Green Capitalism Is Losing the War for the Planet

Around the world, politicians herald the growth of renewable energy – but the bitter reality is that green capitalism is failing to overcome fossil fuels. To save the planet, we need a break from the market.

We have been told for two decades that the proportion of renewable energy in total global energy has been continually rising. But in fact, in 2019, wind and solar produced less than 2% of the total energy used globally. Surprised?

That proportion has not been growing. For the last four years, in fact, the amount of new wind and solar globally each year has been flat, and not increasing. That means that total investment has actually been falling. (If solar is cheaper, lower investment can still produce the same amount of solar.)

On the face of it, this makes no sense. Surely, if the price of wind and solar is falling, they should be replacing fossil fuels. And the cheaper they get, the more corporations should be investing. In fact, the opposite is happening. The market is failing.

Flawed Statistics

The statistics on renewable energy are usually presented in ways that are confusing. Let me show you how that works.

Let’s start with the statistics for renewable energy in the European Union. The statistics for renewable energy are usually presented as a percentage of capacity. In 2018, for example, 17% of installed capacity for electricity generation in the EU came from wind power. And 11% came from solar PV. That’s a total of 28% from wind and solar. Pretty good.

However, that’s a measure of ‘installed capacity’. Capacity means the amount of electricity a wind turbine is capable of producing if the wind blows at maximum speed 24 hours a day every day. But most of the time the wind does not blow at the highest speed the turbine can handle.

For solar PV, capacity means the amount of electricity a solar array can produce if the sun shines without clouds 24 hours every day of the year. But the sun does not shine at night.

In practice, a wind turbine is doing well if it provides 35% of its maximum capacity over the whole year. A solar PV array is doing well if it provides 20% of its maximum capacity over one year.

By contrast, natural gas usually achieves about 60% of capacity. Coal achieves almost 80%.

What this means is never pay attention to statistics about capacity. The statistics you want are the ones for electricity production – the amount of electricity generated over a year. These are not the statistics usually quoted.

If you look at those statistics for the EU in 2019, wind accounted for 11% of electricity generation, and solar for 4%. That’s a total of 15%, about half the figure for capacity.

However, these are statistics for electricity and only electricity. The statistics do not include the oil, coal and gas burned in transport, in industry, and in buildings. And only about 40% of total energy use in the EU goes into electricity.

That means that wind and solar account for about 6% of total energy in the EU. Six percent.

And the rest of the world is worse than the EU. The global figures are measured in terawatt hours. One terawatt hour is one billion kilowatt hours. Here are the figures for global energy use in 2019:

  • Oil, coal and gas: 137 terawatt hours
  • Renewables: 22 terawatt hours

But those ‘renewables’ are not wind and solar. Half of those 22 terawatt hours come from ‘traditional biomass’, which means wood, plants, and manure burned to heat homes and cook food. Of the remainder, 4 terawatt hours are hydroelectricity from dams, 3 are nuclear power and 2 are biofuels. None of those sources of energy will grow much.

The remaining 2 terawatt hours come from wind (1.4) and solar (0.7). That’s about 1.3% of the global total. The British figures are not better. Wind and solar provided are under 2% of total energy in the UK in 2019.

Another question observers often ask is, what about all those times when the news says that on one day 100% of energy in Germany came from renewables?

Such statements are misleading for three reasons. First, they do not mean just wind and solar. Second, they don’t actually mean 100% of energy. They mean 100% of electricity. Third, that particular day was probably the sunniest and windiest in the last few months. They don’t mention the very much larger number of days when less than half of energy for electricity came from renewables.

In other words, the statistics are presented in ways that mislead you.

It should not be really surprising that there is so little wind and solar energy in the world. After all, CO2 emissions are going up globally. If we had really gone from tiny amounts of renewables to very large amounts of renewables, CO2 emissions would be going down.

Maybe you are thinking, ‘hang on – in Europe there have been real falls in emissions. The same is true in the United States.’ And you’re right.

But most of the falls in emissions are coming from a switch from burning coal in electrical power stations to burning natural gas. Coal has about twice the emissions of gas for the same quantity of electricity. This, of course, has nothing to do with the success of renewables.

Why is this guy saying one thing, when almost all the sources I read are saying the opposite? There is more than one answer, because more than one group of people have good reason to exaggerate the amount of wind and solar.

The oil and gas companies have obvious motivations: just look at the ads they do on television and social media about how much renewable energy they are building. They want us to believe they are solving the problem. The politicians and governments want the same thing. They don’t want to us to believe they are failing.

The people who profit from the renewables industry – the green capitalists, if you like – want everyone to think it’s doing well. The rest of us desperately want to see more renewable energy to save the planet, so we want to believe what we are told. But the figures are clear enough.

Do we give up? No. What is certainly true is that wind and solar could produce all our electricity globally. All cars, vans, trucks, buses, trains, machines and factories could run on renewable electricity. All buildings could be heated by renewable electricity. We already have all the technology we need to rewire the world.

We have been waiting a generation for the market to produce enough renewable energy, and the market has failed. It’s a good rule in life that when something is not working, you fix it; when it’s broken, you do something else. We need mass movements everywhere to force governments to move beyond a reliance on the market, and cover the world with wind and solar power.