Solar and wind power – as the two primary engines of the energy transition – stand ready to build out plant capacity exponentially around the world as their cost of energy continues to decline precipitously, with developing nations and those country’s reliant on imported fossil fuels set to supercharge the next wave of expansion, according to a new report from Carbon Tracker.
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The UK thinktank, from its latest calculations for its study, The Sky’s the Limit, concluded that renewables technologies have now “unlocked an energy reserve that can meet world demand almost 100 times over” – with 60% of solar and 15% of wind already economic compared to coal, oil and gas, which are expected to be “displaced” entirely by clean-power production by mid-century.
The report highlighted that current PV technologies could provide the planet with the potential to capture more than 5,800 Petawatt hours (PWh) a year – equal, said Kingsmill Bond, Carbon Tracker’s energy strategist and lead author, to that which could be generated by “burning all know fossils fuel reserves”, while onshore and offshore wind could harness nearly 900PWh annually. Global energy consumption in 2019 was 65PWh.
“We are entering a new epoch, comparable to the industrial revolution. Energy will tumble in price and become available to millions more, particularly in low-income countries. Geopolitics will be transformed as nations are freed from expensive imports of coal, oil and gas. Clean renewables will fight catastrophic climate change and free the planet from deadly pollution,” said Bond.
Solar has witnessed a cost drop of an average 18% each year over the past decade, while at the same time, it nearly doubled in global capacity every two years. Wind is travelling a “similar trajectory”, said Carbon Tracker, with prices falling by an average 9% a year, while capacity has grown in time at a annual rate of 17%.
Bond expects “all solar and over half of the wind” to be economic compared to fossils by 2030, squeezing out hydrocarbons from the electricity sector by mid-way through the next decade, and by 2050 “powering the world”, displacing fossil fuels entirely and producing “cheap, clean energy to support new technologies such as electric vehicles and green hydrogen”.
Harry Benham, chairman of thinktank Ember – Climate and co-author of the report, said: “The world does not need to exploit its entire renewable resource – just 1% is enough to replace all fossil fuel usage. Each year we are fuelling the climate crisis by burning 3 million years of ‘fossilised sunshine’ in coal, oil and gas, while we use just 0.01% of daily sunshine.”
The Carbon Tracker report, which used BloombergNEF levellised cost of energy data, spotlighted the energy transition “opportunity is greatest” in developing markets which have the highest solar and wind potential relative to domestic demand and where as “many are still building out their energy systems, cheap renewables offer a route to bring power to more people, create new industries, jobs and wealth”.
Africa, which accounts for 39% of total global clean-energy potential, was identified as a future renewables “superpower”.
The cratering of solar and wind cost, said Carbon Tracker, is “driving efficiencies and advances”, including more efficient PV panels and larger wind turbines, that will cut their cost of energy further.
A growth rate of 15% in the solar and wind build-out, the thinktank calculates, would ensure generate all global electricity by the “mid-2030s” and meet all energy demand by 2050 as collapsing costs and technological progress rises to the challenge of economically power heavy-emitting sectors such as steel and cement.
The report argues the main barrier to acceleration of the global energy transition remains “political” but notes that renewables growth “is likely to continue as more countries recognise the potential of renewables” to produce clean power, fuel economic development, combat climate change and give nations “energy independence”.
“History shows that cheap local energy sources are quickly exploited – the rapid growth of the US shale industry in the 2010s is just one example, [and] with the climate emergency, countries are acting to cut their use of fossil fuels in response,” said Bond.
“[Some] 80% of people live in countries that import fossil fuels, so renewables offer the chance to cut costs, create local jobs and reduce their energy dependency. The scale and falling costs of this vast cheap energy resource is likely to drive continued exponential growth in the deployment of solar and wind generation.”