Policy sure makes one heck of a difference. Thanks to legislation and investments by China, the U.S., Europe and numerous other countries around the world, solar energy has reached price parity or better with natural gas and coal over a growing subset of the globe. In the United States, fully 36 states in 2017 are seeing solar at parity with fossil fuel based generation. And costs for this new, clean energy source are expected to keep falling over at least the next five years as production lines continue to expand and technology and efficiency improves.
Wind, already competitive with natural gas and coal in many areas by the mid 2000s, is also seeing continued price declines as turbine sizes increase and industrial efficiency gains ground. As a result, the two mainstream energy sources most capable of combating human-caused climate change are taking larger and larger shares of the global power generation markets.
(Solar and wind continue to gain a larger share of new capacity additions than competing fossil fuel based generation. Image source: SEIA.)
This trend continued through Q1 of 2017 as about 4 gigawatts of new generation capacity or 57 percent of all new generation came from wind and solar in the U.S. Solar added about 2.044 GW, which was a slight drop from Q1 of 2016. Wind, however, surged to 2 GW — representing the strongest first quarter since 2009. In total, U.S. renewable generating capacity including wind, solar, hydro, biomass, geothermal and others is now at 19.51 percent of the national total. Expected to hit above 20 percent by year-end, renewables have now far outpaced nuclear (at 9.1 percent) and are swiftly closing on coal (at 24.25 percent).
Globally, 24 percent of electrical power generation was produced by renewables by the end of 2016. This share will again jump as 85 gigawatts of new solar capacity and 68 gigawatts of new wind are expected to be added during 2017. As a result, total renewable generation is now set to outpace global coal generation in relatively short order.
Such rapid adds in renewable capacity are being fed in part by expanding solar production around the world and, particularly, in China. During late 2016, solar manufacturing capacity in China had expanded to 77.4 GW per year — with more on the way. And even as production capacity continues to grow in China and across Southeast Asia, places like the U.S. (with Tesla’s Buffalo Gigafactory 2 alone expected to eventually pump out 10 GW of new solar cells each year), Canada, Turkey, Korea, and Mexico are also rapidly expanding the production pipeline. Meanwhile, the global wind production pipeline continues to make significant gains.
(By 2020, global wind and solar generating capacity is expected to roughly double. Rapid growth in renewable energy is a necessary mitigation for harms resulting from human-forced climate change. Image source. FIPowerWeb.)
The rapid additions to renewable energy capacity provide hope that the world will soon start to see falling carbon emissions overall. Such an event is key to reducing harm already coming down the pipe due to human-forced climate change as global temperatures begin to challenge the 1.5 C threshold during the next two decades and as CO2e (including CO2 and all other greenhouse gasses) levels threaten to cross the critical 550 ppm demarcation line.
The strong progress of renewables does not come without a number of concerning difficulties and challenges. These challenges are primarily political — with Trump’s backing away from Paris threatening to upset the emissions reductions apple cart and Suniva’s recent ITC challenge injecting uncertainty into the U.S. solar energy market. Meanwhile, fossil fuel based industry backers continue various attempts to sand-bag or, worse, reverse renewable energy growth.
Despite these various difficulties, renewables like wind and solar will likely continue to gain ground as markets expand, technology and efficiency continue to improve, and as states, nations and industries jockey to claim their own share of the growing renewable energy market windfall. The big question that should concern pretty much everyone, however, is will this expansion in renewables proceed fast enough to afford the world a much-needed chance to slake an extraordinary amount of climate change related damage that’s now moving rapidly down the pipe in our direction.
Hat tip to Greg