The Third Phase of Clean Energy Will Be the Most Disruptive Yet

Building new solar, wind, and storage is about to be cheaper than operating existing coal and gas power plants. That will change everything.

  • Ramez Naam

When the history of how humanity turned the corner on climate change is written, we’ll look back and see that clean energy – specifically clean electricity from solar, wind, and storage, went through four distinct phases.


From the 1980s until roughly 2015, there was virtually no place on earth where new solar, wind, or energy storage was cheaper than generating electricity from coal or natural gas. This was the first phase of renewables, one where they scaled entirely because of government subsidies and mandates. And in this time, renewable growth was paltry. Solar reached 1% of global electricity. Wind reached perhaps 4%. The world spend hundreds of billions of dollars subsidizing clean energy, and seemingly got nothing.


Except that the world didn’t get nothing. As I’ve written often, the most important aspect of clean energy policy has been to drive down the price of clean energy by scaling it, and thus kicking in the learning-by-doing that continually lowers the unsubsidized price of new solar, new wind, and new energy storage.  The policies of the 80s, 90s, 2000s, and 2010s finally drove down the cost of new solar and wind electricity by more than a factor of ten. That finally paid off around 2015, when, for the first time, building solar or wind power was, even without subsidies, sometimes cheaper than building new coal-or-gas fired electricity.

You can see this in IRENA’s graph showing the price of new solar PV, on-shore wind, off-shore wind, and solar CSP.

The cost of solar and wind is dropping below the cost of fossil fuel electricity around the world. Each blue or orange circle reflects one solar or wind project. The heavy lines reflect global weighted average prices of solar and wind. Source: IRENA.

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