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Oct. 15, 2019, 5:17 p.m. EDT

The energy revolution is already here

The transition to low-carbon fuels is occurring faster than most people think

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By Jules Kortenhorst

AFP/Getty Images
The cost of installing utility-scale solar panels has fallen by 80%.

BOULDER, Colorado ( Project Syndicate ) — For the longest time, the prevailing narrative about renewable energy featured clumsy technologies, high costs, and burdensome subsidies. In the absence of strict mandates and far-reaching policy changes, the chances for mass adoption seemed slim. Electric vehicles (EVs) simply couldn’t go the distance, and LED lights were unattractive and unaffordable.

But now that these technologies have come of age, a new story is being written. Around the world, businesses, governments, and households are taking advantage of more cost-effective low-carbon technologies.

Not too long ago, ushering in a societal shift toward clean, renewable energy seemed impossible, given the costs and level of government intervention required. But that has all changed: far from being boondoggles, green-energy options are beating out the fossil-fuel competition where it counts: the bottom line.

Owing to advances in information technologies (IT), green solutions can be integrated into business operations seamlessly. And as public support for these technologies has grown, so have the prospects for scaling up to a fully sustainable energy system.

As in any rapid transition, a full understanding of what is happening has lagged behind events. Many incumbent energy producers find it hard to believe that their world is undergoing a revolutionary change, so they insist that their heavily polluting technologies will remain relevant and necessary for some time to come.

Journalists, too, describe the transition with a degree of caution, because it is their job to be skeptical. And politicians and regulators are reticent to adopt a new perspective, even though they are already struggling to keep up with the pace of change in the energy industry.

To be sure, progress doesn’t come without setbacks, as the recent growth in energy-related greenhouse-gas (GHG) emissions shows. Yet there is no doubt that the future of energy will be dramatically different from the recent past. In fact, the transformation is happening even faster than we think, owing to three key factors.


First, sustainable-energy technologies are quickly becoming more cost-effective than the alternatives, enabling businesses to reduce pollution, increase efficiency, and provide more goods and services.

The costs of technologies ranging from wind and solar power to EVs and smart grids have plummeted, and the learning curve — the linear drop in costs as new technologies are deployed on an ever-larger scale — has held steady across the board.

The cost of installing utility-scale solar panels fell by 80% from 2010 to 2018. Likewise, the cost of lithium-ion battery packs dropped by 69% from 2014 to 2018; the price of LEDs declined sixfold in just four years, from 2010 to 2014.

What was once pricey is now cost-effective; it will soon be downright cheap.

Read: We now have the technology to create a grid of cheap fully renewable electricity

Moreover, the pace of innovation is not slowing. Spending on clean-energy research and development is increasing, and more clean-energy patents are being filed than in years past. The clean-tech sector is attracting more young entrepreneurial talent, and venture capital spending is on the rise.

More broadly, there is a clear cross-sector shift toward low-carbon technologies and business models. The traditional energy companies that aren’t in denial are increasingly investing in the technologies of the future, as are the automotive giants. And a growing share of large-scale infrastructure capital is being deployed in innovative ways, accelerating the transition.

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