Little and big things that restore our faith in humanity’s future

by John Q on March 1, 2023

I’ve enjoyed Miriam’s posts on things, little and big, that restore our faith in humanity, so I thought I would share a little hope of my own.

I spend a lot of my time thinking about global heating, where it’s often hard to be optimistic about the future. But there are some bright spots. In particular, there’s a good chance that 2023 will be the year that coal use finally begins a sustained decline, and relatedly the year the carbon dioxide emissions from electricity generation start to fall.

This is by no means a sure thing. The International Energy Agency predicts a plateau, in which nearly all new electricity demand will be met by solar PV and wind, leaving coal and gas use almost unchanged. But the IEA has a long track record of underestimating carbon-free[1] energy, and there are plenty of reasons to think that this has happened again.

Total electricity demand is currently a bit over 25000 TWh (terawatt hours a year), growing at around 3 per cent per year. So, to meet the growing demand, we need to generate an additional 750 TWh from solar and wind ( Other carbon-free sources, such as hydro and nuclear have been essentially static.)

Assuming solar PV generates at full power for 2000 hours per year, meeting additional demand with solar alone requires addition of between 375 GW of solar PV per year, with any shortfall made up by wind.

The good news is, that’s already happening. Bloomberg BNEF estimates 315 GW of solar will be installed in 2023, up from 268GW in 2022. Additions of wind power have been around 100 GW a year recently, which amounts to between 250 and 300 TWh per year.

Assuming the 2022 installations are already connected to global grids, we should see a reduction in carbon-based electricity generation this year, and steadily larger reductions in the future. That will be true even if electricity begins to substitute for oil and gas in transport, heating, cooking and so on.

Underlying this shift is the steadily decreasing cost of wind and, even more, solar power. This trend was interrupted by the supply shocks of the pandemic and Putin’s war, which led to a big increase in the price of polysilicon, as well as those of coal and gas. But while coal and gas prices remain high, the polysilicon price, while still volatile has dropped back to more normal levels. And new investment is raising production capacity even further, heading for 500GW by the end of this year

Meanwhile technological progress continues apace. Commercially available solar cells now routinely exceed 20 per cent efficiency , while new multi-junction technologies are approaching 50 per cent This didn’t happen by chance: it is directly correlated with a massive growth in research, driven originally by public subsidies, but increasingly now by market demand.

As the urgency of ending reliance on coal, gas and oil has become more evident, supportive policies have reduced costs further. The result is that solar panels are expected to become cheaper in 2023 and beyond. In Europe, the need to respond to the cutoff of Russian gas and oil has led to the removal of some of the NIMBY obstacles to wind farms, transmission lines and so on that have delayed the transition.

The big exception to all of this is China, where coal-fired power has made a resurgence. Up to 100 new coal plants have been granted permits in the last year. This doesn’t make economic or geopolitical sense for China. It does, however, make plenty of sense for regional governments desperate to keep up a flow of large projects, both to maintain employment in coal-related industries, and for the corruption opportunities such projects inevitably generate. It seems likely that most of these plants will, if they are completed at all, lose money and face premature closure. But China has enough excess savings to deal with this.

The prospects for stabilising the global climate still don’t look good. But in electricity at least, there has been far more progress than seemed possible ten or even five years ago.

Electricity is only part of the picture of a response to global heating. I’ll try to write about reasons for hope in other aspects of the problem later. That’s more difficult, but there are still some reasons not to be too gloomy.

fn1. I avoid the terms ‘renewables’ and ‘fossil fuels’ which date back to the energy crises of the 1970s, when we were worried about running out of oil and coal. What matters isn’t that solar and wind are renewable, it’s that they are carbon-free.



Alex SL 03.01.23 at 11:37 am

That would indeed be good news, if and when it happens.

Then again, we have to see it in proportion, because what matters is still how much is released per year, and that to live sustainably, that number needs to be effectively zero. Celebrating that we may finally see the carbon output decline is equivalent to celebrating that we decided to reduce our speed from 120 km/h to 115 km/h while already only 30 meters away from a concrete wall that we had seen coming for the last 500 meters.


Brett 03.01.23 at 4:21 pm

I’m a bit worried about challenges in getting the necessary grid upgrades and utility-scale solar and wind plants built in the US, with some more aggressive local opposition and astroturfing campaigns by oil & gas proxies. But costs for solar at least are falling fast enough that it might be feasible to just put them on buildings and over parking lots, and in any case the longer solar and wind are around the less they’ll be suspicious for novelty among rural folks.

If some of that e-fuel technology gets better, we might see some ultra-cheap renewable energy turned into green methane (or at least green hydrogen) and transported that way for usage – if the grid isn’t capable of taking it. I’m hopeful it will.

Big thing that makes me hopeful is how far we’re going into electric cars. I know that folks on the left have mixed feelings about that and cars in general, but if there are going to be tons of cars I’d much rather they be EVs.


Tim Worstall 03.01.23 at 7:38 pm

“This didn’t happen by chance: it is directly correlated with a massive growth in research, driven originally by public subsidies, but increasingly now by market demand.”

Well, yeah, and sorta. You mention the polysilicon price and the big change (back a bit) was when the price changed from $450 a kg to $40. That wasn’t really about subsidy.

Traditionally solar poly-s was the tops and tails (the end cuts off a silicon ingot) from computer chip manufacture. When the market grew large enough this wasn’t a sufficient source. So, a new source was needed. Because poly-s was up at $450 a kg. Haven’t looked up the current price but it’s, I guess, somewhere in the $20 to $40 a kg level. Depends whether we talk of actual market price or all in production cost (it’s entirely common that metal prices fall below all in production costs given sunk costs).

So, what happened? One thing was that ingots were made larger. There’s a cost per ingot, a cost per kg. Larger ingots have lower overall costs therefore per kg material. Also, the biggest technical problem was to work out how to lower – yes lower – the purity of the material.

We might, just about, say that this was all brought about by subsidy if we’re to argue that the expansion of the market was driven by subsidy. But, well, you know, not really. It’s a common enough reaction to a market expansion – the sapphire market has gone through much the same change in recent years and there’s no subsidy there (and yes, the production process is very similar for these wildly different materials, larger boules reduce the per boule cost while the energy cost per kg remains the same).

I entirely agree that solar has got cheaper, think it’s a lovely idea and so on. It’s just the technical detail of the cause that I’m muttering about. You know, as someone who has actually been in both silicon ingot factories (even, in the supplier of the quartz sand at the start of the process) and whose office used to be in a sapphire factory.


Tim Worstall 03.01.23 at 7:40 pm

” larger boules reduce the per boule cost”

Sorry, larger boules have the same fixed cost per boule, but that reduces the fixed cost per boule when expressed per kg material.


Alex SL 03.01.23 at 8:13 pm


I hate driving and thus cycle to work nearly every day, so I may be biased anyway. But I still thought, well, if other people like to drive that much, at least electric cars will be the solution to the carbon footprint aspect of that.

What really clarified the problem to me was a simple internet meme from Brazil. It shows a massive traffic jam with a text that translates to the inspiring message “one day, all of these will be electric”. Outside of sparsely populated areas where public transport isn’t efficient, cars are a sociopathic waste of space and resources, and they warp urban planning, transport infrastructure, individual housing, pedestrian safety and human health around them into something much worse than they could be.


TM 03.02.23 at 10:48 am

I never thought much of electric cars but I have slightly changed my stance: if the transition to electric cars gets us away from the oil dependency and reduces the power that the likes of Saudi Arabia and Russia have over our economies, then it may be worth it despite many problems (including potential new dependencies).

An underrated aspect of the EV boom is still the electric bike. It could be the biggest game changer in urban and suburban transport and there are already way more of them than there are Teslas. (Rural people btw, contrary to popular belief, use bicycles as well. But their commutes tend to be farther than urban commutes).


John Q 03.02.23 at 9:52 pm

Mildly encouraging is that the US seems to have reached Peak, or at least Plateau Car. Distance travelled is below the pre-pandemic peak, and basically flat for a decade (actually, closer to two decades, going back to the GFC)

US vehicle travel has not regained the pre-pandemic level and has been almost flat for a decade


hix 03.02.23 at 10:10 pm

Oh let the electric cars be. The last thing we need now are people opposed to every new street or parking lot that hope everything can be solved by turning all streets into “bikestreets” because they enjoy their daily 30km one way bicycle commute. Usually people in perfect health with great jobs (lots of remote work options) and too much power just like the ones with the big SUVs and no better at imposing. Sometimes its just to damn cold to cycle, or people are not in the physical health to do so or or or….


Alex SL 03.02.23 at 10:12 pm

As it happens, I have just read the following tweet from the executive director of the IEA: “new IEA analysis shows emissions rose by less than 1% in 2022 as a surge in clean energy offset most of the increase in emissions from coal & oil”

In other words, we can now celebrate that we increased our speed from 120 km/h to only as little as 121 km/h while 30 meters away from a concrete wall that we have seen coming for the last 500 meters. That at least seems to be the vibes of that IEA take, that this is something to celebrate.

Is everybody well? When our successors have clawed their way back out of the next population collapse and warlord-dominated dark age* they will look back at our usage of fossil fuels and car culture in the same way we today discuss the Romans’ slavery and use of lead piping and cups, with some mixture of horror and pity at our utter foolishness.

*) I understand there are historians who reject the use of that term because while the feuding tribal dukedoms that were left after the collapse of the Roman empire had lost knowledge of how to even build sewage canals, produced art that looked like children’s scribbles, and had to make do without the previously existing trans-continental trade network, economic specialisation and prosperity enabled by the Pax Romana, they still wrote stuff down, so it wasn’t, like “dark” dark in the sense of a complete absence of records.


Tm 03.03.23 at 10:23 am

hix: „ The last thing we need now are people opposed to every new street or parking lot“

Actually that is not the last thing we need. How about „the last thing we need now is the infrastructure minister of a center left government announcing building new Autobahns as his biggest priority, while abandoning rail infrastructure investment“?


Tm 03.03.23 at 11:42 am

“Little and big things that destroy our faith in humanity’s future”

The EU cannot enact the already approved ban on fuel-driven cars by 2035 because the German red-green-liberal government blocks it, due to the absolute and unshakebale opposition of a party currently representing at most 5% of German voters. The same party’s infrastructure minister insists that pouring billions into new Autobahns is the most important job of the government, and has just announced that urgently needed railway investments will be delayed until 2070. And this is the kind of the saner part of the current political establishment in Europe. Sorry JQ.


nastywoman 03.03.23 at 11:28 pm

‘The EU cannot enact the already approved ban on fuel-driven cars by 2035 because the German red-green-liberal government blocks it, due to the absolute and unshakebale opposition of a party currently representing at most 5% of German voters’.

but to be fair – this Party of very obvious ignorant Idiots does it also for some much smarter Engineers who still believe that they can built an ‘Umweltfreundlicher Verbrenner’.

Or as the German Saying goes: Dem Ingenieur ist nix zu schwer!


KT2 03.07.23 at 4:06 am

“Seven everyday objects that made the modern world

“Nails, wheels, springs, magnets, lenses, string and pumps: a structural engineer reveals the small things that our biggest tech advances are built on.”

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