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    Climate models underestimate renewables, efficiency progress, overstating net zero costs: study

    September 29, 2023 - Diana DiGangi


      Dive Brief:

      -- "Plummeting" prices for solar power and storage over the last 10 years have made a net-zero transition more feasible than current climate scenario models indicate, according to researchers with the Mercator Research Institute on Global Commons and Climate Change, or MCC. -- In a new study, MCC found that "two key options for rapid decarbonization remain systematically undersampled in models that underpin [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] scenarios" - strong growth in intermittent renewables, and widespread adoption of efficient end-use technologies. -- "Some calculations even suggest that the world's entire energy consumption in 2050 could be completely and cost-effectively covered by solar technology and other renewables," said Felix Creutzig, lead author of the study. "This is an extremely optimistic scenario - but it illustrates that the future is open." Dive Insight:

      The study, due to appear in the November issue of Energy Research & Social Science and made available online Sept. 22, said that many existing models "maintain a preference for inefficient combustion, in particular by relying on coal and bioenergy."

      "Models would benefit from updated cost assumptions, higher resolution on granular end-use technologies, higher resolution on sector coupling, and an overall consideration of demand-side solutions," the researchers said.

      In a release about the study, Berlin-based MCC said that batteries currently cost less than 100 dollars per kilowatt hour - significantly less than a 2021 publication predicted they would cost by 2030. The cost of battery storage has fallen 85% over the past ten years, while the cost of solar has fallen 87%, MCC said.

      In addition, climate stabilization scenarios have underestimated the likely rate of global solar growth, the study said. One 2019 study estimated that solar would reach global levels of 20 to 50 exajoules per year by 2050, while the researchers say that solar technology experts expect solar could be delivering 125 to 350 exajoules per year by then.

      The researchers speculated that solar innovation has been underestimated due to its nature as a granular technology, similar to demand-side technologies like heat pumps, lighting, appliances, windows and batteries.

      "Granular technologies learn faster and become adopted faster, because they involve lower risk, involve many more iterations and thus opportunities for improvement, and are suitable in a much broader variety of adoption contexts," they said. As a result, they show "faster innovation dynamics."

      Dan O'Brien, vice president of direct origination at DSD Renewables, said the study is accurate "given the changes we have seen internationally and domestically in pricing, technology, equipment costs, and public adoption of both renewable energy as well as further electrification of technologies like transportation."

      "Granted, there are challenges that all countries face in deployment that low equipment pricing cannot overcome," he said. "There are bottlenecks created by lack of qualified labor to meet demand, infrastructure and interconnection upgrades and extended queue timelines, available land or adequate built environment, and ever-changing policy."

      Despite these challenges, O'Brien expects the renewables sector and its market participants will continue to grow.

      "Year after year, you can compare annual projections versus reality of deployment and see that the projections vastly under-modeled the amount of solar and other renewable technology that was deployed," he said.

      In its release, MCC referred to the global clean energy transition as an "enormous political challenge," and Creutzig said that technical progress on renewables should be reflected "as closely as possible" in climate science scenario models in order to provide policymakers with accurate guidance.

      "To remain policy-relevant in the future, a new generation of models needs to improve the representation of technology learning and diffusion (particularly regarding the granularity of technologies), more directly reflect real world dynamics, and draw on evidence from the economics of innovation literature," the study said.

      Recommended Reading

      -- US solar installations expected to jump 52% to nearly 32 GW in 2023: SEIA By Diana DiGangi ** Sept. 7, 2023 -- US energy storage capacity additions rise 161% in Q2, set new record: report By Diana DiGangi ** Sept. 26, 2023 -- US won't reach net zero emissions without transmission buildout: DNV By Diana DiGangi ** Sept. 25, 2023


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