Viva la Revolution!

Viva la Revolution!

Climate scientists, the usually measured deliverers of data and evidence, are now resorting to civil disobedience, entreating society to stop hemorrhaging carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The escalating changes taking place are captured on the blog You can see with your own eyes the new global reality — from “mega” floods, wildfires and droughts to rain on the summits of Greenland and heat waves in Antarctica. Even still, just one man in the U.S. Senate, coal millionaire Joe Manchin (D-WV), continues to thwart the transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy.

But there’s some good news that has attracted far less media attention. As Amory Lovins notes: “The energy revolution has happened. Sorry if you missed it.”

Despite Senator Manchin and his Republican allies doing the bidding of the fossil-fuel industry to block essential policies, an economic and technological revolution is underway, one that’s driving decarbonization. Solar- and wind-power costs have plummeted, resulting in an exponential expansion of renewable energy, reducing costs further. This economic transformation is turning the traditional climate-action narrative on its head.

Bill McKibben describes how analysts have long lamented the "green premium" to be paid for renewable energy (i.e., we pay a premium to transition away from fossil fuels, though the climate and health benefits make the transition worth it). But emerging data tell a different story: we will pay a huge premium if we do not transition from fossil fuels.

This is because we have reached the point where a renewable-energy system — one that does not cause climate change nor spew air pollution toxic to human health — appears to be cheaper than the fossil-fuel system that also saddles us with those costly impacts.

A research team from the University of Oxford recently concluded that cost declines now “position renewables to challenge the dominance of fossil fuels within a decade." The researchers suggest that previous analysts failed to appreciate that the manufacturing of solar panels, wind turbines and batteries would follow the path of transistors and optical fiber. This path, or "experience" curve, has resulted in the cost of photovoltaic cells (the key component of solar panels) dropping by 20% with each doubling of global manufacturing capacity.

The evidence of this phenomenon is all around us. The average cost reduction for solar from 2011-2020 was projected to be 2.6%, with the most optimistic projection being a 6% decline. The actual drop in cost during that period was 15%. Utility-scale solar power declined in cost by 90% between 2009 and 2021. The cost of onshore-wind power declined by 70% over the same period. The International Energy Agency (IEA) recently confirmed that solar is now the cheapest form of electricity in human history. Meanwhile, the cost of fossil fuels is not declining, as we now have to dig deeper and in more remote locations to extract them.

As a consequence, the use of renewable power is exploding. By 2020, 710 GW of solar was deployed around the world, twice the IEA’s 2015 prediction. The proportion of electricity the United States gets from solar and wind nearly quadrupled between 2011 and 2020, with three states (Iowa, North Dakota and Kansas) now producing at least half of their electricity from wind and solar. Using data from the Energy Information Administration, a new report concludes that "every state in the country has enough potential from either solar or wind energy alone to supply all of its electricity needs.” In a major milestone, the world obtained 10% of its electricity from wind and solar in 2021. All renewable sources reached 38%. (Experts note that efficiency is also contributing — the U.S. saved 17% more energy in 2019 than in 2011 — and efficiency gains can contribute more in the future.)

There used to be concern that the intermittency of renewables could interfere with stability of the electrical grid if renewables were to comprise more than 2% of supply. But in 2020, they were over 50% of supply in Denmark, and the penetration of renewables on the grid is also this large in Germany, which has one of the most reliable electrical grids in the world. Similarly, the Texas grid became more stable as its wind capacity sextupled from 2007 to 2020. (Texas now generates about 20% of its electricity from wind.)

Contributing to these advances is the declining cost of batteries. Prices dropped in half from 2015 to 2020, sparking a four-fold increase in deployment (3 GW of grid-scale storage was installed in 2021, nearly three times the previous record from 2020). Thirteen new battery-cell “giga-factories” are expected to come online in the U.S. by 2025. GM, Ford, Tesla, SK Innovations and LG Energy Solutions are among the major manufacturers jumping in, as utility-scale electricity storage and EVs represent enormous new markets.

These growth rates must continue to rise if we are to meet the clean-energy goals that slow climate change. The U.S. still produces only 12% of its electricity from wind and solar (the percentage in the United Kingdom and Germany is more than double that). But the Oxford study concludes that current exponential deployment trends, if continued for another decade, will produce a near-net-zero-emissions energy system within twenty-five years.

The price declines alone don’t guarantee this outcome, which brings us back to the need for aggressive state and federal policies (and Senator Manchin’s horrifying conflict of interest). We all need to raise our voices and demand that our elected representatives do everything they can to support the revolution, not stand in its way! It’s time to insist on expanding tax benefits for renewable energy, and encourage government programs that build momentum through infrastructure investment for renewable power, EVs and modernizing the electrical grid. These policies will fight against the inevitable headwinds to be encountered by the revolution, such as supply constraints affecting the economy (especially in the face of the pandemic), higher commodity and labor costs, powerful fossil-fuel industry resistance and uncertainty over clean-energy legislation in the U.S. and elsewhere.

The clean-energy revolution is surging forward. The political conditions necessary to transform the energy system will only come about if we continue to push for them. That includes heralding this new energy story. As Kingsmill Bond notes, “the residual narrative of pain and burden-sharing is very strong. And harnessing this great wave of innovation and redistribution requires moving on from the old framing and overcoming the vested interests that cling on to it.”

Let’s take the Oxford researchers’ new framing as our rallying cry. Because, remember, the fossil-fuel companies will be working overtime to hide it: “A greener, healthier and safer global energy system is also likely to be cheaper.”

Viva la revolution!