Chris Goodall: Reasons to be cheerful: a full switch to low-carbon energy is in sight. Climate change optimism is justified – a complete transition from carbon to solar and wind power looks practical and affordable within a generation. At first it seemed that renewable electricity would always be more expensive and solar power would languish unless it was heavily subsidised. Using alternative energy sources seemed difficult, expensive and inconvenient. I now think I was completely wrong. In fact, optimism about successfully tackling climate change has never been more justified because 2016 was the year in which it finally became obvious that the world had the technology to solve the problem. Even as the political environment has darkened, the reasons have strengthened for believing that a complete transition to low-carbon energy is practical and affordable within one generation.Solar power costs around the world fell by an average of another 15% in 2016, meaning that electricity from the sun became the cheapest form of energy generation in places as diverse as Chile, parts of the Middle East and the south-west of the US. The world saw the lowest-ever auction price for solar electricity in Abu Dhabi. China committed to adding about 40 gigawatts annually of solar panels in the next few years, more than half the new capacity installed across the entire world in 2016. India made similarly ambitious plans, meaning that these two countries will put more solar on the ground than the entire world did a couple of years ago. As more photovoltaics are installed, costs fall in a predictable way, so that the drive towards using solar energy in Asia and elsewhere will feed through to lower prices across the whole world, including the UK. Even in gloomy Britain, the government now sees solar photovoltaics delivering electricity at less than 2% more than a new gas-fired power station in 2020, with costs continuing to fall thereafter. In sunny places around the world, solar may fall to less than half the price of fossil electricity within a decade. Radically new approaches to solar technologies also saw major progress in 2016. The Dresden company Heliatek raised the money to build a new factory producing solar film that is printed on plastic backing and which can be simply pinned to the walls of buildings. Investors backed Oxford PV’s plans to start production of double-layer photovoltaic panels, using cheap and widely available “perovskite” materials originating in the university’s laboratories. Both companies demonstrated unexpected advances in the efficiency of their products at converting light to electricity. Wind turbine costs declined as well, falling to levels not expected for at least another decade in the case of offshore installations in the North Sea. In a particularly good location off the Netherlands, one consortium promised to build a large wind farm for less than £48 a megawatt hour, less than half the UK government’s target for offshore wind in 2020. According to the investment bank Lazard, onshore wind in the best locations in the US is now two-thirds the cost of the cheapest new gas-fired power stations. Even with sceptical politicians in charge of major democracies, the end of the era of fossil fuels is within view. And this is not just a renewables enthusiast talking; the CEO of Shell said that solar will eventually become the “dominant backbone” of the energy system.
Guardian 19th Jan 2017 read more »