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The future is solar! Ivanpah Solar Power Plant in California's Mojave desert. Photo: Gregg Tavares via Flickr (CC BY).
The future is solar! Ivanpah Solar Power Plant in California's Mojave desert. Photo: Gregg Tavares via Flickr (CC BY).
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'Apollo' plan for cheap renewable energy in 10 years

Oliver Tickell

2nd June 2015

An ambitious plan to make a wholly renewable energy system cheaper than fossil fuels within a decade has been launched today and is set to receive its first hearing at the G7 Summit in Germany next week.

By harnessing the power of the sun and wind in time, we have a good chance of preserving life on earth as we know it. Unlike fossil fuel, they produce no pollution. Unlike nuclear fission, they produce no radioactive waste.

An ambitious 'Apollo' plan to make wind and solar power cheaper in every country in the world than electricity generated from coal, launched today, is already on the agenda for next week's meeting of the G7 in Germany.

"Carbon-free energy must rapidly become less costly to produce than energy based on coal, gas and oil", according to the Global Apollo Programme. "This requires a major scientific and technological programme of research, using the best minds in the world and the best science."

The target is to ensure that "new-build base-load energy from renewable sources becomes cheaper than new-build coal in sunny parts of the world by 2020, and worldwide from 2025."

All countries will be invited to join Apollo, and in doing so will commit to "devote at least 0.02% of GDP to public expenditure on the Programme over a 10-year period" from 2016 to 2015 in order to raise an estimated $150 billion.

The main foci of research are to be wind and solar power generation, electricity storage, and the 'smart grid' - a power grid engineered to accommodate many small distributed generators, and featuring 'dynamic demand' that responds to the amount of power that's available moment by moment.

Apollo's aims reflect the agreement by world governments to limit the world's rise in temperature to 2C from the pre-industrial era, in order to avoid irreparable damage to the global climate system.

"This means an absolute limit on the total accumulated CO2 that can be produced", states Apollo. "On present trends that limit will be breached by 2035. So we must urgently reduce our annual output of CO2."

Will Apollo gain traction?

The timing of Apollo's launch is certainly impeccable. As well as feeding directly into next week's G7 meeting, it also comes just as climate negotiators meet in Bonn to prepare the way for the substantive UN climate talks in Paris this December.

"We urge the Heads of Government to agree on a Global Apollo Programme by the Paris meeting in 2015", Apollo states. "The Programme should begin immediately after that."

Regardless of how committed national governments are - or are not - to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, none wish to be branded as 'climate villains' at the Paris talks, and all wish to appear to be making efforts in the direction of reducing emissions. Signing up to Apollo is clearly one way of doing this - while making no commitment to reduce their use of fossil fuels.

What is also going to help the Apollo gain acceptance is that it's the brainchild of a highly influential (and richly titled) group of scientists, economists and businessmen at the heart of the British establishment.

They are Sir David King, the former chief scientific adviser; the LSE's Lord Richard Layard; Lord Gus O'Donnell, the former Cabinet Secretary; The Astronomer Royal, Lord Martin Rees; Lord Adair Turner, Former Chairman of the Financial Services Authority and the Committee on Climate Change; Lord Nicholas Stern, author of the Stern Report on climate change; and Lord John Browne, the former CEO of BP, who attempted to relaunch the company as 'Beyond Petroleum'.

So when they say that "Over the last year the Programme has been privately discussed with Governments worldwide and has been widely welcomed ... it is hoped that by the end of the year the major countries of the world will have decided to join", they have to be taken seriously.

And when they state "it is hoped that the management of the Programme will be co-located with the International Energy Agency in Paris, but the Programme will include many countries that are not members of the IEA", you can be sure that it's already a done deal.

Still, a mountain to climb

But huge changes will be needed to bring the Apollo vision to reality, for example with the scale of investment into renewable energy. "We are talking about the greatest material challenge facing humankind", the launch document states.

"Yet the share of global publicly-funded RD&D going on renewable energy worldwide is under 2%. Remarkably the share of all energy research in total publicly-funded R&D expenditure has fallen from 11% in the early 1980s to 4% today. This is a shocking failure ...

"Public expenditure on R&D to reduce the cost of renewables has been minimal - some $6 billion. This cannot be a sensible balance of support. In Europe the position is similar to elsewhere: the ratio of public R&D to public subsidies for the supply of existing renewables has been roughly 1:30.

"At the same time, fossil fuel is getting a subsidy of at least $544 billion worldwide - making climate change worse, not better."

So far investment in renewable energy technology has been left almost entirely to the private sector, Apollo points out. However this approach is at odds with other major technological advances that have taken place in modern times:

"Most of the main technological advances of the last hundred years have derived from publicly funded R&D - the computer, semiconductors, the internet, genetic sequencing, broadband, satellite communications, and nuclear power.

"Yet in the case of climate change the main focus has been on incentives for the private sector: carbon prices, feed-in tariffs, and regulatory standards.

"These are of course essential and must remain central to the climate change agenda for many decades. But publicly funded RD&D (research, development and demonstration) is also vital."

And the authors conclude on an upbeat note: "By harnessing the power of the sun and wind in time, we have a good chance of preserving life on earth as we know it. Unlike fossil fuel, they produce no pollution, and no miners get killed. Unlike nuclear fission, they produce no radioactive waste.

"We are talking about a crisis more serious than most major wars. This is the biggest scientific challenge of the 21st century. Let us show we have the collective intelligence to understand and overcome the danger that faces us."




More information: the Global Apollo Programme.

Oliver Tickell edits The Ecologist.


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