Solar & Wind Power now cheaper than Coal & Technical Problems such as intermittency being solved, investing in renewable energy makes economic sense. Taiwan’s wind energy development and China and India’s solar energy initiatives are encouraging examples.

Melting permafrost triggered the collapse of a holding tank owned by Russian metals company Norilsk Nickelin in Siberia at the end of May, sending 21,000 tonnes of diesel fuel into Arctic waters in one of the worst spills of its kind.

The thawing permafrost is a stark reminder that, like time and tides, climate change waits for no one, even in this era of Covid-19. Russian President Vladimir Putin declared a state of emergency to deal with a spill expected to cost billions of dollars and contaminate the Arctic’s pristine waters for years.

The climate change challenge continues during Covid-19. Encouragingly, so too does the work to push the low-carbon energy transition forward. Conversations with Asia Business Council members and other executives show a determination to keep investing in initiatives to slow the rate of global warming in Asia, even as what promises to be a long struggle against Covid-19 continues.

Indeed, climate change and public health issues, including the spread of diseases that jump from animals to humans like Covid-19 gives new urgency to the need to accelerate the transition to non-carbon energy sources.

Solar and wind power are cheaper than coal now. Countries are recognising that by building new coal plants, they are consigning themselves to years of higher-priced energy than they can get from renewables and that’s not even counting the costs in public health (air pollution) and global warming. Also, the issue of intermittency, when the wind doesn’t blow and the sun doesn’t shine are being solved thanks to new technology and innovative siting solutions.

Important to the transition to a low-carbon future is the idea of energy system optimisation, where a suite of alternatives nuclear, large hydro, small hydro, onshore wind, offshore wind, storage, energy efficiency, demand response, transmission, and other types of balancing resources are used in concert to create a cleaner grid than relying on coal, which is still Asia’s largest fuel source for electricity.

Coastal Asia is a promising area for offshore wind. Because the wind blows day and night, offshore wind provides so-called intermittent baseload power, with fewer interruptions than onshore wind or solar.

Taiwan has taken advantage of this by stepping up its plans to build offshore wind and other renewable resources as it moves away from nuclear power. The island plans to bring its offshore wind capacity to 15.5 gigawatts in 2035, equal to about 16 nuclear power reactors, as part of a plan to transition to 20 per cent renewable energy.

Taiwan is developing its offshore wind capacity faster than anywhere else in Asia and has become a sought-after market for the world’s top offshore wind developers. It awarded Danish wind power giant Ørsted the right to connect 900 megawatts of offshore wind to Taiwan’s grid, as part of the 2.4 gigawatt Greater Changhua project.

The projects should be completed in 2021 and will provide enough green power to supply 1 million Taiwanese homes. Taiwan’s wind buildout is creating local jobs and building renewable energy human capital along the offshore wind supply chain.

China continues its ambitious moves to make its fast-growing solar sector stand on its own feet, without subsidies. Planners are also ensuring that less solar and wind power is “curtailed”, or wasted. Curtailed wind power in Gansu and Xinjiang provinces has fallen from 43 per cent and 38 per cent in 2016 to 7.6 per cent and 14 per cent in 2019, respectively.

New technologies that allow more cost-efficient storage of renewable electricity will reduce curtailment further, and boost capacity utilisation of China’s ultra-high voltage lines, which transmit energy from the interior to high-demand coastal areas.

China’s renewable energy generation capacity stood at 10.1 per cent of the total, with wind accounting for 5.5 per cent, solar photovoltaic 3.1 per cent, and biomass making up the balance. Hydro adds another 17.8 per cent.

Greener Belt & Road Initiative is one of the world’s best hopes for decarbonization of the Energy System

China’s domestic progress is likely to translate to shared learning across the belt & road footprint, which would benefit the world.

A third bright spot is India’s solar buildout. Though India, the world’s third-largest carbon dioxide emitter, is still dependent on coal to keep the lights on, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has plans to build 450 gigawatts of renewable energy installed capacity by 2030, a five fold increase.

Since 2016, India has nearly doubled the share of solar and wind power installed capacity from 11 per cent to 20 per cent. Taking advantage of the fact that solar is even cheaper than coal-fired power, India has used domestic and international capital to construct some of the largest utility-scale solar projects in the world, at some of the cheapest prices.

The 2.3 gigawatt Bhadla Solar Park in Rajasthan is the world’s largest to date, roughly equivalent to the power produced by two nuclear power plants. Altogether, India’s nine ultra-mega solar projects account for 14.6 gigawatts of low-cost solar capacity.

There are 10 years to go until 2030 when each country’s climate goal set at Paris is meant to be met. On average, to keep global warming at the 1.5 degrees Celsius temperature goal of the Paris agreement, greenhouse gas emissions must fall by 7.6 per cent each year between 2020 and 2030.

It’s good to see the positive change and feel the urgency even in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, but we are still in the early years of the greatest battle of our era, that of limiting the worst effects of climate change.

Author: Jill R. Baker, Adjunct Fellow at the Asia Business Council.