Is This the Only Chance for Wind and Solar to Tackle Climate Change?

Investments in renewable energy could get a big boost if the world put the brakes on fossil fuel subsidies; but it's not a realistic option. Here's why.

Aug 24, 2014 at 8:44AM

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Maybe all we need to combat climate change is a simple funding fix. Source: NextEra Energy. 

Renewable energy development used to be decried as an expensive burden on the global economy; but companies such as General Electric Company (NYSE:GE), SunPower Corporation (NASDAQ:SPWR), and NextEra Energy (NYSE:NEE) have proven that renewable energy can be quite profitable. While the world currently invests $200 billion in low-carbon energy each year, it is woefully short of the capital required to stave off a 2 degree Celsius rise in global temperatures that world governments have agreed to as the ceiling for manageable climate-change impacts. After that, planet Earth will become a little uncomfortable in economic and standard-of-living terms. 

If $200 billion in annual investments isn't enough, how much will it cost? David McCollum of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis recently plugged away at the numbers to find out. The bad news is that the world will need to invest roughly $1 trillion to $1.2 trillion each year on low-carbon energy, or about the same as total annual energy investments, to fill the gap. Yikes.

The good news is that shuffling the bulk of fossil fuel subsidies, totaling $544 billion in 2012, to renewable energy projects could potentially get us a heck of a lot closer to the target. Growing energy demand and increased commitments by world governments could do the rest. Is this the only chance wind and solar have to tackle climate change? Turns out, it may not be that realistic. 

Why it could work
The important thing to stress is that costs to develop renewable energy are really investments -- they have a return. Reminding governments of this fact could translate into substantial increases in renewable energy investments on the national level. For instance, General Electric has invested heavily and strategically in wind turbine technology for years. Today, it boasts the most widely deployed wind turbine in the 1MW-2 MW category, with more than 16,500 installed globally. Meanwhile, the company's 2MW-3 MW wind turbines have been chosen for two of the largest wind farms in the world.

Similarly, SunPower is among the companies that have invested heavily in solar energy, catalyzing declining cost profiles for both residential and utility-scale projects in the process. As Motley Fool solar specialist Travis Hoium recently explained, SunPower -- and solar energy at large -- is just beginning to realize its true potential. Arguments that renewable energy isn't profitable for utilities are also quickly dismissed by NextEra Energy, which brought in $15.1 million in revenue in 2013 while sporting a generation portfolio that generated 40.3% of its energy from wind assets, and another 32.1% from nuclear assets. The company has also walloped the S&P 500 in the past decade.

NEE Chart

NEE data by YCharts.

Unfortunately, that's the fairy-tale version of the global energy investment story. Reality is not as favorable. 

Why it will never work
The International Energy Agency estimates that fossil fuel subsidies totaled $544 billion in 2012, while more than half of that total consisted of oil subsidies. Tax breaks to Big Oil have gained some attention in the United States, but domestic subsidies only amount to about $2.4 billion per year, or 0.015% of American GDP. The majority of global oil subsidies come from oil producing nations in the Middle East. For instance, Saudi Arabia propped up oil companies with roughly $45 billion in 2011, or 8% of GDP. Iran wasn't far behind with $42 billion, also 8% of its GDP. Why would countries that depend so heavily on oil slash subsidies for it, especially considering many keep fuel prices low for citizens? 

A more realistic option
I think it's quite obvious that renewable energy alone won't save the world from climate change. That doesn't mean low-carbon technologies shouldn't be pursued, although it does create an opportunity for an olive branch of sorts. It's impossible to expect companies and countries to abandon fossil fuel energy infrastructure overnight, but we can invest in technologies, such as carbon dioxide manufacturing, which turn carbon emissions from a giant problem into a massive opportunity. It would also substantially lower the $1.2 trillion estimate for required low-carbon energy investments, and create substantial GDP growth across the globe. If the relatively overnight upstarts of wind and solar businesses at General Electric Company, SunPower, and NextEra Energy are any indication, then carbon dioxide manufacturing could become the new standard for chemical manufacturing -- and result in an emissions peak and eventual decline -- with a concerted and global effort. 

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Maxx Chatsko has no position in any stocks mentioned. Check out his personal portfolioCAPS pageprevious writing for The Motley Fool, or his work for SynBioBeta to keep up with developments in the synthetic biology industry.

The Motley Fool owns shares of General Electric Company. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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