Six reasons to be optimistic about the energy transition

Yes, the world is hooked on fossil fuels, but Canary Media’s experts are still hopeful about the rise of clean energy. Here’s why.
By Canary Staff

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A photo collage of a heat pump, solar panels and energy storage batteries. The background is a pink sunrise illustration.
(Binh Nguyen/Canary Media)

The transition away from fossil fuels is a messy, frustrating and frequently uncertain story. Sometimes it seems like major change is just around the corner; other days it feels like we’re moving in the wrong direction.

But despite the ups and downs, one thing is clear: The energy transition is happening. Everywhere you look, and with increasing velocity, genuine progress is being made toward a carbon-free world. Of course, if you read Canary Media, you already know this; we’ve been reporting on the good news about the energy transition all year, from Portugal’s exceptional success with renewables to the dawning of the enhanced” geothermal age.

With that in mind, we asked Canary Media’s seasoned reporters and writers to single out one development that makes them particularly hopeful about the energy transition.

The solar PV revolution is here — and eating away at fossil fuels every day

When I started covering solar in 2004, solar modules cost just over $4 per watt. A decade later, in 2014, the industry had already driven costs down to an astonishing 70 cents per watt. This year, solar modules in China flirted with just 10 cents per watt, an astoundingly low figure in the eyes of this grizzled energy reporter.

Also in 2004, total global solar installations amounted to 1 gigawatt. This year, the world has installed more than that every single day, on average. That’s an unbelievable clip.

BloombergNEF’s solar market outlook forecasts that 413 gigawatts of module capacity will be installed in 2023, up from 260 gigawatts in 2022, driven to a great extent by China.

It’s a pace that will quickly add up to several terawatts of solar being installed around the globe by 2030, along with several terawatts’ worth of manufacturing capacity. These are mind-boggling numbers that are coming true today.

And it’s a good thing. While there’s a lot of chatter at global gatherings about goals like tripling nuclear power and scaling up direct air capture, solar is turning out to be the real workhorse of the energy transition. It will be solar that helps move the globe away from coal, solar that powers the electrolyzers for green hydrogen and the electric-arc furnaces for steelmaking, and solar that allows the grid to expand fast enough to accommodate the electrification of everything, from vehicles to home heating.

Solar is quietly eating the world. This is what an energy transition looks like. — Eric Wesoff

The economics are on the side of climate solutions

The core technologies for the first phase of the energy transition — solar, wind, batteries and heat pumps — are getting so affordable that demand for them will soon outweigh the institutional inertia that stands in their way.

Solar and wind power are now by far the cheapest source of new electricity generation, both globally and in the U.S., and those trends are set to continue. Lithium-ion battery prices have fallen to record lows again after a brief Covid-induced uptick, meaning it’s more affordable than ever to store wind and solar power for hours at a time. That same trend is also driving down the cost of electric vehicles, which can already outcompete gas cars on a lifetime basis in most parts of the country. And heat pumps, which are less expensive than ever thanks to federal tax credits, continue to demonstrate that they’re far more efficient at heating (and cooling) than conventional methods — even in the cold.

Together, these technologies alone are enough to get us far along the decarbonization pathways for electricity generation, transportation and buildings. The victories — for the climate, for consumers and for the companies that can capitalize on these technological realities — are there for the taking. — Jeff St. John

Heat pumps keep proving how much better they are than gas alternatives 

Heat pumps are like Taylor Swift: I hear about them everywhere these days, and even though they’ve been around for many years, their popularity keeps expanding. Heat pumps are megastars for the climate, allowing building owners to jettison their fossil-fired systems for clean, electric ones that are two to four times as energy-efficient.

So this year, the hottest on record, I’ve been buoyed by some positive news on the heat-pump front.

Across the U.S., heat-pump units are outselling gas furnaces. That was true last year, and it was true through the first nine months of this year, too, although inflation and high interest rates are slowing installations of all heating systems. But heat pumps, which double as air conditioners, are becoming more affordable thanks to a $2,000 federal tax credit and additional forthcoming federal rebates.

This year has also provided evidence to contradict a common criticism of the tech: that it doesn’t work in the cold. Case in point: In Maine, residents have found heat pumps so alluring that they smashed the 2019 state goal to install 100,000 of them — two years ahead of schedule. In July, state officials upped the target to deploy another 175,000 heat pumps by 2027.

And it’s not just Maine that’s a heat-pump stan. In September, half of all U.S. states committed to quadruple the pace of deployment and install 20 million heat pumps by 2030. That gets the U.S. much closer to the trajectory needed to decarbonize home heating by 2050.

If the heat-pump love continues, gas heating could swiftly become so last era. — Alison F. Takemura 

Climate-focused media continues to raise the bar 

The media industry has been hard-hit by layoffs recently, including many climate journalists. But despite these headwinds, there’s been good news in independent climate media in 2023 — something I think we can continue to be optimistic about next year.

This year, Stephen Lacey and Scott Clavenna launched Latitude Media, and Robinson Meyer and Nico Lauricella started Heatmap. Cipher, Amy Harder’s newsletter, expanded to a full news publication, and Amy Westervelt’s Drilled also grew with new hires in 2023. Some older publications, like fellow nonprofits Grist, Inside Climate News and Floodlight, continued to do stellar work. Emily Atkin’s crucial Heated newsletter and David Roberts’ Volts podcast kept focusing on underreported topics and highlighting important voices. And this is far from an exhaustive list.

Good reporting is essential to making a just, swift energy transition happen, and I am excited to see this growing group of publications (and Canary Media!) continue to raise the bar for what climate and clean energy journalism can do. — Maria Virginia Olano

Major steps toward mitigating emissions from cargo shipping 

Big cargo ships transport virtually everything we buy and use. The diesel-guzzling behemoths are also major climate polluters; they’re responsible for about 3 percent of the world’s annual greenhouse gas emissions.

This year, global efforts to clean up cargo shipping hit some truly meaningful milestones. In July, the United Nations agency that governs the international maritime industry set new, stricter targets for reducing emissions from ocean-crossing freighters. In September, the Danish shipping giant Maersk launched the world’s first container ship fueled by green” methanol, a low-carbon alternative that’s gaining favor as a near-term replacement for diesel.

Maersk, CMA CGM and other major shipping companies have collectively placed orders for roughly 125 vessels that can run on methanol, which can be made from organic matter (“bio-methanol”) or by combining hydrogen with carbon dioxide (“e-methanol”). Last month, Maersk signed the industry’s first large-scale supply agreement for green methanol with Goldwind, the Chinese wind-turbine marker, to provide enough fuel annually for 12 of Maersk’s ocean-crossing container ships.

The maritime industry still faces a litany of thorny and expensive challenges when it comes to decarbonization. But the progress made in 2023, even if incremental, still suggests that sailing cleaner cargo ships is not just possible — it’s already starting to happen. — Maria Gallucci

Energy storage promised big things in 2023, and it delivered

Energy storage is essential to balancing out grids where renewable generation is surging. And this year, in certain early-mover states like California, Hawaii and Texas, batteries had a number of successes that demonstrate the tech is ready for the big time.

Developers set an annual installation record in just the first nine months of 2023. New data shows that the third quarter of the year was the most prolific in history for grid storage additions. And lithium-ion battery costs hit record lows this year as manufacturing bounced back from Covid disruptions, foretelling even more compelling economics in the coming years.

In California, grid battery capacity jumped tenfold in the last three years and now amounts to 7.6% of the system’s nameplate capacity. Texas battery installations grew even faster during that time, showing the tool’s competitiveness in a bare-knuckled capitalist marketplace without juicy state incentives.

But even more importantly than the raw numbers indicate, these batteries made themselves useful. The hottest year on record hammered the country with heat waves all summer long, stretching the grid to keep everyone cool. Newly built grid batteries delivered gigawatts of power during crucial hours, keeping air conditioning on for millions of people in the West.

That still leaves whole swaths of the country, and the world, where batteries offer no more help to the grid than nuclear fusion or space solar. But those regions still benefit from early adopters buying and installing gigawatts of batteries in 2023. That scale and experience pushes down costs for everyone else — and proves that a reliable, renewables-heavy grid is within reach, today. — Julian Spector

What energy-transition story makes you most optimistic? Give us a shout on social — X, LinkedIn and Instagram — to let us know. And by the way: We’re a nonprofit that relies on donations from our readers who value feisty, incisive and fun journalism on the clean energy transition. Click here to donate today.