Usually when we talk about about climate these days, it’s followed by the word “crisis” or “catastrophe”. So here’s some genuinely great news: the price of renewable energy has dropped — shockingly — in a very small amount of time.
The Carbon Tracker Institute has a very straightforward, and hopeful, assessment of the current situation and trends:
With current technology and in a subset of available locations we can capture at least 6,700 PWh p.a. from solar and wind, which is more than 100 times global energy demand.
The collapse in renewable costs in the last three years means that half of this solar and wind technical potential now has economic potential, and by the end of the decade it will be over 90%.
The land required for solar panels alone to provide all global energy is 450,000 km2, 0.3% of the global land area of 149 million km2 – less than the current land footprint of fossil fuel infrastructure. This differs by country as highlighted below.
It’s mind-blowing to imagine the exponential growth of renewable energy in such a short period of time. Five years ago — five years! — there was basically no economically viable renewable energy on the planet, meaning none that was able to compete with fossil fuels on cost without government subsidies. Five years ago, if you wanted an electric care you were pretty much limited to a pricey Tesla or a Nissan Leaf; this year, there are over seventy models to choose from. The UK has more electric charge locations than gas — sorry petrol — stations.
Bill McKibben, writing about the Carbon Tracker Initiative report in The New Yorker, adds:
The numbers in the report are overwhelming—even if the analysts are too optimistic by half, we’ll still be swimming in cheap solar energy. “We have established that technical and economic barriers have been crossed by falling costs. It follows that the main remaining barrier to change is the ability of incumbents to manipulate political forces to stop change,” the report reads. Indeed. And the problem is that we need that change to happen right now, because the curves of damage from the climate crisis are as steep as the curves of falling solar prices. Given three or four decades, economics will clearly take care of the problem—the low price of solar power will keep pushing us to replace liquid fuels with electricity generated from the sun, and, eventually, no one will have a gas boiler in the basement or an internal-combustion engine in the car. But, if the transition takes three or four decades, no one will have an ice cap in the Arctic, either, and everyone who lives near a coast will be figuring out where on earth to go.
With so much progress on the science and engineering front, and the economics sorting itself out, the biggest obstacle remains the one we’ve always known: the politics.
Renewable energy, like everything, is firmly ensconced in the culture wars and is still seen by far too many people as an environmental fantasy of the left aimed mostly at increasing regulation on industry and taking jobs from coal miners. “Green jobs” are, of course, a huge part of President Biden’s infrastructure plans, which makes them a pariah to the half of the American political system committed to lib-owning anarchy.
I know it’s naive, but I look at this collapse of renewable energy pricing and see nothing but opportunity, everywhere. If we’re going to rewire America and electrify as many homes and buildings as possible, that seems like decades worth of jobs for contractors and laborers. Everything from installing solar panels to maintaining wind farms seems like the exact kind of work that millions of people need, without the black lung.
And our fragile infrastructure isn’t limited to ice storms that overwhelm the grid or cracked bridges but oil and gas pipelines that are vulnerable to cyberattacks. Replacing an aging power grid or pipeline with a network of smaller, self-sufficient localized mini-grids strikes me as a conservative, anti-globalist approach.
In the Appalachians, where I’m from and now live once again, people are famously (if sometimes dishonestly) cloistered and distrustful of outside influence, whether it’s from the government or anyone else. The towns and cities from Stone Mountain, Georgia to Scranton, Pennsylvania could now conceivably build completely self-sufficient local power grids, never have to rely on oil or gas again, and could even start to rebuild the beautiful local landscape that was cleared by rapacious capitalists during the last gilded age.
I’m so used to feeling just ground down by the climate issue, it’s genuinely wild to have some good news worth celebrating. I don’t want to sound pollyannish about any of this — again, we’ve always known the politics of solving this is going to be the hard part because it’s always the hard part — it just seems there are real opportunities ahead that didn’t even seem possible just a few years ago.