The Wind and Solar Boom Is Here

She was way off, and so were many others, including governmental agencies. Solar power surpassed 1 percent of global electricity generation in the middle of the last decade. Chase estimates that solar now accounts for at least 3 percent of the world’s electricity — that is, three times as much as she once thought possible.

In a forecast published late last year, Chase and her colleagues at BloombergNEF estimated that by 2050, 56 percent of the world’s electricity would be produced by wind and solar power. But she says that forecast is already out of date — it’s too low.

Others go further still. “The fossil fuel era is over,” declares Carbon Tracker Initiative, a nonprofit think tank that studies the economics of clean energy, in a new report. Kingsmill Bond, its energy strategist, told me that the transition to renewable energy will alter geopolitics and global economics on a scale comparable to that of the Industrial Revolution.

He cites one telling example to illustrate how and why. The world’s largest conventional oil field, Ghawar in Saudi Arabia, has the capacity to produce nearly four million barrels of oil per day. If you were to convert Ghawar’s annual oil output into electricity, you’d get almost one petawatt-hour of power per year. (That’s nearly enough to power Japan for a year; the world’s annual electrical energy demand is 27 petawatt-hours.)

The Ghawar oil field takes up a lot of space — about 3,000 square miles, around the size of Rhode Island and Delaware combined. But it soon might sound crazy to use that much sunny land for drilling oil. Bond estimates that if you put up solar panels on an area the size of Ghawar, you could now generate more than one petawatt-hour per year — more than you’d get from the oil buried under Ghawar.

But the oil will one day run out, while the sun will keep shining over Ghawar — and not just there, but everywhere else, too. This is the magic of the sun, as Bond explains: Only Saudi Arabia has a Ghawar, but with solar power almost every country in the world with enough space can generate one petawatt-hour of power (and without endangering the planet to boot).

It’s important to note that there remain hurdles in the way of a renewable-energy future. The most obvious one is the infrastructure required to take advantage of all this electric power — more robust power grids, for instance, and the transformation to electric power of everything from cars to container ships.

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