The solar revolution continues successfully. The cost of solar power has been falling sharply for years and is now the cheapest form of new electricity generation in many markets, including 16 US states, Spain, Italy and India, according to energy research and consulting firm Wood Mackenzie. Even during the pandemic, solar development remained strong. In 2020, global solar installations exceeded 115 gigawatts (GW). Although the price of solar panels increased last year, the cost of solar energy still managed to fall in 2021. While solar expansion continues to grow at increasingly competitive rates, it has not been fast enough or serious enough. The growth trajectory required to achieve the decarbonisation targets set by the Paris Agreement in 2015. Instead, the renewed revolution was met by a massive and seemingly immobile force of inertia.
In addition to the pushback from powerful fossil fuel lobbies and their allies, the current energy system already invests heavily in fossil fuels, and continuing to operate a coal- or gas-fired plant is often much, much cheaper than building new solar infrastructure. may be new infrastructure. In addition, “There is a lot of inertia in the system because of long-term contracts between utilities, power producers and mining companies,” Popular Science reported last year. “And since the country’s total energy use isn’t growing that much each year, there’s not much incentive to build new renewables.”
In order to break all this internal inertia, the global economy had to deliver a major shock to the system. Now we have it. The double whammy of the Covid-19 pandemic and Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine sent shockwaves through the global economy, throwing energy markets into turmoil and scrambling for alternatives to Russian exports to keep the lights on and restore energy security. And many have set their eyes on the sun to do it.
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In Europe, 18 of the 27 European Union countries set new records for solar power generation between May and August this year, and the bloc is set to see an average annual increase of between 45 GW and 52 GW by 2030 – a huge increase. compared to pre-occupation projections. In the United States, the Inflation Reduction Act offered major tax incentives for clean energy development, and solar investment is increasing in response. Consulting titan McKinsey predicts that global renewable electricity capacity will almost triple between 2021 and 2030 to 8,800 gigawatts. The vast majority of this will come from onshore wind and solar.
While incentives and investment are available, the renewable revolution faces three major obstacles as it continues to expand at a rapid pace: land, permits and energy grids.
Soil can be the biggest of these problems. “Utility-scale solar and wind farms require at least ten times more land per unit of energy than coal- or natural gas-fired power plants, including the land used to produce and transport the fossil fuel,” warns Mckenzie. solar investors. Indeed, the expansion of renewable energy is already embroiled in land-use battles across the country, as projects are often developed in rural states that are often deep red and devoted to fossil fuels. A “sinister” battle is currently underway in Indiana, where a solar farm roughly the size of Manhattan is in the works.
Expansion is also hampered by “long, unpredictable development rules” beyond developers’ control, McKinsey says. Permitting is a daunting process, as legislation often changes to match the kinds of public outrage that emerges in response to land use issues. As a result, permits for utility-scale solar and wind farms can often take up to ten years. 31 states have already passed ordinances limiting renewable expansion.
Finally, increasing network congestion poses a major threat. The energy grid infrastructure in the US is aging and will need major infrastructure investments to accelerate it. Our grid system is now not smart or flexible enough to handle the dynamic and changing nature of massive reliance on renewables. This will require a huge increase in energy storage technologies. “Because the stability of the electricity grid depends on predictability and the balance of supply and demand, the US grid cannot always integrate all new wind and solar power immediately,” McKinsey reports. This means that completed solar projects often have to wait months before they can be connected to the grid. Moreover, the urban areas most in need of energy are often far from the rural areas where this large amount of clean energy will be produced, requiring large expansions of transmission lines to deliver power to end users.
While the rapid expansion of utility-scale solar and wind projects is a long overdue necessity to meet climate goals and avoid the most devastating impacts of climate change, there are some serious obstacles to consider. And that will require some major politics at a time when the country has never been more divided.
By Haley Zaremba for Oilprice.com
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