Solar and wind energy have the potential to meet global electricity demand 100 times over, and the costs of these renewables are collapsing so rapidly that fossil fuels could be pushed out of electricity generation altogether by 2035, according to a report by a U.K. think tank.
The report, from London-based non-profit Carbon Tracker, reveals that solar and wind have the potential to produce thousands of petawatt hours (PWh) of electricity a year, while the world’s current electricity demand stands at just 27 PWh. Furthermore, Carbon Tracker shows, if humans chose to get all their energy from solar power alone, the land required would take up just 450,000 km2—just 0.3% of the world’s total land area, and less than the space currently taken up by fossil fuel industry operations.
That option should not be necessary, as wind farms and other renewables are also producing an increasingly larger share of global energy capacity. As Stanford University professor Mark Jacobson shows in his book 100% Clean, Renewable Energy and Storage for Everything, global energy demand could be met by using 0.2% of available land area for solar, and 0.5% for spacing between onshore wind turbines.
Carbon Tracker uses the findings to claim that “the fossil fuel era is over.” At current growth rates, it says, solar and wind power could price fossil fuels out of the world’s electricity markets by the mid-2030s, and by 2050 could replace fossil fuels entirely.
“We are entering a new epoch, comparable to the industrial revolution,” said Kingsmill Bond, Carbon Tracker’s lead strategist and the report’s author. “Energy will tumble in price and become available to millions more, particularly in low-income countries. Geopolitics will be transformed as nations are freed from expensive imports of coal, oil and gas. Clean renewables will fight catastrophic climate change and free the planet from deadly pollution.”
The findings should not come as a complete surprise. Last year, the International Energy Agency found that solar power was now the cheapest electricity “in history,” in most major countries. The International Renewable Energy Agency says the cost of electricity from solar photovoltaics fell 82% in the last decade, while the costs of onshore and offshore wind fell 39% and 29% respectively.
Yet right now, people are using only a fraction of the renewable energy available to them. The report notes that only 0.01% of the world’s solar potential is being utilized, and just 0.16% of wind potential is being exploited. While many parts of the world have access to abundant solar and wind energy, in some regions these resources are super-abundant: nations in Sub-Saharan Africa, such as Namibia, Botswana and Ethiopia, have solar potential 1,000 times greater than their electricity usage. Indeed, Africa, Australia and South America have “huge technical potential compared to energy demand,” the report states.
The report helps bolster the case for the world’s energy decarbonization plans, including President Joe Biden’s plan to make U.S. electricity production carbon free by 2035.
Harry Benham, co-author of the report and chairman of the climate think-tank Ember, said: “The world does not need to exploit its entire renewable resource—just 1% is enough to replace all fossil fuel usage. Each year we are fuelling the climate crisis by burning three million years of fossilised sunshine in coal, oil and gas while we use just 0.01% of daily sunshine.”
The findings are also a reminder that as the economic potential of renewables grows, fossil fuel investments are becoming an increasingly risky prospect: last month, Carbon Tracker published a note showing that $640 billion in investments in fossil fuel firms had lost $123bn of their value between 2012 and 2020.