Originally published on CleanTechnica
by Zachary Shahan
Renewable energy costs have been falling through the floor — they have fallen so fast that even cleantech enthusiasts have been shocked several times in the past year by increasingly low prices. We’ve been shocked dozens of times in the past 5 years.
I would bet that even most members of the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) didn’t expect solar and wind costs to drop so much over the past 5 years.
I’m sitting in IRENA’s annual General Assembly right now, and the leaders of small island developing nations are talking about their plans to reach 60–100% renewable energy. Of course they are — fossil fuels are expensive everywhere, but especially so on islands. Renewables save money at the cash register, and then also save money spent on health crises and health care.
However, it’s no longer just islands where solar energy and wind energy can save cash — increasingly, if you drop your finger on a globe, renewable energy is the cheapest option for new electricity there.
As I highlighted on Christmas, wind power and solar power are typically now cheaper in the United States than fossil fuels and nuclear, which explains why they are also now accounting for the majority of new power generation capacity.
Another section of the world where renewables are apparently ready to rise (while polluting power plants close) is South East Europe. IRENA’s latest report — Cost-Competitive Renewable Power Generation: Potential across South East Europe — was released just yesterday. Unsurprisingly, low-cost wind and low-cost solar are now able to beat dirty energy on cost alone in South East Europe as well — just as they can on islands, across the United States, in the Middle East, across Asia, across South America, and elsewhere.
Specifically, IRENA writes: “The report underscores that SEE possesses vast technical renewable energy potential – equal to some 740 GW.” This renewable energy potential is dominated by wind and solar. “The region’s wind energy (532 GW) and solar PV (120 GW) potential is largely untapped, and 127 GW of this overall renewable energy potential could be implemented in a cost-competitive way today.”
127 GW is, very generally, akin to 100 conventional power plants. However, with a more attractive cost of capital, that 127 GW figure could even rise to 290 GW or more.
But even IRENA is being too generous to pollution plants. The pollution coming out of coal and natural gas power plants costs us a great deal. The health costs of burning ancient fossils are real, very real. Then there are also the climate costs, which could essentially be quantified as infinity if we lead ourselves to societal collapse by not switching to renewables, electric cars, and a cleaner diet more quickly.
Nonetheless, there’s a reason IRENA is conservative in its approach to these reports and announcements. There are people — especially policymakers — who would rather not count the cost of pollution when discussing energy costs and making policy. Beating fossil fuels (and extremely expensive nuclear, of course) “at the register” is important to make the point that renewables are cheaper even separate from cutting health and climate costs.