For years, wind and solar power were derided as boondoggles. They were too expensive, the argument went, to build without government handouts.
Today, renewable energy is so cheap that the handouts they once needed are disappearing.

On sun-drenched fields across Spain and Italy, developers are building solar farms without subsidies or tax-breaks, betting they can profit without them. In China, the government plans to stop financially supporting new wind farms. And in the U.S., developers are signing shorter sales contracts, opting to depend on competitive markets for revenue once the agreements expire.

The developments have profound implications for the push to phase out fossil fuels and slow the onset of climate change. Electricity generation and heating account for 25% of global greenhouse gases. As wind and solar demonstrate they can compete on their own against coal- and natural gas-fired plants, the economic and political arguments in favor of carbon-free power become harder and harder to refute.

“The training wheels are off,” said Joe Osha, an equity analyst at JMP Securities. “Prices have declined enough for both solar and wind that there’s a path toward continued deployment in a post-subsidy world.”

The reason, in short, is the subsidies worked. After decades of quotas, tax breaks and feed-in-tariffs, wind and solar have been deployed widely enough for manufacturers and developers to become increasingly efficient and drive down costs. The cost of wind power has fallen about 50% since 2010. Solar has dropped 85%. That makes them cheaper than new coal and gas plants in two-thirds of the world, according to BloombergNEF.

“Solar got cheap,” said Jenny Chase, an analyst at BNEF. “It’s really that simple.”

Yet for all it’s promise, clean energy still has a long way to go before fully usurping coal and gas. Wind and solar still only accounted for about 7% of electricity generation worldwide last year, according to BNEF. And most wind and solar projects still depend on subsides. In the U.S., in fact, the solar industry is pushing to extend federal tax credits that are scheduled to decline over the next few years.

And then there’s the issue of round-the-clock power. Solar doesn’t work at night. Wind farms go idle when breezes slack. So until battery systems are cheap enough for generators to stockpile electricity for hours at a time, renewables can’t constantly provide power like coal and gas.

Perhaps nowhere is the push toward subsidy-free clean energy clearer than on arid expanses of Southern Europe. About 750 megawatts of subsidy-free clean-energy projects are expected to connect to the grid in 2019 alone, across Spain, Italy, Portugal and elsewhere -- enough to power about 333,000 households, according to Pietro Radoia, an analyst at BNEF.

“The cheapest way of producing electricity in Spain is the sun,” Jose Dominguez Abascal, the nation’s secretary of state for energy, said last year.

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