The Incredible Momentum of Renewable Energy

Image from  Intel Free Press

Image from Intel Free Press

If solar panels were athletes, they’d be breaking Olympic records right now.

That’s because in 2016 solar energy grew faster than any other fuel. Around the world more than 70 gigawatts of solar energy were installed—enough to power 50 million U.S. homes—representing major progress towards a clean energy future.

While coal-fired plants are still being built in some countries, a number of coal facilities are also being retired, especially in the United States.

The chart below from International Energy Agency (IEA) data shows that more solar energy was added around the world than coal (when you factor in retirements), and as a whole, solar and wind beat out coal and gas for new energy additions.

Data Source:  IEA

Data Source: IEA

But is this progress enough? If every year was like 2016, could we avoid the worst of climate change? Answering this question is pretty complicated, but let’s look at a big-picture estimate of what it would take to overhaul the electricity sector.

The IEA shows solar and wind made up two-thirds of new energy added in 2016, with almost 165 gigawatts coming online. That’s enough energy to power 115 million U.S. homes. While these numbers are impressive, we would need to significantly accelerate this progress to tackle the worst of climate change.

Many scientists agree that in order to keep the climate from changing dramatically from what we’re used to, we need to prevent warming from exceeding two degrees Celsius above what’s known as “pre-industrial levels,” which is basically what the climate was like before we started burning fossil fuels during the industrial revolution.

Ken Caldeira, a Senior Scientist at the Carnegie Institution, has researched what kinds of steps we need to take to prevent climate change from exceeding two degrees. In a paper published in 2003, Caldeira pointed out that we need to completely overhaul the energy system to be emissions-free.

Is this possible?

Caldeira’s proposed overhaul would require “roughly the equivalent of a large carbon emissions-free power plant becoming functional somewhere in the world every day” (or about 400 gigawatts installed a year).

This task is lofty, to be sure, but recent progress in global renewable energy adoption as well as its enormous potential has convinced me that it is possible to get there.

A woman installing solar panels on the roof in Bhutan. Photo by  Asian Development Bank

A woman installing solar panels on the roof in Bhutan. Photo by Asian Development Bank

The chart above shows 165 gigawatts of renewable energy were installed in 2016, that’s about 40 percent of the 400 gigawatt benchmark. But it also shows there was a fair amount of coal and natural gas installed too.

Staying below two degrees of warming will not only require all new energy infrastructure installed around the world to be emissions-free—it will also mean we’ll have to start replacing existing fossil fuel infrastructure with emissions-free technologies. For each year the world falls short on cleaning up electricity, the following year is burdened with more work to close the gap.

The good news is that wind and solar energy have been taking off largely in response to their declining costs, which compare favorably with much-dirtier coal.

And according to the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), we are on the brink of a new paradigm for renewable power. IRENA predicts that by 2020, every form of renewable energy in use today will have prices comparable to fossil fuels. And in some places, renewable technologies will be less expensive than fossil sources. For example, in some places in the western U.S. it is already cheaper to build a new wind or solar project than to operate existing coal plants.

Declining costs, as well as incredible progress taking place in China and India, leaves me hopeful for transforming the electricity sector.

India One, a one megawatt solar thermal power plant in Rajasthan, India. Photo by  Brahma Kumaris .

India One, a one megawatt solar thermal power plant in Rajasthan, India. Photo by Brahma Kumaris.

But keep in mind this is only one part of the energy system; there are many things we can do to reinvent the ways we use and produce energy. For example, heat production, which in the U.S. is mostly powered with natural gas, accounts for over half of global energy consumption. Electrifying heating systems in homes and apartment buildings can be a huge step towards meeting climate goals.

PlanetVision has put together a list of simple actions you can take in your daily lives to help change the energy system. Learn more about what you can do to help tackle climate change, now.


Emily Cassidy is Sustainability Science Manager at the California Academy of Sciences.