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Clean energy’s dirty secret

The renewables revolution is wrecking the world’s electricity markets.
Here’s what to do

  1. ALMOST 150 years after photovoltaic cells and wind turbines
    were invented, they still generate only 7% of the world’s
    electricity. Yet something remarkable is happening. From being
    peripheral to
    the energy system just over a decade ago, they are
    now growing faster than any other energy source and their falling
    costs are making them competitive with fossil fuels. BP, an oil
    firm, expects renewables to account for half of the growth in global
    energy supply over the next 20 years. It is no longer far-fetched
    to think
    that the world is entering an era of clean, unlimited and
    cheap power. About time, too.

being peripheral to: not as important as other things or people in
a particular activity, idea, or situation
e.g. The romance is peripheral to the main plot of the movie.
competitive: as good as or better than others
far-fetched: extremely unlikely to be true or to happen
e.g. The whole story sounds very far-fetched.


  1. There is a 20trn dollars hitch, though. To get from here to
    there requires huge amounts of investment over the next few decades,
    to replace old smog-belching power plants and to upgrade the
    pylons and wires that bring electricity to consumers. Normally
    investors like putting their money into electricity because it
    offers reliable returns. Yet green energy has a dirty secret. The
    more it is deployed, the more it lowers the price of power from any
    source. That makes it hard to manage the transition to a carbon-free
    future, during which many generating technologies, clean and dirty,
    need to remain profitable if the lights are to stay on. Unless the
    market is fixed, subsidies to the industry will only grow.

hitch: a small problem that makes something difficult or delays it
for a short time
e.g. In spite of some technical hitches, the first program was a
e.g. The whole show went without a hitch .


  1. Policymakers are already seeing this inconvenient truth as a
    reason to put the brakes on renewable energy. In parts of Europe
    and China, investment in renewables is slowing as subsidies are
    cut back. However, the solution is not less wind and solar. It
    is to rethink how the world prices clean energy in order to make
    better use of it.

An inconvenient
put the brakes on sth: to stop something that is happening
cut back: If you cut back something such as expenditure or cut
back on it, you reduce it.
e.g. The Government has cut back on defence spending.


Shock to the system

  1. At its heart, the problem is that government-supported renewable
    energy has been imposed on a market designed in a different era.
    For much of the 20th century, electricity was made and moved by
    vertically integrated, state-controlled monopolies. From the 1980s
    onwards, many of these were broken up, privatised and liberalised,
    so that market forces could determine where best to invest. Today
    only about 6% of electricity users get their power from monopolies.
    Yet everywhere the pressure to decarbonise power supply has
    brought the state creeping back into markets. This is disruptive
    for three reasons. The first is the subsidy system itself. The other
    two are inherent to the nature of wind and solar: their
    intermittency and their very low running costs. All three help
    explain why power prices are low and public subsidies are

  2. First, the splurge of public subsidy, of about 800bn dollars
    since 2008, has distorted the market. It came about for noble
    reasons—to counter climate change and prime the pump for new,
    costly technologies, including wind turbines and solar panels. But
    subsidies hit just as electricity consumption in the rich world
    was stagnating because of growing energy efficiency and the
    financial crisis. The result was a glut of power-generating
    capacity that has slashed the revenues utilities earn from
    wholesale power markets and hence deterred investment.

prime the pump: to encourage a business, industry, or activity to
develop by putting money or effort into it
slash: to greatly reduce an amount, price etc = cut
e.g. The workforce has been slashed by 50%.


  1. Second, green power is intermittent. The vagaries of wind and
    sun—especially in countries without favourable weather—mean that
    turbines and solar panels generate electricity only part of the
    time. To keep power flowing, the system relies on conventional power
    plants, such as coal, gas or nuclear, to kick in when renewables
    falter. But because they are idle for long periods, they
    find it harder to attract private investors. So, to keep the lights
    on, they require public funds.

kick in: If something kicks in, it begins to take effect.
e.g. As discounts kicked in, bookings for immediate travel rose by
falter: to become weaker and unable to continue in an effective
e.g. The economy is showing signs of faltering.
idle: not working or producing anything ≠ busy
e.g. The workers have been idle for the last six months.


  1. Everyone is affected by a third factor: renewable energy has
    negligible or zero marginal running costs—because the wind and
    the sun are free. In a market that prefers energy produced at the
    lowest short-term cost, wind and solar take business from providers
    that are more expensive to run, such as coal plants, depressing
    power prices, and hence revenues for all.

Get smart

  1. The higher the penetration of renewables, the worse these
    problems get—especially in saturated markets. In Europe, which
    was first to feel the effects, utilities have suffered a “lost
    decade” of falling returns, stranded assets and corporate
    disruption. Last year, Germany’s two biggest electricity providers,
    E.ON and RWE, both split in two. In renewable-rich parts of America
    power providers struggle to find investors for new plants. Places
    with an abundance of wind, such as China, are curtailing wind
    farms to keep coal plants in business.


  1. The corollary is that the electricity system is being
    re-regulated as investment goes chiefly to areas that benefit from
    public support. Paradoxically, that means the more states support
    renewables, the more they pay for conventional power plants, too,
    using “capacity payments” to alleviate intermittency. In effect,
    politicians rather than markets are once again deciding how to avoid
    blackouts. They often make mistakes: Germany’s support for
    cheap, dirty lignite caused emissions to rise, notwithstanding
    huge subsidies for renewables. Without a new approach the renewables
    revolution will stall.


  1. The good news is that new technology can help fix the problem.
    Digitalisation, smart meters and batteries are enabling companies
    and households to smooth out their demand—by doing some
    energy-intensive work at night, for example. This helps to cope with
    intermittent supply. Small, modular power plants, which are easy to
    flex up or down, are becoming more popular, as are high-voltage
    grids that can move excess power around the network more

smooth out: If you smooth out a problem or difficulty, you solve
it, especially by talking to the people concerned.
e.g. It’s O.K. I smoothed things out.


  1. The bigger task is to redesign power markets to reflect the new need
    for flexible supply and demand. They should adjust prices more
    frequently, to reflect the fluctuations of the weather. At times of
    extreme scarcity, a high fixed price could kick in to prevent
    blackouts. Markets should reward those willing to use less
    electricity to balance the grid, just as they reward those who
    generate more of it. Bills could be structured to be higher or lower
    depending how strongly a customer wanted guaranteed power all the
    time—a bit like an insurance policy. In short, policymakers should
    be clear they have a problem and that the cause is not renewable
    energy, but the out-of-date system of electricity pricing. Then they
    should fix it.