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Renewable Energy

Renewable Energy

A Primer for the Twenty-First Century

Bruce Usher, Columbia University Press

Published: January 1, 2019

From wood to coal to oil and gas, the sources of energy on which civilization depends have always changed as technology advances. Now renewables are overtaking fossil fuels, with wind and solar energy becoming cheaper and more competitive every year. Growth in renewable energy will further accelerate as electric vehicles become less expensive than traditional automobiles. Understanding the implications of the energy transition will prepare us for the many changes ahead.



  1. Renewables are already replacing fossil fuels as the world’s primary source of energy. This energy transition from fossil fuels to renewables mirrors prior energy transitions in human history. In each case the energy transitions were brought about with advances in technology that yielded a competitive product in the market for energy. We are now going through yet another such energy transition from fossil fuels to renewables.
  2. What we see today (2017/2018) is that in many countries, highly advanced wind and solar power facilities now generate electricity that is price competitive with fossil fuels in the market for energy. The superiority of renewables in the market for energy driving the transition to renewables. Renewables now generate electricity at a price that is more competitive than electricity generated from fossil fuels. The competitive advantages of renewables is driving the transition.
  3. In Texas, wind power accounted for 17% of the electricity generated in 2017 and is forecast to surpass coal by 2019. Great Britain, the cradle of the industrial revolution, crossed a threshold in 2017 when when the country went for a day on April 21 without burning any coal after 400 years of constant use. Even Saudi Arabia, with the world’s most valuable petroleum reserves, is joining the transition by installing some of the world’s largest solar projects.
  4. Wind and solar have become the fastest growing sources of new power generation globally due to constantly improving technology and declining costs to become competitive against coal, oil, and natural gas. Renewable energy will continue to be competitive in the market for energy and increase its market share due to a parallel energy transition in transportation to electric cars.
  5. Energy transitions of the past driven by competition in the market for energy were critically important in the development of modern economies. The next energy transition from fossil fuels to renewables will be critical to avoiding catastrophic climate change.


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  1. This critical commentary is being written in 2020, approximately 3 years after the book was written and a year after it was published – and so far there is no evidence that the author’s bullish assessment of the future of renewables. It is noted that in the text of the book, the author consistently evaluates renewables on power generated rather than power delivered.
  2. The argument against renewables is not high generation cost. That argument has been eloquently summarized by Bill Gates in a related post [LINK] where he notes that the issue is intermittency and absence of load balancing. Also, because they must be backed up by fossil fueled power generation because of their unreliability, renewables, in that present form can never actually replace fossil fuels. Bill Gates notes that all the batteries in the world could hold no more than 10 minutes of the world’s power demand.
  3. It is true that energy technologies have evolved by competition in the market for energy. Specifically, they have not evolved by activism of any sort. In this respect the need to push for renewables with climate catastrophe fear based activism implies that the technology is unable to compete in the market for energy.
  4. In that line of argument, the author’s claim that (as of 2017) renewables are competitive in the market for energy is inconsistent with his closing argument that the next energy transition from fossil fuels to renewables is needed to avoid climate catastrophe. This last sentence undoes all the arguments presented by the author that renewables are now competitive in the market for energy and that they will soon take over from fossil fuels. These two positions of he author are inconsistent because each erases the other.
  5. If renewables were competitive in the market for energy there would be no need for the climate catastrophe fear based activism against fossil fuels. Conversely, the need for climate catastrophe fear based activism against fossil fuels shows that the author’s claim to competitiveness in the market for energy is a falsehood.
  6. It is noted that the author is from Columbia University, an educational institution that has morphed into a climate activism organization. Details in related posts [LINK] , [LINK] .

— Thongchai Thailand