Portland — “But will it scale?”

It’s a question you’ve likely heard a dozen times. Either in tech (if you work in tech) or in a former tech worker’s uncanny memoir (if you read about tech) or in a high-brow satire of tech culture (if you enjoy painful humour). 

Solar energy certainly has scaled. Installations are now approaching the magnitude of coal-, oil-, and natural gas-fired plants. Developers commissioned at least 35 projects of at least 200MW worldwide last year, a record. With about 3,000 solar panels needed for each MW of capacity, a 200MW project would be at least as big as 550 American football fields.

Why has everything suddenly gone super-sized? It’s a matter of simple economics. Bigger projects allow developers to drive down the price of electricity for consumers, in turn running smaller plants into the ground.

Those massive installations, however, require massive manufacturing capabilities. The coronavirus — which has killed more than 2,800 people — is threatening to decrease production of solar and wind equipment. The outbreak “may very well slow down global renewable energy deployment”, said Ali Izadi-Najafabadi, head of analysis in Asia for Bloomberg New Energy Finance, which has downgraded its outlook for installations this year.

The EU, in particular, has emerged as a leader in the fight against rising emissions, thanks to the concerted effort of a network of climate activists. European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen recently announced plans to make the bloc the first climate-neutral continent by 2050.

The US, meanwhile, has yet to pass similar legislation, with even smaller projects subject to the whims of domestic politics.

This week, the US Army Corps of Engineers stopped a multi-year study of strategies and projects meant to protect the New York City metropolitan area against catastrophic storm surges and rising seas.

The decision is the latest in a series of policy moves by US President Donald Trump’s Republican administration — including blocking the replacement of a damaged Hudson River tunnel and suspension of New York airport “trusted traveler” applications — that local politicians contend are aimed at punishing a Democrat-leaning region.

Even some on Wall Street are having difficulty contributing to the fight against global warming. Although many are clamouring for sustainable investing, the recent liquidation of an environmental, sustainable and governance (ESG) fund illustrates a growing concern in the financial industry: the lion’s share of new investment is still going to the world’s biggest managers, who can offer the lowest fees. 

• Petri writes the Week in Green newsletter recapping the best reads and key news in climate change and green solutions. 


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