In 1839 Alexandre Edmond Becquerellar first revealed the photovoltaic effect, otherwise known as a solar cell’s ability to transform sunlight into electricity.
About forty years later, Charles Fritts placed the world’s first rooftop solar array in New York. At the turn of the century in 1905, Albert Einstein explained the photoelectric effect and won a Nobel Prize for it in 1921.
Basically, we’ve known about solar power for nearly two centuries.
To protect America’s access to energy, the federal government passed the Energy Petroleum Allocation Act of 1973 in response to international oil embargos. This legislation generated quite a bit of instability in energy markets.
Congress then passed five energy bills in 1974, two of which identified solar power as a viable solution. The Solar Heating and Cooling Demonstration Act of 1974 led to the installation of solar heating and cooling units in federal buildings within three years.
In 1980 President Carter signed the Energy Security Act that included major provisions expanding research and the use of synthetic fuels, bioenergy, solar energy, geothermal, ocean thermal energy and other renewable energy sources.
For nearly 50 years our government has known that solar energy and other renewable energy sources are feasible and potentially vital solutions to our energy woes.
So why did only 10% of the total electricity generation in the United States come from solar and wind in 2017?
In 2014 wood and waste biomass, along with biofuels, made up half of all the U.S.’s renewable energy supply, yet it only accounted for a little over 4% of all energy use. Hydroelectric and wind follow at 2.5% and 2% respectively.
Although there is always more to learn, we have mastered sustainable energy to the point where we could implement in on a massive scale. What’s holding us back?
This is probably the most widely publicized barrier to renewable energy expansion. Solar and wind are incredibly cheap to operate because their “fuel” is free, and they don’t require much maintenance. The problem is that the upfront cost can seem daunting and prevent investors from considering long-term benefits.
According to a 2018 report from Berkeley Lab, the national median prices in 2017 for installing residential solar systems were $3,700 per kilowatt and $2,000 per kilowatt for large-scale systems.
The higher initial investment may contribute to an increased sense of risk from financial institutions. Because natural gas and other fossil fuel-powered plants can pass the cost of fuel onto the consumer, the dispersed responsibility may appear as a lower risk investment.
However, simply broadening the scope of consideration on investing in renewables by 15-20 years debunks these assumptions. A 2018 report shows that 42% of global coal power plants operate at a loss while new wind and solar projects will be cheaper than 96% of existing coal power by 2030.
Coal is flat out unprofitable. Forbes noted that the United States could save $78 billion by closing coal-fired power plants by the dates specified in the Paris Climate Accords.
Lazard’s yearly Levelized Cost of Energy (LCOE) analysis shows that solar and wind costs have dropped 88% and 69% respectively over the past decade. National Renewable Energy Laboratory projects solar costs declining by 60% by 2050 under mid-level forecasts. The report also shows onshore wind costs lowering by 30% by 2050 and as much as 64% with tech breakthroughs.
So in response to the “it’s too expensive” argument: No, it’s not.
Fossil Fuel Domination: Market Entry and Hostility
According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration’s [EIA] 2016 International Energy Outlook report, fossil fuels are likely to continue to dominate the energy industry for the foreseeable future. Oil, natural gas and coal are expected to still supply 76.6% of the total global energy used in 2040.
Because the fossil fuel industry is so massive and still carries a lot of power and influence, renewables might continue to get squashed and face formidable obstacles to entering the energy market. There are fewer financing institutions and government financing support for renewables. Also, unstable national policies, administrative hurdles, inadequate fiscal incentives and a lack of uniform standards are also cited as “risk factors” that make renewables a risky venture and reinforce the idea of fossil fuels as the “more reliable” bet.
This, too, is an obfuscating and narrow scope.
In fact, last year, Forbes reported that global clean energy growth is actually accelerating and overtaking fossil fuels and nuclear. In 2017,cost reductions, production increases and technology advancement across the clean energy sector far exceeded expectations set by policy frameworks.
Forbes also highlighted that global investment in clean energy exceeded $333 billion, while only $144 billion was invested in conventional fossil fuels and nuclear. These statistics disprove past historical beliefs that fossil fuels would continue to be an investment favorite.
In fact, clean energy is expected to make up almost 50% of the installed capacity of the energy market by 2040. New investment is projected to exceed $73 trillion, a figure that would bury the fossil fuel competition.
Overreliance on Fossil Fuels
Another common explanation for why renewables aren’t ubiquitous yet is that the world is too reliant on fossil fuels.
While electric cars could be a transformative technology, they’re estimated to comprise only 300 million of 2 billion total vehicles worldwide by 2040. Even though renewable electricity generation is predicted to rise significantly by 2040, total use of fossil fuels is projected to increase almost 20% by the same year.
Why? Population growth.
A study from BP shows that even with accelerating growth in the renewables sector and all the expanding global efforts to transition to clean energy, fossil fuels are still projected to provide 74% of the energy supply in 2040 (similar to the EIA’s estimate). Combined with the anticipated world population of 9.2 billion, regardless of the percentage decrease from 85 percent in 2016, it will still result in a higher total consumption increase.
However, this is a convenient argument for the fossil fuel industry that disregards key factors and implies we should keep relying on fossil fuel.
What We Can Do About This
Whether we are able to beat the clock on cutting fossil fuel consumption enough to avoid the most catastrophic climate change projections is entirely up to us. We are the ones who determine the percentage increases and decreases of all the key metrics of our energy consumption.
Just like human beings decided to start using fossil fuels, human beings, such as ourselves, can decide to stop.
All of the frequently referenced hurdles to clean energy are not immovable roadblocks that fall from the sky from some intangible external entity. They are hurdles created by governmental unwillingness to fully embrace the necessary changes and efforts, fallacious belief in the necessity of the fossil fuel industry, and a lack of sufficient initiative from the global citizenry.
If you take a moment to consider these hurdles, you’ll see they’re all changeable, and the most grim projections against the potential of renewables are not inevitable forecasts of the future.
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