The evidence just keeps flooding in. From 2005 to 2012 country after country reached solar grid parity until, at the end of this period, a total of 102 nations saw solar energy sources that were cost competitive with fossil fuels. Through 2013 prices kept falling. Now, an increasing number of regions have developed solar energy as least expensive new energy sources. Earlier this year First Solar opened a New Mexico plant in which solar energy produced electricity for 5.8 cents per kilowatt hour. These prices were 1/2 to 1/3 the cost of energy generated from a new coal fired plant. Now, a German Utility has opened a solar plant that produces electricity for less than 10 euro cents per kilowatt hour, also less than the cost of local new coal generation.
By 2020, total solar energy prices are, in the most conservative estimates, expected to fall by at least another 50% (in fact, the cost of new solar generation has fallen by 22% each year for the past five years!). More optimistic estimates show solar continuing to fall by between 4 and 15 percent each year through the next twenty years. These reductions will make solar energy the least expensive energy source in almost all cases within 4-20 years. What is absolutely astounding is that, should these reductions materialize, it will be less expensive to build a new solar facility than it will be to cover the operating costs of existing coal power plants.
A rough graph of the time horizon at which solar out-competes existing coal generation given various rates of price reduction from 4 to 15 percent per annum is available here:
(Image source: Monetary Realism)
The various lines start on year 1 (2014) and continue all the way through 2034. In the most rapid cost reduction cases, new solar outcompetes existing coal from 2018 to 2022 and only the slowest advancement results in an outcompeting of existing coal generation by 2034. This graph doesn’t include likely increases in the costs for existing coal due to competition from wind and solar, depletion of the coal source, or requirements by governments to use costly carbon capture and storage technology.
To this point, carbon capture and storage (CCS) is little more than an oft trotted out fossil fuel dog and pony show. Not one CCS plant has been put into anything more than experimental operation. Not one has demonstrated any cost competitiveness with a broader energy market. And not one has advanced further than the pilot stage making any estimated cost for actual systems little more than vapor.
By comparison, solar energy just keeps chugging along, marking gains, new milestones, and greater cost cuts with each passing year. In the US alone, more than 10 gigawatts of solar energy have now been installed. That number is predicted to surge by 80% over the next 18 months to reach 17 gigawatts by end of 2014.
These are massive and optimistic gains. Yet they will have to continue for years to decades if they are to significantly reduce and eliminate US net carbon emissions from electricity generation. With severe weather impacts and sea level rise ramping up from human caused climate change in the present day, it appears we are in a race both against time and against our own worst enemy and the cause of the whole trouble in the first place: ourselves.
A Massive Political Juggernaut Opposes Renewable Energy Adoption and Solutions to Climate Change
If we were rational, our government and policy systems would be rapidly aligning to support a major transition away from fossil fuels. If we were rational, we’d be leveraging the increasingly cost-beneficial energy production systems that renewables provide to stabilize economies harmed by the ravages of petroleum dependency and related economic exploitation. We could bring light to the darkened, non-grid-tied regions of the world. And we could give human civilization a fighting chance against the terrible ravages of climate change caused by our enforced dependence on a dangerous set of fuels. Fuels that must go if we are to have much hope of overcoming what is setting up to be an existential climate crisis.
Yet it is clear, at this point, that we are not rational. At best, we see government gridlock. At worst, entrenched corporations are able to manipulate government in such a way that the dangerous development of dirty fuels continues.
In one example, the US State Department paid reporting agencies with close ties to BP, Exxon Mobile, and Koch Industries to draft a climate impact assessment report for the Keystone XL Pipeline. A report that contained a high level of oil industry fluff and misinformation. One that arguably misled both the public as well as members of public government who would be making decisions on this critical issue. Thankfully, public outrage over this report has caused some reassessment. But the validity of any new report may suffer from similar corruption and is equally in doubt.
In another example, the halls of Congress itself is packed to the gills with a non-representative number of ignorant individuals who out-right deny the existence of human caused climate change. A recent report from Think Progress found that 127 members of the House and 30 members of the Senate denied human-caused climate change. Not surprisingly, a significant majority of republicans in Congress deny climate change. Equally unsurprising is the fact that these members receive vast sums from fossil fuel related donors. House climate change deniers received 242,000 dollars on average from fossil fuel industry coffers. While Senate climate change deniers receive a largess of nearly 700,000 dollars each for their climate change denial efforts. Further, a majority of these members sat on key science and environment committees or held leadership positions in their respective parties.
In a horrid example of the damage this kind of corruption causes, a new bill advanced by Republicans called the Weather Forecasting Improvement Act of 2013 would cut NOAA funding for climate change research. Indirectly, these cuts would also likely impact weather satellite coverage and sensors critical to weather prediction. To this point, it is impossible to separate weather from climate. Any efforts to cut climate research also negatively impact our ability to predict the weather. In this instance, as in many others, climate change deniers in Congress are actively harming our resilience to the extreme weather that is almost certainly on its way.
Given this fossil fuel industry stacked US political system, is it any surprise that almost daily proposals to expand coal, gas, and oil dependence hit the floors of Congress? Or that House Republicans are doing their best to kill off critical energy efficiency standards?
Sadly, many utilities themselves are entangled in a dark web of fossil fuel influence. Cosied up to fossil fuel special interests for more than a century, utilities are now fighting net metering laws that have led to more rapid adoption of solar in states like Arizona. These net metering laws allow homeowners to sell any excess energy produced, which utilities must purchase at cost. This policy, put in place in Arizona in 2009, helped rocket the state to number 2 in total solar energy generation, behind California. But now, the state’s largest utility, Arizona Public Service, is fighting to kill net metering. In an ironic change of fate, the son of Barry Goldwater is organizing political action to fight APS. Goldwater’s organization — Tell Utilities Solar Won’t Be Killed — is now involved in an epic political battle to keep solar energy alive for Arizona’s homeowners.
These are just a few highlights of a broad and ongoing war which fossil fuel special interests are fighting to deny citizens access to clean, alternative energy. It is a war, also, to preserve profits for some of the wealthiest corporations the world has ever seen. What this intensity of action on the part of fossil fuel companies, especially when viewed in light of an increasingly less expensive and competitive renewable energy source, reveals is that barriers placed to renewable energy adoption are now entirely political and policy related from this point forward. Thus, we are in the midst of an ugly era in which the corporate fossil fuel special interests seem to use every dirty trick at their disposal to maintain their hold over markets, consumers, and governments.
It’s going to be tough, rough fight. But with climate change howling in the wings, the stakes couldn’t be higher.