Recap: Top Clean Energy and Climate Trends For May 2014

What are the most important trends in climate change and clean energy today? If you’d joined our debut Clean Energy Quarterly webinar earlier today, you’d already know. In a packed hour, we presented the highlights from the hundreds of news items curated each week in our Clean Energy Review weekly digests.

We also welcomed three special guests: Jim Burpee, the president and CEO of the Canadian Electricity Association, Cara Clairman, executive director of Plug’n Drive, and David Berliner, the co-founder and CEO of CoPower.

Here’s a quick recap for those who weren’t able to join us:

Solar’s Moment in the Sun

solar_moment_200The year started with Deutsche Bank issuing a bullish demand forecast for the global solar industry, building on four consecutive years of growth in utility-scale solar, which has largely been driven by China, Germany and the US

We also saw the world’s largest concentrated solar power plant open in the Mojave desert, which generated a lot of attention, and we’ve started to hear more frequently about the transformative potential that solar and renewables more broadly offer, and the disruption they are already creating for the business model of traditional power utilities

So far this year the numbers we’re seeing are impressive – in the first quarter Bloomberg New Energy Finance tracked a 10 percent increase in clean energy investment over the same period last year, with a 23 percent increase in solar investment. Noteworthy in this result is the fact that there was really strong growth in rooftop solar.

Clearly, solar has emerged as the flavour of the day, driven in no small part by the dramatic reduction in solar panel hard costs, which is improving cost competitiveness.

We’re also seeing a mainstreaming of solar as individuals are empowered to put solar on their rooftops. There are some innovative models out there for leasing and financing rooftop solar, and partnerships with recognized brands, like Home Depot. It’s getting easier for people to assume some control over their own power production, and that’s powerful.

In Canada, we’re seeing progress on three new commercial power plants that will be built this summer in Ontario by a company called Canadian Solar, which was ranked as the best performing solar maker last year, and is definitely a company to keep an eye on as they ink deals in Canada and around the world.

Unusual Suspects Step Up

Unusual Suspects Step UpWe’re also witnessing the arrival of big-brand, non-energy companies—unusual suspects, if you will—into the renewable energy marketplace.

We already know that a lot of non-energy tech companies are making serious investments in renewables—either buying wind and solar farms outright or investing in them. Think Apple, Google (more than $1 billion investment now), Intel, and Facebook.

What is interesting is that we also increasingly seeing a lot of “unusual suspects” from beyond tech, like Whole Foods, REI, and MARS, which just announced a wind farm in Texas, and Ikea, which now owns wind farms in Canada and the United States.  Globally IKEA is Investing $2 Billion in clean energy and efficiency investments. The company hopes to be net zero for energy by 2020.

This is more than just the usual P.R. effort we’ve seen in the past, i.e. recycling. That’s because some of these brands are advocating for policy reform and using blunt language.

IKEA in particular is speaking up about the need for climate action: “Business needs policy leadership including legally binding targets on CO2, renewable energy, and energy efficiency —  to build a low carbon economy.”

It’s just becoming mainstream good business practice and these companies are flexing their corporate muscles to send a message to their governments— and shareholders. At Apple’s annual meeting,  CEO Tim Cook told a group of climate deniers to “get out of the stock.”

Why is this happening? Three reasons:

  1. There’s money to be made from renewables investments and risk to be mitigated. Energy independence helps a company insulate against rising energy costs. Tech companies spent a lot on energy, so does IKEA, big stores use a lot of energy.
  2. Leadership sends the right message to customers; the younger generation has greatest support for energy and climate leadership. IKEA wants to be associated with sustainability. They want to be hip, these days this this is how to do it.
  3. They have a stake in climate disruption: In January the New York Times flagged that many leading U.S. brands  like Coke and Nike now view climate disruption as a force threatening lower GDP, higher food and commodity costs, broken supply chains, and increased financial risk.

China Gets Serious

China Gets SeriousMost people think about China and they immediately conjure up those headline statistics about coal plants, but the reality is that China is making a huge push on renewable energy. In 2013, for the first time, China installed more clean energy capacity than fossil fuel based power generation.

And they’re not stopping. China aims to more than double its wind capacity in the next six years, and is also pushing hard on solar and hydro while also considering a massive tidal power plant.

So what’s driving this clean energy push in China?

There is no single driver, but really it’s a confluence of forces.

There’s international pressure for China to act on climate change and reduce carbon pollution, so we see China mandating the reporting of CO2 emissions by firms and piloting carbon trading markets.

But there has also been a huge domestic driver in the form of growing unrest around air pollution in China’s big cities.

The Chinese premier has declared war on smog, and the government committed to taking action to remove high-emission cars from the roads—and while we won’t touch on it today the Chinese are positioning themselves very strategically on electric vehicles—but also by closing some coal-fired power plants.

Canada has a great opportunity to export clean energy technologies and services to the Chinese—and polling by the Asia Pacific Foundation found that Canadians would like to see these exports take priority.

Guest Presentations

We were pleased to welcome three guests on our webinar, and they have kindly agreed to share their presentations here.

Cara Clairman, executive director, Plug’n Drive

Jim Burpee, president and CEO, Canadian Electricity Association

David Berliner, co-founder and CEO, CoPower


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