The world may have crossed a “tipping point” that will inevitably make solar power our main source of energy, new research suggests.
The study, based on a data-driven model of technology and economics, finds that solar PV (photovoltaics) is likely to become the dominant power source before 2050 – even without support from more ambitious climate policies.
However, it warns four “barriers” could hamper this: creation of stable power grids, financing solar in developing economies, capacity of supply chains, and political resistance from regions that lose jobs.
The researchers say policies resolving these barriers may be more effective than price instruments such as carbon taxes in accelerating the clean energy transition.
The study, led by the University of Exeter and University College London, is part of the Economics of Energy Innovation and System Transition (EEIST) project, funded by the UK Government’s Department for Energy Security and Net Zero and the Children’s Investment Fund Foundation (CIFF).
“In other words, we have avoided the ‘business as usual’ scenario for the power sector.
“However, older projections often rely on models that see innovation as something happening outside of the economy.
“In reality, there is a virtuous cycle between technologies being deployed and companies learning to do so more cheaply.
“When you include this cycle in projections, you can represent the rapid growth of solar in the past decade and into the future.
“Traditional models also tend to assume the ‘end of learning’ at some point in the near future – when in fact we are still seeing very rapid innovation in solar technology.
“Using three models that track positive feedbacks, we project that solar PV will dominate the global energy mix by the middle of this century.”
However, the researchers warn that solar-dominated electricity systems could become “locked into configurations that are neither resilient nor sustainable, with a reliance on fossil fuel for dispatchable power”.
Instead of trying to bring about the solar transition in itself, governments should focus policies on overcoming the four key “barriers”:
Commenting on the financial barrier, Dr Nadia Ameli from UCL’s Institute for Sustainable Resources, said: “There is a growing belief that, with the dramatic decline in the global average cost of renewables, it will be much easier for the developing world to decarbonise.
“Our study reveals persistent hurdles, especially considering the challenges these nations face in accessing capital under equitable conditions.
“Appropriate finance remains imperative to expedite the global decarbonisation agenda.”
The paper, published in the journal Nature Communications, is entitled: “The momentum of the solar energy transition.”
EEIST’s contributing authors are drawn from a wide range of institutions. For full institutional affiliations see www.eeist.co.uk
The contents of this study represent the views of the authors, and should not be taken to represent the views of the UK government, CIFF or the organisations to which the authors are affiliated, or of any of the sponsoring organisations.
Later this year, during COP28, a research team led by the University of Exeter will publish the first Global Tipping Points Report, the most comprehensive ever assessment of climate tipping points and positive tipping points that could help tackle the climate crisis.