A new report shows that plummeting costs for wind, solar and batteries mean a rapid shift to clean energy could come at no extra cost.
By Jeremy Deaton
Experts disagree about how fast the United States can replace coal and gas-fired power plants with zero-carbon electricity. Some say we can shift to 100 percentclean power by 2050 with little friction and minimal cost. Others say that’s unrealisticallyoptimistic. Scientists on both sides of the argument agree that it’s possible to get to 80 or 90 percent clean power. The debate centers on that last 10 or 20 percent.
Researchers tried to get around this sticking point in a new analysis from UC Berkeley. Instead of asking, “how much?” they asked “how fast?” — specifically, how fast we could get to 90 percent zero-carbon power — meaning wind, solar, hydropower and nuclear power — at no extra cost to consumers. Thanks to rapidly falling costs for wind turbines, solar panels and batteries, the answer is 2035.
“We’re spending too much time stressing about the last 10 percent and not enough time thinking about the first 90 percent,” said Ric O’Connell, executive director of GridLab, a clean energy consulting firm, and co-author of the report. “So let’s focus on the first 90 percent.”
When utilities build a new power plant, they pass the cost on to ratepayers. By 2035, ratepayers will have paid off most gas- or coal-fired power plants running today, meaning consumers won’t lose money if utilities shut those plants down early. That’s what researchers mean by “no extra cost.” Ratepayers will be funding new, exclusively carbon-free power plants after they have paid off the old ones. Cutting pollution will help people breathe easier, reducing health care costs, making it cheaper overall to move to shift away from fossil fuels.
By building out wind, solar and battery storage, the authors say, we can take every coal-fired plant offline, as well as a number of gas-fired power plants. We would use the remaining gas-fired power plants to supply electricity when needed. Fossil fuels would only account for 10 percent of the power supply, while nuclear power and hydropower — which generate no carbon pollution— would account for around 20 percent. The remaining 70 percent will come from wind and solar paired with battery storage — meaning 90 percent of our electricity would come from zero-carbon sources.
The cost of renewable energy has fallen precipitously over the past decade, consistently outpacing expert projections. From 2009 to 2019, the cost of wind power fell 70 percent, while the cost of large-scale solar fell close to 90 percent, according to Lazard. From 2010 to 2019, the cost of batteries also dropped close to 90 percent, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance. The falling costs of batteries is a game changer, because batteries can store power for when the sky is dark and the wind is idle.
“The pace of technology development has typically been underestimated,” said Amol Phadke, an energy research scientist at UC Berkeley and lead author of the report. “In my career, all my projections have been conservative.” He said that experts have grown more and more optimistic about how fast costs will drop in the years to come.
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