Electricity Policy


Last updateThu, 16 Mar 2017 7pm

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Renewable energy technology, poised to disrupt fossil fuels

Guest Editorial, by Leah Y. Parks* 


As one observer has noted, we are the first generation to be confronted with the Earth-changing threat of climate change—and the last to be able to meaningfully arrest its progress.

Exponential growth in clean-energy technologies is a powerful weapon in this fight, and a 21st-century energy transformation that much of the world has committed to is already underway. 

Our digital revolution is facilitating massive progress in grid, communications, and energy-producing technologies that will result in creation of a reliable, affordable, clean energy system—largely electrically powered—more quickly than most could imagine. 

We can jump over the political resistance to these developments because our modern-day Edisons are doing their job, because so much is on the line. Fortunately, we are at a tipping point and can expect to have all the energy we need at ever lower costs—costs that won’t escalate in price.

As described in Tony Seba’s book, Clean Disruption, “The key to the disruption of energy lies in the exponential cost and performance improvement of technologies that convert, manage, store, and share clean energy.”

We need only look at the last turn of the century to see how quickly transformation can happen. 

In 1903 we took our first flight and New York City streets were still filled with horse and buggy traffic. By 1914 we were fighting an air war in Europe and those same New York streets were teeming with cars.  

In another realm, the engineering that first made spaceflight possible was developed in 1919. Thirty-eight years later Sputnik was launched and 12 years after that US astronauts walked on our Moon. 

A renewable energy infrastructure will replace the fossil fuel infrastructure because it is a better way of supplying energy, and also proving to be cheaper.

Renewables are a superior product in part because they are technology and not a fuel. The technology will continue to improve and costs will continue to go down. Unlike renewables, the prices of fossil fuels fluctuate and are subject to market forces and availability. 

Once solar and wind projects are built and paid for, the fuel is free. Wind and solar, like hydroelectric dams, will provide dependable and cheap energy for years.

Even without subsidies, as shown in Lazard’s 2015 Levelized Cost of Energy Analysis, utility-scale solar and wind prices are dropping below new natural gas costs of around 6 cents per kilowatt-hour.

Solar projects are bidding as low as 3.8 cents per kWh in places like California and Nevada and as low as 3 cents per kWh, completely unsubsidized, in Chile and Dubai, for example. Rooftop solar PV plus energy storage systems are already price competitive in some markets.

Large scale wind projects are bidding to produce energy for as little as 2 cents per kWh.

These price drops are in turn resulting in increased orders and deployment, both by utilities and by large corporate buyers. In 2014, around 47% percent of utility-scale capacity installed in the US was solar and wind energy, with the remainder being natural gas. In 2015, around 62 percent of new utility-scale electricity capacity was solar and wind energy, with about 34 percent was natural gas. Worldwide, we are seeing greater deployment in tandem with falling costs. 

The most noticeable first example of fossil fuel disruption is in the coal Industry. Bankruptcy filings by coal producers are becoming ever more common. A recent study by the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA) found that price drops and increased capacity of solar and wind are major factors putting coal plants under financial stress in Texas. 

Many project that oil will be the next to fall to the low cost and non-polluting aspects of renewables. Electric vehicles are likely to disrupt internal combustion engine vehicles in the near future. Lithium-ion battery prices have come down as far as $145/kWh, from $600/kWh and above just a few years ago. UBS bank considers this price point to indicate a paradigm shift, and at a price point lower than needed for cost parity. Affordable 200-plus mile range cars are now about to hit the roads. General Motors and Tesla have been taking orders for their Chevy Bolt and Tesla Model 3, respectively. 

A transformation to a renewable energy future—not just for electricity generation—but for ground transportation, is in sight.

We once used oil from whale blubber to heat our homes, horses for transport, and film cameras to capture our special moments. We can expect internal combustion engine cars, natural gas boilers, and fossil-fuel power generation to follow the same path. But we are running out of time to deploy the new, cleaner sources at numbers and at scale sufficient to prevent dangerous climate change. 

This is no time for complacency. Time is of the essence. To keep the Earth’s temperature rise below 2 degrees Celsius—the goal of the COP21 climate change agreement in Paris in December 2015—we must achieve zero greenhouse gas emissions by the year 2050—about 35 years. But the longer we delay aggressive action, the more draconian corrective measures must be. The best course of action is a doable transition of reducing fossil fuel emissions by an average of 3 percent per year, starting immediately. 

We are already seeing the transition beginning at the city level and are learning more about the much-important and directly related potential for job growth. The International Energy Agency (IEA), which previously had forecast a conservative growth for renewables, has “significantly” revised its estimates for renewables deployment, in part due to energy security and world policies such as the Paris agreement

The exact form our energy infrastructure will take by the year 2050 is not certain, but it will certainly be cleaner, cheaper and safer than the one we inherited from the 20th century.

Electric vehicles and trains, as well as advanced heat pumps, will play a major role. Solar, wind and storage, paired with digital management and energy efficiency, are already being deployed where feasible, but not yet comprehensively.

As we transition away from fossil-fueled energy, a new era of clean energy is replacing coal-fired generation.  Those looking nostalgically back to the days when coal-fired plants dominated the industry will be left behind, victims of the unrelenting disruptive force of clean technologies.

Working to hasten the transition, we should recall the words of Robert Hutchings Goddard, the father of space flight, “The dream of yesterday is the hope of today and the reality of tomorrow.” 


* Leah Y Parks is an associate editor at ElectricityPolicy.com and has co-authored the book, “All-Electric America: A Climate Solution and the Hopeful Future.” She has written extensively about innovations in energy storage, smart grid technology, energy infrastructure, and renewable energy. She holds a Masters of Science degree from Stanford University in Civil and Environmental Engineering and a BA from the University of Wisconsin in International Relations. 

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