Prices for wind and solar have collapsed in the past three years, meaning that by the end of the decade, 90% will be economically competitive with fossil fuels, according to a report by U.K.-based think tank Carbontracker. Already, some 60% of global solar resources and 15% of wind are competitive. By 2030, that will be all of solar and more than half of wind, the report says.
According to the study, existing technology can capture at least 6,700 Petawatt hours (PWh) a year from solar and wind, which is more than 100 times global energy demand. (A PWh is 1,000 times as much electricity as a Terawatt hour, which is how most people measure electricity demand. For example, total global energy consumption in 2019 was 65 PWh.)
Carbontracker estimates that building enough solar panels to meet global energy demand would take up just 0.3% of land, less than the area occupied by fossil fuels.
Kingsmill Bond, one of the report’s authors, chatted with Barron’s about the report’s findings and how peak oil may already be behind us. Bond, based in the U.K., has wide experience in the financial markets as a former analyst and strategist for Deutsche Bank, Sberbank and Citibank covering oil companies and emerging markets. Today, as the energy strategist for Carbontracker, he believes the energy transition is the most important driver of financial markets and geopolitics in the modern era.
Barron’s: Solar costs are down 18% on average since 2010. What are the ramifications?
Bond: Over the last two to three years, we’ve crossed into a new world. We wanted to calculate how big the global potential was [for wind and solar] and compare it to the size of fossil-fuel resources. We’re not saying carpet the land. We pulled together a lot of different databases. We look at four different groups: One one hand, countries where wind and solar potential are more than 1,000 times energy demand, and on the other hand, countries where it’s less than 10. The sun is incredibly cheap energy. You can close the blinds, you can close the shutters, but the incredibly cheap energy of the sun will find a way. Sun and wind is at $20 to $30 per megawatt in leading countries like Portugal and in the report, we reference average costs of $40 to $50. It’s finding ways to displace the fossil fuel alternative. Rather than say, “oh in this country, or in this sector, it’s really hard to displace coal production,” the report is saying there are lots of places with cheap energy resources.
You can put a solar panel on five square meters of land anywhere in the world and have as much energy every year as you would get from a barrel of oil. You could do that cheaply today. And suddenly, you’ve released this cornucopia of entrepreneurial opportunity. Every year, solar installations grow more than almost anyone forecasts. If humanity is good at anything as a species, it’s figuring out how to exploit cheap energy.
Where are the countries where renewable supply is only a small multiple of energy demand?
The countries where supply is less than 10 times demand is just 6% of the global population: It’s northern Europe, Korea, Japan, and Singapore. The reason why is they’re not particularly sunny, they’re quite densely populated and have high levels of energy demand.That’s why it’s so hard. The point is, in many other countries it’s higher and easier. Morocco is 500. The U.S. is 41 and Portugal is 45. You just have to go out and collect it. There’s a subset of countries where it’s more than 1,000 times, as you might expect, which are relatively poor without high levels of population density and lots of land. Africa could become a renewables superpower.
What’s standing in the way?
The debate is framed in terms of the incumbency saying renewables are hard, expensive and can’t be done in this and that country. We want to say Stop. Think about it. It’s a cheap energy resource, growing very quickly.
The obvious answer is technology transfer. But when you think about U.S. liquid natural gas producers wandering the world trying to flog people their extremely expensive LNG, what governments should do is encourage people to put up and deploy solar panels. This is a political problem. How powerful are the forces of incumbency? You get a very clear bifurcation. Some 80% of the world lives in countries that import fossil fuels and 20% in providers like Russia and the Middle East and Australia. They [the latter] will be laggards to transition. The entire elite lives on the fat rents of fossil fuels.
The point is that for the 80% of us that live in countries that import, the political economy will over time shift in favor of deploying domestic renewable resources, because they’re local, clean and create jobs. That’s what you see in Biden’s new infrastructure plan. But just imagine, that’s what people are going to do all over the world.
You’re a former oil analyst. The International Energy Agency still sees total demand rising through 2026. When is peak oil?
I personally think peak oil was in 2019. We’ve now reached a plateau of demand for fossil fuels. In 2022-2023, you’re more or less back to the demand of 2019. That plateau will last between three and 10 years. After that will come a cliff. All the growth starts to come from renewables. This is not such an aggressive observation as it might sound. It’s just the law of numbers. Whenever a fast growing new technology gets to a market share of 3% in a slow growing system, just mathematically it will at that point start to get a large share of the growth. It is pretty simple. Imagine you are growing 20% in a system with 1% growth. If you have a market share of 3%, then at 20% growth you have total growth of 0.6%—which is 60% of market growth. In 2019 fossil fuel demand from electricity generation fell. All of the growth was already being taken by non-fossil-fuel sources. Even pre-crisis, you already had a situation where these fast-growing technologies were starting to push fossil fuels out. Last year, solar and wind grew 20% during the pandemic. That’s what’s so exciting.
Thank you very much.