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Renewables Tech Poised to Disrupt Fossil Fuels

Words by 3p Contributor
Energy & Environment
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By Leah Y. Parks

Exponential growth clean-energy technologies are a most powerful not-so-secret weapon for our last, best effort in the fight against disastrous climate change. A 21st-century energy transformation is already underway.  Our digital revolution is facilitating massive progress in technologies that are leading to disruption and will result in the replacement of the fossil fuel industry faster than most could imagine.

We can jump over political resistance and climate denial despite outdated and misinformed all-of-the above federal policies.  Our modern-day Edisons have done their job.  We are at a tipping point where technological innovations that have been in development for many years can now provide us with all the energy we need at ever decreasing costs.

As described in Tony Seba’s book, "Clean Disruption," “The key to the disruption of energy lies in the exponential cost and performance improvement of technologies that convert, manage, store, and share clean energy.”

We need only look at the last turn of the century to see how quickly transformation can happen.

In 1903 we took our first flight, and New York city streets were filled with buggies.  By 1914 we were fighting a war in the air and the same streets teemed with cars.  The engineering which first made spaceflight possible was developed in 1919.  Within 38 years Sputnik was launched, and 12 years later we walked on the moon.

A renewable energy infrastructure will replace the fossil fuel infrastructure because it is a better way of supplying energy.

Renewables are a superior product in part because they are technology and not a fuel.  The technology will continue to improve, and costs will continue to plummet.  Unlike renewables, the prices of fossil fuels fluctuate and are subject to market manipulation and availability.

Once solar and wind is built and paid for, the fuel is free.  Renewables, like our hydroelectric dams, will provide dependable and cheap energy for years.

Even without subsidies, as shown in Lazard’s 2015 Levelized Cost of Energy Analysis, utility-scale solar and wind prices are dropping below new natural gas costs of around 6 cents per kilowatt-hour. Solar projects are bidding as low as 3.8 cents per kWh in places like California and Nevada and as low as 3 cents per kWh, completely unsubsidized, in Chile and Dubai.  Rooftop solar PV plus energy storage systems are also price competitive in some markets, and wind is bidding as low as 2 cents per kWh.

These price drops are resulting in increased deployment.  In the year 2014 around 47% percent of utility-scale electricity capacity installed in the United States was solar and wind energy, with the remainder being natural gas.  In 2015, around 62 percent of new utility-scale electricity capacity was solar and wind energy, and 34 percent was natural gas.  Worldwide we are seeing greater deployment in tandem with falling costs.

The most noticeable first example of a fossil fuel disruption is the coal Industry.  Bankruptcy filings by coal producers are becoming ever more common. A recent study by the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA) found that price drops and increased capacity of solar and wind are major factors putting coal plants under financial stress in Texas.

Many project that oil is next.  Electric vehicles are poised to disrupt internal combustion engine cars.  Lithium-ion batteries have come down as far as $145/kWh. The bank UBS considers this price point to be a paradigm shift and lower than needed for cost parity. Affordable 200-plus mile range cars are now a reality.  General Motors and Tesla are now taking orders for the Chevy Bolt and Tesla Model 3.

A transformation to a renewable energy future is certain.

We once used oil from whale blubber to heat our homes, horses for transport, and film cameras to capture our special moments. We can expect internal combustion engine cars, natural gas boilers, and fossil fuel electricity generation to follow in the same path.  However, we are running out of time to prevent dangerous climate change.

This is no time for complacency.  Time is of the essence.  In order to keep the Earth’s temperature rise below 2 degrees Celsius, we must achieve zero greenhouse gas emissions by the year 2050 — this gives us about 35 years. The best course of action is a doable transition of reducing fossil fuels emissions by an average 3 percent transition per year.

The fossil fuel industry will not go in the direction of the buggy whip without a fight. Clean technology has become a political issue.  Acknowledgement of progress and potential for job growth is being lost.

We must continue to step up political pressure. We have already seen the transition beginning at the city-level.  The International Energy Agency (IEA), previously forecasting conservative growth, has “significantly” revised its estimates for the deployment of renewables in part due to energy security and world policies such as the Paris agreement.

The exact form our energy infrastructure will take by the year 2050 is not certain, but it will be cleaner, cheaper and safer than the one we inherited from the 20th century. Electric vehicles and trains, as well as heat pumps, will play a major role.  Solar, wind and storage, paired with digital management and energy efficiency, are already being deployed.

We are witnessing the end of an energy dinosaur.  This is a new era of clean energy, ready to obtain its fuel free of charge from the sun and wind.  Anyone looking backward will be left in the digital dust.  They will be made extinct by the unrelenting disruptive force of exponential growth technologies.

Working against entrenched interests can be frustrating and at times make optimism difficult.  In moments of doubt, let's not forget the words of Robert Hutchings Goddard, the father of space flight, “The dream of yesterday is the hope of today and the reality of tomorrow.”

Image credit: Pexels

 

Leah Y Parks is currently an associate editor for ElectricityPolicy.com and Electricity Daily and is co-author of the book, "All-Electric America: A Climate Solution and the Hopeful Future." She has acted as an advisor for technology reports and has written extensively about innovations in energy storage, smart grid technology, energy infrastructure, and renewable energy.   Ms. Parks holds a Masters of Science degree from Stanford University in Civil and Environmental Engineering and a BA from the University of Wisconsin in International Relations.