We are winning the war against climate change thanks to exponential fall in solar costs

  •   3 min reads
We are winning the war against climate change thanks to exponential fall in solar costs

The IPCC's projections on climate change are too pessimistic, suggests a new report, and why? Because of the way solar energy is falling in costs exponentially climate change can be defeated.

Climate change poses a massive threat to humanity — so far, so pessimistic. I sometimes think that the IPCC is so terrified of making claims that are proven to be too pessimistic it downplays the downside. But suppose temperatures reach a certain point such that the tundra melts in northern Asia and Europe, releasing horrific volumes of methane into the atmosphere, accelerating warming, leading to the melting of the entire northern and southern ice cap. Yes, I think climate change is scary, and in the list of deniers, climate change deniers annoy me even more than Covid deniers.

And yet, I am a climate change optimist; I am optimistic because of one word: exponential. Renewable energies and lithium-ion batteries are falling in cost at a trajectory called a learning rate — which is an exponential function. But since the word exponential winds up deniers of all types, consensus has stopped saying exponential and says learning rate as it sounds more scientific. (Learning rate actually describes how the percentage fall in cost of a technology relative to each doubling in total output). Solar energy has been subject to an especially ferocious learning rate, but organisations such as the IPCC and International Energy Agency have underestimated the implications. As a result, suggests a new paper, in its climate change projections, the IPCC is too pessimistic, and it is underestimating the potential impact of solar.

The paper stated: "Throughout the last decade, a higher capacity of solar PV was installed globally than any other power-generation technology, and cumulative capacity at the end of 2019 accounted for more than 600 GW. However, many future low-carbon energy scenarios have failed to identify the potential of this technology."
Marta Victoria, the lead author of the report and Professor at the Department of Mechanical and Production Engineering, Aarhus University, said: "There is good reason to believe that the rapid cost development of solar photovoltaic technology will continue. Intensive research is conducted into the technology itself, its integration into energy systems, as well as its synergy with other industries."

"We're looking at a future where energy from solar photovoltaics is even cheaper than today. This fact doesn't harmonise with the models behind political decisions about energy investments."
Of course, there is no guarantee that a benign outcome in which we manage to limit global warming to less than 1.5 degrees will be achieved. But frankly, I would say the biggest threat to defeating climate change is the constant bleating of renewable energy sceptics, who seem to think that enormously expensive nuclear, which is not complementary to renewables, is the solution to climate change.

The Nuclear myth: Small modular nuclear reactors are not good complements to renewable energies

But we can only be sure of fully mobilising corporations, governments and consumers in the war against climate change if scientists and engineers can create a cost-effective solution. Solar in combination with wind and every storage is that solution.
But the IPCC is not alone in underestimating the potential impact of renewables. The International Energy Agency (IEA) has been consistently underestimating renewable energies' growth for over a decade.

The IEA has revised its renewable projection upwards every year since at least 1995.

So what is going on?

The problem is simply that as a species, we don't instinctively get exponential. We might understand it at an intellectual level but not deep down, in our bones.

We tend to think linearly.

As Climate Nexus states: "The IEA's World Energy Outlooks assume linear growth for solar and wind power, whereas these technologies have grown exponentially in the last decades and are expected to continue this pattern of growth for decades to come."
And the ramifications go beyond climate change.

Multiple technologies are changing exponentially. They will also converge. This will create a period of super-rapid change. The implications are tremendously exciting but also terrifying. While Covid denialism may have cost thousands of lives, and climate change denialism may extract a much greater cost than Covid, technology denialism is the most dangerous of all. Head in sands, Luddite philosophy applied to technology will leave us unprepared for the changes it will bring, and that scares me even more than climate change.

If you want to know more about how technology will change society, for good or ill and the dangers of technology denialism, read:  Living in the age of the Jerk

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