For a big job, you need the right tools. And for the very big job of preventing the worst impacts of global warming, some of the most important tools are clean energy technologies including wind turbines, solar panels, electric vehicles, energy storage, and electric heating and cooling for buildings.
Research published over the last couple of months makes it clear that, entering 2021, these critical climate tools have not only gotten cheaper than ever before, many now rival in cost the fossil fuel technologies they need to replace:
According to the latest from Lazard, which has been tracking energy costs for years, wind power was 71% cheaper in 2020 than in 2009 and the cost of solar energy dropped by 90%. In many cases, getting energy from new wind turbines and solar panels is now cheaper than getting energy from existing coal and gas plants.
Electric vehicle prices have fallen 89% since 2010, and Bloomberg NEF estimates that in just three years automakers will be able to “produce and sell mass market EVs at the same price (and with the same margin) as comparable internal combustion vehicles in some markets.”
Energy storage, which will play an important role in enabling a renewable energy future, is getting cheaper by the day. The U.S. Energy Information Administration reported in October that just from 2015 to 2018 utility-scale battery storage costs dropped by nearly 70%.
Building an all-electric home able to get its heating and cooking energy from renewable sources is now more affordable than building a home that gets its energy from pipeline gas, based on a 15-year cost analysis in seven cities.
The timing couldn’t be any better. The world needs to shift almost entirely away from fossil fuels over the next 30 years if we are to prevent the worst impacts of global warming, and we have a lot of work to do: In 2019, fossil fuels accounted for 80 percent of energy consumed in the United States.
The good news is that we can rapidly take advantage of affordable new clean energy technologies by doubling down on many of the policies that got us to the era of cheap clean energy in the first place. After all, it’s no lucky coincidence that clean energy has gotten affordable at just the right moment. Rather, it’s the result of decades of policymaking crafted with this moment in mind.
For example, back in 2004, we laid out a strategy for reducing greenhouse gas emissions in Massachusetts. At the time, we noted that solar energy was a “bit player.” To change that, we wrote that “Massachusetts and other states must recognize the importance of early investments to reduce the ultimate cost of solar power by front-loading support for solar installations to create greater economies of scale within the industry.”
Since then, supportive clean energy policies around the country — policies such as grants and rebates for rooftop solar, statewide standards requiring increases in renewable energy generation, and tax credits for electric vehicles, wind and solar — steadily helped improve technology while lowering costs. The website Our World in Data recently tracked renewable energy costs back to the 1950s, when solar energy was so expensive it’s only practical use was for outer space satellites. One takeaway was that the increased deployment of solar energy “was made possible through government subsidies and mandates – arguably the most positive effect of these policies is that they too drove down the price of these new technologies along the learning curve.” Similarly, the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory found in 2019 that around half of all growth in renewable energy generation and capacity this century has been associated with state renewable energy standards.
It’s far too early, however, to rest on our laurels. Cost declines in clean energy are important, but they are not enough to ensure that we deploy renewable energy at the speed and scale required to address the climate crisis. We are in a climate emergency; our policies should reflect it.
New versions of the same policies that originally jump-started the clean energy industry can drive forward the massive levels of deployment we need to rapidly replace fossil fuels. Tax credits similar to those that made possible hundreds of wind energy projects around the country can now enable the deployment of the next generation of wind power, both on and offshore. Updates to the state renewable energy standards that helped clean energy first get its foot in the door can now plot the course to 100% renewable energy. And grants and rebates can help home and business owners lead the way in adopting energy storage, along with rooftop solar and electric vehicles. (There’s also a need for new and innovative policies, including to ensure that the electric grid is up to the task of delivering renewable energy where it needs to go.)
There’s a lot of work to do, and not much time to do it. But not only do we now have the right tools for the job, the price is right. It’s time to put them to use.
Photo credit: Dennis Schroeder, National Renewable Energy Laboratory