World may have crossed solar power ‘tipping point’
by Staff Writers
Exeter UK (SPX) Oct 19, 2023
The world may have crossed a “tipping point” that will inevitably make solar power our main source of energy, new research suggests.
The study, based on a data-driven model of technology and economics, finds that solar PV (photovoltaics) is likely to become the dominant power source before 2050 – even without support from more ambitious climate policies.
However, it warns four “barriers” could hamper this: creation of stable power grids, financing solar in developing economies, capacity of supply chains, and political resistance from regions that lose jobs.
The researchers say policies resolving these barriers may be more effective than price instruments such as carbon taxes in accelerating the clean energy transition.
The study, led by the University of Exeter and University College London, is part of the Economics of Energy Innovation and System Transition (EEIST) project, funded by the UK Government’s Department for Energy Security and Net Zero and the Children’s Investment Fund Foundation (CIFF).
“The recent progress of renewables means that fossil fuel-dominated projections are no longer realistic,” Dr Femke Nijsse, from Exeter’s Global Systems Institute.
“In other words, we have avoided the ‘business as usual’ scenario for the power sector.
“However, older projections often rely on models that see innovation as something happening outside of the economy.
“In reality, there is a virtuous cycle between technologies being deployed and companies learning to do so more cheaply.
“When you include this cycle in projections, you can represent the rapid growth of solar in the past decade and into the future.
“Traditional models also tend to assume the ‘end of learning’ at some point in the near future – when in fact we are still seeing very rapid innovation in solar technology.
“Using three models that track positive feedbacks, we project that solar PV will dominate the global energy mix by the middle of this century.”
However, the researchers warn that solar-dominated electricity systems could become “locked into configurations that are neither resilient nor sustainable, with a reliance on fossil fuel for dispatchable power”.
Instead of trying to bring about the solar transition in itself, governments should focus policies on overcoming the four key “barriers”:
+ Grid resilience: Solar generation is variable (day/night, season, weather) so grids must be designed for this. Dr Nijsse said: “If you don’t put the processes in place to deal with that variability, you could end up having to compensate by burning fossil fuels.” She said methods of building resilience include investing in other renewables such as wind, transmission cables linking different regions, extensive electricity storage and policy to manage demand (such as incentives to charge electric cars at non-peak times). Government subsidies and funding for R and D are important in the early stages of creating a resilient grid, she added.
+ Access to finance: Solar growth will inevitably depend on the availability of finance. At present, low-carbon finance is highly concentrated in high-income countries. Even international funding largely favours middle-income countries, leaving lower-income countries – particularly those in Africa – deficient in solar finance despite the enormous investment potential.
+ Supply chains: A solar-dominated future is likely to be metal- and mineral-intensive. Future demand for “critical minerals” will increase. Electrification and batteries require large-scale raw materials such as lithium and copper. As countries accelerate their decarbonisation efforts, renewable technologies are projected to make up 40% of total mineral demand for copper and rare earth elements, between 60 and 70% for nickel and cobalt, and almost 90% for lithium by 2040.
+ Political opposition: Resistance from declining industries may impact the transition. The pace of the transition depends not only on economic decisions by entrepreneurs, but also on how desirable policy makers consider it. A rapid solar transition may put at risk the livelihood of up to 13 million people worldwide working in fossil fuel industries and dependent industries. Regional economic and industrial development policies can resolve inequity and can mitigate risks posed by resistance from declining industries.
Commenting on the financial barrier, Dr Nadia Ameli from UCL’s Institute for Sustainable Resources, said: “There is a growing belief that, with the dramatic decline in the global average cost of renewables, it will be much easier for the developing world to decarbonise.
“Our study reveals persistent hurdles, especially considering the challenges these nations face in accessing capital under equitable conditions.
“Appropriate finance remains imperative to expedite the global decarbonisation agenda.”
The paper, published in the journal Nature Communications, is entitled: “The momentum of solar energy.”
EEIST’s contributing authors are drawn from a wide range of institutions. For full institutional affiliations see www.eeist.co.uk
The contents of this study represent the views of the authors, and should not be taken to represent the views of the UK government, CIFF or the organisations to which the authors are affiliated, or of any of the sponsoring organisations.
Later this year, during COP28, a research team led by the University of Exeter will publish the first Global Tipping Points Report, the most comprehensive ever assessment of climate tipping points and positive tipping points that could help tackle the climate crisis.
Research Report:The momentum of the solar energy transition
Comprehensive Analyst Summary:
1. Solar/Energy Industry Analyst: 9/10
2. Stock and Finance Market Analyst: 8/10
3. Government Policy Analyst: 10/10
The article posits that the world has crossed a solar power ‘tipping point,’ suggesting that solar PV (photovoltaics) is on course to become the primary energy source by 2050 even without ambitious climate policies. While this represents a paradigm shift in energy production, the article also highlights four significant barriers-grid stability, financing in developing economies, supply chain capacity, and political resistance-that could decelerate this transition.
Solar/Energy Industry Perspective:
For the solar industry, the news is largely positive, affirming the rapid technological advancement and cost-reduction cycles within the sector. However, the article implies that supply chain management-particularly around critical minerals like lithium, copper, and rare earths-will become increasingly pressing. It also stresses the importance of grid resilience, thereby opening new avenues for adjacent technologies like energy storage and smart grids.
Stock and Finance Market Perspective:
The bullish outlook on solar suggests an imminent growth in market capitalization for companies in the solar and renewable energy sectors. However, financing remains a challenge, particularly in low-income countries, which creates an opportunity for impact investing and specialized financial products that mitigate risk and ensure a return on investment.
Government Policy Perspective:
For policy analysts, this article underlines the significance of multi-dimensional strategies beyond just fiscal incentives like carbon taxes. Policies must focus on creating resilient grids, fostering economic equality through targeted financing, and managing the socio-political ramifications of a rapid transition away from fossil fuels.
Historical and Trend Context:
In the past 25 years, solar power has evolved from a marginal, experimental energy source to a cost-competitive, scalable option. In the late 90s, solar power was barely a blip on the energy landscape, fraught with technological and financial challenges. Fast forward to today, and we’re discussing its inevitability as the dominant energy source. This rate of growth and adaptation is unprecedented, making older, fossil fuel-centric models obsolete.
Questions for Further Investigation:
1. How can the global supply chain for critical minerals be made more sustainable and resilient?
2. What innovative financial mechanisms can be deployed to enable solar financing in low-income countries?
3. How can grid infrastructure be retrofitted or built anew to manage the variability of solar energy efficiently?
4. What are the potential economic consequences for regions heavily dependent on fossil fuel industries, and how can they be mitigated?
5. Can policy interventions accelerate the positive feedback loop between technology deployment and cost reduction in solar energy?
Overall, the article serves as a comprehensive touchpoint, validating the rapid strides made in solar energy while cautioning against complacency due to the significant barriers that remain. It appeals to multiple stakeholders-industry participants, financial markets, and policy-makers-urging them to collaborate for a more resilient and equitable energy future.