Utility-Scale Solar Is 85% Cheaper Than in 2010

A new report finds that a vast majority of new renewables are more economical than the cheapest fossil fuel.


Brooks Kraft LLC/Corbis via Getty Image

Ten years ago, you could drive around many parts of North Carolina and rarely see a large-scale solar farm. Yet now, it seems like they are everywhere. While there has been some partisan bickering over the spread of solar in the area, the underlying reason for the growth in renewable generation is relatively simple: It’s significantly cheaper than it was just 10 years ago. 

According to a new report from the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) outlining the cost of renewables in 2020, the stunning drop in costs is not just limited to solar either. In just one decade, the levelized cost—meaning the average cost of generation for a plant over its lifetime—of various renewables have dropped as follows:

  • 85% for utility-scale solar 
  • 56% for onshore wind 
  • 48% for offshore wind
  • 68% for concentrated solar power

And if 2020 is anything to go by, these advancements show little sign of being done. In fact, last year alone, we saw drops of 16% for CSP, 13% for onshore wind, 9% for offshore, and 7% for solar PV too. 

Of course, a drop in costs means little without the context of the competition. And here too there are promising signs that we are turning a corner. According to the same report, a full 62% of new renewables added last year had lower costs than the cheapest new fossil fuels. 

New renewables are increasingly competitive against existing fossil fuels too. In the U.S., for example, 61% of current coal capacity already has higher operating costs than new renewables. In other words, we could phase these coal plants out and start saving money, almost from day one. In Germany, the situation is even direr for King Coal, with no existing coal plant showing operating costs that come in below the cost of adding new renewables. 

In a press release accompanying the new report, IRENA’s Director-General, Francesco La Camera, suggested we have reached a point of no return for the dirtiest of fossil fuels. However, because renewables cost more upfront than keeping old coal rolling, La Camera pointed out that action is needed to help make sure emerging economies are not left behind:

“We are far beyond the tipping point of coal. Following the latest commitment by G7 to net-zero and stop global coal funding abroad, it is now for G20 and emerging economies to match these measures. We cannot allow having a dual-track for energy transition where some countries rapidly turn green and others remain trapped in the fossil-based system of the past. Global solidarity will be crucial, from technology diffusion to financial strategies and investment support. We must make sure everybody benefits from the energy transition.”

For the longest time, opponents of climate action have argued that we can’t afford to ditch fossil fuels without taking the economy—usually ignoring the massive, externalized economic costs of drought, extreme weather, sea-level rise, and air pollution. Yet what the IRENA report shows is that even without fully accounting for these very real societal costs, renewables are holding their own. 

On a truly level playing field, it would be game over already. 

View Article Sources
  1. "Renewable Power Generation Cost in 2020." International Renewable Energy Agency, 2021.