Solar power, electric cars, grid-scale batteries, heat pumps—the world is crossing into a mass-adoption moment for green technologies.
We’re painfully aware of geophysical climate tipping points and political climate policy tipping points, but there’s hope when we pass clean-energy tipping points. One of the main drivers of clean energy is lower operating costs, plus continuously lower capital (upfront) costs. Carbon Tracker coined the trend as “gain not pain” and RMI has noted that clean energy is an economic opportunity, not a sacrifice.
Clean-energy tipping point data from Bloomberg, Oct. 18, 2022:
On New Year’s Eve, 1879, Thomas Edison flipped the switch on the first building strung up with electric light bulbs. Night turned into day, and the revelers rang in a new age of electricity.
Edison was thinking way beyond bulbs: He planned an entire grid to carry power from coal generators directly into homes. It took another quarter century for electricity to reach the first 5% of US households—but that proved to be a tipping point. By 1950, the entire country was connected. A similar pattern of adoption—gradually, then suddenly—echoed around the world.
Today there’s a new Edison-level transformation under way. It affects how we generate the power that flows to our electrical outlets—and what gets plugged into those zero-emission electrons. Bloomberg Green has identified tipping points for 10 clean-energy technologies, from electric motorcycles to heat pumps and rooftop solar panels. New analysis shows which countries have crossed the threshold and how quickly those markets then expanded.
How Fast Is the World Switching to Renewables?
It all starts with the transition to clean energy, now approaching full speed with 87 countries drawing at least 5% of their electricity from wind and solar. The US hit 5% in 2011 and surged past 20% renewable electricity last year. If the country follows the trend set by others at the leading edge, wind and solar will account for half of US power-generating capacity just 10 years from now. That would be years—or even decades—earlier than major forecasts.
With all good technologies, there comes a time when buying the old tech no longer makes sense. Think smartphones in the 21st century, color TVs in the 1970s, or even gasoline-powered cars in Henry Ford’s day.
Successful technologies follow an S-shaped adoption curve. Sales move at a crawl in the early-adopter phase, then surprisingly quickly once things go mainstream. The top of the curve represents the last people to make the transition. Even in 2022, a tenth of humanity still doesn’t have electricity.
Five percent isn’t a universal tipping point. Some technologies flip sooner, others later, but the basic idea is the same: Once the tough investments in manufacturing have been made and consumer preferences start to shift, the first wave of adoption sets the conditions to go much bigger. By examining the countries that reach each tipping point first, we begin to get a sense of what to expect from those that follow.
Intermittent renewables tend to work better in combination—so when the sun sets in Spain, wind from Denmark might make up some of the gap. But even on their own, specific types of renewable energy show distinct adoption curves. Deploying enormous wind turbines can be difficult, so adoption is more gradual. Solar cells, on the other hand, can pop up just about anywhere once they’re affordable, so growth after the tipping point can be more explosive.