Where do we go next with the global clean energy transition? One trend that has remained constant over the last several years is the world’s progress in replacing traditional fossil fuels with renewable alternatives. Despite the breakout of a global pandemic and subsequent economic shutdown for the large part of 2020, worldwide solar capacity soared by 45 percent, the largest annual rate of growth in two decades. Still, questions remain as some holdouts are unconvinced that traditional energy types will be phased out altogether in the coming years.
The skepticism seems to be centered around the fear that fossil fuels and other environmentally damaging power sources will always be needed on a supplemental basis due to the perceived inconsistency of renewables. After all, an underground oil reserve generally continues to be accessible at all times, while all it takes is a cloudy day for an entire field of solar panels to be shut down entirely. Although energy generated from solar and wind can certainly be stored just like any other source, the prevailing notion from critics is that this inconsistency will prevent our infrastructure from generating enough power to keep up with annual worldwide consumption.
Recent developments like those seen in South Australia indicate that this fear is beginning to look more and more unfounded. The region has consistently produced substantial amounts of renewable energy. Over the past year, it has begun pushing the boundaries of what was thought to be possible. Much of this is likely due to the continent’s relatively unique exposure to the sun. The level of exposure to ultraviolet radiation in Australia has measured 10-15% stronger than elsewhere in the world. Beachgoers in the continent’s northern capital of Darwin can get a sunburn after less than twenty minutes outside.
This combination of robust solar infrastructure and fortunate global position has allowed South Australia to set milestones not yet seen elsewhere on Earth. For a moment, in October of 2020, the region achieved a solar output that exceeded 100 percent of total energy demand in terms of wattage. The same has now happened almost a year later, but the surplus this time was higher and more sustained than ever before. While the record-setting peak of over 106 percent of total energy demand was only reached for a brief moment, the grid was able to sustain a capacity above 100 percent of demand for about an hour. The surplus was relatively short-lived because providers in places like Bungala and Tailem Bend began to limit their operations. Solar prices would actually turn negative for the grid to sustain an excess for a more extended period of time.
The success of South Australia’s solar program could have significant implications for how countries like the United States handle their renewable situation. Those who argue that differences in demand between countries are missing the point – almost 1.8 million people live in the region, roughly the size of West Virginia and more than ten American states, including New Hampshire, Maine, and Delaware. It is true that the sun simply burns hotter in much of Australia. However, states like Wyoming certainly have a low enough population density for a large-scale solar panel rollout to be viable.
A growing subset of the academic world is now arguing that a full-scale global solar infrastructure is not only doable in the coming years but it would also provide energy returns similar to those seen in South Australia. A recent study by researchers at University College Cork in Ireland used a machine-learning algorithm to locate available solar space worldwide and found roughly 200,000 square kilometers of applicable rooftop area for solar panels. The area was enough to generate 27 petawatt-hours of energy, exceeding total energy demand worldwide for 2018. As long as global consumption doesn’t increase significantly beyond those levels, any additional need could be met through wind power alone, leaving fossil fuels a relic of the past.