Solar PV and wind on track to replace all coal, oil and gas within two decades

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Solar PV 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.

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The Conversation

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.

Australian greenhouse gas emissions in 2016. ABS, Author provided

Sadly, attempts to capture and store the carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels have come to naught due to technical difficulties and high cost. Thus, to curtail global warming we need to replace fossil fuel use entirely, with energy sources that meet these criteria:

  • very large and preferably ubiquitous resource base
  • low or zero greenhouse gas emissions and other environmental impacts
  • abundant or unlimited raw materials
  • minimal security concerns in respect of warfare, terrorism and accidents
  • low cost
  • already available in mass production.

Solar PV meets all of these criteria, while wind energy also meets many of them, although wind is not as globally ubiquitous as sunshine. We will have sunshine and wind for billions of years to come. It is very hard to imagine humanity going to war over sunlight.

Most of the world’s population lives at low latitudes (less than 35°), where sunlight is abundant and varies little between seasons. Wind energy is also widely available, particularly at higher latitudes.

PV and wind have minimal environmental impacts and water requirements. The raw materials for PV – silicon, oxygen, hydrogen, carbon, aluminium, glass, steel and small amounts of other materials – are effectively in unlimited supply.

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.

The more widely PV and wind generation are distributed across the world, the less the risk of wide-scale disruption from natural disasters, war and terrorism.

Other clean energy technologies can realistically play only a minor supporting role. The solar thermal industry is hundreds of times smaller than the fast-growing PV industry (because of higher costs).

Hydro power, geothermal, wave and tidal energy are only significant prospects in particular regions.

Biomass energy is inefficient and its requirement for soil, water and fertiliser put it in conflict with food production and ecosystems. Nuclear is too expensive, and its construction rates are too slow to catch PV and wind.

A renewable grid

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.

The path to dominance by PV and wind. In 2018, PV and wind are likely to comprise 60% of net new electricity generation capacity worldwide. Andrew Blakers/Matthew Stocks, Author provided

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.

In Australia, PV and wind comprise most new generation capacity. About 4.5 gigawatts of PV and wind is expected to be installed in 2018 compared with peak demand of 35GW in the National Electricity Market. At this rate, Australia would reach 70% renewable electricity by 2030.

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.

Current world electricity generation trends, extrapolated to 2032. Andrew Blakers/Matthew Stocks, Author provided

Deep cuts (80% reduction) in greenhouse gas emissions require that fossil fuels are pushed out of all sectors of the economy. The path to achieve this is by electrification of all energy services.

Straightforward and cost-effective initial steps are: to hit 100% renewable electricity; to convert most land transport to electric vehicles; and to use renewable electricity to push gas out of low-temperature water and space heating.

These trends are already well established, and the outlook for the oil and gas industries is correspondingly poor.

The best available prices for PV already match the current wholesale price of gas in Australia (A$9 per gigajoule, equivalent to A$32 per MWh for heat).

High-temperature heat, industrial processes, aviation and shipping fuel and fugitive emissions can be displaced by renewable electricity and electrically produced synthetic fuels, plastics and other hydrocarbons. There may be a modest additional cost depending on the future price trajectory of PV and wind.

Electrifying the whole energy sector of our economy of course means that electricity production needs to increase massively – roughly tripling over the next 20 years. Continued rapid growth of PV (and wind) will minimise dangerous climate change with minimal economic disruption.

Many policy instruments are available to hasten their deployment. Governments should get behind PV and wind as the last best chance to deliver the necessary solution to global warming.

Source: The Conversation. Reproduced with permission.

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39 Comments
  1. Ben Dixon 12 months ago

    Bring it on.

  2. Peter F 12 months ago

    According to NREL California could produce 73% of its electricity from 16% efficient rooftop solar. California has a very similar industrial structure to the East coast of Australia with the exception of coal mining. If one eliminates the energy used in mining transporting and processing thermal coal and accounting for the trend toward 20%+ efficiency solar, we should therefore be able to produce almost 100% of existing electricity demand from rooftop and other near premises generation, car park canopies, railway platforms etc etc.

    An expected increase in wind together with existing hydro would cover the electrification of transport (40 TWh in total) and system efficiency, demand response and power to heat/ice mean that electricity storage in batteries and pumped hydro will perhaps need to be equivalent to 65-75% of peak demand for 20-30 hours and possibly as little as 15 hours.

    I would be reluctant to publish your 70% renewables hypothesis by 2030 only because it will bring apoplexy, verbal and political violence and denial, confusion and despair from the old conservatives. However, even allowing for electrification of 20% of the vehicle fleet, if we repeated the 4.5 GW every year till 2030 in parallel with energy efficiency efforts in the housing and heating areas, it will be closer to 80% renewable electricity

    • RobertO 12 months ago

      Hi Peter F I hoping the old coal ash forum (hard core membership is 7 members ) and most of the COALition are either gone or opposition by May 2019. Labour have committed to 50% RE target which I suspect they will not be able keep. They will over shoot by to about 75% RE by 2022 and then come to a dead stop as we change to EV (RE will still be expanding but EV will use that extra energy.)Transport will slow down the last part of the change over but will never save coal. If we set our minds to it we could see the end of coal by 2025 in Australia. The Shock Jock that broke the story wants the be “King Of the Shock Jocks on TV’ and is a supporter of Baabbott and the coal ash forum. Shakespear comes to my mind “Much Ado about Nothing”.

    • Wallace 12 months ago

      I was interested in what the upper penetration limit might be for wind and solar. I used 2017 CAISO (California’s four major grids combined) hourly load and hourly wind and solar generation. I multiplied the MWh generated by wind and by solar on an hourly basis and watched to see how many of the annual hours would have been fully supplied with that higher level of wind and solar. It’s not enough to generate X TWh of electricity. Generation has to cover demand on an hourly basis.

      At 5x solar and 5x wind 72% of all hours would have been fully supplied. 72% penetration. At 5x solar and 5x and 15x penetration would be 89%. (By increasing to 5x solar and 30x wind the penetration level would be 94% but cost would be prohibitive.)

      Assuming that over the next ten years as we build out a clean grid the cost of wind and solar will drop to around $0.02/kWh a 72% penetration level would cost $0.03/kWh and at 89% penetration the cost would be $0.04/kWh.

      Taking the model one step further I magically converted all California personal vehicles to battery power. At 15x solar and 15x wind all personal vehicles could have been charged 359 days out of the year and the cost of electricity for grid and vehicles would be $0.05/kWh.

      No storage was involved. Only electricity direct from turbine or panel

      At 15x W/S and EV charging there is a large amount of unused electricity most days. As market can be found for that electricity the cost of electricity would drop. Desalination, pumping water over the mountains to LA, storing ‘cool’ to assist air conditioning are all possible markets which do not require continuous operation. And, obviously, filling in what was needed for 100% coverage of all hours.

      I did the same modeling for ERCOT (the Texas grid) but only with wind because I could find no solar data. Using three years of hourly demand and wind production I found that wind could reach 75% penetration and the cost of ($0.02/kWh wind) would be $0.026/kWh

      • Peter F 12 months ago

        This is very interesting , a couple of questions.
        Is 5 X solar 5 times the current installation,
        What do you mean by 15 X penetration.
        What role to you ascribe to existing hydro or imports in Caiso

        • Wallace 12 months ago

          Yes, 5x or 15x times what was installed, actually produced, in that hour.

          During the year more capacity gets added and CFs vary from site to site. I just took easy way out and used the number of actual MWh generated for 8 am on June 4, for example, and multiplied it by a number.

          We know the demand (MWh) during the hour. We know how much electricity was generated by wind during that hour (MWh) and how much solar (MWh). Using those numbers I just asked a simple question:

          If California had installed x times more wind by that hour and y times more solar how many demand hours would have been covered by wind and solar alone? With no storage.

          “What do you mean by 15 X penetration.”

          Do you mean in this sentence?

          “At 5x solar and 5x and 15x penetration would be 89%.”

          Let me reword a bit. At 5x solar and 15 x grid 89% of demand would be covered. There would be 89% wind/solar penetration.

          Remember, some people have claimed that wind and solar can be no more than 10% of grid supply (penetration). Others have claimed that wind and solar penetration will be limited by their capacity factors.

          I did not include hydro, geothermal, or imports. My interest was in how far we could (affordably) push only wind and solar.

          Hydro, geothermal, and low carbon imports could cover some of the remaining 11%. Some storage would probably be needed.

          Now, that’s using only one year’s data. A study covering more years might decrease the 89% level some.

          Including offshore wind (which blow far, far more hours in CA) might drive the number higher.

          Every few days I take at how the wind is blowing along the Pacific Coast on this site.

          https://earth.nullschool.net/#current/wind/surface/level/orthographic=-95.46,29.45,289

          I’ve never seen the wind not blowing – hard.

          • Hettie 12 months ago

            Your first sentence may make perfect sense to you, but it makes none at all to me. Haw can something be both 5× and 15 x???
            And your choice of 8:00 hrs as an exemplar of output doesn’t make much sense to me either, as 8:00 hours is not the time of average output taken over daylight hours .
            Please be aware that although this site has some readers who are boffins, and may understand you, there are also many readers who are rooftop solar owners, or intending buyers, and interested amateurs.
            We seek better understanding of the complex electricity market, not further confusion !
            Also worth a thought is that this is an Australian publication, and that our market and yours are vastly different in many particulars.

          • Wallace 12 months ago

            You have to read the comment in the context of the discussion.

            I used values from 5x to 30x for both solar and wind and compared costs for each combination to see what the optimal penetration level was while the cost remained ‘reasonable’.

            There are 24 hours in a day and 365 days in year. I treated all hours identically. I used “8 am” as an example of how all hours were treated.

            Actually, I suspect you’d find a lot of similarity between the California and Australian grids. Pretty sunny places without massive wind resources.

            The bottom line is when someone claims that wind and solar cannot provide the majority of our electricity – doubt them.

            Ask for them to prove their claim. Look at demand and supply for that grid on an hourly basis.

          • Hettie 12 months ago

            I think you would be surprised at how great our wind resources are. List of new wind going in all over the place.
            The key to 24/365 cover is geographic distribution, a bit of PHES, and we had 22,000 suitable sites identified last year, and a bit of battery. So 100% renewable is absolutely doable in Aus, if only our corrupt, dinosaur Gov’t would get out of the way.

          • Wallace 12 months ago

            I suspect you are right. I was amazed at how much of California’s electricity could come from wind and solar with no storage at all. I think we’re going to end up with all the electricity we want at a very good price, less than we pay now.

          • Hettie 12 months ago

            That’s good to hear. Arne did you a big favour getting it started by emphasis on smog not climate, and you have suffered so much from climate change with drought and wildfires. Plenty of incentive to insist on zero emissions ASAP.
            And it is cheaper, no question.

          • Calamity_Jean 11 months ago

            “So 100% renewable is absolutely doable in Aus, if only our corrupt, dinosaur Gov’t would get out of the way.”

            If they won’t get out of the way, just run over them.

          • Hettie 11 months ago

            We will, and sooner rather than later, if the start of pork barreling is any guide.

          • Calamity_Jean 11 months ago

            When it happens I’ll clap and cheer. Now if we could just do the same here in the US……………

          • Hettie 11 months ago

            As I’ve said elsewhere, earliest reasonable date for a federal election is August 4, latest for simultaneous House of Representatives and half Senate is May 18 next year, and latest for HoR alone is November 2 next year. If they tried for that, it will mean half Senate poll May 18, then HoR Nov 2. People would hate that, and give them a kicking. So instead of a rout it would be extermination.
            My bet is August 4, because only the PM can call it, he doesn’t need the approval of the House, and he will do anything to avoid being rolled by the party. The Budget session goes until late May, and he can just scrape in a crafty dissolution of Parliament on May 28th, the earliest date for an August 4 Poll.
            Here’s hoping nobody in the Liberal Party reads this!

          • Wallace 12 months ago

            Here’s a chart of different amounts (actually produced multiplied by ‘X’) showing the penetration levels.

            https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/db8fbce86d622e8bf2f717163c8b29e67e1539c0aa3e313e3f7b1b929e942266.png

            This is the first chart, before I added EVs.

            If California had installed 5x as much solar and 5x as much wind as they had before and during 2017 72% of all electricity used could have come directly from wind and solar farms. No storage.

            Then, as you can see, adding more wind and more solar drives up the penetration levels.

            Now let’s look at cost. Since we’re talking some years from now before we could get all that wind and solar in place I’m going to use what it looks like utility solar and wind will cost – about $0.02/kWh. I’m using current dollars.

            https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/6da10bcbfae91e86ed1cfd3d078f36d3c0922675b370c99c0801e6d7dffe639b.png

            As we move from 5x, 5x to 15x, 15w x the price rises from 3 cents per kWh to 7 cents per kWh. While that’s an increase we have to ask what less expensive option we have.

            There is no lower cost low carbon generation.

            And there’s a lot of extra (potential) electricity which could be sold for other uses, lowering the cost. EVs can be a huge market.

  3. michael nolan 12 months ago

    Agree guys. This is a call for backing large scale societal electrification for a climate change solution for almost all sectors – including vehicles, heating, and other synthetic fuels (such as hydrogen) .
    The numbers are increasingly compelling.

  4. Ren Stimpy 12 months ago

    If we stopped the process of digging up ancient heavily buried goop to burn as a combustion fuel, that 8% “Fugitive emissions” segment of the pie would just disappear, reducing the pie size. The “Land Transport” segment could also reduce the pie by 8 percentage points, because electric motors are four times more efficient than internal combustion engines which waste the overwhelming majority of their fuel energy in waste heat.

    • Nick 12 months ago

      Shhhh Ren, don’t let facts get in the way of good old fossil fuel lobbying!

      • rob 12 months ago

        delete the bastard…………he is only here to cause shit and hurt people. He is ageist.sexist and definitely hurtful to those with mental health issues…….ie [email protected]@t

        • My_Oath 12 months ago

          You’ve crossed the line here. There is nothing wrong with the post you are complaining about. Your pattern of posting is now clearly in the territory of harassment so I am taking the action of blocking you henceforth and reporting this particular post.

          Your witch hunt now ends.

    • nakedChimp 12 months ago

      Well, I flagged rob for harassment and blocked him.
      He sure has an axe to grind with you.

      • Hettie 12 months ago

        I’ve blocked him too. And you’re right. It is harassment.

      • Ren Stimpy 12 months ago

        OK thanks.

  5. Ian 12 months ago

    I wonder what portion of renewable energy will be provided by renewable heat for space heating and hot water supply? Displacing gas combustion.
    Very significant i would have thought ..
    As usual it hardly gets a mention.

    • Ian 12 months ago

      Good point, Ian. 7% energy used for low temp heating. How much of this could be substituted with direct solar heating or at least with heat pumps. Tasmania traditionally had a small market for gas heating in the domestic market and just prior to the onset of the renewables consciousness, gas was actively promoted for that state! Most cringeworthy.

      Domestic and commercial space and water heating is one of those low hanging fruit highly suitable for solar and electric heat pump technologies. This load is dispatchable and low grade heat energy can be stored cheaply.

      You cannot talk about optimising low temp heating without first considering insulation. Early in the piece, at the time of the Kyoto protocol, housing insulation was one of the pillars of government incentives to reduce carbon emissions, and rightly so. This was turned into a fiasco and became a byword for misdirected greenie BS. It should have been the foundational change made to all buildings and to all new building construction. After all what’s the use of solar panels and storage when the house leaks heat like cheap nylon tent.

      There is so much that can be done to improve temperature manipulation in the home and commercial settings, besides the insulation and building orientation aspects. Check out Mitsubishi’s commercial water source air conditioner systems for example. They make an attempt to integrate heating and cooling requirements in large office buildings using water source heat exchangers. Imagine a suburban home with all these thermal elements linked: solar thermal panels, hot water heat pump, fridge, hydronic heating, air-conditioners, swimming pool. You could take heat from one area for cooling, magnify it and dump it into another area, all without using noisy air -source heat pumps. Maybe some sort of water circuit analogous to an electric circuit. A simple circuit of hotter and colder water lines supplying each device. Mitsubishi uses one line of about 10’c or higher and one of 45’ or lower. This idea could be an amazing thesis for an engineering masters degree.

      • Ian 12 months ago

        Passiv Haus principles are excellent for reducing heating and cooling needs for homes: insulation, shading, orientation of buildings. There are others that are more active. Hydronic heating using solar thermal panels and heat pumps are one. But, a less known method in hot climates is hydronic cooling and night sky heat radiation. Solar pool heaters have a function for tropical areas where pool water can be circulated to the roof at night to take advantage of the sky’s low black body temperature for radiative cooling of swimming pool water.

  6. Ian 12 months ago

    Olympic dam are considering 600MW gas generation for their expansion. What a retrograde step for South Australia.

    • Hettie 12 months ago

      Surely the economics of that would not stack up!
      However, if they are considering gas in comparison with wind and solar, that is good business practice, and the inevitable rejection of gas would be another slap down for the fossil fools.

      • solarguy 12 months ago

        Talking about economics not staking up, last year Maitland Council commissioned the city’s very first public indoor heated pool………………. guess what they use to heat the water?……….That’s right GAS!

        They had the opportunity to design this thing correctly using PV and heat pumps, with plenty of room on the roof for PV, but the morons roof design slopes to the south, so now it can’t be retro fitted cheaply with solar once the idiots realize gas will become too expensive in a few short years to come.

        My rate dollars, pissed up against the wall again………just peachy ain’t it!

        • Hettie 12 months ago

          Certainly sounds like peak stupid.

        • Calamity_Jean 11 months ago

          Does the pool have a parking lot? They could cover the parking area with PV and get shaded parking plus electricity.

          • solarguy 11 months ago

            Yes they do have a parking lot but it is dispersed under Fig trees for the most part. However there is a fairly big lawn area surrounding it, but I for one wouldn’t suggest filling up with PV.

            Their best option is to use tilt frames east and west, where the roof isn’t flat. The flat area could be used too, but because of shading from south sloping part, panels reverse tilted to north you wouldn’t get much on that part.

          • Calamity_Jean 11 months ago

            Well, fooey. They appear to be stuck. Sorry.

      • Ian 12 months ago

        As solarguy’s example shows not all the options are necessarily considered. Olympic dam is a mine owned by BHP and produces eternal-waste producing uranium. What are the chances that they will give one iota thought to CO2 emissions or even cost for that matter? To them it’s all about the “baseload-reliability” factors. Wind and solar are to those sorts of people fairy wings and fairy dust. Nice bedtime stories for the kids but not adequate to put food on the table.

  7. Gregory J. OLSEN Esq 12 months ago

    Spot on. I concur 100% 🙂

  8. Coley 12 months ago

    A blind man on a pushbike can see the direction of travel regarding the worlds energy needs!
    Then why can’t our politicians and business leaders see this?
    Blind greed and avarice, they need to keep the present system in place until they have comfortably retired.
    This in itself is criminal and they should be treated accordingly.

    • Greg Hudson 11 months ago

      You forgot corruption (i.e. FF industry lobbying / payouts)

  9. Greg Hudson 11 months ago

    ”our only realistic chance of avoiding dangerous climate change.”
    Sorry, but if you have seen April 2018 temperatures (particularly in Adelaide SA) you will see that climate change has already arrived (IMO).

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