Though renewable energy investments stalled in 2018 while fossil dollars surged, legendary UK solar entrepreneur Jeremy Leggett believes a combination of public pressure and market forces will soon topple the fossil industry with a speed and conclusiveness comparable to the collapse of the Berlin Wall.
In a blog post written to mark the 21st anniversary of UK-based Solarcentury, the company he founded and served as its first CEO, Leggett finds hope in the numbers: despite last year’s investment drop to US$304 billion, the global renewables industry managed to install 180 gigawatts, 60% of the 300 GW the International Energy Agency (IEA) recently identified as an annual imperative through 2030 if countries are to hit what he calls the “survival trajectory” of the Paris targets.
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Well over half of that total was solar, he adds.
Working against such a trajectory, he acknowledges, is that fossil investment surged to US$1.2 trillion.
A “justifiable reaction” to such news, Leggett writes, “might be to wonder if we are all collectively mad,” given the apparent ongoing willingness to “permit our pension funds, banks, and other financial institutions essentially to bankroll collective suicide and ecocide”—all of that in the face of irrefutable evidence both scientific and experiential, and growing public and intergenerational outcry.
But he says the next part of the story might be reminiscent of the moment when a famous 20th century symbol of entrenched power crumbled virtually overnight: the fall of the Berlin Wall. Leggett happened to be in Berlin not long before the wall met its end, and “I remember thinking that in the context of those times—glasnost rampant in Moscow and east-west arms control negotiations in the news every day—‘this is crazy. It cannot last. The pressure in society is just too great.’”
So too, writes Leggett, is the growing pressure today to close the “survival investment gap”, the gap between current investment in renewables and the amounts needed to ensure a habitable planet.
Citing Solarcentury’s own mission “to make as big a difference as we can in fighting climate chaos,” Leggett notes that the company is “well-positioned for a useful contribution” to the IEA’s own 300-GW annual target, with a slate of international solar projects set to deliver an average of about a gigawatt per year. “How difficult is it to imagine 300 or so Solarcentury’s around the world?” he asks.
Even combining the IEA’s 300-GW threshold with the far more ambitious LUT EnergyWatch scenario which “sees an average 700 GW of solar alone installed per year through 2030,” the upshot is that “we need hundreds of Solarcentury-scale companies to deliver the Paris survival trajectory, not thousands,” he says. And that is “doable, for sure”.
Leggett judges it “impossible to identify a specific trigger or triggers” that will send investors stampeding en masse away from their doomed alliance with fossils and into new and vital partnerships with companies like Solarcentury. But “given the propensity of investors to act as a crowd, once their collective sentiment tips,” the shift will be as decisive and rapid as the Berlin Wall’s fall.