February 21, 2021

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The boom in 'green' energy (The Week, February 21, 2021)

Can renewables replace fossil fuels?

Renewable energy sources like solar, wind, and hydroelectricity are already overtaking fossil fuels as the dominant means of power generation in some parts of the developed world. In 2019, 72 percent of power plant additions utilized renewables, according to the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA). For the first time, the European Union generated more electricity (38 percent) from renewables in 2020 than from fossil fuels (37 percent). The U.S. still relies heavily upon oil (37 percent), natural gas (32 percent), and coal (11 percent), but the country is on pace this year to generate more energy from renewables than from coal. Overall, renewables now account for roughly 11 percent of U.S. energy production -- with about a quarter of that derived from wind power, two-fifths from biofuels and hydroelectricity, and a 10th from solar. Rapid growth in renewables is underway: In 2020, electricity producers installed 37 gigawatts of new solar and wind capacity, shattering the record of 17 GWs from 2016. "The grid is changing so much faster than anyone expected," said Daniel Cohan, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at Rice University.

What's driving the transformation?

Cost-effectiveness. Solar panel producers have steadily achieved greater efficiencies in manufacturing and in generating more power from each individual solar cell. This has led to vast reductions in price, so that solar and wind power now have surpassed coal -- and even natural gas -- as the cheapest forms of power generation. While the price of coal power largely remained the same from 2009 to 2019, the price of solar power fell by 89 percent and onshore wind power by 70 percent, according to Lazard. The U.K., Norway, and other countries now generate a large share of their electricity from offshore wind farms, and that potential also exists for the U.S., with seven states now studying how to set up arrays. "Right now, the economics of burning coal just don't make sense," said Joe Daniel, who monitors the power sector for the Union of Concerned Scientists. The boom in renewables has another economic benefit: It has created hundreds of thousands of jobs: About 446,000 Americans worked in the solar and wind industries as of 2019 -- more than double the 211,000 in coal mining and other methods of fossil-fuel extraction.

Posted by at February 21, 2021 12:00 AM

  

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