Solar energy is now becoming cheaper than coal

According to this report in Bloomberg News, solar-energy is now becoming the cheapest form of new energy.

A transformation is happening in global energy markets that’s worth noting as 2016 comes to an end: Solar power, for the first time, is becoming the cheapest form of new electricity.

This has happened in isolated projects in the past: an especially competitive auction in the Middle East, for example, resulting in record-cheap solar costs. But now unsubsidized solar is beginning to outcompete coal and natural gas on a larger scale, and notably, new solar projects in emerging markets are costing less to build than wind projects, according to fresh data from Bloomberg New Energy Finance.

“Solar investment has gone from nothing—literally nothing—like five years ago to quite a lot,” said Ethan Zindler, head of U.S. policy analysis at BNEF. “A huge part of this story is China, which has been rapidly deploying solar” and helping other countries finance their own projects.

The world recently passed a turning point and is adding more capacity for clean energy each year than for coal and natural gas combined. Peak fossil-fuel use for electricity may be reached within the next decade.

Thursday’s BNEF report, called Climatescope, ranks and profiles emerging markets for their ability to attract capital for low-carbon energy projects. The top-scoring markets were China, Chile, Brazil, Uruguay, South Africa, and India.

You may recall that one of Donald Trump’s many campaign promises was that he would bring coal jobs back, which means presumably supporting the building of new coal plants and opening coal mines. But what company is going to build a new power plant that is not only environmentally harmful but more expensive to boot?

Furthermore, China and other countries are forging ahead on solar and other renewables. Is the US going to revert to 19th century energy technology while others adopt 21st century ones? That would be an interesting way of pursuing his slogan to ‘make America great again’.


  1. lorn says

    IMHO coal is going to lose the fight as an energy source. It is land, labor, energy intensive to extract, it is bulky and difficult to transport, messy and potentially hazardous to store, polluting to burn, and none of that, absolutely none of that, comes cheap.

    Yes, there will be jobs in coal. I have no doubts that a very few mines will become theme parks where you can experience a cleaned up and romanticized version of coal mining. The kids can peck at a coal seam with hand tools and ride the tiny train with their bounty to the surface while the adults experience the ‘genuine mining town experience’ sipping Appalachian beer in a dance hall. Staged fights at 9 and 2.

    No, mining isn’t going away entirely. Just like the romantic life of pirates will never go away as long as Disney has that ride.

    As for real mining, where thousands of tons of coal are dug up and loaded onto miles of railroad cars? Take your pictures now. That activity going the way of the dodo. And there’s nothing that Trump, or anyone else, can do to effect that long term trend.

  2. kestrel says

    I’m waiting for these “rich” people to wake up and smell the coffee: oil and coal are OLD technology. The wave of the future is wind and solar. Somebody who invests in it NOW will be the new rich person and these old codgers will be a thing of the past. And the sooner the better as far as I am concerned.

  3. Some Old Programmer says

    @1 lorn: to your litany of coal drawbacks, I have to add disposing of coal ash, some of which is straight-up toxic waste.

  4. david says

    Lorn -- The city of Beckley, WV hosts tours of the coal mine, and miner’s village. They’re actually quite educational; they don’t pull any punches about how are or how dangerous a miner’s life is, and they helped propel my youngest child into awareness of worker’s rights and other progressive issues.

  5. Ice Swimmer says

    There’s going to be some demand for coal in metallurgy (hundreds of millions of tons, maybe more than a thousand million, with today’s technology, the world coal consumption being over 7 or 8 thousand million tons now) even if coal-fired power stations will be taken off-line.

  6. komarov says

    Ice Swimmer, is there anything in your sources that indicated how much of that coal is being used for energy as opposed to being an ‘ingredient’? I’d assume a lot of that coal is being used to stoke furnaces, a need that could (in theory) fade away if some technological development and cheap electrical energy from other sources made electrical furnaces / smelters viable on the scales required. That would just leave the carbon used for alloys or as a reagent and which could perhaps be sourced from somewhere else.

  7. Ice Swimmer says

    komarov @ 6

    My source on the coal consumption for metallurgy was the iron ore production numbers year 2014 in Wikipedia and a rough stoichiometric calculation on how much carbon one needs to reduce that amount of Fe2O3 when using CO as the reducing agent (the usual reaction in blast furnaces). I ignored other metals and non-metallurgical use of iron ore as well as the fact that no coal is chemically pure carbon and that coking may produce creosote as a byproduct. Also, my assumption was that the blast furnace process would be the same. So my number was just a approximation on the scale of the demand of coal for metallurgy.

  8. lorn says

    Some Old Programmer @3:
    Good point. Everything toxic about coal is concentrated in the ash. Nasty stuff that doesn’t ever go away.

    david @4:
    “The city of Beckley, WV hosts tours of the coal mine, and miner’s village.”

    It is human nature to look back at situations and remember only the sweetness. It is good to hear that someone is looking back with clear eyes and a nuanced understanding of the past and the price paid.

    Coal mining isn’t all bad. Long ago its many inherent evils were a necessary compromise. The world needed the energy and we were collectively willing to pay the high price to get it. Many good men had jobs and purpose and were able to raise families but they clearly payed the highest price while receiving little protection or compensation.

    Unemployed coal miners are the obvious leading edge of a changing world. As soon as a practical robot with the intelligence of a toddler comes around a third of all jobs are going away. Painters, drivers, sweepers, patient handling and routine cleaning jobs will disappear. The big question is what do we do with populations that are not needed for work. If society gives up on them, they will give up on society. Radicalism, terrorism, fundamentalism, suicide and self-punishing drug abuse follow.

  9. Apropos of nothing says

    The article included: “Still, the buildup of wind and solar takes time, and fossil fuels remain the cheapest option for when the wind doesn’t blow and the sun doesn’t shine. Coal and natural gas will continue to play a key role in the alleviation of energy poverty for millions of people in the years to come.” In states like Pennsylvania, where coal has been hit by another fossil fuel -- natural gas, I don’t see how solar can compete unless the electricity is imported from sunnier climes, or solar panel efficiency improves substantially. Perhaps this is where Trump could find opportunities to bring back coal (and all the nastiness with it), at least for the short term. It might be better for the longer term if those areas were to invest in manufacturing for solar and wind plants, but I think he has painted himself into a fossil fuel corner.

  10. komarov says

    Re: Ice Swimmer (#7):

    It looks like I’ve been neglecting my basic chemistry and there won’t be an easy way around the emissions even when given cheap renewable energy sources. Smelting might be one of those situations where you can’t get around developing cost-effective carbon capture technologies. With power you could, at least in theory, choose a different power source that avoids the need for capture.

    Re: Apropos of nothing (#9):

    Unfortunately humanity seems incapable of building decent batteries. Either that or there is an as yet undiscovered physical law prohibiting the efficient large-scale storage of electricity in anything other than a lake. With proper energy storage renewables would get so much easier. No need to find those ‘sunnier climates’, because you could just scale up energy production and over-produce while the source (sun, wind, tides) is available.
    But even with large scale renewable energy sources and without storage I still don’t see the attraction of coal to make up for missing energy. My assumption is that we’d have a lot of mixed renewable energy capacity rather than just one source such as wind or solar. The advantage is that at any given time at least one renewable is likely to be effective, while the downside is that you’d need to over-size each source just so it can produce enough power when it’s working on its own.
    But these sources tend to fluctuate quite quickly which surely would make coal unattractive because it is slow to respond. You can’t just switch coal plant on or off every time the wind stops blowing or a cloud covers the sun because the plant could never respond in time. On the other hand gas would probably be king among the fossil fuels because gas turbines are very flexible and are, as far as I know, already in use to make up small changes in power demand.

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