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(Working Paper #10) Preparing a Public Pathway: Confronting the Investment Crisis in Renewable Energy

By By Sean Sweeney and John Treat - Trade Unions For Energy Democracy, November 2017

Inadequate levels of investment in renewable energy are a major obstacle standing in the way of the transition to a new, renewables-based energy system. TUED Working Paper 9, Energy Transition: Are We Winning? raised this investment deficit in passing and in a very broad context: Fossil-based energy use is rising globally, and renewables have so far failed to seriously alter the overall direction of global energy systems. “Modern renewables” like wind and solar remain on the margins of the global energy system. At the end of 2015, wind and solar PV together generated just 4.6% of global electricity.

By using the term “investment deficit” we aim to draw attention to the discrepancy between the levels of investment in renewable energy that are currently being seen around the world and those levels that are widely considered necessary to meet the science-based emissions targets and temperature thresholds articulated in the 2015 Paris Climate Accord: “well below two degrees Celsius” and “net zero emissions.”

It is also necessary to stress at the outset that the investment deficit in renewable energy is part of a much larger investment shortfall in what are often referred to as “low-carbon solutions” or “green technologies” (including, for example, storage and conservation). We touch briefly on this below but focus mainly on generation— principally wind and solar power.

Echoing a string of recent reports, a 2017 study by the International Energy Agency and the International Renewable Energy Agency (IEA-IRENA), Perspectives for the Energy Transition: Investment Needs for a Low-Carbon Energy System, estimated that investment in renewable energy needs to be more than double 2016 levels by 2030, reaching roughly $600 billion per year, in order to be consistent with the effort to keep global temperatures below the warming threshold of two degrees Celsius. This means approximately $14 trillion of investment in wind and solar generation, combined, by 2030.

Like many similar studies, however, the IEA-IRENA study fails to explain why, in a world awash with “idle capital,” the investment deficit in renewables exists at all. The present paper attempts to address this crucial issue. We believe that an honest review of the data and the policy history leave no doubt that the dominant policy paradigm—justified (and perhaps blinded) by a constant insistence on the need to “mobilize private sector investment”—has failed, even on its own terms, either to generate the kind of momentum needed to drive a full-on energy transition or to seriously impede the rise in fossil fuel use. We believe such a review also shows that the prospects for the dominant policy paradigm to produce results consistent with any serious effort to reduce emissions—let alone meet the Paris targets—are extremely poor.

We will attempt to show that any effort to address the investment deficit must deal with its systemic and institutional roots. These roots trace back to the privatization and liberalization of electricity markets that began in the UK in the 1980s, became EU policy in the 1990s, and have since come to define the dominant policy approach in many parts of the world. Even where energy systems have remained publicly owned, the policy approach to renewables is oriented toward private corporations and investors.

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