Have we reached electricity’s carbon-free tipping point?

That’s the title of my latest piece in Inside Story, expanding on this recent post. More over the fold

Looking at recent news on global heating, it’s easy to give way to despair. After a brief slowdown during the lockdown phase of the Covid pandemic emissions of greenhouse gases have continued to rise. Even coal, which reached a plateau in 2013, bounced back as a result of the cutoff of Russian gas, hit an all-time high in 2022.

But there are some bright spots. In particular, there’s a good chance that 2023 will be the year that coal use finally begins a sustained decline, and relatedly the year the carbon dioxide emissions from electricity generation start to fall. And, once the transition begins in earnest, it will accelerate rapidly.

This is by no means a sure thing. The International Energy Agency predicts that the current equilibirum, in which nearly all new electricity demand will be met by solar PV and wind[1], will be sustained for several years to come. That would leave coal and gas use almost unchanged. But the IEA has a long track record of underestimating solar and wind, and there are plenty of reasons to think that this has happened again

Total electricity demand is currently a bit over 25000 TWh (terawatt hours a year), growing at around 3 per cent per year. So, to meet the growing demand, we need to generate an additional 750 TWh from solar and wind ( Other carbon-free sources, such as hydro and nuclear have been essentially static.)

Assuming solar PV generates at full power for 2000 hours per year, each gigawatt (GW) of solar capacity generates two TWh of electricity per year. So, meeting additional demand with solar alone requires addition of between 375 GW of solar PV per year, with any shortfall made up by wind.

The good news is, that’s already happening. Bloomberg BNEF estimates 315 GW of solar will be installed in 2023, up from 268GW in 2022. Additions of wind power have been around 100 GW a year recently, which amounts to between 250 and 300 TWh per year.
Assuming the 2022 installations are already connected to global grids, we should see a reduction in carbon-based electricity generation this year, and steadily larger reductions in the future. That will be true even if electricity begins to substitute for oil and gas in transport, heating, cooking and so on.

Underlying this shift is the steadily decreasing cost of wind and, even more, solar power. This trend was interrupted by the supply shocks of the pandemic and Putin’s war, which led to a big increase in the price of polysilicon, as well as those of coal and gas. But while coal and gas prices remain high, the polysilicon price, while still volatile, has dropped back to more normal levels.

More importantly, new investment in solar PV is raising production capacity even further Output of polysilicon is heading for 500GW by the end of this year, and this will translate fairly quickly into production and installation of solar cells. https://pv-magazine-usa.com/2022/08/30/polysilicon-price-relief-in-2023-as-industry-scales-to-500-gw-capacity/, and as much as 700GW by 2025. https://cleantechnica.com/2023/02/27/solar-installation-growth-expected-to-reach-700-gw-by-2025/ Installations on that scale would imply a rapid shutdown of existing coal-fired and gas-fired generation.

Is this feasible? In terms of simple economics, the answer is clearly “Yes”. Solar PV and wind have been cheaper than new coal or gas for some time. They are now cheaper than continued operation of existing coal and gas in many places. And as the example of South Australia shows, the problems of intermittent supply can be resolved with a combination of battery storage, interconnection and a modest amount of gas-fired power, in a system which now relies in wind and solar for as much as 80 per cent of its power https://reneweconomy.com.au/south-australia-enjoys-80-1-pct-wind-and-solar-share-in-blackout-free-summer/

The task is even simpler where pumped hydro power is available for storage, or where existing nuclear power plants can supply any remaining demand for 24-hour power (new nuclear is hopelessly uneconomic).

And technological progress continues apace. Commercially available solar cells now routinely exceed 20 per cent efficiency https://www.cleanenergyreviews.info/blog/most-efficient-solar-panels, while new multi-junction technologies are approaching 50 per cent https://www.nrel.gov/pv/interactive-cell-efficiency.html

Concerns that shortages of ‘critical minerals’ like lithium and cobalt will constrain the process appear misplaced. Some sources of these minerals, such as lithium brines and cobalt mines in Africa are indeed problematic, as is China’s dominant position as a supplier of refined ores and batteries. But there are always alternative sources. Australia has huge resources of lithium, derived from ordinary hard rock mining. We are now developing refining, and could easily manufacture batteries for domestic use and export. Similarly, the price of cobalt has plunged recently, partly because of competition from lithium and partly because of a new source of supply, as a by-product of Indonesian nickel plants

As the urgency of ending reliance on coal, gas and oil has become more evident, supportive policies have reduced costs. The result is that solar panels are expected to become cheaper in 2023 and beyond. https://www.latestcarnews.net/solar-panel-prices-will-be-cheaper-in-2023/ In Europe, the need to respond to the cutoff of Russian gas and oil has led to the removal of some of the NIMBY obstacles to wind farms, transmission lines and so on that have delayed the transition.

The big exception to all of this is China, where coal-fired power has made a resurgence. Up to 100 new coal plants have been granted permits in the last year. This doesn’t make economic or geopolitical sense for China. It does, however, make plenty of sense for regional governments desperate to keep up a flow of large projects, both to maintain employment in coal-related industries, and for the corruption opportunities such projects inevitably generate. It seems likely that most of these plants will, if they are completed at all, lose money and either close early or force the early closure of competing plants.

In our current energy system, electricity is only part of the story, accounting for around a third of energy-related emissions. But electrification, based on carbon-free sources, is the only realistic path to decarbonizing transport and producing the hydrogen needed to replace coal and methane gas in industrial uses. If this is to be achieved in reasonable time, even 700 GW of new solar every year won’t be enough. Production will have to shift to a Terawatt scale.

There’s still no sign of the urgency needed here, certainly not in Australia. But in electricity at least, there has been far more progress than seemed possible ten or even five years ago.

fn1. I avoid the terms ‘renewables’ and ‘fossil fuels’ which date back to the energy crises of the 1970s, when we were worried about running out of oil and coal. What matters isn’t that solar and wind are renewable, it’s that they are carbon-free.

3 thoughts on “Have we reached electricity’s carbon-free tipping point?

  1. Important to note that simply taking over BAU electricity use isn’t enough. Electricity generated is only about a quarter of energy consumption across the Australian economy (with some efficiencies available from EV adoption). And our energy exports are several times our total domestic consumption over again.

  2. Betteridge’s law of headlines: Any headline that ends in a question mark can be answered by the word “no”. To be fair, iwe may have reached the carbon-free tipping point per se but this also seems to mean very little in proper context. The issues are matters of scale, rates, proportions and proximity to limits: or the rate of beneficial decline versus our imminent collision with global tipping points. The momentum of the system appears to be carrying us far beyond safe limits and we are not slowing down or turning around this system nearly fast enough.

    “In 2020, the global primary energy mix was made up of:

    Oil: 31.6%
    Coal: 27.6%
    Gas: 25%
    Nuclear: 4.4%
    Hydropower: 7%
    Wind: 2.6%
    Solar: 1.4%
    Other renewables: 0.5%” – Our World in Data.

    That is 84.2% from fossil fuels and 15.8% from non-fossil sources.

    Electricity production in 2021 by fuel source was:

    Coal: 36%
    Gas: 22.9%
    Hydro: 15%
    Nuclear: 9.8%
    Wind 6.5%
    Solar: 3.6%
    Other: 3.6%
    Oil: 2.5%

    Source World Energy Data. Adds up to 99.9% due to rounding errors, I assume.

    That is to say still over 60% of even electrical power comes from fossil fuels. And of course the full energy source picture is much worse and changing, it seems. too slowly relative to the proximity of dangerous climate tipping points.

    “According to the landmark ‘United in Science 2021’, there “is no sign of growing back greener”, as carbon dioxide emissions are rapidly accelerating, after a temporary blip in 2020 due to COVID, and nowhere close to the targets set by the Paris Agreement.

    “We have reached a tipping point on the need for climate action. The disruption to our climate and our planet is already worse than we thought, and it is moving faster than predicted”, UN Secretary General António Guterres underscored in a video message. “This report shows just how far off course we are”, he added.” – from “‘Tipping point’ for climate action: Time’s running out to avoid catastrophic heating”, UN Report.

    The problem we face is that most people don’t understand how urgent the problem is. The elites either don’t understand or don’t care. The latter would suggest that they have a different plan. I doubt it’s a good plan either scientifically or morally.

    Neither optimism nor pessimism seem to help. Saying we can do this and that there are hopeful signs simply confirms people in their complacency and gives succor to business as usual. Saying we can’t do this encourages denialism or defeatism.

    Working within the current paradigm (capitalism or more specifically neoliberal unfettered market capitalism) is not going to work. This system is programmed to *not* address the problems. It is also programmed to program people to not address the problems. People are being programmed by institutional structures and propaganda (advertising) which deliver respectively, institutional control of people and the general brainwashing of the population into a false consciousness (a lack of perception of the real system dangers). We get the manufacture of obedience, consent and excess mass consumption.

    Against the billions and even trillions of dollars used in purchasing real labor, real energy and real materials employed in this manufacture of obedience, consent and damaging mass consumption, we can oppose only our opinions it seems. On shoestring budgets, compared to the big boys, we opinionate on blogs and in social media. This doesn’t seem to move the dial. There is also a cottage industry of articles in the alternative media. This doesn’t seem to move the dial either. Of course, doing nothing does not seem an option either and maybe enough dissent in voting, in social media and in alternative media will gain some traction and change the “mass mind” or our mass direction.

    I admit myself bereft of firm ideas. I note that under our current system the status quo is built and maintained hegemonically / centrically and dissent and other views become fractured at the periphery. Dissent needs to eat its way into the core. How could that happen? Perhaps a precondition would be not just broad dissatisfaction with the current economy but dissatisfaction and dissent with even the very casting of society as centrally or fundamentally economic. Economics is important but is properly a third, fourth or fifth order concern as Canadian philosopher John Ralston Saul has said. As more important then economics, I would place moral philosophy (ethics if you like), democracy, science (pure and applied) and social-democratic governance and institutions.

    We need to stop looking at society through an economic lens. We need to stop thinking that a prescriptive system with nominal counters (dollars) can correctly program all responses and all behaviors to all real systems. (That is the premise of market fundamentalism.) That is what we are doing currently and the real systems of humans, societies, ecosystems, climate and biosphere are all decaying and spinning out of control (going beyond tipping points to enter new, dangerous, chaotic states). There needs to be a radical demotion of economics from its damaging primacy in our system, in our debates and in our conceptualizations and proposed answers. We need not so much to reform (conventional, non-bowdlerized) economics as to demote it to its proper, quite limited place.

  3. At least we are at a point where one can buy an electric car and be confident it is more environmental friendly than a comparable conventional one in many places over the predictable usage time, same goes for heat pumps. That’s something.

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