Extensive use of wind and solar energy requires large-scale energy storage to handle their intermittency. The dramatic drop in energy storage costs, from $3000/kWh to $170/kWh in about 20 years, has made increased storage capacity possible, mainly through the development of the Lithium-ion battery.
For the same reason your new smartphone can hold a charge longer, wind and solar energy are fast emerging as a viable and reliable way of powering the entire economy.
Oil and gas will still have a market, though a reduced one, in supplying feedstock to the petrochemical industry for making plastics, and in air and sea transportation, where renewables or batteries are unlikely to be competitive. The drop in demand for oil and gas will, therefore, lower prices and drive out high-cost producers, including most deep-water wells and tar sands.
With power increasingly coming from a large number of intermittent sources and from energy stored in batteries, and with consumers increasingly generating their own from solar panels, the utility model is fast-changing.
The process of passing power from large generators to consumers will not support the complex power systems of the future without utilities taking a more coordinating role.
For these reasons, it is possible and increasingly likely that beyond the middle of this century fossil fuels will play little or no role in producing electric power in advanced economies. And if electric vehicles gain ground, as many in the auto industry expect, the future will be largely free of fossil fuels.
The next decade will be an exciting one for the energy industry, and for those who worry about climate change and the environmental impact of our energy use.
Commentary by Geoffrey Heal, the Donald C. Waite III Professor of Social Enterprise and a Chazen Senior Scholar at Columbia Business School. He is the author of Endangered Economies: How the Neglect of Nature Threatens Our Prosperity.
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Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly referred to (mWh) as milliwat hours. (mWh) actually refers to megawatt hours. An editor inserted that error.