The huge drop in the cost of solar and wind power in recent years has opened up an energy reserve that could power the world 100 times over. Solar costs have fallen by an average of 18% every year since 2010 with wind prices down 9% annually. Solar technology is growing faster than any technology at this size, with annual increases of 39%, nearly doubling capacity every two years. Global energy consumption in 2019 was 65 petawatt-hours (PWh). However, with current technology, solar and wind power now have the potential to capture at least 6,700 petawatt-hours (PWh) which is more than 100 times the global energy demand. Amazingly, solar and wind energy could produce as much power in a single year as could be generated by burning all known fossil fuel reserves.
According to a report called The Sky’s the Limit by the Carbon Tracker thinktank, 60% of the world’s solar resource and 15% of its wind resource are now economically comparable with local fossil fuel generation.
The report uses BloombergNEF (BNEF) data to calculate the share of economical solar production by taking the mid-price in each country and comparing it with the cheapest fossil fuel.
Harry Bentham, report co-author and chairman of thinktank Ember-Climate 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 three million years of fossilised sunshine in coal, oil, and gas while we use just 0.01% of daily sunshine.”
Solar and wind are limitless sources of energy, unlike coal, oil, and gas, and at the current rate of growth look set to push fossil fuels out of the electricity sector by the mid- 2030s. At this point all solar technology, and more than half of wind will be economically preferable compared to other forms of electricity generation. By the time we reach 2050 solar and wind could power the world, producing cheap clean energy to support new technologies such as electric vehicles and replacing fossil fuels entirely. The report finds that in the next 30 years we will see falling costs and technological advances overcoming the challenges of powering sectors like steel and cement production.
Kingsmill Bond, Carbon Tracker’s energy strategist and report lead author, said:
“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.”
According to analysis from BloombergNEF, utility-scale solar PV are now the cheapest forms of new-build energy generation across two-thirds of the global population.
The fact that solar PV and wind power have far greater potential than fossil fuels and can meet global energy demand many times over, brings huge benefits for society as a whole.
Emerging economies are best placed to benefit from the rise in renewables. Carbon Tracker’s report underlines that they have the greatest opportunity to install the highest solar and wind potential relative to their domestic demand. Although, many are still building out their energy systems renewables allow them to rise above energy dependence, secure cheap energy for all citizens and to create local jobs. For example, Africa has a colossal 39% of global installation potential and could become a renewables superpower.
The main driving force behind change is the need for energy independence because 80% of people live in countries that are importing fossil fuels.
Carbon Tracker’s report finds that the solar panels needed to meet global energy demand would take up just 0.3% of land which is actually less than the area covered by the current fossil fuel infrastructure. This nullifies the concern that there would be a need for vast occupation of land. The report gives the following example:
“The world’s largest oilfield, Ghawar in Saudi Arabia, which occupies 8,400 square kilometres, produces the equivalent of 0.9 PWh each year. Building solar panels over the same area would generate 1.2 PWh a year on average globally and 1.6 PWh in Saudi Arabia, which is sunnier than average.”
The land required obviously differs by country. In the UK’s case it is more likely that the focus would be on offshore wind due to land constraints.
At long last financial markets are waking up to the opportunities presented by renewables. Last year, clean energy companies raised more money than fossil fuel companies through public offerings for the first time. This is influencing the progress of efficiencies and advances leading to better panels and higher turbines which has the effect of reducing costs further.
As both technical and economic barriers have been crossed, the only impediment to change is now political. However, growth is likely to continue as more countries see the potential of renewables.
Change is inevitable as more and more countries act to cut their use of fossil fuels in response to the climate crisis and public concern about pollution.
The fossil fuel age is almost over as the world enters a new era. The fossil fuel industry cannot compete with the technological advances of renewables which will inevitably lead to demand for fossil fuels falling as wind and solar continue to grow.