Solar now ‘cheapest electricity in history’: How much will it matter?

January 3, 2021

The International Energy Agency (IEA), the Paris-based consortium of 30 countries, has told us in its flagship World Energy Outlook 2020 that solar-produced electricity is now the “cheapest electricity in history.”  That seems like very good news, that is, until the actual expected impact of that fact is examined more closely.

For those who are concerned about climate change and the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from electric generation, it is certainly good news—but not quite good enough to make a dent in fossil fuel emissions.

Setting aside any concerns about critical materials needed to make the solar revolution reach completion, it may surprise many readers of the “cheapest electricity in history” headline that growth in solar energy will likely NOT lead to a reduction of fossil fuel burning anytime soon. In fact, the IEA’s main forecast has natural gas consumption growing by 30 percent through 2040 while oil consumption levels off but does not decline. Coal use does continue to decline as a share of total energy.

With solar energy and other renewables expected to grow so much by 2040, how can this be so? The answer is that what the IEA calls non-hydro renewables (solar, wind, geothermal, biomass) will provide 80 percent of the INCREASE in expected global electricity demand. That means that the fossil fuel electricity infrastructure will continue to grow and that existing plants will remain in place rather than be supplanted by renewables.

Of course, for the part of the economy that runs on liquid fuels including transportation and many industrial processes requiring high heat, more renewable electricity doesn’t make much of a dent in fossil fuel use. Even where transportation is being electrified, the growth in internal combustion engine vehicles continues to dwarf those running on electricity. And then there is the existing fleet of fossil-fueled vehicles on the road. Is it realistic to expect all or most will be replaced by electric vehicles when these existing vehicles are junked?

The IEA’s main scenario is better than if all the increase in energy demand were met by fossil fuels. But as the IEA admits, under this scenario our climate change problem continues to worsen. The agency does outline scenarios in which fossil fuel use would drop and renewables would expand more robustly. But these are all outside current policy. Clearly, the agency believes there will be some policy movement, and it is actually pleading for that movement with its scenarios.

The sparkling future promised to us by the promoters of green energy most often assumes that we have far more time to make the transition than we do. And, it assumes that we can scale renewables to the level of energy consumption we have today and larger in the future. Even those who are touting energy conservation and efficiency are generally not suggesting that the global economy dramatically reduce its energy consumption. But reducing energy use seems to me to be the fastest, surest path forward for a stable economy, society and climate.

As we start the new year and people across the world pray for a return to the economy of 2019, it seems like a fool’s errand to insist that going back to 2019 only puts us on a calamitous and unsustainable path all over again. But I believe the fools are on the other side when they insist that doing more of what we’ve done in the past will solve our central problems including climate change.

Image: Solar power generation by Mouchot in Algeria (1882)

“Augustin Mouchot (7 April 1825 – 4 October 1912) was a 19th-century French inventor of the earliest solar-powered engine, converting solar energy into mechanical steam power.” ( )

Kurt Cobb

Kurt Cobb is a freelance writer and communications consultant who writes frequently about energy and environment. His work has appeared in The Christian Science Monitor, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique,, OilVoice, TalkMarkets,, Business Insider and many other places. He is the author of an oil-themed novel entitled Prelude and has a widely followed blog called Resource Insights. He is currently a fellow of the Arthur Morgan Institute for Community Solutions.

Tags: Solar Energy