Renewables: Q&A with Michaël Aklin and Johannes Urpelainen



In their recent book, Renewables: The Politics of a Global Energy Transition, Michaël Aklin and Johannes Urpelainen provide a comprehensive political analysis of the rapid growth in renewable wind and solar power, mapping an energy transition through theory, case studies, and policy. Wind and solar have become the cheapest and fastest growing energy sources, but technology is only part of the story–public policy has also paid an important role in the development of renewables. We’ve asked them to expand on some of the key aspects of the book below. 

How did renewables become a major factor in the global energy business?

When governments in industrialized countries faced a series of oil crises and nuclear accidents, they began experimenting with renewable energy. Over time, generous subsidies and other policies enhanced the competitiveness of wind and solar power.  By now, the cost of renewable power generation has dropped so much that wind and solar power can often beat alternatives without subsidies. Under these conditions, renewables are a competitive way to meet the world’s growing electricity demand.

Explain the importance of wind and solar in boosting the renewable energy business?  

There are many forms of renewable energy, but wind and solar power have made the most progress over time. Both can be deployed in a wide range of countries, as the winds and the sun are abundant natural resources. Over time, the cost of wind and solar technology has decreased. Because wind and solar power do not consume any fuel, falling technology costs have had a huge positive impact on the competitiveness of these energy sources.

What are the key factors that enable renewable energy to withstand political backlash?

Wind and solar power are politically robust when many people and firms benefit from them, and the public is conscious of environmental problems. In Denmark and Germany, for example, households and municipalities owned wind and solar installations, and reaped their share of the profits. At the same time, clean technology industries grew and generated employment. Public awareness of environmental problems further increased the political power of the renewable energy industry.

Why have some countries such as Germany invested in renewables for decades, while others, including the United States, have only started doing so more recently?

Countries like Germany had strong environmental movements, public concern about climate change and nuclear power, and growing clean technology industries already early. In the United States, the fossil fuel industry was more powerful and public concern lacking. Major investments in the United States started much later, only when renewable energy became economically competitive.