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The growth of cheap, abundant solar power is a reason to get excited about preventing catastrophic climate change

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A member of Extinction Rebellion attends an Earth Day event in Bogota on April 22.Luisa Gonzalez/Reuters

Chris Turner is the author of How to Be a Climate Optimist: Blueprints for a Better World.

I first reported on solar power in the spring and summer of 2008. Everywhere I went, the outlook was mighty sunny already, and seemed to be growing brighter by the day. Costs were dropping, demand soaring, solar panel efficiency improving and governments around the world were backing the business with growing enthusiasm.

Still, clouds lingered on the horizon. Solar was substantially subsidized. It was still among the most expensive ways to generate electricity in much of the world. Would it ever truly deliver on its promise of plentiful, ubiquitous power drawn directly from the massive fusion reactor known as the sun? Or would it always remain stuck somewhere between a luxury bauble and a utopian fantasy, while fossil fuels continued their reign?

The industry’s vanguard certainly knew how to hype their business, even in those early days. A German executive touted his company’s product to me as the “Tin Lizzie” of solar – the first truly mass-produced version, he meant. The beginning of an epochal shift. And a Silicon Valley entrepreneur reckoned he and his colleagues were the electricity-biz equivalent of the makers of the first personal computers, soon to upend the world of hulking dinosaur-fuelled mainframes. So I was perhaps chatting with Steve Jobs and Henry Ford, with an assist from Thomas Edison. And yet I never felt sure that I was rubbing shoulders with inventors and entrepreneurs who would change the world forever. Such was the inertia of the global energy industry and the seemingly immovable weight of its fossil fuel incumbents.

The most concise way to explain how I came to be a committed climate optimist is what happened next. Solar power got cheap, everywhere, fast. The average cost of a solar panel has plummeted by more than 90 per cent since that summer I spent gawking at expensive solar installations. Supposed problems of scale and speed and intermittency soon evaporated in the bright sunshine of the industry’s rapid growth phase.

“I see solar becoming the new king of the world’s electricity markets,” International Energy Agency executive director Fatih Birol announced in the IEA’s 2020 World Energy Outlook. A decade earlier, the agency had stodgily guessed that by 2024 there might be 180 gigawatts of solar power feeding the world’s grids. Roughly that amount was added in 2021 alone, bringing global capacity to nearly 900 gigawatts, at an average price roughly 80 per cent lower than the IEA’s estimate 10 years earlier for 2020. In parts of the world with very strong sun and very good financing, the IEA’s new report explained, solar was now “the cheapest source of electricity in history.”

There are similar stories of record-breaking growth and plunging costs in nearly every sector of the loose collection of climate-solution tools known as clean tech. Wind energy has also dropped in cost by more than half in the past decade, from a much more affordable starting point. The costs of energy storage are in steep decline. Renewable energy is the largest new source of electric power on the world’s grids and has been for several years, and it will remain so for the foreseeable future.

Sales of electric vehicles are soaring, obliging automakers to accelerate their production plans. (Even Toyota, whose CEO still scoffed at the idea of all-electric cars as a mainstream phenomenon as recently as 2020, has announced plans to produce 3.5 million EVs a year, more than a third of its output, by 2030.)

There is hype – real, sustained hype – around energy efficiency. I come across more and more champions of the humble heat pump by the day. There is an emissions-free aluminum smelter under construction in Quebec, to supply parts to the world’s largest manufacturer of smartphones (Apple, that is). The trend lines and big investments point the same way on the growth in electrified mass transit, urban cycling, cement and steel production, smart grids and hydrogen fuel and offshore wind power.

“What’s really exciting about this is that deploying more clean energy makes future clean energy cheaper,” clean energy investor Ramez Naam, one of my preferred sources of hyperinformed climate optimism, explained recently. “Clean energy is a technology, not a raw material. Its long term price isn’t so much dictated by the law of supply and demand as it is driven by the virtuous cycle of increased demand leading to reduction of cost.”

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Activists display replica solar cells at Washington's Lafayette Square on April 23.Gemunu Amarasinghe/The Associated Press

A full suite of technologies and techniques has vaulted from the margins to the mainstream over the past decade, triggering a global energy transition from high-emissions to carbon-free energy sources. This transition is worldwide, it is inevitable, and it is accelerating. And that’s why I’ve never been more optimistic about our collective ability to solve the climate crisis.

It’s not uncommon, however, in some of the more anguished climate advocacy circles, to hear that the world has “done nothing” to date to combat the climate crisis. I understand the concern – greenhouse gas emissions have merely reached an uneven plateau globally, and too much of the world’s political and corporate leadership can sometimes seem dedicated to impeding any further progress. And yes, even a global energy transition orders of magnitude larger and more comprehensive than the one to date cannot guarantee a stable climate any time soon, and may very likely not keep warming beneath the 1.5 C threshold targeted by the Paris climate agreement. I would bet all the world’s solar farms, though, on staying below 2 C – and I’d hazard a guess that anyone claiming nothing has been done has never seen one. (Canada’s largest solar installation, a 465-megawatt giant, is nearing completion not far from where I live in Calgary, should anyone need an orientation tour.)

More than that, though, claiming nothing has been done discounts the vital, difficult, often inconspicuous work that was accomplished over the past decade.

Consider the improbable process by which solar power got cheap in the first place. When I began my investigations back in 2008, the epicentre of the industry resided amid the ruins of the old East German industrial economy south of Berlin, where a shuttered chemical film production hub was being transformed into the home of some of the world’s first mass-production facilities for solar panels. Several years earlier, Germany had put in place a piece of legislation called a “feed-in tariff,” which obliged German utilities to purchase electricity from renewable sources at rates far higher than the rates for power generated by fossil fuels. The rate for solar power was particularly high, several times the market price, and it had created a market secure enough for so much investment in the solar business that Germany’s stock market index for technical companies, the TecDAX, had been sardonically nicknamed the “SolarDAX.”

Germany’s approach was widely copied – Ontario, among many other jurisdictions, passed a version of the feed-in tariff in 2009 – and also broadly mocked. The lavish subsidy was a magnet for skeptics. Virtually any time that I brought up Germany’s pioneering energy transition in professional circles at a conference or lecture, even the ones with overt “sustainability” themes, I would inevitably be asked to respond to some recent counterclaim in The Economist or The New York Times that the German experiment had failed, or else I was cornered at the coffee kiosk afterward by someone spouting German emissions statistics indicating little change in the greenhouse gas bottom line.

(In fairness, Germany did see its climate gains slowed when its government decided to phase out nuclear power instead of coal, which had nothing to do with feed-in tariffs or the viability of solar power and everything to do with the Fukushima disaster and the powerful and ferociously anti-nuclear German Green movement.)

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A Chinese factory worker in Lianyungang, Jiangsu province, checks newly made solar panels in 2019.AFP/Getty Images

The most important consequence of Germany’s energy transition, however, was not its effects on its own emissions tally. It was its catalytic role in fully industrializing the global solar industry and kickstarting a full-scale global energy transition. The industrial heartland of the solar industry, for example, has shifted in recent years from the outskirts of Berlin to the manufacturing cities of China, whose government subsidized its own producers to the point where a German solar executive once told me the raw silicon ingot required to make a panel could not be purchased wholesale for the price the Chinese were charging for the finished product.

Today, Chinese manufacturers have a hand in the production of more than 80 per cent of the world’s solar panels – and they are the cheapest solar panels ever made. And that fact matters more than last year’s total greenhouse gas emissions in Germany or anywhere else, because it means that solar power can now compete for this year’s business everywhere on Earth.

I’d even argue that the fact of cheap solar and the momentum around the energy transition in general will prove to be more vital to ushering in a world of rapidly shrinking emissions, during the decade of accelerating change now dawning, than any measure taken in the name of any given country’s UN pledge. Actually, that’s not even my argument – it’s one I’ve borrowed from Laurence Tubiana, one of the architects of the landmark 2015 climate agreement in Paris.

“The real enforcement mechanism couldn’t be a punishment or sanctions-based one,” Ms. Tubiana wrote in a Twitter thread reflecting back on the negotiations five years afterward. “The enforcement mechanism was changing expectations. The belief that the transition is inevitable is the mechanism itself.”

Here’s a recent case in point: Vietnam. A few years ago, the Vietnamese government was pursuing plans to expand its national grid with the long-standing default in cheap power – coal-fired power plants. But the international banks whose capital it was relying on to finance the new power plants were no longer keen on sinking money in the rapidly waning coal business. So Vietnam went clean, installing more solar power than any country on Earth other than China and the United States in 2020.

This was not in the name of a UN target or any other virtuous climate commitment. It was because solar got cheap, because the emissions-free options are fast becoming the default options. Because this shift has become inevitable. And that’s why I have no doubt that the decade to come will provide plenty more fuel for my sunny climate optimism.

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