Solar Power Could Still Save the World
Award-winning solar scientist Martin Green says the technology is being underestimated in climate predictions.
Monks look at solar panels in Ladakh, India in 2017. Photo by Allison Joyce/Getty
Our future on this planet is totally, irrevocably, screwed. That would seem to be the message from last week’s major UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report. Without societal changes unprecedented in human history and trillions of dollars of new spending, it argued, humankind is to set to blow past the climate target of 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) above preindustrial temperatures scientists see as the threshold of total environmental chaos. “The report shows that we only have the slimmest of opportunities remaining to avoid unthinkable damage to the climate system that supports life as we know it,” explained Amjad Abdulla, an IPCC board member.
With Donald Trump in the White House, and Congress controlled by Republicans who have spent years blocking action on climate change, our odds of ensuring planetary survival look even slimmer. Yet in early October I spent several days with an Australian scientist who argues we may be less screwed than many people think. “I’m not a pessimist, I’m a data-driven optimist,” said Martin Green from the University of New South Wales. Here’s what the data are telling him: The cost of solar energy is dropping faster than anyone expected: 34 percent this year alone. And installations of it are skyrocketing.
If this exponential growth continues, with solar and other renewables wiping out coal usage while accelerating the transition to electric vehicles, Green told me that it’s conceivable greenhouse gas emissions could begin plummeting at rates needed to avoid the worst-case impacts of climate change.
“A couple years ago I was getting quite pessimistic… I thought, ‘Oh it’s never going to happen,’” he said. “Suddenly in 2016 we started seeing these abnormally [low] solar prices.” Solar rapidly went from being one of most expensive sources of energy to one of the cheapest. He is now certain “the time of solar has arrived and this is good news for the world.”
Green has been part of the industry since its earliest days. He founded a research group that in 1989 created the first solar cell with a 20 percent efficiency rate, a world record at the time. “We took efficiency way beyond what anyone thought possible,” he said. Green invented something called a PERC solar cell, which now accounts for over $10 billion of solar sales. His fellow lab researchers—including Zhengrong Shi, now the head of Suntech Power—played a crucial role in creating China’s solar energy industry, the world’s largest.
Green beat out Elon Musk to win this year’s Global Energy Prize, a scientific award given out annually in Russia, which he shared with Russian thermal power scientist Sergey Alekseenko. I was at the Moscow award ceremony on October 6 to receive an energy journalism prize. I attended several of Green’s talks and we spoke one-on-one about his research.
The point Green made again and again is that the mainstream political debate about addressing climate change often doesn’t align with reality. Political leaders such as Trump portray our shift off fossil fuels as costly and unreliable. “That’s an old argument,” Green told me. “The modern argument is you’re going to save money because it’s cheaper.” Two years ago total installations of solar amounted to 230 gigawatts. By the end of 2017 that number was 400 gigawatts. The US National Renewable Energy Lab predicts it could pass 1,000 gigawatts by 2023. Green thinks it may go as high as 10,000 by 2030.
He says the carbon reductions from an exploding solar industry, as well as other industrial shifts away from fossil fuels, could put us on “the right slope” to achieve the type of rapid economic transformation described in the IPCC’s recent report. Yet that is far from a given and Green said that “it will be difficult to achieve by political means” while leaders of major countries continue to deny the reality of climate change.
And even if we are able to rapidly reduce global emissions over the coming decades, that still might not be enough to avoid massive global disruptions. The recent IPCC report said that unless we cut our carbon output to effectively zero by 2050, the planet may grow inhospitable to life. At 1.5 C of warming, up to 90 percent of coral reefs may vanish, while at 2 C they could disappear entirely. Current projections suggest the world might warm between 2.7 C to 3.7 C by the year 2100. Former Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland called the report’s findings “a ticking time bomb.”
Media coverage understandably fixated on these and other apocalyptic warnings. But the IPCC report also contains hopeful news, albeit in dense and technical language. “The feasibility of solar energy, wind energy and electricity storage mechanisms have substantially improved over the past few years,” it notes.
Earlier this year a group called Lazard calculated that the cost of solar in North America fell from over $350 per megawatt hour in 2009 to $50 in 2017, while the cost of coal remained at around $102. “This recent change could be a sign that the world is on the verge of an energy revolution,” Business Insider reported. Price declines like these have occurred so rapidly in recent years that many mainstream projections for solar—including those relied on by the IPCC—haven’t fully taken them into account. “The facts have changed very quickly,” Green said. “You read any report that’s a couple years old… and it’s just irrelevant to the realities now.” He thinks that the recent IPCC report is “very conservative [on] the impact of solar.”
It’s important to note that while Green’s views seem to be shared by other influential thinkers, including recent Nobel Prize winner Paul Romer, they aren’t accepted widely in the mainstream. Even those who gave Green his award are unsure that renewables can carry us all that close to our climate change targets. “Martin’s analysis only refers to electricity,” Rodney John Allam, the chairman of the Global Energy Prize committee, told me. “It doesn’t refer to the other [energy] uses.” At the moment it’s still difficult to remove fossil fuels from industries like transportation and petrochemicals.
And the type of solar growth Green predicts would require massive—and unprecedented—levels of investment. The IPCC report estimated the world has to invest $2.4 trillion per year in renewables for any hope of hitting the 1.5 C target. Last year about $333.5 billion was invested. In 2017, the International Energy Agency calculated, roughly $715 billion went to oil and gas.
“The mainstream view is still that we can’t decarbonize our electricity system fast enough to meet the IPCC’s targets,” Bloomburg columnist David Fickling recently argued. “But a decade ago, the current situation of plateauing demand for coal and car fuel and cratering renewables costs looked equally outlandish. Given the way the world’s energy market has changed in recent years, it’s a good idea to never say never.” Green agrees. “For those of us who care about our climate, we have always feared we would have to wait for the politicians to drive change,” he said during a speech in Moscow. “We have feared it because political change can always be slow.” He continued: “But economic change is fast and we are currently witnessing it.”
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Geoff Dembicki is the author of Are We Screwed? How a New Generation Is Fighting to Survive Climate Change. Follow him on Twitter.