Based on current trends in cost and technology development, the world may already have passed a tipping point leading to solar energy inevitably becoming the world’s dominant source of electricity by 2050, according to a study by University College London and the University of Exeter.

The group ran three computer models tracking positive feedback loops in relevant areas to arrive at the study’s conclusion. 

Technology, such as the use of perovskite in solar panels instead of silicon, is steadily boosting panels’ efficiency while ongoing investment is scaling up manufacturing and cutting costs. (See “Perovskite Solar Cells Win the Payback Race” 22 Oct 2015.) 

The study’s projection is likely even if no more ambitious government policies are enacted, the scientists  said.

“We find that, due to technological trajectories set in motion by past policy, a global irreversible solar tipping point may have passed where solar energy gradually comes to dominate global electricity markets, without any further climate policies,” the study team wrote.

“Traditional models tend to assume the ‘end of learning’ at some point in the near future when, in fact, we are still seeing very rapid innovation in solar technology,” Exeter geographer Femke Nijsse said in comments quoted by IntelliNews.

Also, “there is a virtuous cycle between technologies being deployed and companies learning to do so more cheaply,” she added. “When you include this cycle in projections, you can represent the rapid growth of solar in the past decade and [project more accurately] into the future.” 

However, for solar power to dominate, substantial changes will need to be made to nations’ electric grids, such as adding massive amounts of grid-scale storage and integrating power generated from renewable sources and power generated at utility plants. (See “Battery Breakthrough for Grid Storage?” 3 Aug 2021.)

Also, fossil fuel interests will fight a rear-guard action as companies and countries fight a loss of value, income, and jobs, the study noted. That will be especially true in emerging nations whose economies depend on exporting raw materials and natural resources.

Economic and market-driven mechanisms will have little impact in resolving those political issues; instead, international efforts will need to be negotiated and coordinated.

Instead of trying to force the growth of solar power through mandates, government policies should focus instead on resolving crucial barriers by:

  • encouraging investment, or investing directly, in building a more nimble electric grid, including large-scale storage and transmission cables linking different regions. Governments’ financial incentives can jump-start this process;
  • financing solar and renewable energy development and distribution in low-income countries to help them move from domestic dependence on fossil fuels;
  • fostering faster and expanded development of the metals and minerals on which solar and renewable energy hardware depend;
  • crafting regional economic, industrial development, and worker training policies to offset losses caused as fossil fuel-related industries decline.

TRENDPOST: As is always the case, technology advances more quickly than the infrastructure, policies, and attitudes needed to make the best use of it.

Global oil demand will soon peak (“Oil Demand Will Stagnate in Next Five Years, IEA Predicts” 20 Jun 2023) or has peaked already (“China’s Largest Oil Company Says Gasoline Demand is Permanently Declining” 3 Oct 2023).

Microgrids and decentralized power systems are proliferating, as we reported in “Electricity Microgrids Going Mainstream” (22 Mar 2018) and “Goodbye, Electric Grid” (22 Oct 2015).

“Instead of workaday electricity being generated by giant, centralized generating stations, ‘the solar on the rooftop is going to be the baseload’,” National Grid then-CEO Steve Holliday said in 2015. “‘The world is clearly moving towards much more distributed electricity production and towards microgrids. The idea of baseload power is already outdated. From a consumer’s point of view, baseload is what I’m producing myself,’ not what utilities make in a central location.”

As a result, the grid will not need to be transformed to meet today’s demand but, instead, a demand that is gradually being reduced because centralized power is being replaced by workable alternatives. For an example, see “Meet the Future: Decentralized Power Plant Launches in U.K.” (21 Feb 2023) and “Sweden: The Future of Energy?” (20 Oct 2020).

Those efforts to decouple from the centralized power grid will gain momentum but still will proceed in jerks and fits. 

However, as public demand continues to increase for clean energy, corporations will respond, private investment will grow, and the needed infrastructure will begin to be built.

Clear progress from today’s theoretical tipping point to a 2050 defined by solar and other renewably sourced electricity will not be visible until after 2030, due largely to political opposition and business’s reluctance to bankroll a massive shift in the current business model.

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