Saturday, March 10, 2018

The View From Les Houches: Can We Move to Renewables Fast Enough?

Les Houches, March 2018. At the School of Physics on the Energy Transition, Gregor Semieniuk of the University of London shows the updated trends in investments in renewable energy. 

Just a few years ago, there was ground to be optimistic about the energy transition. Renewable energy production showed a robust growth and the same happened for investments. If the trend could have continued, renewables would have swamped away fossil fuels easily and seamlessly.

Instead, something went wrong in 2012. The growth of investments stalled, it went up and down for a few years and, by now, it is clear that it has plateaued. Investments in renewable energy are not growing and we don't know if they will ever restart growing.

While it is true that the prices of renewable energy are going down, at these investment rates it is clear that we can't go through the transition fast enough to comply with the Paris targets. Possibly, we won't even be able to replace fossil fuels before they become too costly to produce. This is the result that myself and my coworkers Csala and Sgouridis obtained two years ago. According to our calculations, humankind would need to invest at least ten times as much, likely much more, in terms of energy to go through the transition fast enough.

In his talk, Gregor Semeniuk showed other estimates confirming that the investment rates in renewables are not sufficient for what we need to do. The gist of his presentation was that if governments don't intervene, the transition will not happen fast enough. He showed several examples of past transitions which took place mainly because they were driven by the resources provided by the state.You can find the hugely interesting paper on these matters by Mazzucato and Semieniuk on "Technological Forecasting and Social Change" and also more material at this link.

There remains the fundamental problem: how do we increase investments in renewable energy? Our faith in the free market is not helping us in this issue.


  1. Another fair warning:

  2. I have a little problem with the notion of investment into renewable energies as a panacea to our predicament. First and foremost a degrowth strategy has to be put into place if we want to transition into a postcarbon world.

    Renewable growth faces a recursive problem. As we lack the ressources and elasticity for further growth in our ecosphere, a massive undertaking, such as replacing fossile fuels with renewables, is doomed to fail, for it would require growth, that simply cant happen anymore.

    Maybe the plateau in renewable investments does in part reflect this recursive problem.

  3. For comparative purposes, check out "Global Trends in Renewable Energy Investment 2017", by Frankfurt School – UNEP Centre/BNEF at

    In 2016, the advance of renewable energy slowed in one respect, and speeded up in another. Investment in renewables excluding large hydro fell by 23% to $241.6 billion, but the amount of new capacity installed increased from 127.5GW in 2015 to a record 138.5GW in 2016. … A major reason why installations increased even though dollars invested fell was a sharp reduction in capital costs for solar photovoltaics, onshore and offshore wind. On a less positive note, there were clear signs as 2016 went on of slowing activity in two key markets, China and Japan.



Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)