Everyone from schoolchildren to oil executives knows that burning fossil fuels pollutes the Earth. We rationalize this dirty energy source over alternatives in myriad ways, but the simplest justification is also the most compelling:
Fossil fuels are cheap.
Cost considerations are the Alamo for the fossil fuel industry. As they can hardly argue with the environmental or social impacts of their product, cost is where the industry has to make its stand. When renewable energy inevitably reaches cost parity (i.e. when it costs the same as oil and coal), only fools or the morally compromised will continue to choose the option that is both dirtier and more expensive. And wouldn’t you know it? Recent economic data shows that fossil fuel companies’ defenses are crumbling, as cost parity is right around the corner. In fact, it’s likely that any oil or coal-fired power plant that began construction today would be obsolete before it was finished!
Though we’re not yet having the global renaissance of renewable energy needed to avert climate disaster, legions of scientists and engineers are working to realize this energy’s full potential. As a result of all this applied brain power, every day the costs for renewables creep downward. Conversely, the costs for fossil fuels creep steadily upwards, as all of the ‘easy’ oil has been exploited and development costs have increased dramatically. As the chart below shows, these costs are now converging:
When I give the climate talk to people, I paint renewable energy as being “just about there” in terms of cost, and this chart shows what I mean. Solar energy reaches market parity with fossil fuels in a few short years, and after 2020 it becomes the clear winner. The chart only addresses solar energy, since wind energy is harder to graph due to its variability based on local conditions. Some reports indicate that the average costs of onshore wind is about 5 to 6 cents per kilowatt-hour, which even is cheaper than coal or natural gas! After being told for so long that renewable energy wasn’t feasible, to think it’s just a few short years away from gaining the upper hand is very exciting!
You might ask: why are costs for renewables coming down so quickly? The answer is that we’ve reached a critical mass of development resources being applied to these technologies, because governments and markets have seen the writing on the wall. They know that the first one through that door makes a lot of money. It’s an inspiring thing to see in action…when the full weight of human scientific power and development is brought to bear on a technology, that technology gets better and cheaper pretty damn fast. In this way, the cost curves for renewables resemble those for computer memory or sequencing the human genome.
Some examples of recent cost-saving innovations:
- 175% increase in solar cell efficiency – Princeton researchers have found a simple and economical way to improve solar cell efficiency by using a nanostructured “sandwich” of metal and plastic that collects and traps light.
- 40% reduction in wind turbine blade costs – General Electric has high hopes for new tech that uses cloth instead of fiberglass for wind turbine blades. This approach reduces cost and opens up new design possibilities.
Through these advances and many others, it’s clear that renewables are poised to wallop fossil fuels. When a coal museum installs solar panels to save money, it’s clear that the tide has turned. As improved technologies disseminate, markets will respond by gradually phasing out fossil fuels that are unable to compete. But in truth, we can’t wait this long. Climate change is a serious threat that demands immediate action…the sooner we act the cheaper it will be and the less suffering we will endure. Governments need to spur a green revolution. Time spent waiting for markets to catch up is time wasted.
Cost, fossil fuel’s last line of defense, is now a weakness instead of a strength. The Alamo has been breached, and now there’s no going back.