A faster energy transition could mean trillions of dollars in savings

Decarbonization may not come with economic costs, but with savings, per a recent paper.
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Francis Scialabba

· 5 min read

If forecasters predicting future costs of renewable energy were contestants on The Price Is Right, no one would be making it onstage.

Projections about the price of technologies like wind and solar have consistently been too high, leading to a perception that moving away from fossil fuels will come at an economic cost, according to a recent paper published in Joule.

“The narrative that clean energy and the energy transition are expensive and will be expensive—this narrative is deeply embedded in society,” Rupert Way, a study coauthor and postdoctoral researcher at the University of Oxford’s Institute for New Economic Thinking and at the Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment, told Emerging Tech Brew. “For the last 20 years, models have been showing that solar will be expensive well into the future, but it’s not right.”

The study found that a rapid transition to renewable energy is likely to result in trillions of dollars in net savings through 2070, and a global energy system that still relies as heavily on fossil fuels as we do today could cost ~$500 billion more to operate each year than a system generating electricity from mostly renewable sources.

Way said the authors were ultimately trying to start a conversation based on empirically grounded pathways, assuming that cost reductions for these technologies will continue at similar rates as they have in the past.

“Then you get this result that a rapid transition is cheapest. Because the faster you do it, the quicker you get all those savings feeding throughout the economy. It kind of feels like there’s this big misunderstanding and we need to change the narrative,” he said

Expectation versus reality

Out of 2,905 projections from 2010 to 2020 that used various forecasting models, none predicted that solar costs would fall by more than 6% annually, even in the most aggressive scenarios for technological advancement and deployment. During this period, solar costs actually dropped by 15% per year, according to the paper.

The Joule paper took historical price data like this—but across renewable energy tech beyond just solar, including wind, batteries, and electrolyzers—and paired it with Wright’s Law. Also known as the “learning curve,” the law says costs will decline by a certain percentage as effort and investment in a given technology increase. In 2013, an analysis of historical price data for more than 60 technologies by researchers at MIT found that Wright’s Law most closely resembled real-world cost declines.

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The researchers used this method to determine the combined cost of the entire energy system under three scenarios over time: A fast transition, in which fossil fuels are largely eliminated around 2050; a slow transition, in which fossil fuels are eliminated by about 2070; and no transition, in which fossil fuels continue to be dominant.

The team found that by quickly replacing fossil fuels with less expensive renewable tech, the projected cost for the total energy system in the fast-transition scenario in 2050 is ~$514 billion less than in the no-transition scenario.

And while the cost of solar, wind, and batteries has dropped exponentially for several decades, the prices of fossil fuels like coal, oil, and gas, when adjusted for inflation, are about the same as they were 140 years ago, the researchers found.

“These clean energy techs are falling rapidly in cost, and fossil fuels are not. Currently, they’re just going up,” Way said

Renewable energy is not only getting less expensive much faster than expected, but deployments are outpacing forecasts as well. More than 20% of the electricity in the US last year came from renewables, and 87 countries now generate at least 5% of their electricity from wind and solar, according to the paper—a historical tipping point for adoption.

Even in its slowest energy-transition scenario, the International Energy Agency forecasts that global fossil-fuel consumption will begin to fall before 2030, according to a report released last week.

Way and the Oxford team found that a fast transition to renewable energy could amount to net savings of as much as $12 trillion compared with no transition through 2070.

The paper didn’t account for the potential costs of pollution and climate damage from continued fossil-fuel use in its calculations.

“If you were to do that, then you’d find that it’s probably hundreds of trillions of dollars cheaper to do a fast transition,” Way said.

Policy and investment decisions about how quickly to transition away from fossil fuels often weigh the long-term benefits against the present costs. But what this paper shows, Way said, is that a rapid transition is the most affordable regardless.

“It doesn’t matter whether you value the future a lot, or a little, you still should proceed with a fast transition,” he said. “Because clean energy costs are so low now, and they’re likely to be in the future, we can justify doing this transition on economic grounds, either way.”

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