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Richard Martin

A View from Richard Martin

Recommended Reads on the Energy Beat This Week

A roundup of the best stories on energy from other sites, collected by Richard Martin, MIT Technology Review’s senior editor for energy.

  • January 7, 2016

China to Halt New Coal Mine Approvals Amid Pollution Fight
With the Chinese economy in freefall, the slow-motion contraction of its coal industry (which I reported on in my 2015 book Coal Wars) has turned into a full-scale retreat, reports Bloomberg News. The latest signal from the central government is the suspension of new coal mine approvals for at least the next three years. Coal use in China is falling nearly as fast as it is in the developed countries of Europe and North America—but because coal-fired power has been so ubiquitous, coal is expected to fall to less than 63 percent of China’s overall energy consumption in 2016, according to the National Energy Agency. The government plans to close more than 1,000 mines this year, further exacerbating the growing unemployment in the interior provinces. The overhang in the industry is still huge: more than 20 percent of the country’s coal production capacity will be idle in 2016 as heavy industries slow and the government tries to reach its target of 20 percent renewable energy by 2030.

The Top 12 Energy Developments of 2015
I have argued that 2015 was a watershed year for the world’s energy sector, marking a turning point as decisive as 1973, the year of the Arab oil embargo (see “Our Energy Transformation in 2015”). Rocky Mountain Institute blogger Laurie Guevara-Stone details the shifts, including the most obvious: the Paris climate accord, the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan, Obama’s rejection of the Keystone Pipeline, and so on. More interesting are the less heralded developments: big corporations including Google, Walmart, and Apple, for instance, signed purchase agreements about three gigawatts of clean power in 2015, doubling the 2014 figure. And even as natural gas prices remain near historic lows, the capacity factor of natural gas plants (often used as “peakers” to provide power when the sun’s not shining or the wind’s not blowing) fell from 70 percent in 2014 to 62 percent in 2014. Germany set a new record in July by meeting 78 percent of one day’s electricity demand with renewable energy. The energy Rubicon has been crossed.

The Rise of the Up-Wingers
One of the people named this week as a senior fellow at the Breakthrough Institute, an energy think tank attempting to forge a middle path between rapid energy development to meet soaring demand and the transition away from fossil fuels, is Steve Fuller, the Auguste Comte Chair in social epistemology at the University of Warwick. If you don’t know what “social epistemology” is, that’s because Fuller pretty much invented the term; loosely speaking, it’s the study of how humans organize learning and knowledge and how they view themselves in the cosmos. In this interview Fuller contrasts the “precautionary principle” (i.e., the “impulse to minimize risk” and view mankind as inherently limited by nature and available resources) with the more optimistic, boundless “proactionary principle,” which embraces the possibility of disruptive change to ourselves and our environment and views resources as limited only by human ingenuity. You might view much of what Fuller says as academic gibberish, but it’s an interesting point of view in the ongoing debate between Mathusians and techno-optimists.

The Bankruptcy of India’s Economic and Political “Miracle”
My article, “India’s Energy Crisis,” looked at the potential and the impossibilities in India’s struggle to bring light and power to its burgeoning population while dramatically limiting its emissions of greenhouse gases. Taking as its text Dilip Hiro’s important new book, The Age of Aspiration: Power, Wealth, and Conflict in Globalizing India, this thoughtful essay by Kamil Ahsan argues that the image of India as a modernizing, peaceful, and democratic superpower promoted by the government of prime minister Narendra Modi and many world leaders is a façade covering “a country mired in a corrupt nexus of businessmen and politicians, [with] spectacular wealth juxtaposed to ever-deepening penury and the brutal suppression of all those opposed to India’s neoliberal path.” The future of India will powerfully influence the future of the planet, and anyone who has traveled beyond the technology parks of Mumbai and Bangalore will recognize Ahsan’s portrait of a deeply divided country with seemingly insurmountable problems.

A 2016 Carbon Market Forecast
From looking back at 2015 we move on to look forward to 2016 with this list of forecasts for carbon markets from the Climate Trust. Among the significant developments to look forward to this year: Carbon pricing will gain momentum and move well beyond the 25 percent of worldwide carbon emissions now covered by some form of pricing mechanism. One form this is likely to take is cross-border emissions trading, as countries look to spread the economic risks of complying with the Paris accords. In the United States, state-level shifts toward clean energy will accelerate as Oregon attempts to pass an enforceable carbon-pricing scheme, the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative gathers force in the Northeast, and California governor Jerry Brown moves to extend the state’s existing cap and trade system to 2030 and beyond. Perhaps most importantly, the flow of money from fossil fuels to clean energy will continue as big institutional investors divest from old, dirty energy and invest in renewables.

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