Al Gore has something of a reputation as the Cassandra of climate change. But amid the doom and gloom—melting glaciers, ever-rising carbon levels, accelerating species extinction—the former vice president has been positively sunny of late.
Why? Solar energy. “There is surprising—even shocking—good news: Our ability to convert sunshine into usable energy has become much cheaper far more rapidly than anyone had predicted,” Gore wrote recently in Rolling Stone. “By 2020—as the scale of deployments grows and the costs continue to decline—more than 80 percent of the world’s people will live in regions where solar will be competitive with electricity from other sources.”
Now a new report substantiates Gore’s optimism. Research firm Bloomberg New Energy Finance predicts renewable energy will account for 49 percent of the world’s power by 2030, with another 6 percent coming from carbon-free nuclear power plants. Solar, wind, and other emissions-free sources will account for 60 percent of the 5,579 gigawatts of new energy capacity expected to be installed between now and 2030, representing 65 percent of the $7.7 trillion that will be invested.
Gore is right that solar is driving the shift away from fossil fuels, thanks to plummeting prices for photovoltaic panels and the fact that solar fuel—sunshine—is free.
“A small-scale solar revolution will take place over the next 16 years thanks to increasingly attractive economics in both developed and developing countries, attracting the largest single share of cumulative investment over 2013–26,” the report states.
Solar will outpace wind as an energy source, with photovoltaic power accounting for an estimated 18 percent of worldwide energy capacity, compared to 12 percent for wind. That’s not surprising given that a solar panel can be put on just about any home or building where the sun shines. Erecting a 100-foot-tall wind turbine in your backyard usually isn’t an option.
In the United States, solar is projected to supply 10 percent of energy capacity, up from 1 percent today. In Germany, though, solar and wind will account for a whopping 52 percent of all power generated by 2030, according to the BNEF estimate.
These are all projections, of course, based on the existing pipeline of projects and national policies and involving a certain amount of guesswork.
The big wild card is what happens in developing nations like China and India, where energy demand is expected to skyrocket with a burgeoning middle class. Energy consumption will grow to an estimated 115 percent in China and 200 percent in India over the next 16 years. (Falling birth rates in the West mean that energy use will drop 2 percent in Japan, for instance, and 0.2 percent in Germany.)
Whether the world kicks its reliance on coal-fired electricity will depend in large part on what kind of energy choices China and India make. China installed a record amount of solar capacity last year and has set ambitious goals for ramping up renewable energy production.
But old ways die hard. While the Obama administration has proposed regulations to slash carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants, the U.S. Export-Import Bank, on the other hand, is considering financing a 4,000-megawatt coal-fired power station in India.
The good news, though, is that individuals around the world can make a difference with their personal power choices. According to BNEF, much of the solar energy to be generated over the next 16 years will come from solar panels installed on residential roofs.