Standard climate scenarios are underestimating the uptake of renewable energy technologies and overestimating the cost of the net-zero transition, according to a new paper in the journal Energy Research & Social Science.
Those calculations fail to account for “plummeting” prices for solar and energy storage over the last decade that “have made a net-zero transition more feasible than current climate scenario models indicate,” Utility Dive reports, citing the paper by the Berlin-based Mercator Research Institute on Global Commons and Climate Change (MCC).
The study found that the models that support the work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) understate the potential of “two key options for rapid decarbonization,” rapid growth of intermittent renewable energy technologies and greater energy efficiency on the part of end users.
The Mercator researchers noted that the cost of storage batteries has already fallen below US$100 per kilowatt-hour, “significantly less than a 2021 publication predicted they would cost by 2030,” the news story states. “The cost of battery storage has fallen 85% over the past 10 years, while the cost of solar has fallen 87%.”
Earlier this year, Clean Energy Canada reported that wind and solar farms with battery backup were already cheaper to build than natural gas power plants in Ontario and Alberta, with the price of the renewable options expected to fall another 40% by 2035.
The IPCC’s scenarios are also overly pessimistic about the growth rate for solar technologies, the Mercator team concluded, with one 2019 study underestimating their global reach by 2050 by a factor of five to seven.
“The researchers speculated that solar innovation has been underestimated due to its nature as a granular technology, similar to demand-side technologies like heat pumps, lighting, appliances, windows, and batteries,” Utility Dive writes. The Mercator study adds to years of research and analysis concluding that smaller-scale technologies can innovate, drive down costs, and scale up production faster than more expensive, one-off technologies like carbon capture and storage and small nuclear reactors (SMR).
“Granular technologies learn faster and become adopted faster, because they involve lower risk, involve many more iterations and thus opportunities for improvement, and are suitable in a much broader variety of adoption contexts,” leading to “faster innovation dynamics,” the Mercator team wrote.
“Some calculations even suggest that the world’s entire energy consumption in 2050 could be completely and cost-effectively covered by solar technology and other renewables,” said lead author Felix Creutzig. “This is an extremely optimistic scenario – but it illustrates that the future is open.”
Creutzig said climate models must reflect this technical progress “as closely as possible” to give policy-makers accurate guidance.
“To remain policy-relevant in the future, a new generation of models needs to improve the representation of technology learning and diffusion (particularly regarding the granularity of technologies), more directly reflect real world dynamics, and draw on evidence from the economics of innovation literature,” the study said.