Renewable Energy And The Virtuous Cycle

As the US falls further behind the rest of the world in the push for renewable, sustainable energy, one of the pervasive myths that seemingly makes this failure acceptable. The line is simple; fossil fuels persist because they’re less expensive. 

That’s just not the case. 

The world of energy has changed dramatically over the past two years, but it’s worth taking a big step back to get an idea of where that myth was born. In the past decade, the cost of solar power has dropped by an incredible 90%. Today, solar arrays of any size are the most cost-effective sources of energy to build and operate. Wind power isn’t far behind; wind energy costs 71% less than ten years ago. Today, wind and solar are less expensive to operate than any other source of energy, with natural gas the closest competitor. 

Natural gas did become less expensive, about 32% less expensive than a decade ago. However, the only variable to reduce costs for natural gas is fracking, an environmentally-damaging practice that doesn’t offer a long-term solution; like gas, like coal, and like all fossil fuels, natural gas will only get more expensive over the long run. 

Investment in solar is finally starting to pay off. Some of the earliest investments in solar power and improving solar panels themselves came from NASA, which relied on solar panels to power satellites and space capsules. By 1956, dramatic advancements in solar arrays meant scientists had pushed the cost down to $1,825 per watt. Today, most arrays operate at about 70 cents per watt. 

That early investment may have seemed ineffective, but it had a huge effect in accelerating the decrease in price. As more satellites were produced for scientific and commercial use, the lower the costs of the solar panels. As the costs fell, more applications of solar energy began to make financial sense. As solar panels met more needs, more were produced, perpetuating what is called a ‘virtuous cycle’. 

Today, renewable energy is experiencing another acceleration in the virtuous cycle. Thanks to the commitment of governments and private businesses, the world is investing in renewable energy at much higher rates than fossil fuels. In 2019, approximately 72% of all new energy production comes from solar, wind, or another renewable energy source. That’s good to hear, but we have a long way to go. In 2020, early estimates are that renewable energy accounted for less than a fifth of the world’s total energy production. 

So, how can we get more utilities to make the switch? While renewable energy may be less expensive to build and operate, we’ll face inertia for as long as operating an existing coal plant is less expensive than switching. By subsidizing the more to more renewables by subsidizing that switch, we have the opportunity to spin the virtuous cycle again to make renewable energy even less expensive and even more accessible to other providers. 

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