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Solar Is Set To Outstrip Fossil Fuels
A recent study finds that a crucial energy tipping point is coming.
Saving the planet can sometimes feel like an uphill battle. It seems like billions in oil money and myopic politicians thwart any significant efforts to move towards net-zero. But a new study has found that our transition to renewable energy isn’t just beneficial but inevitable. In other words, the demise of the fossil industry has already begun, and meeting net-zero by 2050 is potentially easier than we previously thought.
This study comes from the University of Exeter and University College London researchers. They analysed recent technological and economic advances in renewable energies and tried to predict how this industry will grow in the coming years. They found that solar power has reached an “irreversible tipping point” that will see it become the world’s primary energy source by 2050.
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The researchers said, “The recent progress of renewables means that fossil fuel-dominated projects are no longer realistic.” Why? Well, they said that “Solar energy is the most widely available energy resource on Earth, and its economic attractiveness is improving fast in a cycle of increasing investments.” The researchers found that “due to technological trajectories set in motion by past policy, a global irreversible solar tipping point may have passed where solar energy gradually comes to dominate global electricity markets, without any further climate policies.” This will then snowball over the coming years, and by 2050, Solar power will make up the majority of the global energy mix.
For some scale here, solar currently only accounts for just over 1% of global energy consumption. So, these researchers are predicting solar power will experience unprecedented and exponential growth over the coming decades.
But these researchers aren’t alone. Others have found similar results. A Berlin-based group recently found that in the next 30 years, fossil fuel-generated power will no longer be economically viable thanks to the plummeting costs of solar, batteries and other renewable technologies.
But where have these findings come from? And why now? Well, when you dig into the data around fossil fuels and compare them to current renewables, there is an obvious winner.
Firstly, renewables are far better economically than fossil fuels, no matter how you look at them. Firstly, renewables create more, better paying, safer jobs than fossil fuels, which will keep an economy buoyant. In fact, studies have found that every dollar invested in renewables creates three times more jobs than every dollar invested in the fossil fuel industry. This means that as we transition away from fossil fuels, there will actually be a net gain in jobs and GDP. The IEA estimates that by 2030, 5 million jobs in the fossil fuel industry could be lost, but 14 million new jobs would be created in clean energy, resulting in a net gain of 9 million jobs.
Moreover, as renewables are based on local energy resources, the additional jobs and cash injection stay local. In comparison, fossil fuels are shipped abroad or out of state and tend to be owned by multinational bodies. As such, the wealth they generate doesn’t stay in the local economy. What’s more, the energy they generate is more reliable, as it can’t be affected by foreign fuel markets, which are susceptible to disruptions from geopolitical tensions. This means that economies that adopt renewables faster can grow significantly faster than those based on fossil fuels.
While it is still more expensive to build renewables than it is to build fossil fuel infrastructure, the energy they produce is far cheaper per MWh. This is because you don’t need to continually buy or process fuel to generate power. As such, solar energy is now up to 9.2 times cheaper per MWh than fossil fuels! So, if a country can afford to pay the upfront costs of renewables, the overall reduction in cost means their economy will overall spend less on energy and, in turn, have more money to invest and grow the economy.
But, the upfront cost to the government for renewables is actually cheaper than what they are currently spending on fossil fuels. In 2022, the globe spent around $7 trillion in subsidies, tax breaks, and health and environmental damages to oil companies. These expenses are used to keep fossil fuels cheap and profitable so that these countries can ensure a steady supply. However, only $4 trillion annually needs to be invested into renewables until 2030 to reach our climate goals. So, from a government spending perspective, renewables are far cheaper to build than to continue paying trillions to the already bloated oil industry.
Lastly, renewables have considerable health and environmental benefits, as they don’t emit pollutants, irritants, or toxins like fossil fuels do. As we saw over the past year, even a small amount of climate change can cause billions of dollars of damage to our economies through extreme weather. This means that if we fully adopt renewables and curb climate change, we could save the world economy the equivalent of $4.2 trillion per year! What’s more, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), about 99 per cent of people in the world breathe air that exceeds air quality limits and threatens their health. This means that 13 million deaths worldwide yearly are due to avoidable environmental causes, including air pollution. The damages of these health impacts and other environmental impacts from the pollution of fossil fuels amounted to $2.9 billion in 2018 alone! As such, switching to renewables will dramatically increase the quality of life of people worldwide and mitigate significant economic damages through loss of health.
All these reasons mean that it is now economically, morally and financially dubious to approve fossil fuel energy infrastructure over renewable infrastructure. And, as solar power is now the cheapest and quickest to install, it is currently leading the charge. The researchers of the first study took all the advantages and trends in solar power and extrapolated them into the future. They found that solar power would grow incredibly quickly over the coming years, and by 2050, over half of the world’s energy will come from solar! As such, we may have already crossed an economic tipping point where solar crushes the fossil fuel industry.
But, the researchers did identify some potential barriers to this future. Namely, foreign finance and political sway.
One of the main driving forces of this solar expansion would be developing countries rapidly adopting the technology. They desperately need cheap energy that doesn’t further damage their environment or economy and isn’t dramatically influenced by more influential foreign markets. As such, renewables, particularly solar, as most developing nations are in the sunny tropics, are perfect for them. But they require affordable loans to build solar farms, and right now, these countries don’t have access to such services. As such, they are forced to turn to cheaper to build coal and gas power, which will actually cost them significantly more in the long run. As such, if we want solar energy to grow at this predicted rate, the international community needs to approve affordable loans to developing nations for renewable energy expansion.
Now, political barriers come down to how much dirty fossil fuel is in politics. You see, while renewable technology shares the wealth it creates mainly among the workforce, fossil fuels instead concentrate wealth in their upper echelons. As such, fossil fuel CEOs and major stockholders have the ability to spend billions to influence politics for their gain. As such, they can actively block renewable expansion, even if renewables would be better for the economy, energy customers, environment and the government. Meanwhile, renewables don’t have the funds to be able to lobby like this.
This is why I argue that capitalism can solve climate change. If it were a truly free market with an equitable playing field, renewables would be utterly burying the fossil fuel industry at the minute. But we don’t live in that world. Instead, our capitalism and free market are swayed and restricted by giant conglomerates and private entities engaging in political lobbying to their benefit, not the general public.
The data is becoming more and more apparent by the day. Renewables don’t just make sense environmentally; they also make sense economically. This doesn’t mean that we can sit back and let the market forces push this forward, as to save the world, renewables need to expand even faster than this study predicts they would. But it does mean that if we can get fossil fuel money out of politics and create a global equitable fund for renewables expansion, we can get most of the way there. These two might seem nearly impossible to implement, but we are being threatened with a near apocalypse on a global scale, and humanity has achieved far less before in far less pressing circumstances.
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