The Global Clean Energy Revolution: Plunging Costs, Soaring Health and Economic Benefits

The Global Clean Energy Revolution: Plunging Costs, Soaring Health and Economic Benefits

A decade ago, only a tiny fraction of the nation’s electricity came from renewable energy. Today, wind and solar power, and the batteries to store it, are dramatically reshaping the energy landscape, as technological innovation and plunging costs push dirty, dangerous and expensive coal, nuclear and natural gas from the marketplace.

Of course, the clean energy revolution is not an American phenomenon. Much of Europe is well ahead of the U.S., and the trend is also evident in other global regions, including developing nations. Two recent studies by the International Renewable Energy Agency, or IRENA, show how quickly the transition is taking place, and why it’s not only technically but also economically feasible to meet international goals for mitigating the climate crisis.

In the first report, IRENA shows that the overwhelming majority of large solar and onshore wind projects now in the pipeline for 2020 will cost less than the cheapest coal or natural gas option, if government subsidies are counted as part of the cost of fossil fuel generation.  

European offshore wind costs are projected to plummet to 6 cents per kilowatt-hour by 2022 – less than half of the current average rate charged to U.S. residential customers. That bodes well for offshore wind development on the East Coast, where nearly 20,000 megawatts are planned through 2030 – nearly matching current global offshore wind capacity.

In the second report, the agency describes what it would take to meet the target of the Paris climate agreement of keeping global temperatures from rising more than 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit.

To meet that goal on a global scale by 2050, a little less than 90 percent of power generation would have to come from renewables, mostly wind and solar. Most of that, 60 percent, would be wind and solar investments. More than 40 percent of the transportation sector would run on electric storage batteries. Heating would be converted to high-efficiency, electric heat pumps. Biofuels would address sectors that are more difficult to electrify, such as shipping and industry. 

IRENA says that doing all this would cost a lot of money – $15 trillion more than what the agency currently assumes will come from private investment. But that cost is steady decreasing, dropping by 40 percent from what IRENA estimated just last year. Cheaper renewables and the phasing out of fossil fuel subsidies would save $10 trillion.

Savings from reduced subsidies, and lower health and climate-damage costs from phasing out fossil fuels, would yield $3 to $7 for every dollar spent, or up to $160 trillion, much more than the direct costs of the transition. Jobs created by renewables, energy efficiency and other investments would far exceed those lost from phasing out fossil fuels. The global economy would be boosted by nearly $100 trillion.

At home and abroad, the evidence points to this: The more we invest in renewables, battery storage and electrification of heating and transportation, the less expensive a move toward 100 percent renewables becomes – and the greater the benefit to public health, the economy and the planet.