Once, when I was getting my masters degree in environmental studies, I met with the then-director of the department to talk about potential career paths upon graduation. I told him that I was interested in figuring out how to enable underserved communities to benefit from clean energy, especially rooftop solar, and I’ll never forget his response: he guffawed and said “solar will never be a cost-effective climate solution.” Now, this was 2008 and solar was certainly not economical at the time: a solar module alone cost $2.4 / watt, and the total installed cost of a system came to $7.5 / watt. (A module is the solar panel itself; the total installed price includes labor, racking, wiring, inverters, etc.) At $75,000 for a typical 10-kilowatt system (10,000 watts), solar was almost impossible to justify solar on economic grounds.
However, where the department director was hilariously wrong was when he said it would never be cost-effective: a module now costs just $0.30 (thirty cents!) and the average installed cost of a rooftop system is about $2.70 / watt. In other words, a system that would’ve come out at $75,000 in the late aughts today costs $27,000. Depending on where you live—how sunny it is, the price of energy, policies like net-metering—a solar system will pay for itself in 3 to 10-years. Oh, and utility-scale solar (think massive solar farms) now costs just around $1 / watt. How wrong was he? Well, the International Renewable Energy Agency has found that in two-thirds of cases in 2021, newly installed renewable energy (namely wind and solar) was cheaper than even the cheapest coal power.
I highlight this because without cheap renewable energy, the pathways to averting climate catastrophe would hinge on unlikely behavior changes—much less driving, less consumption, less usage of air conditioning and other modern amenities—and future technological developments like nuclear fusion and cheap carbon sequestration. Instead, we now have an opportunity to build an abundant future powered by non-polluting energy that can allow more human flourishing: people in developing countries will be able to improve their standard of living; those of us in wealthier countries can continue to drive and live in comfortable homes, all without threatening the climate.
At least, that’s part of the picture. The goal now is to “electrify everything,” which means that anything that can run on electricity—vehicles, HVAC systems, cooktops, industrial processes—needs to do so. Why? Because cheap solar and wind energy, paired with battery-storage and existing nuclear and hydropower, is the best way to power most machines and processes. But there are a few hairs in the soup, as they say. First, we have to install a LOT of electrified equipment; Rewiring America estimates that we are going to need to replace one billion machines, from electric cars to induction cooktops and heat pump water heaters. The Inflation Reduction Act, or IRA, includes incentives to do so, but it won’t happen automatically—consumers need to be educated; installers have to be trained; financing has to be made available; and millions of workers need to be trained. Second, while we are rapidly scaling renewable energy installation, it isn’t fast enough. Bottlenecks include an aging electric grid, so-called interconnection cues, financing costs, and supply-chain constraints. And third, we continue to invest in new fossil fuel exploration and development, despite the U.N., the International Energy Agency, and common sense telling us that we cannot afford to do so in a climate emergency. (According to the 2023 Banking on Climate Chaos report, “the world’s 60 biggest banks [have] poured over $5.5 trillion” into fossil fuels since the 2015 signing of the Paris Climate Accords.)
Nevertheless, the stunning drop in price, not just of wind, solar, and batteries but also technologies like the electrolyzers needed to make green hydrogen has led many to think that all we have to do is sit back, install a couple terawatts of renewables, and voilá–climate crisis averted! Not so fast. Of the five main categories of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, the three that are easiest to electrify are transportation, energy production (most of which s electricity generation), and buildings (mostly heating and cooling them): respectively, these account for 14%, 36%, and 6% of emissions. Leaving aside the many nuances and challenges within each of these categories—what do we do about airplanes and container ships, which cannot be electrified, for instance—we are still left with agriculture (21% of emissions) and industry (24% of emissions).
In other words, even if we converted 100% of transport, energy production, and buildings to electricity, and powered them 100% of the time with zero-emission sources, we would still need to deal with nearly half of global emissions. And unlike with these, the answers to agriculture and industry are more nuanced, messy, and difficult. For example, beef production and consumption is almost entirely incompatible with a net-zero-emission future; one prominent environmentalist has said that when it comes to emissions, he is more afraid of cattle than cars. Between land for grazing and land for growing animal feed, “livestock accounts for 77% of global farming [yet] it only produces 18% of the world’s calories and 37% of total protein.” Not only is livestock an inefficient way to produce calories, it is also extremely carbon-intensive: methane released by cows, forests cleared to grow soy, and the manufacture of fertilizer all trap heat in the atmosphere.
With respect to industry, some processes, such as cement and steel-making, which together account for about 13.5% of GHG emissions, do benefit from emerging approaches to reducing emissions through electrification and other techniques. But many of these strategies will, at least in the short term, carry a so-called green premium over traditional processes, raising, however marginally, the cost of vehicles, road construction, and so much more. Will consumers be willing to pay more for lower emissions, considering how angry they get when the cost of a gallon of gasoline goes up even $0.50?
Maybe, maybe not. The point is that, no matter how “easy” it will be to build out a renewable energy infrastructure, it’s only easy relative to challenge of addressing other, massive sources of emissions. Nor can we expect to sit back and change nothing about our lives. Yes, electric vehicles promise zippy acceleration, lower maintenance costs, and no tailpipe emissions. And yes, we can put solar panels on our rooftops and install heat pumps and induction stoves, all of which save money and just work better and are safer / healthier than the fossil-based alternatives. But ultimately, we won’t be able to get around the need to adapt our lifestyles to a climate emergency, whether that means eating less meat, flying less, consuming less (imagine a planet where 10 billion people all own as much stuff as the average American; it’s unfathomable), and engaging more in the boring politics of decarbonizing the economy, which entails reforms to how we permit projects, new ways of thinking about electric utilities (hello Virtual Power Plants!), and so much more. To make the point clear, let’s look at EVs. We cannot have a future in which we all drive electric Hummers and pat ourselves on the back: there are significant emissions associated with the gigantic battery in that thing (it has a 200-kilowatt battery, about three times larger than what a Tesla Model 3 uses); because of its nearly 10,000-pound weight, it’s very inefficient; and it’s also dangerous to pedestrians and other drivers.
In short, there is a lot of important nuance between those who believe we are doomed to climate catastrophe and those who think we have it solved and it’s just a matter of implementation. Yes, we are fortunate to now have much of the technology needed for the transition, and yes, it’s largely cost-competitive with, or cheaper than, fossil fuels. But global GHG emissions in 2022 hit yet another record, the oceans and air are warming, forests are still being chopped down, and new fossil fuel infrastructure is being built and operated. The sheer scope of the challenge we face is hard to fathom–$35 trillion of investment needed by 2030 in clean energy projects around the world and a reworking and reimagining of how we move around, how we eat, and how we manufacture and consume.
It is an exciting time, a heady time. The Inflation Reduction Act has spurred Europe to work on an equally ambitious raft of policies, and other countries are following suit. Money is flowing into the space, costs continue to come down, and awareness is rising. But we are in a race against time; we must be clear-eyed about what lies ahead of us lest we lull ourselves to sleep or lie awake at night, too full of angst to do the exciting, challenging work of implementing the solutions to the crisis.
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