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World heats up, China cleans up

Niwa infographic

Happy New Year and welcome to the first round up of solar, climate and energy news, from here and around the world, for 2017. Here are some of the key stories from the past two weeks.

Solar and batteries

Solar power is now cheaper than coal in some parts of the world. In less than a decade, it’s likely to be the lowest-cost option almost everywhere, says Bloomberg New Energy Finance. It estimates solar deployment grew to a record 70GW worldwide last year.

Israel plans to build the world’s tallest solar tower which will be the centrepiece of renewable energy project that will power about 130,000 households. An Australian zinc metals producer plans to build a 100MW solar PV plant to supply its refinery located in northern Queensland. France has opened what it claims to be the world’s first solar panel road, in a Normandy village. The 1km route, covered with 2,800 sq m of electricity-generating panels, will be used by about 2,000 motorists a day during a two-year test period to establish if it can generate enough energy to power street lighting in the village of 3,400 residents.

Tesla and Panasonic’s Gigafactory in the Nevada desert, USA, started producing lithium-ion batteries this month. Tesla says the factory will be powered by a 70-megawatt rooftop solar array that will be seven times larger than the world’s next biggest rooftop solar installation.

Scientists in the US are working on a new clothing fibre that can harvest solar power and charge small devices like smart phones. Taking things a step further, Swiss researchers are developing tiny solar panels that could be implanted under the skin to power pacemakers and similar medical devices that currently require bulky batteries.

Richmond, in the Tasman district, was NZ’s sunniest location in 2016, recording 2840 sunshine hours, followed by Blenheim (2582 hours), Takaka (2534 hours) and New Plymouth (2503), according to Niwa’s annual climate survey.

Renewables

China is cementing its global dominance of renewable energy and supporting technologies, aggressively investing in them both at home and around the globe, leaving countries including the US, UK and Australia at risk of missing the growing market. Germany used more renewable electricity than ever before in 2016, with about one third of the country’s power generated by the sun, wind and other renewable sources.

Costa Rica ran entirely on renewable energy for more than 250 days last year, the country's power operator announced. Renewables supplied about 98.1 percent of Costa Rica's electricity for the year. Fossil fuels provided the remaining 1.9 percent. The United Arab Emirates has announced its new energy strategy for the next 30 years will invest heavily in clean energy and improving energy efficiency.

Climate change

Last year was the hottest on record by a wide margin, with temperatures creeping close to a ceiling set by almost 200 nations for limiting global warming, according to the European Union's Copernicus Climate Change Service.

Annual temperatures were above average throughout NZ, making 2016 the warmest year since records began in 1909, according to Niwa's annual climate summary. Increasing temperatures will have disastrous consequences for New Zealand's wildlife unless the Government acts urgently to cut emissions and fund environmental research, Forest & Bird says. 

From confirmation that 2016 was New Zealand’s warmest year on record to the imminent inauguration of a big-emissions US president, it’s easy to understand desperation in the face of climate change. But we need to channel all our energies into urgent action, writes Professor James Renwick for The Spinoff.

A flight containing some of the world's brightest has arrived in Antarctica to raise awareness of climate change at a Tedx event at Scott Base. TEDxScottBase will be held this Sunday, January 15, and broadcast online the next Sunday at three different times so every time zone can view the event.

The US released its plan for the recovery of threatened polar bears, acknowledging it will take no direct action for addressing the primary threat - greenhouse gases that contribute to the decline of sea ice habitat.

Transport

The top trends in electric cars displayed at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas this month are reviewed by charged.io.

New Zealand's first fully autonomous electric vehicle has arrived at Christchurch International Airport and will soon start trials on private roads.

The NZ Government has been accused of buying a "pitiful" number of electric vehicles since it committed to promoting sustainable transport. Just eight of the 2039 vehicles bought under the Government's procurement system between April and September last year were electric, says Labour's transport spokeswoman Sue Moroney. Transport Minister Simon Bridges is showing hypocrisy in backing electric cars but not electric trains, says the Rail and Maritime Transport Union. 

Figures from KPMG's annual global automotive executive survey show that 90% of executives expect battery electric vehicles to dominate the marketplace by 2025.

The Chinese tech giant LeEco has begun construction on its planned $3 billion electric car manufacturing facility in China which, reportedly, will be able to manufacture up to 400,000 vehicles a year. Samsung has unveiled a battery that can give electric cars a driving range of up to 500 kilometers on a 20 minute charge.

Volkswagen has pleaded guilty to an emissions-cheating scandal and agreed to pay US$4.3 billion ($6b) in criminal and civil charges.

The first self-sufficient boat powered only by emission-free energy, including solar, wind and hydrogen, will start a six-year trip around the world within a few months.