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WHO NEEDS CARBON PRICING?
WHO NEEDS CARBON PRICING?
For a long time, carbon pricing has been seen as the single big idea that could give cleaner energy sources the edge over fossil fuels. Few countries, however, have succeeded in setting a strong carbon price. Europe's carbon prices are too low to make a difference, while the US, the world's second-largest carbon emitter after China, hasn't set a direct carbon price at all. Yet as the clean energy transition charges forward, carbon pricing might become less and less relevant, data from EI New Energy's latest Energy Cost Report suggests.
The new report shows that renewable energy costs have been falling even without strong carbon prices, thanks to feed-in tariffs, mandatory renewable energy targets and direct government support, all of which have triggered a virtuous circle of scale and productivity. And even if carbon pricing isn't adopted in the years ahead, sources like solar photovoltaics (PV) and onshore wind will still become cost-competitive with fossil fuels, the report finds.
Renewable-Fossil Fuel Cost Parity Points
The report suggests that onshore wind and solar PV are set to become cheaper than coal and gas within the next 10-20 years, with or without carbon prices. The projection is based on a proprietary levelized cost of energy (LCOE) model with updated 2017 estimates and projections through to 2050, and focuses on the US and Europe. EI New Energy assumes carbon prices in line with the International Energy Agency (IEA) base case scenario, which would go up from today's $5-$6 per ton of CO2 in Europe to $20/ton in 2020, $37/ton in 2030 and $60/ton in 2050 in today’s money, and in the US, from zero now to $13/ton in 2020, $27/ton in 2030 and $50/ton in 2050. In a world without those carbon prices, however, solar PV in the US would still become more competitive than natural gas -- thanks to a projected 60% drop in PV costs between now and 2050 -- but would need a little longer to do so, taking until 2033 rather than 2029. Similarly, onshore wind, which already beats nuclear and coal, could be 30% cheaper in 2050 than now thanks to bigger and better turbines, and would beat gas in 2037, instead of 2028.
For more expensive renewable energy sources, such as offshore wind and concentrated solar power (CSP), carbon prices could certainly help, although costs for these technologies are also starting to come down regardless (see diagram). Offshore wind -- boosted in Europe by subsidies rather than the region's weak carbon market -- has seen its average LCOE drop by a substantial 30% over the past two years, to $133 per megawatt hour now from $184/MWh in 2015. The data suggest the industry's target of €100/MWh ($110/MWh) could be reached as soon as 2025. Even CSP, an indirect victim of crumbling PV costs, which have caused many CSP projects to stall in the past few years, could be switching back to growth mode, as an ongoing tender in Dubai seems to suggest. The lowest bid came at $95/MWh, 35%-50% lower than the recent Noor CSP projects in Morocco, which were supported by cheap loans from international financial institutions.
Wind Parity Timeline
Carbon pricing could still be important for natural gas, however. Moderate carbon prices of around $15-$30/ton could prove very useful in triggering permanent coal-to-gas switching among existing power plants. This would result from the fact that, despite technology improvements, gas prices are expected to increase in the next few decades on the back of robust demand, whereas coal demand and therefore prices are seen stagnating. At current coal and gas prices of, respectively, around $2.40 and $3 per million Btu, variable costs at typical US coal- and gas-fired plants are almost the same, which means even the smallest carbon price would make gas plants permanently cheaper than coal plants. However, by 2030, with coal at $2.30/MMBtu and gas at $5.35/MMBtu, it would take a $30/ton price of CO2 to keep gas plants ahead of coal. The downside for gas -- vis-à-vis a scenario involving no or very low carbon prices -- would be stiffer competition from renewables. It is also arguable, moreover, that most coal plants will in any case have disappeared from OECD countries before 2030, because the current aging fleet won't be renewed, with regulations combating pollution -- if not climate change -- expected to make their life more and more difficult.
Higher carbon prices of up to $100/ton would be more helpful still for carbon capture and storage (CCS), which the IEA views as vital in meeting the UN Paris climate agreement's target of limiting global warming "well below 2°C." The data suggests coal with CCS would need a carbon price of around $100/ton in today's technology and fuel price conditions to displace unabated coal and, based on expected cost and performance improvements, $90/ton in 2030 and $65/ton in 2050 -- although many experts think prices that high can't be expected, and instead suggest policy tools such as emissions standards or direct subsidies to help CCS.
Solar Parity Timeline
Carbon prices would certainly speed up the clean energy revolution. But recent history shows that other policy tools, such as mandates, standards or even subsidies, can be at least as effective in allowing clean technologies to emerge and grow -- and eventually to prosper without any support.
Philippe Roos is a Senior Reporter with Energy Intelligence and the author of EI New Energy's latest Energy Cost Report. Lauren Craft is the editor of EI New Energy.