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Haley Zaremba

Haley Zaremba

Haley Zaremba is a writer and journalist based in Mexico City. She has extensive experience writing and editing environmental features, travel pieces, local news in the…

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3 Things That Could Slow Down The Global Solar Boom

  • In Europe, 18 out of 27 European Union countries set new records for solar power generation between May and August of this year.
  • The Inflation Reduction Act has offered massive tax breaks for clean energy development and solar investment is already exploding in response.
  • The renewable revolution faces three major hurdles as it continues to expand at a breakneck speed: land, permits, and energy grids.

The solar revolution is well underway. For years, the price of solar power has been plummeting, and is now the cheapest form of new electricity generation in many markets, including 16 U.S. states, Spain, Italy and India, according to energy research and consultancy firm Wood Mackenzie. Even through the pandemic, solar development stayed strong. In 2020, global solar capacity installation exceeded 115 gigawatts (GW). And even as solar panel prices rose last year, the cost of solar still managed to fall in 2021 While solar expansion has been on the rise in accordance with its increasingly competitive prices, however, it has not been swift or serious enough to fit with the growth trajectory needed in order to achieve the decarbonization targets set by the Paris Agreement in 2015. Instead, the renewable revolution has been met by the massive and seemingly immovable force of inertia. 

On top of pushback from powerful fossil fuel lobbies and their allies, the current energy system is already heavily invested in fossil fuels, and continuing to run a coal- or gas- powered plant is often cheaper than building new solar infrastructure, as inexpensive as that new infrastructure may be. What’s more, “there is a lot of inertia in the system due to long-term contracts between utilities, energy producers, and mining companies,” Popular Science reported last year. “And since the country’s total energy use is not increasing that much every year, there isn’t much incentive to build new renewables.”

The global economy needed a major shock to the system in order to disrupt all this built-in inertia. And now we have it. The double whammy of the Covid-19 pandemic and Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine have sent shockwaves through the global economy and sent energy markets spiraling into disarray and scrambling for alternatives to Russian exports to keep the lights on and re-establish energy security. And many have set their eyes on solar to get it done. 

Related: Low Prices And Tanker Traffic Leave $2 Billion Of LNG Floating Off Europe

In Europe, 18 out of 27 European Union countries set new records for solar power generation between May and August of this year, and the bloc is on track to see an average yearly increase of between 45GW and 52GW leading up to 2030 – a massive increase compared to pre-invasion projections. In the United States, the Inflation Reduction Act has offered massive tax breaks for clean energy development and solar investment is already exploding in response. Consulting titan McKinsey projects that global renewable electricity capacity will almost triple between 2021 and 2030, reaching over 8,800 gigawatts. The vast majority of this will come from onshore wind and solar. 

While the incentives and the investments are there, however, the renewable revolution faces three major hurdles as it continues to expand at a breakneck speed: land, permits, and energy grids. 

Land may be the biggest of these issues. “Utility-scale solar and wind farms require at least ten times as much space per unit of power as coal- or natural gas–fired power plants, including the land used to produce and transport the fossil fuels,” Mckenzie reports in a warning to solar investors. Indeed, renewable energy expansion is already embroiled in land-use battles across the nation as projects are  developed in rural states which are often deeply red and devoted to fossil fuels. Currently, a ‘nasty’ fight is playing out in Indiana where a solar farm nearly the size of Manhattan is in the works. 

Expansion is also bogged down by “long, unpredictable development guidelines” outside the control of developers, says McKinsey. Permitting is a nightmare process as legislation shifts, often according to the kinds of grassroots outrage popping up in response to land-use issues. As a result, permits for utility-scale solar and wind farms can often take up to ten years. Already, 31 states have passed ordinances restricting renewable expansion. 

Finally, increased grid congestion poses a major threat. The energy grid infrastructure in the United States is aging, and will need massive infrastructure investments to be brought up to speed. Our grid system now is not smart enough or flexible enough to handle the dynamic and variable nature of massive-scale dependence on renewables. This will require a huge increase in energy storage technologies. “Because the stability of the power grid depends on predictability and a balance of supply and demand, the US grid is not always able to immediately integrate all new wind and solar power,” reports McKinsey. This means that finished solar projects often have to wait for months before they can actually connect to the grid. What’s more, the urban areas that need the most energy are often far away from the rural areas where these massive amounts of clean energy will be produced, requiring a huge expansion of transmission lines to bring energy to end users. 

While the rapid expansion of utility-scale solar and wind projects is a long overdue necessity for meeting climate goals and avoiding the most devastating impacts of climate change, there are some serious bottlenecks that must be considered. And these will require some major politicking at a time when the country has never been more divided.

By Haley Zaremba for Oilprice.com

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Leave a comment
  • Mamdouh Salameh on November 06 2022 said:
    Three hurdles stand on the way of solar power. The first is that solar energy and other renewables can’t on their own satisfy the global electricity demand because of their intermittent natural meaning no solar energy when the weather is cloudy thus necessitating immediate support from natural gas, nuclear energy and coal.

    The second hurdle is that renewables like solar energy have to compete for investments with fossil fuels. They stand no chance of winning this race because the global oil industry is the most profitable in the world providing the highest return on capital.

    The third hurdle is hasty Western green policies causing shortages in the global energy markets and forcing countries to resort to coal and nuclear energy and to resurrect coal-fired electricity plants to satisfy their needs because of the inadequacy of solar energy and renewables.

    Dr Mamdouh G Salameh
    International Oil Economist
    Global Energy Expert
  • Lexington Green on November 07 2022 said:
    'Our grid system now is not smart enough or flexible enough to handle the dynamic and variable nature of massive-scale dependence on renewables. This will require a huge increase in energy storage technologies.' It's not true that storage will be a requirement. There are many technologies that can augment solar and wind sources: fuel cells, natural gas or hydrogen powered turbines, turbines or generators run from carbon neutral sources of energy, such as renewable diesel. Wind turbines in corn fields, pasture, etc. don't require any substantial new land use. Also, the suggested land requirements for large scale solar is questionable. Solar can be placed on top of every kind of building, including the gigantic warehouses and cloud data centers that surround large metropolitan areas. Also, people can't just demand that privately owned land only be engaged for purposes that conform to their political views, especially very poorly informed views.
  • independence01776 d on November 09 2022 said:
    The issues listed are political in nature. Yes, long distance grid transmission lines can go a long way to make renewables the cheapest energy. They are needed to replace the trillions in investments made to transport oil and gas and coal thousands of miles around the world, a process that continues to this day even though the transportation of electricity is 1/100 the cost of transporting fossil fuels. The result of this high expense to transport energy is that many nations do without, cannot afford the infrastructure required.

    The issues listed are political, but certainly easier put to bed. France this week announced any parking lot with more than 85 parking spaces needs to have solar put in. That is basically no additional cost for land, just using it more productively. Other nations are and will do similar.
    How much parking is in the developed nations, those that consume 80% of all fossil fuels, enough that if covered with solar panels they could provide all the energy the world uses by a factor of four. No land is needed, just rooftops and parking lots will do fine.

    But big oil and monopoly utility companies pull a lot of weight in national politics. That is what is slowing the transition most as the optimal solution replaces them with community solar and battery, with some utility scale wind that is interconnected by national and continental grids. All of this is coming fast so that in a decade from now we will all look back and wonder why it took as long as it did. Economics is what happened and once you get the politics out of the way it&#039;s game over.
  • Chris Chambers on November 09 2022 said:
    Without government subsidies solar will not be competitive with fossil fuel energy production. Certainly wind and solar should be in the mix, but the tech is not there for it to be efficient enough to compete with fossils. Not yet anyway. Once the technology ripens renewables will take their place in the open market. But the subsidies must stop. Budgets cannot support them forever.

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