A clean 2016

Saturday, 2 January 2016 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

As a fresh 365 days arrive for Sri Lanka, it’s time to get the country’s policies on clean energy on track. 

It will undoubtedly be many years before renewable forms of energy — wind, solar, tidal, geothermal, and others still in development — replace fossil fuels as the world’s leading energy providers. Nonetheless, 2015 can be viewed as the year in which the epochal transition from one set of fuels to another took off with renewables making such significant strides that, for the first time in centuries, the beginning of the end of the fossil fuel era has come into sight.

This shift will take place no matter how well, or poorly, the deal just achieved at the UN climate summit in Paris is carried out. Although a robust commitment by participating nations to curb future carbon emissions will certainly help speed the transition, the necessary preconditions — political will, investment capital, and technological momentum — are already in place to drive the renewable revolution forward. Lending a hand to this transformation will be a sharp and continuing reduction in the cost of renewable energy, making it increasingly competitive with fossil fuels. According to the Paris-based International Energy Agency (IEA), between now and 2040 global investments in renewable power capacity will total $7 trillion, accounting for 60 per cent of all power plant investment.

Fossil fuels will not, of course, disappear during this period. Too much existing infrastructure — refineries, distribution networks, transportation systems, power plants, and the like — are dependent on oil, coal, and natural gas, which means, that these fuels will continue to play a prominent role for decades. But the primary thrust of new policies, new investment, and new technology will be in the advancement of renewables.

In another sign of this epochal shift, ever more countries in the developing world — including some oil-producing ones — are embracing renewables as their preferred energy sources. According to the IEA, the newly industrialised countries, spearheaded by China and India, will spend $2.7 trillion on renewable-based power plants between 2015 and 2040, far more than the older industrialised nations.

However, currently Sri Lanka’s policies only target to shift 20% of its energy to renewables by 2025 and are still in talks with the Indian Government to build a coal power plant in Sampur. Continued unionisation of the industry has also meant private companies and foreign investors are discouraged from investing in solar and other renewable energy options locally.

Global electricity use, the report says, will grow by 46 per cent between 2013 and 2040; all other forms of energy use, by only 24 per cent. As a result, the share of total world energy provided by electricity will rise from 38 per cent to 42 per cent.

This shift is significant because renewables will provide a greater share of the energy used to generate electricity. Whereas they contributed only 12 per cent of energy to power generation in 2013, the IEA reports, they are expected to supply 24 per cent in 2040; meanwhile, the shares provided by coal and natural gas will grow by far smaller percentages, and that by oil will actually shrink. While coal and gas are still likely to dominate the power sector in 2040, the trend lines suggest that they will lose ever more ground to renewables as time goes on. With such numbers it is surely time for Sri Lanka to join the rest of the world.