Bloomberg Analysis: It Has Never Made Less Sense to Build Fossil Fuel Power Plants
A wind farm in Colorado. Photo credit: UCAR / Flickr
In fact, according to the findings from the research company Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF), wind power is now the cheapest electricity to produce in both Germany and the UK, even without government subsidies. Though Denmark passed the same milestone last year, this is the first time that threshold has been crossed by a G7 economy.
The analysis took into account not just the cost of generating a megawatt hour (MWh) of electricity, but also the upfront capital and development expenses, the cost of equity and debt finance and operating and maintenance fees.
In the U.S., coal and gas are still cheaper, at $65 per MWh, compared to onshore wind at $80 and solar at $107.
Still, given documented trends, "it's impossible to brush aside renewables in the U.S. in the same way it might have been just a few years ago," writes Bloomberg's Tom Randall.
"Renewables are really becoming cost-competitive and they're competing more directly with fossil fuels," BNEF analyst Luke Mills told Bloomberg. "We're seeing the utilization rate of fossil fuels wear away."
Indeed, while the future for renewables looks bright, the outlook for coal and other dirty energy sources is decidedly more dismal—and bound to become even more so.
"It's a self-reinforcing cycle," writes Randall. "As more renewables are installed, coal and natural gas plants are used less. As coal and gas are used less, the cost of using them to generate electricity goes up. As the cost of coal and gas power rises, more renewables will be installed."
Already there is evidence of this shift taking place. Citigroup on Monday announced a new policy to cut its lending to the global coal mining industry—a development hailed by environmental groups as an acknowledgement that "the scale of the challenge posed by climate change calls for the financial sector to transition away from financing high-carbon energy sources in addition to scaling up financing for low-carbon energy."
"With Bank of America, Crédit Agricole and now Citigroup withdrawing support for coal mining, this announcement shows major momentum away from financing coal by the banking sector," said Lindsey Allen, executive director of the Rainforest Action Network, which campaigns for banks to cut ties with the coal industry. "But reducing credit exposure is only a partial step forward. We urge Citigroup and Wall Street laggards such as Morgan Stanley to cut all financing ties to both coal mining and coal-fired power."
To that end, Rainforest Action Network and allied groups are planning a day of action this Friday targeting Morgan Stanley, which conducted half a billion dollars worth of coal deals in 2014, financed $1.2 billion for the largest coal fired power plant operators in the world last year and continues to finance mountaintop removal coal mining.
"Clean energy solutions like wind and solar are getting more affordable and more accessible by the day, meaning they are increasingly the smartest long-term financial investments for utilities and other electricity producers across America," he said, responding to the BNEF report. "The transition to a clean energy economy is going full speed ahead and pushing dangerous, dirty fossil fuels to the back of the line."
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By Katherine Kornei
Clear-cutting a forest is relatively easy—just pick a tree and start chopping. But there are benefits to more sophisticated forest management. One technique—which involves repeatedly harvesting smaller trees every 30 or so years but leaving an upper story of larger trees for longer periods (60, 90, or 120 years)—ensures a steady supply of both firewood and construction timber.
A Pattern in the Rings<p>The <a href="https://www.encyclopedia.com/science/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/coppice-standards-0" target="_blank">coppice-with-standards</a> management practice produces a two-story forest, said <a href="https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Bernhard_Muigg" target="_blank">Bernhard Muigg</a>, a dendrochronologist at the University of Freiburg in Germany. "You have an upper story of single trees that are allowed to grow for several understory generations."</p><p>That arrangement imprints a characteristic tree ring pattern in a forest's upper story trees (the "standards"): thick rings indicative of heavy growth, which show up at regular intervals as the surrounding smaller trees are cut down. "The trees are growing faster," said Muigg. "You can really see it with your naked eye."</p><p>Muigg and his collaborators characterized that <a href="https://ltrr.arizona.edu/about/treerings" target="_blank">dendrochronological pattern</a> in 161 oak trees growing in central Germany, one of the few remaining sites in Europe with actively managed coppice-with-standards forests. They found up to nine cycles of heavy growth in the trees, the oldest of which was planted in 1761. The researchers then turned to a historical data set — more than 2,000 oak <a href="https://eos.org/articles/podcast-discovering-europes-history-through-its-timbers" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">timbers from buildings and archaeological sites</a> in Germany and France dating from between 300 and 2015 — to look for a similar pattern.</p>
A Gap of 500 Years<p>The team found wood with the characteristic coppice-with-standards tree ring pattern dating to as early as the 6th century. That was a surprise, Muigg and his colleagues concluded, because the first mention of this forest management practice in historical documents occurred only roughly 500 years later, in the 13th century.</p><p>It's probable that forest management practices were not well documented prior to the High Middle Ages (1000–1250), the researchers suggested. "Forests are mainly mentioned in the context of royal hunting interests or donations," said Muigg. Dendrochronological studies are particularly important because they can reveal information not captured by a sparse historical record, he added.</p><p>These results were <a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-020-78933-8" target="_blank">published in December in <em>Scientific Reports</em></a>.</p><p>"It's nice to see the longevity and the history of coppice-with-standards," said <a href="https://www.teagasc.ie/contact/staff-directory/s/ian-short/" target="_blank">Ian Short</a>, a forestry researcher at Teagasc, the Agriculture and Food Development Authority in Ireland, not involved in the research. This technique is valuable because it promotes conservation and habitat biodiversity, Short said. "In the next 10 or 20 years, I think we'll see more coppice-with-standards coming back into production."</p><p>In the future, Muigg and his collaborators hope to analyze a larger sample of historic timbers to trace how the coppice-with-standards practice spread throughout Europe. It will be interesting to understand where this technique originated and how it propagated, said Muigg, and there are plenty of old pieces of wood waiting to be analyzed. "There [are] tons of dendrochronological data."</p><p><em><a href="mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Katherine Kornei</a> is a freelance science journalist covering Earth and space science. Her bylines frequently appear in Eos, Science, and The New York Times. Katherine holds a Ph.D. in astronomy from the University of California, Los Angeles.</em></p><p><em>This story originally appeared in <a href="https://eos.org/articles/tree-rings-reveal-how-ancient-forests-were-managed" target="_blank">Eos</a></em> <em>and is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.</em></p>
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