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Thanks to a dramatic decline in renewable energy prices, coupled with major advances in energy storage technology, a global clean energy transition is finally within reach. Renewable energy sources, such as solar and wind, are poised to comprise 95% of the increase in global power capacity by the year 2026 according to the International Energy Agency (IEA). By that year, renewable power will reach 4,800 gigawatt-hours, a sum equivalent to the current generating capacity of fossil fuels and nuclear energy combined. Precipitous declines in the cost of clean energy have outpaced all expectations, leading to an unprecedented situation in which the cost of renewable electricity is now lower than any other power source in many jurisdictions, and solar energy is now the cheapest form of electricity in history.
Given these rapid shifts, many advocates have made urgent calls to ‘electrify everything’. Rapid electrification, in the context of a clean transition, involves the dual goal of decarbonizing all electricity systems while making most final energy consumption consist of electricity, thus helping to displace the need for fossil fuel combustion. Analysis by Rystad Energy has shown that, if countries abide by commitments made during the COP26 negotiations, 1.2 terawatts of solar power capacity could be added by the early 2030s, which is the level needed to limit global temperature rise to 1.6 degrees Celsius. Rystad predicts that renewable energy sources will gradually replace fossil fuels in the energy mix, and that the demand for power from fossil fuels will decline significantly in coming years.
Given the vital imperative to limit global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees, as outlined in the global Paris Accord, the IEA is now calling for no new fossil fuel expansion projects to be undertaken after the year 2021. In a net-zero scenario, the IEA predicts that the value of the clean technology sector will outstrip the value of global oil markets by 2030, driven primarily by surging growth in demand for energy storage and electric vehicles. To augment the clean transition, governments around the world are enacting carbon pricing regimes, border carbon tariffs, and other policies designed to curb emissions. Research shows that countries accounting for 88% of global emissions and 90% of global GDP have now adopted national net-zero targets. In combination, these inevitable policy responses are likely to create a scenario in which fossil fuel energy becomes increasingly obsolete. Major energy firms and investors are only now waking up to the possibility that their fossil fuel reserves could become stranded assets, representing a significant transition risk accelerating the possibility of future financial stress or even bankruptcy. As such, capital markets are shifting investments towards the clean energy transition, while transitioning decisively away from fossil fuels, with nearly $40 trillion divested as of 2021.
There is also a dire need for a just energy transition, to ensure equitable outcomes in the transformation of the energy system. Energy justice, as defined by the Initiative for Energy Justice, refers to the goal of achieving equity in both the social and economic participation in the energy system, while also remediating social, economic, and health burdens on those historically harmed by the energy system. A just transition entails justice for both communities on the front lines of fossil fuel extraction chains, often Indigenous communities, as well as justice for the fossil fuel workers that will be displaced by the clean energy transition. Most importantly, the just transition means that nations in the Global North, which are disproportionately responsible for historical carbon emissions, should be required to compensate for their fair share of emissions.
Key Concepts and Definitions
To learn more about energy systems and the clean energy transition, check out the Energy System Map developed by Student Energy, as well as their Energy Topics Index which includes concise summaries of important concepts.
Energy Mix: The global energy mix is the breakdown of total global energy production by source, where sources include coal, oil, gas, nuclear, and all forms of renewable energy. To view a map of the global energy mix, see this resource from Our World in Data. 75% of global carbon emissions come from energy production, with the remainder attributable to agriculture and deforestation. To see how the global energy mix has changed over time, see this video from Visual Capitalist.
Primary vs. Final Energy: Primary energy is the total quantity of energy directly harvested from natural sources, while final energy (or end use energy) is the total quantity of energy that is actually consumed by users. Primary energy, in its raw form, must be altered by conversion technologies before it can become useful for final consumption as electricity, natural gas, or a secondary fuel derived from crude oil. 84% of global primary energy supply currently comes from fossil fuels, and only 16% from low-carbon sources. For a breakdown of global final energy consumption, see this graph from the International Energy Agency.
Renewable Energy: Renewable energy is energy derived from natural processes that are replenished at a rate that is equal to or faster than the rate at which they are consumed. Sources of renewable energy include energy generated from solar, wind, geothermal, hydropower and ocean resources, solid biomass, biogas and liquid biofuels. The phrase ‘alternative energy’ encompasses all renewable resources plus nuclear energy (which is non-renewable).
Energy Storage: Energy storage technologies are those technologies which permit the storage of electrical energy to be used at a later date. Because grid systems require demand and supply to be balanced at all times, but energy provided by renewable sources is intermittent and non-dispatchable, energy storage is required to make up the difference. Achieving 100% renewable electricity will require significant amounts of cheap energy storage, in particular long-duration energy storage.
Grid Flexibility: Grid flexibility refers to the capability of an electricity system to maintain balance between generation and load during periods of uncertainty. To accommodate large increases in electricity demand due to the clean energy transition, and manage intermittent supply from renewables, electricity systems will need to become significantly more flexible. Flexibility solutions include energy storage and demand response programs, which help reduce electricity demand during peak load hours. In order to implement these solutions, grids will have to become smart grids, using digital technologies to allow two-way communication between users and generators. Microgrids offer increased flexibility by permitting autonomous, local control capabilities.
Distributed Energy Resources: Distributed energy resources (DERs) are electricity-producing resources or controllable loads, such as solar panels or electric vehicles, that are distributed throughout the power system. As opposed to conventional grid systems, where transmission is centralized and one-way, distributed resources such as solar panels or controllable loads in the form of smart thermostats can manage electricity in a decentralized, bidirectional way. The ability to manage many distributed energy resources is a key component of grid flexibility.
Energy Efficiency: An increase in energy efficiency occurs whenever less energy is used to perform the same task. Energy efficiency solutions are vital in decarbonization efforts, and include technologies such as energy efficient appliances, LED lighting, combined heat and power systems, heat pumps, and improved insulation.
Energy Services: The energy services industry includes all businesses that develop, install and arrange financing for projects designed to improve energy efficiency. Known as Energy Services Companies (ESCOs), these businesses deliver many diverse energy solutions, such as energy savings projects, retrofits, energy conservation, energy infrastructure outsourcing, power generation and energy supply, and risk management.
Energy Return on Investment: Energy Return on Investment (EROI) is the amount of energy expended to produce a certain amount of net energy. EROI is a useful metric for comparing the effectiveness of different energy sources.
Levelized Cost of Energy: The Levelized Cost of Energy (LCOE) is the price an electricity generator must receive for each unit it generates over its lifetime to financially break even. Lazard publishes research on the LCOE for all renewable energy sources.
Energy Transition: The global energy transition refers to the transformation of the global energy sector from fossil-based to zero-carbon energy by the year 2050, the net-zero target year identified by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
Energy Justice: Energy justice, as defined by the Initiative for Energy Justice, refers to the goal of achieving equity in both the social and economic participation in the energy system, while also remediating social, economic, and health burdens on those historically harmed by the energy system. Key concepts within energy justice include energy poverty (i.e. the lack of access to energy), energy burden, energy insecurity, and energy democracy (i.e. the ability to have agency in shaping energy futures). A just energy transition is necessary to ensure equitable outcomes in the transformation of the energy system.
Rebound Effect: Rebound effects occur when increases in energy efficiency actually increase energy consumption because of savings that are redirected towards more energy intensive consumption. Rebound effects can have a significantly negative effect on overall energy savings.
Green and Blue Hydrogen: The combustion of hydrogen creates heat and water without any associated greenhouse gas emissions, leading to claims that hydrogen can be used as a low-carbon fuel source. Because not all sectors can be electrified, green hydrogen can be an important part of decarbonizing industrial processes and heavy transport (although it faces numerous safety concerns, namely flammability). The emissions intensity of hydrogen as a fuel is determined by the hydrogen production process; conventional hydrogen (also known as grey hydrogen) is hydrogen that is produced from natural gas. Green hydrogen (or electrolytic hydrogen), whereas, occurs when renewable electricity is used to split water into hydrogen and oxygen through electrolysis. Green hydrogen production is currently prohibitively expensive. Blue hydrogen, by contrast, is produced in a manner that is identical to the production of grey hydrogen, except that the associated carbon emissions are captured and stored at source. Blue hydrogen faces numerous sustainability concerns; it requires a significant amount of natural gas (even more so than for heat production), and natural gas creates fugitive methane emissions, a potent greenhouse gas, as a byproduct of its production. One study found that the amount of methane released by blue hydrogen production actually makes the fuel 20% worse for the climate than regular natural gas.
Hydrogen Fuel Cells: Hydrogen fuel cells are a way to produce clean electricity electrochemically by reacting hydrogen and oxygen to create heat, water, and electricity. If hydrogen fuel cells are fueled by zero-emission green or blue hydrogen, they could be considered a source of green energy.
Bioenergy and Biofuels: Bioenergy, including biofuels, refers to all energy sources that come from the combustion of plant or plant-derived matter. Renewable fuels for transportation and other uses can be created from biomass being converted into liquid fuels such as ethanol and biodiesel. Since the feedstock material for renewable fuels can be replenished naturally, it is considered a renewable source of energy. Ethanol is an alcohol which can be used as a blending agent in traditional natural gas. Biodiesel is produced from renewable sources, preferably waste vegetable oils and animal fats, and can replace petroleum-based diesel fuel. Similarly, renewable hydrocarbon fuels can be thermochemically or biologically processed from biomass to replace petroleum fuels such as gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel. In an ideal world all biomass used for biofuel production would come from waste materials, cellulosic biomass (which is the vast majority of plant matter), or algae-based resources. However, most ethanol production is currently made from plant starches and sugars, which raises equity and sustainability concerns about land use, biodiversity loss, and the displacement of food production. Research about the emissions intensity of biofuels is often quite conflicting, although it is acknowledged that second generation biofuels (i.e. biofuels from waste biomass) have the potential to reduce emissions. Most importantly, naturally growing forests should under no circumstances be harvested to create biofuels. Bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS) has numerous feasibility and sustainability concerns; it has never been proven on a commercial scale, and offsetting only a third of today’s fossil fuel emissions through BECCS would require using half of the world’s total crop-growing area. Accordingly, BECCS should not be relied on as a negative emissions technology. For more information about the challenge of developing truly sustainable biofuels, see this short documentary.
Trends to Follow
The global renewables market grew at a compound annual growth rate of 8.9% between 2016 and 2020, rising to total revenues of nearly $700 billion. In 2020, renewable capacity additions increased 45% to 280 gigawatts, representing the highest annual increase since 1999, with wind capacity additions alone increasing 90% year-over-year. Global power investment increased to $820 billion in 2021, of which renewable generation accounted for 70%. China remains the world’s largest investor in renewable energy, and the nation is now expected to reach 1,200 gigawatts of wind and solar power by 2026, four years ahead of schedule. There is also evidence that demand from corporations for renewable energy supply to satisfy net-zero targets has played a role in increasing investment.
The power sector is being disrupted by four key trends: decarbonization, decentralization, disaggregation, and digitization. There is a need for greater grid flexibility to accommodate for a wider penetration of distributed energy resources, balance intermittent renewable supply, and account for increases in demand generated by rising electric vehicle sales. Around the world, energy storage technologies continue to improve as battery density increases and prices decline, with average costs having decreased 97% over the last three decades. To learn more about the technological changes associated with the decarbonization of electricity systems, see this list of solutions provided by Project Drawdown.
Despite significant growth in renewable capacity, there are still numerous obstacles to a clean energy revolution. Most notably, global energy demand growth continues to outpace the ability of clean energy to displace fossil fuels, while oil demand is projected to continue rising until it hopefully stabilizes at some point after 2030. Under the IEA’s Stated Policies Scenario, energy demand will continue rising by 1% annually through 2040, preventing global emissions from peaking before 2040. More ambitious policies, coupled with the rapid electrification of transportation and industrial sectors, are needed to bend the emissions curve downward on a more immediate timescale.
Technological challenges continue to obstruct the full decarbonization of electricity systems. Without long-duration energy storage commercially available at scale, renewable energies cannot meet the baseload demand that is required for a zero-carbon grid. However, many companies have promising technologies in development, notably Form Energy which claims to be able to solve the baseload problem. Additionally, transmission infrastructure remains difficult to build, and about 844 gigawatts of proposed capacity worldwide remains stuck in transmission interconnection queues. Addressing supply chain challenges and grid balancing issues must be the focus of policy initiatives going forward.
Most importantly of all, the fossil fuel industry continues to receive substantial support from governments and investors in a way that impedes the rapid transition to a clean economy. Governments around the world currently plan to produce 120% more fossil fuels by 2030 than would be compatible with the goals of the Paris Agreement, a discrepancy known as the global production gap. As research by the Rainforest Action Network shows, the banking sector has provided over $2.7 trillion in funding to fossil fuel firms since 2016, the year after the Paris Agreement was signed. No international oil and gas firms have credible plans to transform themselves into clean energy companies, while outlining future plans that do not account for their upstream and downstream emissions or remain overly reliant on carbon offsetting schemes that create a license to pollute. Without tackling the regulatory capture of government by the fossil fuel lobby, or winding down fossil fuel subsidies, quickly transitioning away from dirty energy will remain a political impossibility.
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Key Ecosystem Players
The dramatic rise of the renewable energy sector is leading to the creation of new renewable energy supermajors, large companies such as Orsted, Iberdrola, NextEra Energy, and Enel whose market capitalizations are starting to rival traditional fossil fuel firms. Orsted is a Danish energy company that transformed itself from providing 85% fossil fuel energy to becoming the world’s largest offshore wind provider, with plans to produce 99% clean energy by the year 2025. For more information about some of the world’s most innovative clean energy companies, see this article from Fast Company.
Of the world’s ten largest renewable energy companies, two originate in Canada: Brookfield Renewable Partners and Canadian Solar. Canadian Solar, with annual revenue of $3.36 billion, manufactures solar photovoltaic modules and delivers energy solutions to serve customers in over 160 countries. Other key players in the Canadian alternative energy market include:
- Northland Power
- Innergex Renewables
- BluEarth Renewables
- Opus One Solutions
- Algonquin Power
- Terrestrial Energy
- Bullfrog Power
- Ontario Power Generation
For further information about renewable energy companies in Canada, see this list of top Canadian startups, as well as this list of leading renewable energy producers. To learn more about the broad range of clean energy firms in North America as a whole, see this spreadsheet of clean technology firms, as well as this list of energy and sustainability companies.
There are a variety of Canadian investors and accelerators that focus wholly or partially on the clean energy sector, including Brookfield Renewable Partners, ArcTern Ventures, MaRS Cleantech, the Creative Destruction Lab, and more. For a detailed list of global firms focused on clean energy investment, see this list from Freeing Energy.
Career Resources for this Sector
The number of jobs in the clean energy sector is growing rapidly. A total of 10 million people now work in clean energy worldwide, a number which has more than doubled over the last five years. According to the MIT Climate and Energy Club, there are three main ways to enter the clean energy industry: by working at a project developer, a utility company, or a financier. For detailed information about mapping out a clean energy career, see this guide by the Yale Center for Business and the Environment, or these guides from the US Government. According to the Yale Center’s research, most graduates tend to work in clean energy finance, energy consulting, utility or independent power producers, public policy, renewable energy developers, energy services, and cleantech. To help map out a career in Canada’s clean energy sector, see this guide from ECO Canada.
The electricity system is complex, and there are many stakeholders that play different roles throughout the energy value chain. The electricity system can be grouped into three ecosystems of players: the upstream ecosystem (including fuels and infrastructure/equipment), the midstream ecosystem (which encompasses the generation, transmission, and distribution of electricity), and the downstream ecosystem (including the customer-facing work related to end use). Individuals in the clean energy sector have the option of working for equipment manufacturers, project developers, producers and operators, transporters and distributors, and a variety of support services including suppliers of raw materials, construction companies, maintenance, engineering services, consulting, waste management, and more.
While the majority of clean energy jobs are currently in energy efficiency solutions, renewable energy jobs are growing significantly, particularly when it comes to business development roles. Quickly growing professions within the clean energy sector include project development, construction, financing, engineering, component manufacturing, system analysis, and operations and maintenance. The nature of work and firms’ activities throughout the electricity value chain varies widely, including roles in project construction, energy trading and contracting, project finance, procurement, asset management, compliance, and a range of other specialties. Individuals can also find employment with regulators in energy policy, trade associations, non-governmental organizations, organizations working on research and development, and a variety of other roles.
To locate opportunities in clean energy in Canada, see our job board.
Those interested in gaining professional development in the clean energy sector should review the resources provided by Student Energy, the largest global movement for young people in the energy transition. Their career training program is a 4-month cohort-based program geared towards individuals between 18 and 30 years of age interested in clean energy careers. They also host a fellowship program, a Greenpreneur entrepreneurship program, an annual summit, and an alumni network, in addition to other programs. Another excellent community is the My Climate Journey (MCJ) Collective, which hosts a very active Slack community of climate professionals working on some of the world’s toughest decarbonization challenges.
Look at our full list of employers on our job board to find many more impact-driven employers in this sector!
Courses, Programs, and Events
There are many ways to get involved in the clean energy transition, and it is not necessary to have a business or engineering background. However, for those interested in learning more about renewable energy technologies, here are some relevant Canadian university programs:
- UBC – Master of Engineering Leadership (MEL) in Clean Energy Engineering
- Carleton University – Sustainable and Renewable Energy Engineering
- Carleton University – Master of Arts / Master of Applied Science / Master of Engineering in Sustainable Energy
- Simon Fraser University – Sustainable Energy Engineering
- Humber College – Sustainable Energy and Building Technology
- University of Calgary – Master of Science in Sustainable Energy Development
- École de Technologie Supérieure – Renewable Energies and Energy Efficiency
- Conestoga College – Applied Energy Management – Renewable Energy Stream
- Polytechnique Montréal – Maîtrise modulaire en génie Énergétique option Énergies Renouvelables
- Polytechnique Montréal – Maîtrise modulaire en génie Chimique option Énergie et Développement Durable
- Polytechnique Montréal – D.E.S.S en Développement Durable option Energie et Développement Durable
- UQAM – Certificat en ressources énergétiques durables
For certifications, courses, and programs that are available for professional development, see the following:
- The Climate Web – Open Access Courses (free)
- Harvard University – Energy with Environmental Constraints (free)
- EcoCanada – Managing Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy Projects (free)
- Student Energy – Career Training Program (application-based)
- Coursera – Top Renewable Energy Courses (free)
- Association of Energy Engineers – Energy Management, Service, and Development Courses (paid)
For upcoming Canadian and international events or conferences, see the following:
- Student Energy – International Student Energy Summit
- Electricity Transformation Canada
- Canadian Clean Energy Conferences
- Utility Conference
- GreenBiz – VERGE 22 Electrify Event
- Retrofit Canada Conference
- Institute for Sustainable Finance – The Impact of Climate Change Risks on Clean Energy Returns
- Canadian Hydrogen Convention
Additional Resources to Learn about this Sector
To learn more about energy systems and the clean energy transition, check out the Energy System Map developed by Student Energy, as well as their Energy Topics Index which includes concise summaries of important concepts. To learn more about the decarbonization of electricity systems, see this list of solutions from Project Drawdown. For a user-friendly and easy to understand graphic introduction to the clean energy transition, see this Clean Energy Transition Guide.
To browse a list of organizations working on climate solutions, see Climatescape. To get further involved with climate startups, see Climate Draft. For a list of global cleantech firms, with a focus on the United States, see this spreadsheet of climate tech companies, as well as this list from Stanford University.
To learn more about Canada’s energy system and the Canadian clean energy transition, see the following reports:
- Canada Energy Policy Review 2022 – International Energy Agency
- Canada Energy Fact Book 2021-2022 – Natural Resources Canada
- Sink or Swim: Transforming Canada’s Economy – Canadian Climate Institute
- Building Back Better with a Green Recovery – Corporate Knights
- Canada’s Energy Sector – Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives
- Canada’s Energy Transition – Natural Resources Canada
- Canada’s Energy Transition – Canada Energy Regulator
To learn more about the concept of a just energy transition, energy justice, Indigenous environmental justice, and other concepts, see the following resources:
- Climate Justice Alliance – Just Transition
- Indigenous Clean Energy – Accelerating Transition Report
- Why energy justice is a rising priority for policymakers
- CSIS – Just Transitions to a Global Clean Energy Future
- The Growing Urgency of Funding Off-Grid Solar
- Melina Laboucan-Massimo: Catalyzing an Indigenous-led just energy transition
- Canada’s Just Transition engagement process
For news sources focused on the clean energy transition, check out the following sources:
- Greentech Media
- Bloomberg Green
- Bloomberg New Energy Finance
- Utility Dive
- Clean Energy Wire
- The Energy Mix
For podcasts focused on clean energy issues and industry trends, see the following:
- The Energy Gang
- The Energy Transition Show
- Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) Unplugged
- Berkeley Energy Lab
- Political Climate
International organizations focused on accelerating the clean energy transition include:
- International Energy Agency
- International Renewable Energy Agency
- World Council for Renewable Energy
- National Renewable Energy Laboratory
- Rocky Mountain Institute
- Project Drawdown
- Sustainable Energy For All
Canadian organizations focused on accelerating the clean energy transition include:
- Clean Energy Canada
- Transition Accelerator
- Efficiency Canada
- Energy Storage Canada
- Canada Grid
- Electricity Transformation Canada
- Canadian Electricity Association
- Canadian Renewable Energy Association
- Canadian Solar Industries Association
- Canadian Wind Energy Association
- Indigenous Clean Energy
- Student Energy
- Canadian Climate Institute
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