I've pointed out before that with the costs of renewables continuing to decline, the economic incentive for electricity utilities to switch to wind and solar will increase over the next few years. Meanwhile, the environmental and political pressure to close down coal power stations will just intensify and the world gets hotter. So it is a reasonable conclusion that grids will become greener, possibly faster than many expect.
A couple of researchers at the Australian National University in Canberra agree.
Solar photovoltaic and wind power are rapidly getting cheaper and more abundant – so much so that they are on track to entirely supplant fossil fuels worldwide within two decades, with the time frame depending mostly on politics. The protestation from some politicians that we need to build new coal stations sounds rather quaint.
The reality is that the rising tide of solar photovoltaics (PV) and wind energy offers our only realistic chance of avoiding dangerous climate change.
No other greenhouse solution comes close, and it is very hard to envision any timely response to climate change that does not involve PV and wind doing most of the heavy lifting.
About 80% of Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions are due to the use of coal, oil and gas, which is typical for industrialised countries. The land sector accounts for most of the rest.
Wind energy is an important complement to PV because it often produces at different times and places, allowing a smoother combined energy output. In terms of worldwide annual electricity production wind is still ahead of PV but is growing more slowly. The wind energy resource is much smaller than the solar resource, and so PV will likely dominate in the end.
Complete replacement of all fossil fuels requires solar and wind collectors covering much less than 1% of the world’s land surface area. A large proportion of the collectors are installed on rooftops and in remote and arid regions, thus minimising competition with food production and ecosystems.
[Read more here]
They go on to say:
PV and wind are often described as “intermittent” energy sources. But stabilising the grid is relatively straightforward, with the help of storage and high-voltage interconnectors to smooth out local weather effects.
By far the leading storage technologies are pumped hydro and batteries, with a combined market share of 97%.
The cost of PV and wind power has been declining rapidly for many decades and is now in the range A$55-70 per megawatt-hour in Australia. This is cheaper than electricity from new-build coal and gas units. There are many reports of PV electricity being produced from very large-scale plants for A$30-50 per MWh.
Solar PV and wind have been growing exponentially for decades and have now reached economic lift-off. In 2018, PV and wind will comprise 60% of net new electricity generation capacity worldwide. Coal, gas, nuclear, hydro and other renewable capacity comprise the rest. Globally, US$161 billion will be invested in solar generation alone this year, compared with US$103 billion in new coal and gas combined.
PV and wind are growing at such a rate that the overall installed generation capacity of PV and wind has reached half that of coal, and will pass coal in the mid-2020s, judging by their respective trends.
Together, PV and wind currently produce about 7% of the world’s electricity. Worldwide over the past five years, PV capacity has grown by 28% per year, and wind by 13% per year. Remarkably, because of the slow or nonexistent growth rates of coal and gas, current trends put the world on track to reach 100% renewable electricity by 2032.
This is the optimistic perspective. As the authors say, it depends on politics. And fossil fuel producers and their bought politicians are doing their best to slow this transition as much as they can. For example in Australia we have the idiocy of the far right Monash Forum and the L/NP; in the USA we have the Republicans. But as renewables and electric cars/lorries get inexorably cheaper and global temperatures inexorably higher, the pressure to go green will become irresistible. I don't know how the Right will explain away their madness in 10 years's time. We shall see.