Solar, wind, and battery storage have been growing far faster than most energy models ever predicted, but not yet fast enough to deliver a 1.5°C climate future, concludes a new analysis released this month by RMI, the Colorado think tank previously known as the Rocky Mountain Institute.
“Solar, wind, and batteries have been following a typical path for new technology,” write RMI co-authors Kingsmill Bond and Sam Butler-Sloss in a summary of their report, titled X-change: Electricity. “Learning curves led to falling prices, which led to rapid growth in new capacity, which led to change in the generation mix.”
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Those changes look likely to accelerate, with solar and wind deployment growing 15 to 20% per year, fossil fuel demand falling 16 to 30%, and solar costs falling by half by 2030, they add. But while all of that activity “will lead to disruption of the global electricity sector this decade,” the pace of change will have to be even faster to deliver on the Paris agreement’s 1.5°C target for stabilizing the global climate.
“We are on the path to net-zero by 2050 but we are not on the path to limit warming to 1.5°C,” Bond and Butler-Sloss warn. “Each death induced from fossil fuel air pollution matters, each dollar spent on importing expensive fossil fuels has an opportunity cost, and each fraction of a degree is a threat multiplier. In this context, there is no such thing as ‘fast enough.’ Speed is justice.”
But the two authors stress that “we have agency” to deliver the change energy systems need at the pace the climate emergency demands.
“In the same way as Moore’s Law required constant innovation and action to stay on track, so we have to work hard to stay on the exponential path,” they write. “We need to build out grids, change permitting laws, scale up flexibility solutions, improve regulatory and market systems, and speed up deployment in the Global South.”
RMI’s 37-page report shows the share of global electricity supplied by solar and wind rising while fossil-fuelled power declines, with the renewables becoming dominant toward the end of this decade. The report cites several factors behind the exponential change so far: rising policy pressure, technology that broke down barriers, falling costs, and exponential growth in sales.
And it projects that most of those drivers of change will continue.
The report also points to what was lost when pre-eminent energy modellers like the International Energy Agency and Bloomberg New Energy Finance (along with national agencies like the Canada Energy Regulator and the U.S. Energy Information Administration) failed to anticipate the rapid rise of renewables.
“For many years, the IEA forecast linear supply growth of solar under its business-as-usual scenarios, even as solar supply continued to rise exponentially. But the IEA was not alone—even BNEF has been surprised by the speed of deployment of solar,” Bond and Butler-Sloss write. “As a result, the forecasts were wrong for the rest of the system as well. If you understate the growth of the main driver of change, you will overstate demand for fossil fuels and underestimate actual and prospective climate progress.”
For the years ahead, the report lists several factors that will increase the pressure for a faster energy transition. In addition to the political, legal, and financial pressure to address the climate emergency, key policy concerns will include energy security, geopolitical competition between the United States and China, falling costs, and gains in energy efficiency. Eventually, as costs continue to fall, the focus of international diplomacy will shift to “gain not pain”, as countries see the opportunity to share in the opportunities of a renewable future.
Along the way, RMI predicts that clean energy will also detoxify a political atmosphere that has made it tougher than it should be to get climate pollution under control.
“As solar and wind get larger and cheaper and it becomes more obvious that they will be the energy sources of the future, their lobbying power rises,” Bond and Butler-Sloss write. “And as fossil fuel demand falls and the product moves from being essential to merely one option, the industry’s lobbying power weakens.”