Clean Power NOW: 12 Years to Save our Planet, Starting Today

In early October, on the eve of the 2018 HOMER International Microgrid conference, the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued a report on the impacts of global warming at 1.5 ºC above “pre-industrial levels.” The vision of HOMER Energy is “Clean Power Everywhere,” and by “clean” we mean minimal to no carbon emissions and not creating or using poison substances that will sicken life for now and always. With everything else happening in the news cycle and the political world, the IPCC report was barely a whisper. But what it needs to be is a call to immediate action to lessen emissions. Twelve years will be here in a heartbeat.

What to expect at 1.5 ºC

One of the more sobering conclusions of the IPCC report is that we are likely to reach a global average temperature increase of 1.5 ºC between 2030 and 2052. 2030 is twelve years from now. The implication is that we need to make radical changes, starting immediately, if we expect to stay below the critical 1.5 ºC threshold.

If we fail, we are looking at devastating climate change effects that will hit harder — and decades sooner — than previously expected. That includes destruction of most of the world’s coral reefs, with unknown consequences for ocean ecosystems in general. Even if we manage not to overshoot 1.5 ºC, the IPPC is predicting that 90% of coral ecosystems will die by 2050. Even more ominous is the threat to phytoplankton, tiny ocean plants that produce 50% of Earth’s oxygen through photosynthesis. As we continue to add carbon to the Earth’s atmosphere, a lot of it is ending up in the ocean, creating more acidic conditions. How will the continued warming and acidification of the world’s oceans affect these vital, life-giving ecosystems?

Rising temperatures will increase the frequency of devastating wildfires. As I write this, more than a quarter of a million people have been evacuated in California due to fires, 25 are known to have died, and another 110 are missing. Rising temperatures are also creating more extreme weather patterns, causing droughts and flooding in areas that now have temperate, life-supporting climates. Disruption in food yields and increased water scarcity – along with human displacement – are likely to accompany a 1.5 ºC temperature increase. Meanwhile, insect, plant, and animal species that are endemic, i.e. particular to certain geographical locations, will be threatened. Some scientists estimate that we could lose one third of the Earth’s species if we are unable to control rising temperatures and habitat loss.

The challenge: Cut carbon emissions 45% by 2030 and hit net zero by 2050

How can we avoid going beyond a 1.5 ºC increase? The report does contain a note of optimism. There are actions we can take that would allow us to avoid exceeding the 1.5° C temperature limit, but accomplishing this feat presents enormous challenges.

Staying below the 1.5C threshold will require “radical” cuts in carbon emissions, namely 45% reduction before 2030, and net zero carbon emissions by 2050.

That level of emission reductions, the IPCC acknowledges, “will require rapid, far reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society.” Calling for a “significant upscaling of investments in those options,” the UN panel says that “transitions in energy, land, urban, and infrastructure (transport and buildings), and industrial systems” will all be necessary.

The landmark report makes it clear that staying below the 1.5° C threshold is necessary if we are to avoid irreversible damage to humans and Earth ecosystems. One key new finding is the substantial difference in impact that occurs between 1.5° C and 2 °C of global warming. Missing the 1.5° C target could subject us to sharply increased risk of droughts, forest fires, and famine. For example, the IPCC says that keeping temperatures below 1.5° C will probably mean that 50% fewer people live in conditions of water scarcity, that millions of premature heat deaths can be avoided, and that harmful droughts can be two months shorter in Southern Africa, among others.

Pathways to a Cooler Planet

Tackling global warming will require collaboration at an unprecedented level on a global scale. Every type of social institution in every sector of society, in every country, will have an important role to play in accomplishing this unprecedented human task.

The IPCC report provides a variety of scenarios that can allow us to keep the average global temperature increase below 1.5° C. All of them require a commitment to shifting away from the use of fossil fuels and towards the adoption of renewable energy.

Specifically, the report states that in modeled scenarios that keep us below 1.5° C, “renewables are projected to supply 80-85% of electricity in 2050.” Providing a note of optimism on renewable energy, the IPCC says that “while acknowledging the challenges…political, economic, social and technical feasibility of solar energy, wind energy and electricity storage technologies have substantially improved over the past few years.”

Barriers to widespread adoption of renewable energy have been economic and regulatory. Fossil fuels, the ultimate cause of global warming, have provided inexpensive electricity and heating for over a century. Renewable energy was viewed as an expensive alternative for those few who could afford it, often boosted by incentive programs paid for by state and federal governments. The atmosphere is kind of the ultimate “tragedy of the commons” – why should I change my behavior if you won’t change yours?” Climate change, once its reality began to be accepted, was often viewed as a scenario with “winners and losers,” but as the reality of massive fires, droughts, and increased storms and storm surges hits home, it is becoming evident that we are all losers. A sustainable planet is not an airy-fairy vague idea – it is why we are alive.

Our mission at HOMER Energy is to enable the adoption of worldwide distributed renewable energy systems through providing expertise and modeling tools that allow the design of the most cost-effective hybrid systems possible. We seek to help people and institutions everywhere design and implement financially feasible and effective distributed energy systems that make use of renewable generation.

Our start was in developing countries, where the primary need was for basic energy access – bringing electricity to people who either have none, or who are dependent on unreliable grids. Providing energy access reduces carbon emissions through economic development and has a beneficial impact on population growth: The education of women and girls, their ability to control their reproductive outcomes and ensure the economic survival of their families, lays the groundwork for a slowdown in population growth. Women’s welfare is actually the best predictor of this trend. Energy access therefore empowers everyone in developing countries to improve their lives.

The HOMER technology models both off-grid and grid-tied microgrids, and is helping companies and people design resilient and reliable energy systems that minimize fossil fuel usage. Microgrids can also increase the amount of renewable energy that can be incorporated into the overall energy mix. Only a few years ago it was common to hear that renewable energy could not possibly be a “complete solution” because it was intermittent. Now we know we can combine renewable resources, storage, and intelligent control systems to supply discrete systems with clean and reliable energy. We need to work on scaling and networking those systems so we can ultimately displace fossil fuels completely, and meanwhile get the deepest possible penetration of renewables in all sectors.

We believe that if people have the tools to create financially viable, manageable renewable energy systems, they will choose clean energy every time.

Eliminating Barriers to Distributed Renewable Energy

So what’s stopping us from moving immediately to adopt an entirely new clean energy paradigm? At the recent annual HOMER Energy International Microgrid conference, there was broad consensus that the overarching theme in the US is regulation. The attendees agreed that we must act urgently to adopt new regulatory frameworks and business models that will allow clean energy technologies to take root and flourish. A new regulatory landscape will have to be flexible enough to adapt as new technologies or disruptive economic models come online. In many cases, the right technology is available now, but what’s holding us back is lack of political will, inertia, and perhaps a bit of economic self-interest.

The new IPCC report from a consensus of the world’s best climate scientists clarifies the devastating implications of failing to act on this urgent call for action. The negative economic consequences of doing nothing will be incalculably greater than the cost of investing in the transition to clean energy.