The dark side of solar

How the rising solar industry empowers political interests that could impede a clean energy transition

Ravens sit on solar panels at the Abakan solar electric station owned by Russian electricity firm EuroSibEnergo of En+ Group, in a suburb of the Siberian town of Abakan, in the Republic of Khakassia, Russia September 26, 2017. Picture taken September 26, 2017
Editor's note:

This paper is second in a series from the Cross-Brookings Initiative on Energy and Climate. An excerpt from the paper’s introduction follows. View the full series here.

In recent years, solar power has surged to become the cheapest and fastest-growing source of electricity on the planet. Over the last decade, solar installations have grown annually by over 30 percent on average, thanks to costs that have plunged more than 90 percent. This red-hot growth suggests that in the near future, solar power could challenge fossil fuel dominance and help the world reduce its carbon emissions. As a result, solar has become the poster child of a putative clean energy revolution.

Yet such a revolution is in fact a long way off. Fossil fuels still supply most of the world’s energy needs. Today, solar power provides just 2 percent of the world’s electricity, and the generation of electricity, in turn, accounts for just a quarter of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. To avert catastrophic climate change, the world will have to nearly eliminate its emissions shortly after midcentury—a goal known as deep decarbonization—which will require the most ambitious overhaul of the world’s energy infrastructure in human history.

The danger is that a broad constellation of increasingly powerful political interests—buoyed by the rise of the global solar industry—might not support the farsighted public policies needed for the world to achieve deep decarbonization. At first blush, this is counterintuitive. The political interests allied with the fossil fuel industry are much more obvious culprits in delaying the shift away from a carbon-intensive energy mix. By contrast, far from thwarting decarbonization, ascendant backers of solar energy would appear to be well placed to further promote solar power and advance a clean energy transition.

That intuitive and happy outcome might indeed come to pass. But there are warning signs that coalitions of solar advocates might channel some of their political influence toward pressuring governments around the world to enact policies that would make deep decarbonization more expensive and complicated. Such advocacy coalitions—spanning interests from industry, civil society, and political organizations—might appear united in pushing for renewable energy deployment to combat climate change, but actually harbor a variety of political goals that diverge from global decarbonization.

Three examples of public policies that might impede long-term decarbonization—but nonetheless are backed by the solar industry or its political allies—raise concerns about the political power unleashed by solar power’s rise. First, in countries including Germany and the United States, some environmental groups are pressuring policymakers to shut down nuclear reactors, even though nuclear energy and another unpopular energy source, fossil fuel plants equipped to capture carbon emissions, are important elements of a pragmatic decarbonization strategy. Second, the U.S. advocacy coalition that once supported both innovation in and deployment of solar energy now mostly supports deployment, content to leave underfunded the innovations needed to harness solar power’s full potential. And third, factions of the solar industry across the developed and developing worlds have all lobbied, with some success, for barriers to free trade of solar components, which make it more costly to deploy solar power.

That solar advocates might not push for optimal decarbonization policies is not surprising. Some advocates, such as environmental groups, have a range of goals, such as local environmental protection, that often clash with the imperatives of global decarbonization. And the solar industry, like any other, has its own interests, which it has sought to advance by organizing politically and recruiting a diverse coalition of allies. Yet what is narrowly good for solar power in the short term is not necessarily broadly good for global decarbonization or even, for that matter, the long-term growth of solar power. Indeed, without political support for a more flexible and reliable power grid, for example, the progress of both solar deployment and emissions reductions could stall.

To be sure, the great success of advocacy coalitions in persuading governments to pass policies supportive of solar power has enabled the breakneck growth of the solar industry. Moreover, the support of these coalitions could be important to pass sensible climate policies, such as carbon pricing regimes, that solar advocates generally favor. Therefore, policymakers should aim to harness the increasing political influence of these actors to advance policies conducive to deep decarbonization. At the same time, they should recognize that some suboptimal, inefficient policies are unavoidable and even desirable if they enable a broader policy portfolio that is sensible on balance. For their part, the solar industry and its political allies should look beyond narrow advocacy for near-term solar incentives and back policies to create the flexible, decarbonized energy systems that will enable solar power’s long-term success.