How Can Renewable Energy Help Us Through the COVID-19 Pandemic?
As governments plan economic measures to recover from the pandemic, they face a critical decision: to back transformational investments in a clean energy future or lock in fossil fuels for another generation. Renewable energy expert Richard Bridle, co-author of the report Achieving a Fossil-Free Recovery, explains why governments should put renewable energy projects at the heart of their recovery plans.
How has the pandemic affected the future of clean energy?
The pandemic has placed us at a crossroads. We've already seen that the first wave of government action has been aimed at protecting existing energy sources and technologies. And most of those are fossil energy because that's the nature of the energy system. There's a risk that, moving forward, governments will return to austerity measures, cutting back on programs related to the environment and energy.
Did the pandemic hurt the clean energy transition?
Yes, it made the situation worse. When the pandemic hit and oil prices fell, fossil fuel companies saw their profits drop, and many had to temporarily shut their operations. The demand for bailouts became very strong, and the government didn't feel that they could accept so many job losses. At that point, calls to bail out the clean energy sector were much quieter—even though it's far more important that they are supported since they're the future of our energy system.
How can we ensure clean energy growth as the pandemic drags on?
First, we have to make sure our response isn't counterproductive. Recovery spending shouldn't prop up old fossil fuel industries and lock them in for another generation. We need our governments to make explicit political commitments to the clean energy transition by backing transformative energy investments. In practice, that means targets need to be put in place, and those targets need to be backed up with credible mechanisms to fund their deployment.
Does this mean the pandemic recovery could be an opportunity for governments to push the clean energy transition forward?
Yes. It's important that the next waves of government action are designed for the future we need, which is a clean energy future. We all looked to our governments to manage the pandemic, and now we're looking to them again to manage what comes next. I think people are acutely aware that we need to avoid an even worse threat coming up behind the COVID-19 crisis—and that's the climate crisis.
If governments were to adopt policy measures supporting clean energy, energy access, clean transportation, and energy efficiency, what would be the advantages for economic recovery?
In the short term, one advantage is that renewable energy projects tend to have very short lead times. It takes decades to build or renew a nuclear power station, but renewable energy projects can be delivered in months. If you want to create jobs and economic activity in the supply chain now, then renewable projects are really well-suited to doing that.
We also need a fundamental redesign and retooling of our building sector, looking into things like insulation and the conversion to electrically powered heating systems such as heat pumps. If we took these actions now, we would put large numbers of people back to work in deploying those technologies, reduce energy costs for homeowners and consumers, and reduce our emissions.
So why do you think this potential is not being used?
I think the biggest single barrier is that governments are very concerned about finances at the moment. There is exceptional demand for welfare funding, in addition to the pressure coming from industries and interest groups, so it's quite difficult to commit funds to infrastructure or energy projects. It requires governments to be very farsighted and strategic about how money should be spent.
What can change this?
Governments need to have a bold and consistent vision and use that as a litmus test for all policies that are being proposed. It's clear that, over the next decade, we need to have a fundamental transition in our energy sector, which means that every tax and subsidy policy has to be consistent with that goal.
We need our governments to make explicit political commitments to the clean energy transition by backing transformative energy investments.
How do you convince governments of economies that are highly dependent on fossil fuels that this is necessary?
I don't think it has escaped any government's notice that reliance on fossil fuels is increasingly becoming an economic and political risk.
But I think that we do have to convince governments that the time to act is now. There's no place for fossil fuel subsidies in a modern economy, so the message that subsidies should be swapped from fossil fuels to clean energy should be at the heart of recovery policy. It would be highly effective to reform those subsidies, increase taxes on fossil fuels, and reallocate a portion of those savings to prepare for the transition to clean energy. The post-pandemic restructuring of the economy is an opportunity to tackle these difficult issues.
Recently, Bill Gates said: "You're more likely to try to invent a new type of clean fuel if you're confident you won't be undercut by cheap gasoline." How do you think the policy measures you propose will affect our creativity and development in the area of clean energy?
Yes, I think that's true. Look back in history to when innovation in the energy sector has occurred: during the oil crisis in the 1970s, energy prices were very high, and that spurred a lot of governments to consider renewables. The wind industry, and to some extent the solar industry, was born in that era. Then it went dormant for a couple of decades because fossil energy got cheap again, and everyone stopped worrying about it.
I think that's the key: we have to make fossil fuel energy into expensive energy. We have to price energy in accordance with the external cost of the energy, taking into account the cost and health impacts of pollution and the cost to the environment. The prices we charge should reflect those external costs. In that environment, renewable energy will always look far cheaper than fossil energy.
If governments do implement these solutions, what can we expect?
If governments succeed in reforming fossil fuel subsidies and reallocating the savings to fund a clean energy transition, we will see very rapid change. We'd see much of the fossil infrastructure start to be dismantled, and we'd see our homes being heated and provided with electricity for a lower cost—and at a much lower cost to the planet. There would also be a fundamental change in the economy, with a massive increase in jobs related to the deployment of clean energy technologies.
We have an opportunity to prepare our economies, our homes, and our transport to meet the target of net-zero emissions by 2050. By taking these steps now, we could get ahead of the curve.