It may have seemed far-fetched a decade ago, but clean energy has already passed its economic tipping point.
A 2019 report from the nonprofit Rocky Mountain Institute found that it was cheaper to build and use a combination of renewables like wind and solar than to build new natural gas plants. A 2020 report from Carbon Tracker found that in every single one of the world’s energy markets, it’s cheaper to invest in renewables than in coal.
And now, graphs recently published on Our World in Data, an online science publication, in partnership with Oxford University, starkly visualize that decline. Comparing the price of electricity from new power plants in 2009 and 2019, one graph shows how the price of solar photovoltaic power (from solar panels) plummets from $359 per megawatt hour to $40, the cheapest of any of the power options on the chart and an 89% decrease. If housing prices declined at that same rate, Our World in Data researcher Max Roser writes, a home that cost $3,590 to rent in 2009 would cost just $400 in 2019. Over the same time period, the price of coal barely budged, from $111 per megawatt hour in 2009 to $109 in 2019.
In 2009, building a new solar farm was 223% more expensive than building a new coal plant. Now, it’s flipped: Electricity from a new coal plant is 177% more expensive than electricity from new solar panels. What caused the switch? Huge leaps in technological advancement. “To understand why solar power got so cheap we have to understand why solar technology got cheap,” Roser writes.
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