Total global energy use is rising, and remains based on fossil fuels. Yet, the challenge of climate change requires a deep decarbonization of our energy system. Here I argue that the global energy policy discourse is moving rapidly towards one of renewable, energy-efficient and flexible electricity systems. This is primarily because of a rapid take-up within a few countries of variable renewable electricity sources over the past decade, resulting from falling renewable electricity prices, new and more economic means of flexible system operation, and changing social preferences. This in turn has led to widespread and supportive public policy announcements. I also argue that a ‘no-regrets’ energy policy is one that increases the energy system flexibility. Although the changing discourse is welcome, it is not to say that the challenge of climate change has been met. Policy statements must be backed up by more effective governance support and pressure to speed up change.
Subscribe to Journal
Get full journal access for 1 year
only $8.25 per issue
All prices are NET prices.
VAT will be added later in the checkout.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
Rent or Buy article
Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.
All prices are NET prices.
World Energy Outlook (International Energy Agency, 2015).
Renewables 2015 Global Status Report (REN21, 2015).
Fouquet, R. The slow search for solutions: Lessons from historical energy transitions by sector and service. Energy Policy 38, 6586–6596 (2010).
Joskow, P. L. Lessons learned from electricity market liberalisation. Energy J. 29, 9–42 (2008).
Ueckerdt, F., Kempener, R. From Baseload to Peak: Renewables Provide a Reliable Solution (IRENA, 2015).
Sovakool, B. Energy policymaking in Denmark: Implications for global energy security and sustainability. Energy Policy 61, 829–839 (2013).
IPCC Special Report on Renewable Energy Sources and Climate Change Mitigation (eds Edenhofer, O. et al.) (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2011).
McCrone, A., Moslener, U., Usher, E., Grü ning, C. & Sonntag-O'Brien, V. (eds) Global Trends in Renewable Energy Investment (FS-UNEP Centre, 2015).
Larsen, T. H. Offshore wind and integration in Northwest Europe's grid. http://go.nature.com/msoHLd (2015).
Barbose, G., Darghouth, N. Tracking the Sun VIII: The Installed Price of Residential and Non-Residential Photovoltaic Systems in the United States (Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, 2015); http://go.nature.com/kzOJtG
Fraunhofer, ISE. Photovoltaics Report, 17 November 2015. http://go.nature.com/GQgtqs (2015).
Matthews, J. A., Tan, H. Manufacture renewables to build energy security. Nature 513, 166–168 (2014).
Zinaman, O. et al. Power Systems of the Future (National Renewable Energy Laboratory, 2015).
12 Insights on Germany's Energiewende (Agora Energiewende, 2013). http://go.nature.com/1TooHl
SET Plan Conference 2015; http://www.setplan2015.lu/
The Integration Cost of Wind and Solar Power. An Overview of the Debate on the Effects of Adding Wind and Solar Photovoltaic into Power Systems (Agora Energiewende, 2015); http://go.nature.com/q1fez6
Annual Report on the Results of Monitoring the Internal Electricity and Natural Gas Markets in 2014 (ACER/CEER, 2015); http://go.nature.com/hSOnOB
Stappel, M., Gerlach, A.-K., Scholz, A. & Pape, C. The European Power System in 2030: Flexibility Challenges and Integration Benefits. (Fraunhofer IWES, 2015); http://go.nature.com/tXmDkD
An Electricity Market for Germany's Energy Transition (Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy, 2015); http://go.nature.com/KEXADe
Launching the Public Consultation Process on a New Energy Market Design. (European Commission, 2015); http://go.nature.com/t1bb9o
The Danish Experience of Integrating Variable Power Renewable Energy (Ea Energy Analyses, 2015); http://go.nature.com/Kpnu7a
Ekins, P., Bradshaw, M. & Watson, J. (eds) Global Energy: Issues, Potentials and Policy Implications (Oxford Univ. Press, 2015).
Cuff, M. Renewables meet record-breaking 78 per cent of German electricity demand. Business Green (2015); http://go.nature.com/XpAu1G
Kungl, G. Stewards or sticklers for change? Incumbent energy providers and the politics of the German energy transition. Energy Res. Soc. Sci. 8, 13–23 (2015).
Vasagar, J. Eon profit down as clean energy squeezes power price. Financial Times (13 August 2014); http://go.nature.com/SWZrgY
Vasagar, J. RWE warns core earnings will fall amid energy market shake-up. Financial Times (10 March 2015); http://go.nature.com/BilBFI
Buck, T. Iberdrola calls for energy reforms to back ‘efficient’ renewables. Financial Times (21 June 2015); http://go.nature.com/YN6nzp
Crouch, D. Write down moves Vattenfall to restructure. Financial Times (23 July 2013); http://go.nature.com/642BJA
Deduleasa, A. Wind gets own business unit as Vattenfall restructures. RECharge (15 January 2015); http://go.nature.com/5XQjhK
Thomas, H. Enel has utility in troubled power market. Wall Street Journal (23 April 2015); http://go.nature.com/6ko5RW
New corporate strategy: E.ON to focus on renewables, distribution networks, and customer solutions and to spin off the majority of a new, publicly listed company specializing in power generation, global energy trading, and exploration and production. E.ON (30 November 2014).
Burtin, A. & Silva, V. Technical and Economic Analysis of the European Energy System with 60% RES (EDF, 2015); http://go.nature.com/uUCRIK
Mitchell, C. No Resource is 100% Reliable: Embracing change and capturing opportunities of the ‘new’ energy system requires a new mind set. IGov (5 August 2015); http://go.nature.com/ytmAAb
Sustainable FERC project. FERC http://sustainableferc.org/ (2015).
Crossley, D. Increasing opportunities for utility delivery of DSM and energy efficiency in China. Regulatory Assistance Project (2 July 2015); http://go.nature.com/PSEeLw
Quality of Care – SAIDI Values 2006–2014 (Bundesnetzagentur, accessed 17 December 2015); http://go.nature.com/IzBTk3
Development of Renewable Energy Sources in Germany 2014 (Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy, 2015); http://go.nature.com/miyRHz
Will Solar, Batteries and Electric Cars Re-shape the Electricity System? (UBS, 2014); http://go.nature.com/3usVlU
The Unsubsidised Solar Revolution (UBS, 2013); http://go.nature.com/PGPxmA
McMahon, J. Did Tesla just kill nuclear power? Forbes (1 May 2015); http://go.nature.com/yyG6IQ
Dupuy, M. Obama–Xi joint presidential statement on climate change promises much-needed reform of generator dispatch in China. Regulatory Assistance Project (25 September 2015); http://go.nature.com/EAhWnD
Mitchell, C., Froggatt, A. & Hoggett, R. Governance and Disruptive Energy System Change (IGov, 2015); http://go.nature.com/YNdN1m
Channell, J. et al. Energy Darwinism – The Evolution of the Energy Industry (Citi GPS, 2013); http://go.nature.com/75ujoH
Pan-European Utilities The Lost Decade – Where Next (Citi Research, 2013).
Solar Power & Energy Storage: Policy vs. Improving Economics. (Morgan Stanley, 2014).
Randall, T. Tesla's battery grabbed $800 million in its first week. Bloomberg Business (8 May 2015); http://go.nature.com/GWWUMf
Ibikunle, G. & Steffen, T. European green mutual fund performance: a comparative analysis with their conventional and black peers. J. Bus. Ethics http://doi.org/bbtm (2015).
Non-traditional Business Models: Supporting Transformative Change in the Energy Market (Ofgem, 2015); http://go.nature.com/cwzv4s
Mason, P. Post Capitalism: A Guide to Our Future. (Allen Lane, 2015).
Tomlinson, C., Cainey, J., Price, A. & Handford, J. Local Energy Markets (LEMMA, 2013).
Dupuy, M. & Weston, F. Power Sector: Deepening Reform to Reduce Emissions, Improve Air Quality and Promote Economic Growth (Paulson Institute, 2015).
Report on India's Renewable Electricity Roadmap 2030: Towards Accelerated Renewable Electricity Deployment (Government of India, 2015); http://go.nature.com/dd48oU
Intended Nationally Determined Contribution Towards Achieving the Objective of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (Federal Republic of Brazil, 2015).
Goldenberg, S. & Roberts, D. Brazil announces massive reforestation and renewable energy plan with US. The Guardian (30 June 2015).
Power People Planet: Seizing Africa's Energy and Climate Opportunities (Africa Progress Panel, 2015).
Power Shifts: Emerging Clean Energy Markets (The Pew Charitable Trusts, 2015).
Carvalho, A. The Pope's encyclical as a call for democratic social change. Nature Clim. Change. 5, 905–907 (2015).
Encyclical Letter on Care for our Common Home. (The Holy See, 2015); http://go.nature.com/g2dKbY
McGrath, M. Islamic call on rich countries to end fossil fuel use. BBC News (18 August 2015).
Toward a Sustainable Energy Future for all: Directions for the World Bank Group's Energy Sector (World Bank, 2009).
Coady, D., Parry, I., Sears, L. & Shang, B. How Large are Global Energy Subsidies? (International Monetary Fund, 2015).
Magrath, J. Africa's renewable future — the coming energy revolution. Oxfam Blogs (5 June 2015); http://go.nature.com/Oaw93Q
Where Next for the Smart Energy Consumer? Findings on Consumer Impacts from the Low Carbon Networks Fund So Far (Citizens Advice, 2015).
Hanks, K. & Richards, J.-A. Let Them Eat Coal: Why the G7 Must Stop Burning Coal to Tackle Climate Change and Fight Hunger (Oxfam, 2015).
Unburnable Carbon — Are the World's Financial Markets Carrying a Carbon Bubble? (Carbon Tracker Initiative, 2014).
Clark, P. Mark Carney warns investors face ‘huge’ climate change losses. Financial Times (29 September 2015); http://go.nature.com/9dCead
Keep it in the Ground Campaign. Guardian http://www.theguardian.com/environment/series/keep-it-in-the-ground (accessed 15 December 2015).
Darghouth, N. R., Wiser, R., Barbose, G. & Mills, A. Net Metering and Market Feedback Loops: Exploring the Impact of Retail Rate Design on Distributed PV Deployment (Ernest Orlando Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, 2015).
Lacey, S. Morgan Stanley: fixed charges on solar may cause ‘tipping point’ for grid defection. Greentech Media (4 August 2014); http://go.nature.com/lXsDwQ
The Economics of Grid Defection (Rocky Mountain Institute, 2015).
Stirling, A. Alternative energy pathways: making democratic choices. University of Sussex http://go.nature.com/PMQwlV (2014).
Conference of Parties 21: Adoption of the Paris Agreement (UNFCCC, 2015); http://go.nature.com/wVVP7T
Clean Power Plan for Existing Power Plants (United States Environmental Protection Agency, 2015).
Proceeding on motion of the commission in regard to reforming the energy vision. New York State Department of Public Service http://go.nature.com/T6NReO (2015).
Mitchell, C. New thinking: NY reforming the energy vision — an update. IGov (19 August 2015); http://go.nature.com/XgPFj4
Kungl, G. The Incumbent German Power Companies in a Changing Environment. A Comparison of E. ON, RWE, EnBW and Vattenfall from 1998 to 2013 (University of Stuttgart, 2014).
A Different Energy Future: Where Energy Transformation is Leading Us (PricewaterhouseCoopers, 2015).
The Road Ahead — Gaining Momentum from Energy Transformation (PricewaterhouseCoopers, 2015).
Technology Roadmap: Solar Photovoltaic Energy (International Energy Agency, 2014).
Pescia, D., Graichen, P. & Jacobs, D. Understanding the Energiewende. FAQ on the Ongoing Transition of the German Power System (Agora Energiewende, 2015).
REthinking Energy: Towards a New Power System (International Renewable Energy Agency, 2014); http://go.nature.com/YGBj9E
Renewable Energy Capacity Statistics 2015 (International Renewable Energy Agency, 2015); http://go.nature.com/sGF7iV
C.M. acknowledges support as an EPSRC Established Career Fellow, EPSRC grant reference EP/K001582/1.
The author declares no competing financial interests.
About this article
Cite this article
Mitchell, C. Momentum is increasing towards a flexible electricity system based on renewables. Nat Energy 1, 15030 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1038/nenergy.2015.30
Differences in carbon emissions reduction between countries pursuing renewable electricity versus nuclear power
Nature Energy (2020)
Nature Sustainability (2020)
A global analysis of the progress and failure of electric utilities to adapt their portfolios of power-generation assets to the energy transition
Nature Energy (2020)
Nature Communications (2018)
Nature Energy (2018)