Hitting 1 Trillion. Think Clean Electrons, Not Stylish Electronics

August 10, 2018 | 10:33 am
Photo: Johanna Montoya/Unsplash
John Rogers
Energy Campaign Analytic Lead

You may have heard that Apple just passed the $1 trillion mark in terms of its market capitalization, the first company ever to reach those lofty heights. Less ink has been spilled on a different 1 trillion figure, but it’s one that’s well worth noting, too. According to Bloomberg NEF (BNEF), we just shot past the headline-worthy figure of 1 trillion watts (that is, 1 million megawatts, or 1,000 gigawatts) of wind turbines and solar panels worldwide. And you can bet there’ll be another trillion watts right behind.

1 trillion watts

According to BNEF, the tally by the end of second quarter of 2018 for wind and solar combined was 1,013 gigawatts (GW), or 1.013 million MW.

The path to 1 trillion (Source: Bloomberg NEF)

A few bonus noteworthy things about those data:

  • The new total is double what we had as of 2013, and more than quadruple 2010’s tally.
  • Wind has dominated the wind-solar pair for all of history (or at least since the data started in 2000), and accounts for 54% of the total, to solar’s 46%. But solar has come on so strong, and looks poised to be in the majority very soon.
  • Offshore wind is showing up! Particularly for those of us who have been tracking that technology for a long time, that light blue stripe on the graph is a beautiful thing to see.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch

For those of us in this country trying to understand the new trillion figure, one useful piece of context might be the total installed US power plant capacity, which, as it happens, is right around that 1-trillion-watt mark. According to the US Energy Information Administration, it’s about 1.1 million MW.

And, in terms of the wind and solar pieces of our own power mix:

Photo: PublicSource

The next trillion

Given how fortunes wax and wane, it’s tough to guess when Apple might be hitting the $2 trillion mark.

But for solar and wind it’s hard to imagine the number doing anything but growing. And, according to BNEF’s head of analysis, Albert Cheung, relative to the first trillion, the next trillion watts (1 terawatt) of wind and solar are going to come quick and cheap:

The first terawatt cost $2.3 trillion to build and took 40 years. The second terawatt, we reckon, will take five years and will cost half as much as the first one. So that’s how quickly this industry is evolving.

Imagine that: They’re projecting $1.23 trillion for the next trillion watts of solar and wind—barely more than an Apple’s worth.

About the author

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John Rogers is energy campaign analytic lead at the Union of Concerned Scientists with expertise in clean energy technologies and policies and a focus on solar, wind, and natural gas. He co-managed the UCS-led Energy and Water in a Warming World Initiative, a multi-year program aimed at raising awareness of the energy-water connection, particularly in the context of climate change, and motivating and informing effective low-carbon and low-water energy solutions.