Clean Energy Poised to Phase Out Coal and Avert Catastrophic Climate Change

Washington, D.C.- New technologies will permit rapid decarbonization of the world energy economy in the next two decades, according to a new report from the Worldwatch Institute. These new energy sources will make it possible to retire hundreds of coal-fired power plants that now provide 40 percent of the world's power by 2030, eliminating up to one-third of global carbon dioxide emissions while creating millions of new jobs.

"We no longer need to say ‘in the future' when talking about a low-carbon energy system," says Christopher Flavin, President of Worldwatch and author of the report, Low-Carbon Energy: A Roadmap. "These technologies-unlike carbon-capture facilities-are being deployed now and are poised to make the most carbon-intensive fossil fuels obsolete."

Reducing dependence on fossil fuels will not only strike a defiant blow to the climate crisis, it will also act as an agent of recovery for an ailing global economy. Rebuilding the global energy system has the potential to create thousands of new businesses and millions of new jobs, starting immediately.

Decarbonizing the energy economy requires several key steps: the accelerated deployment of solar, wind, and biomass power plants; integrating variable power sources with digital smart grids that are more flexible in their ability to balance demand and supply; developing the capacity to store energy economically; and selectively adding a new generation of efficient micro power plants that provide heat as well as reliable electricity when it is needed.

The new report provides an overview of the state of renewable energy technologies as well as a roadmap charting their role in the transition to a low-carbon economy:

  • Buildings consume about 40 percent of global energy and emit a comparable share of carbon dioxide emissions. With technologies available today, such as more-efficient lighting and appliances and improved walls and windows, the energy needs of buildings can be reduced by 70 percent or more, with the investment paid for via lower energy bills.
  • Two-thirds of the energy contained in the fuel for most power plants is converted to waste heat or lost in distribution. Combined heat and power (CHP) can reduce those losses to less than 20 percent and provide the United States with 150 gigawatts of generating capacity-more than nuclear power now provides.
  • In 2007, wind power represented 40 percent of new generating capacity installations in Europe and 35 percent in the United States. Wind power now costs just under six cents per kilowatt-hour on average-less than natural gas and roughly even with coal.
  • An area covering less than 4 percent of the Sahara Desert could produce enough solar power to match global electricity demand.
  • Investment in new renewable electric and heating capacity equaled an estimated $71 billion in 2007, up from just $20 billion in 2002.
  • By 2006, the U.S. renewables industry had created 386,000 jobs compared with 82,000 jobs in the coal industry.
  • The development of smart electricity grids, the integration of plug-in electric vehicles, and the addition of limited storage capacity will allow power to be provided without the "baseload" plants that are the foundation of today's electricity systems.

Resource estimates show that renewable energy is more abundant than all the fossil fuels combined. This abundance, together with improved technology and high energy prices, has created an extraordinarily favorable market for new energy systems in the past few years.

The immediate challenge for the U.S. Obama Administration and other governments is to maintain the extraordinary momentum of the past few years in the face of a financial crisis that has affected all forms of energy investment. The new industries, which are dominated by small, under-capitalized companies, are particularly vulnerable. Their success will depend on targeted and flexible policy design in the months ahead.

"We are on the verge of an energy revolution," says Flavin. "With strong political leadership, we have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to use policy and technology innovation to stave off the greatest human-caused threat our planet has seen."