How renewables took over the grid during the pandemic

If there has been a winner to emerge from the coronavirus pandemic, it would be the solar industry. The reduction in driving, flying, and industrial activity due to the COVID-19 pandemic has led to smog-free skies, which is proving a boon for solar energy generation. Pollution blocks solar radiation, and the fine particles spat out during combustion can settle on the surface of solar panels, reducing their efficiency.

Smog-free skies, along with a lucky combination of sunny days and cooler temperatures, which boost panel efficiency, have helped solar panels break records in the U.K., Germany, and Spain this spring. The trend points to the potential for a positive (and hopeful) feedback loop — as polluting energy sources are replaced by solar panels, those solar panels will be able to generate more energy.

In Germany, a record that was set in March was broken again on April 20, when solar-generated 40 percent of the country’s electricity.  It’s actually not unusual to see solar generation records this time of year when new panels installed in the winter get their first time to shine in the spring weather. While the added capacity explains some of the solar’s grid takeover, the drop in electricity demand right now due to the pandemic has also inflated its proportion in the total mix.

In the UK, record solar power generation also helped coal plants set a major record, but the opposite kind. The entire U.K. energy system ran with zero coal-fired power plant generation for more than 18 days, something we wrote about last week.

While it’s hard to say how the renewable industry will emerge from a potential recession, a new study by clean energy research firm BloombergNEF paints an optimistic picture that the renewable energy takeover will continue on a global scale. The financial research firm found that utility-scale solar farms and onshore wind farms now offer the cheapest source of electricity for about two-thirds of the world’s population.

The study finds that falling costs, more efficient technology, and government support in some parts of the world have fostered larger renewable power plants, with the average wind farm now double the size it was four years ago. The larger the plant, the lower the cost of generation. The price of electricity from onshore wind farms dropped 9 percent since mid-2019, and solar electricity prices likewise declined 4 percent.

In any case, the pandemic has shown us the very real value of renewable energy and the smog-free skies that boost them.

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