature increase and corresponding atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations.  In order to reach the level of ambition necessary to stay within our limits, however, we can now build on the remarkable successes that have been achieved in decarbonising human actions in many places worldwide. And what we will find by analysing the frontrunners of low-emissions development is that they are not worse but better off than those that are trailing behind – economically, socially and, needless to mention, environmentally.

Starting from these climate and development success stories, we have to identify real and actionable goals. We might find that we can be much more ambitious than we thought, and that reaching the necessary greenhouse gas reduction targets might be easier than commonly portrayed. Our transition to sustainable societies will be good for us, our cities, our countries, and Earth. Our climate and development discourses have started from different conceptualisations for too long. To successfully address these existential areas of decision-making, the answers will be the same.

This article was originally published on Outreach on November 18, 2013.

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Forty Years of Dependency? Oil’s evolution since the Embargo

The 40th anniversary of the Arab Oil Embargo offers a unique opportunity to reflect on four decades of developments in the energy sector in the United States and around the world. In many ways, the shock of the embargo helped reshape the world energy sector, yet four decades later many of the same problems faced in 1973 persist, especially in the United States.

The Oil Embargo forced gasoline rationing across the U.S. (source: Wikipedia)

To a large extent, fossil fuels continue to power global economic growth and energy security, and the competition for these resources remains a significant concern for governments around the world. Just as in 1973, the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and the oil that its member states produce continue to be an undeniable force in global geopolitics. OPEC’s hold over 81 percent of the world’s proven crude reserves gives it a largely unchecked control over international oil prices, which it achieves by setting OPEC-wide production targets.

Although OPEC has played a key role on the production side of the international oil market over the past four decades, the consumer landscape has changed dramatically since 1973. Significant economic growth in the developing world has led to increasing competition for energy resources. Oil demand in developing countries topped demand in the industrialized nations of the OECD for the first time ever in April 2013, a drastic change from just a decade ago when all developing countries combined consumed only two-thirds of the oil used in OECD member states (by volume).

Led principally by rapid growth in China, who now rivals the United States as Saudi Arabia’s largest client for oil exports, these developments have significantly altered international oil markets. In spite of rapidly growing global demand in emerging markets, OPEC’s oil production remains at 30 million barrels per day, the same volume produced in 1973, contributing to prices per barrel that are 5.5 times higher than at the time of the embargo.

Despite the challenge of moving beyond fossil fuel dependence, the necessary technologies now exist at a commercially deployable scale and cost to ensure that the development pathways of the past do not need to be repeated. Renewable energy technologies are no longer “alternative” energy options; rather, they are mainstream energy sources that are increasingly meeting the energy needs of populations around the world. Likewise, around the world, natural gas is increasingly edging out dirtier burning fuels such as oil and coal.

For renewables, the cost barriers that existed 40 years ago are a thing of the past. The cost of solar pholtovoltaics (PV), for example, has decreased 99 percent since the late 1970s, falling from US$76.67 per watt in 1977 to US$0.74 per watt today. Cost reductions in solar PV and other renewable technologies have been met with notable increases in capacity. Modern renewables, including hydropower, now account for 9.7 percent of global final energy consumption and 21.7 percent of global electricity production. Non-hydro renewables now account for 5.2 percent of global electricity generation, up from less than half a percent at the end of the 1970s.

Even major fossil fuel exporters are beginning to recognize the benefits of renewables. Gulf States such as Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates have all set targets to develop new renewable energy capacity. Yet although renewables such as solar and wind can be critical tools in transitioning the global electricity sector away from oil, this is only one part of the larger challenge.

The U.S. experience over the past four decades shows the difficulty in completely transitioning away from petroleum fuels and achieving the politically important “energy independence” that has been espoused by all presidents since Richard Nixon. In certain ways, development within the country has come full circle. The United States was the world’s largest oil producer in 1973 and, as of this month, it outpaced both Russia and Saudi Arabia to become the world’s top oil and gas producer. Although oil from the Persian Gulf now accounts for only 9.6 percent of U.S. consumption, this is nearly 5 percent greater than at the time of the embargo. And despite growth in domestic production, the United States still remains dependent on fuel imports to satisfy over a third of its oil demand, the same share as in 1973.

After peaking in 2005, U.S. net oil imports have returned to roughly the same level as in 1973

Coal, natural gas, nuclear, hydropower, and to a lesser but growing degree other renewable technologies now provide 99 percent of U.S. electricity. Oil, however, continues to be used extensively in the transportation sector, where petroleum fuels account for 97 percent of the fuel mix. Because transportation is the country’s second largest energy-consuming sector, this is quite significant.

Despite efforts to maximize the efficiency of fuel use in U.S. transportation, little emphasis has been placed on fuel switching, thus preserving oil’s prevalence as a crucial component of the energy mix. Unfortunately, simply maximizing the efficiency of oil use in the transportation sector has not reduced U.S. price vulnerability. Although the United States has been successful at reducing demand for oil imports over the past decade, over the same time period the value of crude has increased fourfold, leading to a doubling of U.S. foreign oil expenditures.

Of course, 40 years removed from the Oil Embargo there are many reasons beyond energy security concerns to transition away from fossil fuels. The past 40 years of oil dependence in the energy sector have had an extremely detrimental impact on the global environment and is the major driver of climate change. With the impacts of climate change already being felt, it is clear that we don’t have another four decades for a shift away from oil to occur.

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