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Solar Power Is Winning From the Energy Crisis. Wind Is Losing

Solar Power Is Winning From the Energy Crisis. Wind Is Losing

Tuesday, 12 April, 2022 - 04:15

From the way the public conversation was going, you might think renewable energy was firmly on the back foot as a result of the energy crisis that’s roiled the world since late last year.

Transport fuel taxes have been cut to ease the pain of high crude prices in the European Union, India, the UK and US, among other countries. Europe’s power plants burned 51% more coal in early March than they did a year earlier. China’s rush to use more coal after power cuts last year was even more dramatic: The country mined 687 million metric tons of solid fuel in January and February, equivalent to nearly two years of European coal consumption and a third more than in the same period of 2019.

That’s troubling, considering the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s warning last week that carbon pollution must peak by 2025 if the world is to avoid catastrophic global warming.

And yet, the true picture is rather different. Far from reversing, the renewables transition shows many signs of accelerating. The world will build about 245 gigawatts of photovoltaic capacity in 2022, BloombergNEF estimated last month — a third more than was installed in 2021 and a 7.5% increase over a previous estimate for this year, made as the energy crisis was kicking off last fall.

Figures on that scale are staggering: 245 GW, for instance, is equivalent to about two-thirds of the world’s total installed nuclear capacity. At the start of 2020, a cumulative 651 GW of solar panels had been installed in all of human history. About 12 months from now, we’re likely to have doubled that figure in just over three years.

Players in the solar industry are betting on growth. After shortages of polysilicon raw material drove up prices last year, a flood of new manufacturing capacity has entered the market. The choke point in the supply chain is now silicon wafer production, but even that is sufficient to turn out about 431 GW of cells each year, according to BloombergNEF. With relatively minor increases in ingot and wafer capacity, the world’s solar supply chain is now large enough to connect about 5,300 GW of panels by 2030 — sufficient to put us on track to net zero emissions by 2050. Should the industry’s growth rate fall by about 10 percentage points from the average 25% seen over the last five years, we’d still hit that target.

This all sounds rather optimistic. The problem comes on the other side of the renewables coin — wind power. In contrast to the unflagging boom in solar energy, wind generation appears to be hitting the buffers. Turbine capacity installed actually fell marginally last year from 2020’s record total to 94 GW, the Global Wind Energy Council said in a report this month. It will then stagnate at levels not much higher than that until the middle of the decade, leaving the world in 2030 with only about 64% of the wind power necessary to hit net zero.

That’s mostly not because of any failures in the technology. Instead, it’s a result of the regulatory challenges needed to get a wind farm up and running, especially on-shore. “Permitting is the main roadblock hindering our progress,” wrote Xabier Viteri Solaun, the head of Iberdrola SA’s renewables business. In Italy, it takes an average of five years to get the licenses needed for a new wind farm. Across Europe, just half of the 20 GW of onshore wind capacity put up to auction in 2021 was awarded a contract.

Those factors are compounded when you consider that the transmission lines needed to integrate all these new power plants, and to balance generation across long distances to make up for regional shortfalls, also require lengthy permitting processes. The European Union will announce plans next month intended to clear these roadblocks, but much of the relevant regulation happens at the country and municipal level, so will be hard to dislodge.

One of the heartening aspects about the way wind and solar have grown in tandem over the past decade is that they complement each other well. Photovoltaic generation tends to be weaker in winter and non-existent at night. Wind, on the other hand, performs better at those times. Pushing the world’s grid emissions to zero will require far more than just these two technologies, with hydroelectric, nuclear, geothermal, biomass and even abated fossil power likely to play a role. With wind misfiring, however, all hope of turning the corner in time looks out of reach.

Don’t get misled by the surging prices of coal, oil and gas right now. They’re a short-term phenomenon, and in the long term high costs will make fossil fuels even less attractive to utilities, households and manufacturers wherever cheaper, less polluting alternatives are available. The regulatory roadblocks to wind power and transmission, on the other hand, are a cost which isn’t getting any smaller. That’s a far greater threat to the energy transition.


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