Category Archives: History

The ‘big push’ transforming the world’s energy systems

As I’m sure you have noticed, renewable energy is taking the world by storm, driven by rapidly falling prices. Ever wonder how that happened?

In 2009, I authored a concept paper for the United Nations Secretariat, for circulation at the Copenhagen Climate Summit. COP15 became infamous because it was deemed a spectacular failure. Heads of state were personally negotiating the terms of the weak “Copenhagen Accord” into the wee hours of the night — a sure sign that the diplomatic process had broken down.

Fortunately, that process had nothing to do with my job in Copenhagen, which was to garner support for a bold new initiative — a “Big Push” strategy — to scale up renewable energy in the developing world, and thereby bring the price down to affordable levels globally.

I’ll skip over the technical details of the plan I was proposing, working on behalf of senior officials in the U.N. Department of Economic and Social Affairs. The basic concept was to invest heavily in renewables in poor countries, using a globally coordinated system of price guarantees (aka “feed-in tariffs” — you can read the “Technical Note” here). Pump money for solar panels and wind turbines into those countries, and the resulting scale-up in production would bring global prices for those technologies down, and fast.

Fast was important: Otherwise, developing countries would get locked into cheaper, dirtier fossil fuels, and there would be no chance of meeting global CO2 reduction targets.

The idea for this Big Push had originated with Tariq Banuri, a brilliant policy innovator from Pakistan who was then serving as the U.N.’s director for sustainable development. My job was to develop his idea into a clear proposal, with numbers and an implementation strategy, then recruit wise and respected voices at Copenhagen to support the package.

And we did. The positive response we received to Tariq’s concept of a “Global Green New Deal” for renewable energy was one of the few bright spots to emerge from Copenhagen, even though not much came of it after that.

(The full story of my experiences in Copenhagen is told in the second edition of my 2010 book, “Believing Cassandra.” After COP15, I started building a nonprofit organization to promote the Big Push, but dropped it when many of our ideas were absorbed into then-U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s Sustainable Energy for All initiative, launched in 2011.)

But here’s the punchline: In hindsight, pushing this Big Push strategy was probably unnecessary.

It turns out there was no need to sell governments and investors on the idea of scaling up renewable energy, and to incentivize them with a complex global subsidy scheme.

It turns out there was no need to sell governments and investors on the idea of scaling up renewable energy, and to incentivize them with a complex global subsidy scheme. Much to my (and everyone else’s) surprise, the world already has achieved the affordability targets we set, well ahead of the schedule we were envisioning — without any such scheme.

It is important to underscore that those targets, and our proposed schedule — bringing the price of solar and wind energy down to about 3 cents per kilowatt-hour, within 10 to 20 years — seemed wildly, even unrealistically ambitious back in 2009. But by 2017, just eight years after Copenhagen, the achievement of those targets is already in the rear-view mirror.

Net power generating capacity added in 2016, globally, by main technology, in gigawatts.

Source: Bloomberg New Energy Finance, in “Global Trends in Renewable Energy Investment 2017,” Frankfurt School-UNEP Centre/BNEF

Take a good look at the pie chart above. The data comes from Bloomberg, published by U.N. Environment Programme and the Frankfurt School of Finance and Management. Notice that over half of all the new electricity capacity installed globally during 2016 came from solar and wind. For five years running, solar and wind have outpaced coal and gas by a wide margin. While there is a long way to go before the world is driven principally by renewables, the energy transformation is well under way.

The learning curve

A key factor driving this transformation is the price of renewables, which has dropped like a stone. Why? Exactly for the reasons we described in 2009, based on a well-known economics concept called the “learning curve”: The more you make something, the more you learn how to make it cheaply and efficiently.

Economists can predict declines in price by plotting these learning curves on a graph, relating price to the quantity of a thing produced. It doesn’t matter how much time it takes to produce the thing; quantity is the key variable. The faster you produce that quantity, the faster you slide down the learning curve towards the associated lower price.

When drafting our Big Push plan in 2009, I was astonished to find that the learning curves for renewable energy being used by most analysts originally had been drawn in 1992. No one had thought to update them. The curves seemed very pessimistic to me, given how fast China (among other actors) was coming online with solar panels and wind turbines. I suggested those curves needed to be redrawn, with new assumptions, based on the rapid developments and faster-than-expected learning we already were seeing in the renewables market.

As it turns out, my optimism was still amazingly pessimistic.

In 2009, even after adjusting the learning curve, we thought it would take about 2,000 gigawatts of installed solar and wind power to bring the price down to our global affordability target of 3 cents per kWh. But that price was reached in a number of countries, including India, Mexico, Chile and Morocco, by 2016. And the total installed global capacity at that time: Just 800 gigawatts — less than half of what we calculated would be necessary.

Bear in mind, 800 gigawatts of solar and wind energy is still a huge number, compared to where things started in 2009. Back then, the world’s wind turbines, if they were spinning at full capacity, could generate just over 150 GW. By 2016, that number had swelled to nearly 500 GW. The growth in solar photovoltaics was even more rocket-like: from 23 gigawatts of capacity in 2009 to more than 300 in 2016.

Source: REN21, Renewables 2017 Global Status Report

Source: REN21, Renewables 2017 Global Status Report

Even the world’s top energy experts call this rapid fall in prices astonishing. How did the price fall so much faster than anyone expected?

Simple: Our expectations were plain wrong. You’ve no doubt heard of Moore’s Law, describing how the power of computing chips doubles every 18 months. How about Swanson’s Law? The term was introduced in an Economist article in 2012 to describe a similar pattern for solar panels. Swanson’s Law was basically a revised learning curve, one much closer to the curve we redrew at the U.N. in 2009 (but never published).

There is just one problem with Swanson’s Law: it, too, has proven far too pessimistic. Current prices for solar-electric panels are less than half of what Swanson’s Law would have predicted.

In reviewing these amazing and historic developments, it occurred to me that the world did get a Big Push strategy after all. Renewable energy scaled up rapidly in developing countries, pushing down renewable energy prices globally.

But we didn’t need a massive effort to mobilize international aid, as well as investments from the world’s rich countries, at the trillion-dollar scale we envisioned in 2009. It happened thanks to the target countries, the ones we call “developing,” especially China and India. And it happened faster than predicted, because our predictions were too pessimistic.

It turns out these countries learned faster than any “learning curve” Western experts could draw.

There are several extremely important lessons in all that, but here’s the biggest one: Never doubt that massive, transformative change is possible. It’s happening all around us, all the time — and usually faster than anyone expects.

© 2018 by Alan AtKisson. Originally published on as his “North Star” column, 23 Jan 2018.

Celebrating a victory for ethics and eloquence

For politically centrist, ethically minded people, who prefer serious debate to trolling and twitterstorms, these are challenging times. As Frank Bruni recently wrote in the New York Times (see link below), extremism and outrage is the order of the day. We need antidotes. Here’s one: would you like to see (and hear) an example of principled, eloquent, ideologically balanced political leadership in action? I urge you to watch this 20-min video of the speech delivered by New Orleans mayor Mitch Landrieu, marking the removal of the last of four statues originally erected to honor the leaders of the Confederacy and promote their awful and resoundingly defeated worldview. These monuments to inequality are finally gone. [Commentary continues after video]

New Orleans is one of the cities I have called home. I was partly educated there, I worked as a social worker in its French Quarter, I became a professional musician singing on the city’s stages (and sometimes on its streets). Later, I returned as a consultant to the region’s bi-partisan business leadership, and helped them develop a strategy for vision and action for sustainable development. The implementation of that strategy (2001-2005) was starting to work — until Katrina hit.
Regretfully, I have not been back to the city since (though I have wanted to go). But I have followed the rebuilding process, including its social rebuilding, and I have been deeply moved to watch the courage and bravery of the city’s political leadership in bringing down these monuments to racism, slavery, and the “cult of the lost cause.”
Mayor Landrieu’s speech has rightly been lifted up by Bruni and others as a timely landmark. For me, as someone who has lived in and loved New Orleans, and for a time attempted to serve the city as a “change agent” (I’ve written about this experience in my books), this speech also puts on display an inspiring example of true change leadership in action. Landrieu has held the vision, but he has also led a large, participatory process — city council, judicial system, public hearings, all of it. This success in overcoming one of the most reactionary pockets of resistance to progress in modern America (how does one honestly defend monuments to the champions of slavery?) is an inspiring case study worthy of continuing study, and support.
In these sometimes discouraging times, we need examples like this, to remind us of what true progress looks like. Watch, listen, and rejoice.
Also worth reading: NY Times article about Landrieu’s speech, by Frank Bruni:

An Open Letter to Future Generations

Dear Future Generations,

I’m sure this is obvious to you — you can see things better than we can, in hindsight. But I want to report to you that we are living through a time of dramatic change. Historic change. The kind of moment where everything seems to be balanced on a knife edge, and it could tip either way.

I am writing to you from Stockholm, Sweden. I’ll start with what is happening here, then I’ll paint you a global picture. Because it’s all connected.

Not long ago, this was a quiet little corner of Europe, a place where everything “worked.” There was essentially no poverty. No homeless people. There was a shared belief in something we called “solidarity.”

We don’t use that word much any more. In a few short years, we now have beggars on every street corner. There are people here who have fled from poverty or war, only to wind up living in tents, or sports halls, or outside on the street. Many thousands more war refugees, after traveling thousands of miles, are knocking on our door — so many that our government just decided to close that door. This is a pattern being repeated in many other countries, too. (Though one country, Canada, just decided to open their previously closed door. Good for them.)

Meanwhile, our “Western” part of the world is reeling from a series of small but extremely violent, deadly, and scary attacks — we call it “terrorism” — whose purpose is to strike fear into people’s hearts, ratchet up tensions, and provoke us into global war. The strategy is almost working. Our extreme right wing political groups are gaining strength, countries are rattling swords, and demagogues reminiscent of the 1930s are rising up amongst us. (Unfortunately, these populist rage-baiters have access to technologies far more powerful than the microphones used by Hitler and Mussolini.)

Meanwhile, it’s warm this winter — again. According to global data, this year is the warmest our modern, industrial civilization has ever measured. And we (as you well know) are the ones warming things up. That’s not all we’re doing to the planet, either. Huge alarm bells are ringing for Nature, everywhere. Some of us are trying to wrestle down our overall “footprint” on this Earth. But so far, humanity’s “foot” keeps pressing down harder and heavier, pinning us to the mat.

We’re also struggling to leave a bit of wildness for you to enjoy, but it’s extremely hard work. All it takes is a small number of uncaring or greedy or needy or ignorant people to destroy wild Nature — by setting fire to Sumatra, say, or poaching African elephants. I’d like to be able to say about these people, “They know not what they do.” But in fact, they know exactly what they are doing. And there are global markets ready to absorb the “profits” of their illegal activities. They are extremely clever about getting past our increasingly desperate defenses, too. It’s starting to seem obvious why the mammoth, the dodo, and the passenger pigeon are no longer with us: it only takes one of us to kill the last of anything.

That sounds like a pretty bleak picture, and it is. A dismal thought crosses my mind at least once a day: we could all too easily tumble into an abyss of war, political dystopia, and ecological catastrophe.

But that’s the bad news, one side of the knife edge. The other side — the good news — is, well, surprisingly good.

Despite dangerous and viral pockets of poverty and war, our human population is overall getting less poor, and less violent. We have made amazing strides in providing people with education, better access to food and energy and health care, a sense of hope for their children’s future. We have far to go — hundreds of millions are still living in misery — but many trends are moving rapidly in the right direction. We just need to figure out how to keep those positive trends going, while not destroying the planet’s ecosystems, and before social instabilities make the challenge insurmountable.

But there is good news on the action side, too. This year, the world’s governments completed an unprecedented series of global agreements. Right now, they’re finalizing a new deal on climate change that looks like it will be better than most of us hoped for — even if we know it is still not enough and will have to be improved later. We also have, for the first time, a truly global vision and a set of global goals for where all of humanity should be heading. You probably take the idea of “SDGs” (Sustainable Development Goals) for granted by now. For us, they were an unprecedented historic breakthrough.

We are even starting to understand the fundamental principle that “everything is connected to everything else” — and we are starting to build that principle into our government policies, corporate strategies, and community development programs. It’s not just talk, either: I am watching serious change happen, with my own eyes, every day.

Given everything happening now in our world — the good, the bad, and the ugly, to borrow an old movie title — I find myself thinking about you more and more.

It seems like this time, this specific time, is really going to be decisive for you. Our descendants.

So I just want you to know: things are really, really shaky just now. We’ve had global war before, kicked off by similarly unstable conditions. So we know, unfortunately, that it’s all too possible to fall into that huge and deadly trap.

We also know what it’s like to fudge and hedge and not do what is necessary to secure the health of Nature, and the wellbeing of People — because we are seeing the consequences of insufficient action, on the global scale, right now. We are finally waking up to the fact that these two things, human happiness and ecological integrity, must go together. When they don’t … well, among other things, we get the conditions we are struggling with in Sweden, and many other places, right now.

Basically, we know what failure looks like. And we can see all too clearly that failure, when it comes to managing our presence on planet Earth sustainably, is still a possibility.

But we also know — because we are starting to experience a little of it — what success feels like. Setting clear goals. Working together to achieve them. Maintaining an optimistic vision and intense effort, no matter what. Tackling problems head-on, intelligently, compassionately. Working on making systems better, not just symptoms.

I just want you to know, dear Future Generations, that many of us are working very, very hard to try to make things better. More and more of us, all the time. Working for you, for ourselves, and for all life on this planet. And I believe we are starting to tip that balance in the right direction.

But please — if you can — let me know how it turned out.


Inside Llewyn Davis: Not the Greenwich Village I Knew

BlogPic_InsideLlewynDavisYou might expect that I should love the film “Inside Llewyn Davis,” about the folk scene of Greenwich Village in the 1960s, seen through the eyes of a young folk singer, who is a reinterpreted version of the young Dave van Ronk. Van Ronk was a legend by the time I hit that scene, as a young singer-songwriter, in the early 1980s. I barely knew him, but I did work the soundboard for one of his performances at the Speakeasy — a folk music club and artists’ cooperative, which put on nightly shows behind a falafel stand on Macdougal Street. I thought Van Ronk was an awesome performer, with a dominating stage presence. I found him intimidating at the time.

Folk music was serious business to the artists who were keeping it alive in those clubs. As a newcomer, you had a steep hill to climb, to prove yourself worthy to be in their company. Van Ronk’s memoir, on which the movie was partly based, is called “The Mayor of Macdougal Street.” I haven’t even read it yet, but I thought of him more as the Pope. I didn’t dare approach Van Ronk, partly because I was not even a true “folky” — though I did get one song, “Epiphany Dream,” onto a “Fast Folk” record album, a periodic collection that was published as a “musical magazine” by the Speakeasy cooperative, and which you can still find online. (I thought of Jack Hardy, editor of Fast Folk, as the mayor.)

I spent several fun, formative musical years in that colorful Speakeasy / Folk City / Macdougal Street music scene, which is painted in brownish-grayish tones in the Coen Brothers film. I have some beautiful memories, too: the legendary Odetta watching my show, complimenting me, hugging me, the memory of which gladdens me still. At the same time, however, I was also fronting a rock band, playing at clubs in the rougher parts of the East Village and Soho, clubs with names like CBGB, 8BC, Kamikaze. (This double life probably made me suspect in the folk world, but that’s another story.)

Yet despite this semi-personal connection to what was being portrayed on the screen, I did not love “Inside Llewyn Davis.” I found myself skipping and fast-forwarding through big hunks of it, in 10-20 second stuttering hops, trying to find parts I liked.

And I did find a few gem moments, most of them musical performances, including a surprising folk turn by Justin Timberlake. The film certainly captured the look of the New York folk music scene as I remember it, which (I now realize) had not changed that much by 1982. Indeed, my experience of New York itself was pretty much just as that movie portrayed it: a little run-down, funkier, more dangerous than the shiny place it is today.

So, I didn’t hate the film. But several others from that scene and time — most publicly Christine Lavin and Suzanne Vega — did hate it, and they went public with harsh criticisms. I mostly agree with their general complaint: the movie doesn’t reflect what I remember of life in that community. We were all young, aspiring songwriters, by turns cooperative and competitive, enjoying the feeling that we were part of something with a history. The Greenwich Village folk scene was a kind of musical nebula that occasionally gave birth to a star (Suzanne Vega broke out with two worldwide hits, “Luka” and “Tom’s Diner”, about the time I began turning from aspiring New York musician into an aspiring Seattle sustainability wonk who still did music). But mostly, that community was all about dedication to tradition, craft, songwriting, artistry, mutual support. Being a musician in New York — especially being a songwriter outside the mainstream of pop — was a hard business. We needed each other.

This is really my chief complaint about “Inside Llewyn Davis”: I felt nothing of that. In fact, I felt nothing at all. I really wanted to just get through the film and go back to work. (I was watching it on a long plane flight.) A reviewer who loved the movie noted that it’s just a fiction, maybe a profound one, and even called Lavin and Vega “narcissistic” for criticizing it — that is, for not accepting it as an original, aching, coming-of-age story, that has nothing to do with their reality. The Coen Brothers, in that reading, just borrowed bits of Van Ronk’s memoir, and images of that time and scene, in order to tell a different story about misplaced ambitions and the hard treatment dished by the real world on youthful dreams.

But I have to defend my old Speakeasy colleagues, Lavin and Vega, on this point: if someone takes your youth, full of colorful people and memories that you love, and repaints it as tawdry and sad, and then presents this portrayal to the world as The Truth On Film, you are fully entitled to hate that movie. And to attack it, critically. (Thanks, Christine and Suzanne, for doing that. I called you “colleagues” above, rather than friends, because while I knew you, I never really knew you. I always wished I had — I so admired your work, you were role models — but I doubt you even remember me. I was a junior, marginal player in that league. I was a Wednesday and Thursday night kind of performer; you were Friday and Saturday night. Still, it gives me pleasure to remember that we played on the same stages, sometimes in the same multi-artist shows …)

So the true Greenwich Village Folk Music Movie remains to be made. Or … maybe it would be interesting to make a movie about a folk musician who lives a double life as a rock ‘n’ roll artist, flitting between gigs in different parts of New York, dancing with the ghost of Dylan’s controversial flip to electric guitar, moving furniture to make a living with a fellow songwriter and, improbably enough, future Earth First! activist (my old friend Darryl Cherney, who recorded my first cassette album in his bedroom studio, and who was the spitting image of the guy playing Llewyn Davis), avoiding the muggers and the groupies and the drugs (I was a total nerd in that regard), performing at weddings and funerals and hospitals for the mentally disturbed, until finally getting a big break with the offer of a serious management deal (the guy that offered me that deal is now head of a major Hollywood movie studio), but then realizing he had a different calling in life, this thing we call “sustainability” …

Well, if you are into making movies, I’ve got a story for you.

PS: Hey, my new album — which which owes a debt of gratitude to those old Greenwich Village days, but is sort of “global folk-rock” — is finished, we are just working on the packaging and marketing now … Stay tuned …