The sun, the air and the chemistry to bottle their limitless power — it’s looking more as if these amount to the world’s next great technological advance, as life-changing for many of us as was aviation, the internet or plastics.
Faster than many thought would be possible, and despite long doubts about renewable energy’s practicability, a transformation is well underway. We are moving from a global economy fueled by climate-warming fossil fuels to one in which we will cleanly get most of our energy out of water, wind and the fire in the sky.
Those who study energy markets say that economics alone guarantees our ensuing transition to clean fuels but that policy choices by the governments can make it faster. In October, the International Energy Agency stated solar power to be the cheapest new form of electricity in a lot of places in the world, and in particularly beneficial locations, solar is now “the cheapest source of electricity in history.”
There are lots of reasons to doubt the clean-energy future. Wind and solar still account for just a minuscule part of the world’s energy production. Even their most vivacious supporters admit that much will need to change to take in the full potential of renewable energy. Over the coming decades, consumers and businesses will have to adapt to many technologies, while governments will need to build new infrastructure and fix up energy regulations built around fossil fuels.
Amid the general gloom of climate change, the clean-energy boom offers the rare glimmer not just of hope but of something more: excitement.
But still, in the midst of the general gloom of climate change, the clean-energy boom offers not just hope but something more: excitement. The industry’s daring claims are made stronger by reinforced trends. Over the last couple of decades, experts have continually misconstrued the decrease in price, the improvements in performance and the succeeding pace of adoption of renewable power.
Advancing towards a carbon-free economy
Unlike fossil fuels — which get more expensive as we get more of them from the ground because taking out a diminishing resource needs more work — renewable energy is formed on technologies that get cheaper as we make more. This creates an upstanding flywheel: Because solar panels, batteries, wind turbines and related technologies to produce clean energy keep getting cheaper, we keep using more; as we use more of them, manufacturing increases, cutting prices more still — and on.
Jenny Chase, who examines the solar power sector at BloombergNEF, an energy research firm, said when she started her job in 2005, her most optimistic scenario was that sunlight would in due course generate as much as 1 percent of the world’s electricity. At the time, solar power gave nothing to the global energy mix, so even a smidgen of a fraction looked good.
Solar power exceeded 1 percent of global electricity generation in the middle of the last decade. Chase estimates that solar now deems for at least 3 percent of the world’s electricity — that is, three times more than she once thought.
It’s important to note that there remain obstacles in the way of a renewable-energy future. The most evident one is the infrastructure needed to take advantage of all this electric power — stronger power grids, for example, and the transformation to electric power of everything from cars to container ships. These problems are considerable but solvable.
A carbon-free energy economy is advancing whether oil and coal companies like it or not.
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