Wind vs. Solar: What is the future of renewables?

I was in Hong Kong last week, attending a workshop on renewable energy at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. The focus of the workshop was to explore factors that drive deployment of individual sources of renewable electricity generation, specifically wind and solar, to understand why there have been diverging trends of those two in different countries, and to investigate the effects of the changing balance between wind and solar on the electricity supply.
The workshop was organized under a Worldwide Universities Network project, and featured speakers from mainland China, Hong Kong, Japan, India, Germany, Switzerland, France, Russia, UK, US, and Australia. The talks showcased the multidisciplinarity of this topic, with individual presentations coming from a range of areas such as policy, business analysis, governance, law, economics, and urban/rural studies. All talks did have firm foundation within social sciences, so the multidisciplinary nature of the workshop had a nice focus on the social science aspects of renewable energy phenomena.
At the end of the workshop, participants were able to sketch out an overarching way of thinking around the dynamics of individual energy sources, the effects of those dynamics, and the policies that are needed to manage energy transitions. Specifically, one can start by thinking about drivers behind individual energy source accelerated or decelerated penetration (e.g. in many countries solar has seen accelerated, and wind decelerated penetration over the last 5 years), such as costs, higher level policies and programs, technical characteristics and technological progress, and public perceptions. Then, the process of deployment of individual energy sources is examined, often in parallel with specific support polices. This stage is highly uncertain, as there may be variety of factors that influence penetration of an individual energy source apart from the supporting policy, and the outcomes from this implementation stage are hard to predict. The last stage in the framework is an evaluation stage, where we can investigate the ex post effects from the implementation stage, in terms of the effects on electricity prices, reliability of electricity supply, and wider social outcomes. In order to manage the uncertainty in the implementability stage, feedback policy rules that flow from the evaluation to the implementability stage are needed. These feedback rules should be used to alter the parameters of the supporting policies or other management levers in the implementability stage in order to improve the outcomes. This is called Adaptive Dynamic Energy Transitions Management.
The need for this type of overarching framework was evident at the workshop, where examples of energy transitions from a large number of individual countries were presented. This evidence suggests that we currently have no clear understanding of how to adequately manage energy transitions, as the same high-level programs and specific policy levers seem to lead to different outcomes in different jurisdictions. The participants in the workshop agreed to continue to work together to tackle this gap in knowledge, hopefully resulting in improved ability of human society to achieve cleaner, more efficient, affordable and reliable energy systems in the future.

Author: Tiho Ancev

Tiho Ancev is a Professor of Agricultural and Resource Economics in the School of Economics, University of Sydney. His main research areas are agricultural, environmental, natural resource and energy economics. Tiho’s main contributions have been in water economics and policy, economics of energy, economics of air pollution and climate change policies, and economics of precision agriculture and agricultural input use. He has published widely on these topics in top international peer reviewed journals. Tiho has led and contributed to national and international research projects in these research areas. He is currently the Managing Editor-in-Chief of the Australian Journal of Agricultural and Resource Economics.