A huge increase in solar production is underway, and Australia could show the world how to use it

You may feel disheartened after reading the news about countries doubling down on fossil fuels to cope with spikes in energy prices.

Not. It’s a weak point. Although the Russian invasion of Ukraine led to a temporary recovery of fossil fuels, it also accelerated Europe’s renewal ambitions. And the United States and Australia have finally passed climate laws. This week, Federal Energy Minister Chris Bowen announced that “Australia is back” on climate action.

There is even better news. In March of this year, the world reached a terawatt of installed solar power. By 2025, global polysilicon factories are expected to recover from supply shortages and produce enough high-purity silicon for nearly a terawatt of solar panels per year.

Coupled with strong growth in wind power, hydro pumping, energy storage, grid batteries and electric vehicles, the solar boom puts global zero emissions within reach before 2050.

Best of all, Australia could show the world how to add solar power to its grid. You may not suspect it, but we are the global leaders in finding simple solutions for solar and wind energy variability. We are showing that it is easier to get carbon emissions from electricity generation than many had anticipated.

Fast, deep and cost-effective emission reductions

This surge in the renewables supply chain allows for sustained exponential growth that is already disrupting fossil fuel markets in some countries, particularly Australia.

This year, global fossil fuel prices have skyrocketed in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. In turn, this has generated intense interest in solar and wind energy to increase home energy security, particularly in Europe, which needs to wean itself off Russian gas.

While fossil fuels are concentrated in countries like Russia, Saudi Arabia and Australia, solar and wind resources are widely distributed. Most countries can generate all their energy from the sun and wind.

Europe could readily become energy independent, leveraging its huge offshore wind resources in the North Sea and solar in the south. Even densely populated countries like Japan and Indonesia have far more solar and wind resources than they need.

Solar and wind now provide the cheapest new generation of electricity in most markets. As a bonus, the widespread absorption of solar and wind energy will eliminate many of our worst air pollutants and improve our health.

Why do solar and wind power win?

In a word, cost. Solar and wind have won the race for the energy of the future because they are cheap. Once built, the fuel is free and doesn’t need to be imported or unearthed.

Wind and solar are built three times faster than everything else combined. As a result, they will dominate future energy markets as existing fossil fuel generators retire and use of electricity will grow rapidly.

Nuclear generation hasn’t grown over the past decade. Coal and gas plants capable of capturing and storing carbon have not been successful in the energy market. Hydropower cannot expand further. However, there will be a huge market for the storage of hydropower pumped out of the river.

There are no serious technical, environmental or material constraints to solar energy on any scale. However, solar has been hit by supply chain problems in recent months, with sharp spikes in the price of polysilicon. These are common to any fast growing industry and should resolve as more suppliers see the opportunity and enter the market.

There is enough land

Most of the world’s population lives in moderate latitudes with good sunshine on most days. Here, solar is effectively unlimited. Those further north have abundant wind power (especially offshore wind) to compensate for weaker solar in the winter.

Skeptics point out that you need more land or sea to produce the same amount of electricity as fossil fuel plants. While that’s true, solar farms can happily coexist with livestock and crops to create double income for farmers. The solar electricity needed to power the world and eliminate all fossil fuels can be generated from about 1% of the land devoted to agriculture.

solar resource map
Most of the world’s population lives between the 35th parallel (the red lines) where there are good solar resources. The redder areas mean better sunshine. World BankCC DI

Once we have cheap clean electricity, we can use it to eliminate the use of fossil fuels altogether by electrifying almost everything: transportation, heating, industry and chemical production. This could cut emissions by three quarters.

Global electricity production will have to increase sevenfold to around 200,000 terawatt hours per year to provide everyone with the energy needed to achieve the living standards of developed countries. But that’s not all that difficult over the next 30 years. And the alternative – continuing to pump heating pollutants into the atmosphere – will make our children’s lives increasingly difficult.

Together, solar and wind have exceeded two terawatts of installed capacity. This means that we are about 2% of the way to reach the nearly 100 terawatts of solar and wind energy needed to decarbonise the world, while raising the standard of living.

The annual distribution of solar energy must double every four years to get the job done by 2050-2060, similar to the global growth rate achieved over the past decade.

Australia can lead the way

You might not think so, given the decade of political climate wars, but Australia is the world leader in terms of solar electricity produced per person.

In Australia, solar and wind are booming while coal is falling rapidly. We are already on track to reach 80-90% renewable energy by 2030. Surprisingly, our per capita solar production is double that of the countries in second place (Germany, Japan and the Netherlands) and far ahead of China. and the United States.

Australia is silently demonstrating how to accommodate huge new flows of clean, low-cost electricity. The world will soon follow suit.

Andrew Blaker is a professor of engineering at the Australian National University. This story was first published in The Conversation. Reproduced with permission.

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