How Long Does It Take To Get Renewable Energy?

How long does it take to get renewable energy?

Renewable energy comes from natural sources that are constantly replenished, such as sunlight, wind, water, and geothermal heat. Generating electricity from renewable sources is crucial to combating climate change and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Unlike fossil fuels which emit carbon dioxide and contribute to global warming, renewable energy produces little to no greenhouse gas emissions. Some key renewable energy sources include solar, wind, hydropower, geothermal, and biomass.

This article explores the timeline and costs associated with transitioning to renewable energy on a large scale. Specifically, it seeks to answer the question of how long it takes to construct utility-scale renewable energy projects and make renewable energy the dominant source of electricity generation. Understanding the timeframe and investments required provides insights into the pace and resources needed for the renewable energy transition.

Current State of Renewable Energy

Renewable energy currently accounts for over 26% of global electricity production, up from 24% in 2013 (1). The main sources of renewable energy being utilized today are hydroelectric, wind, solar photovoltaics (PV), bioenergy, geothermal and marine power.

As of 2019, hydropower accounted for around 71% of total renewable electricity generation worldwide. Wind power was the second largest renewable electricity source, accounting for around 13% of the global total. Solar PV capacity has been growing rapidly in recent years and accounted for around 6% in 2019 (2).

Some countries already generate a significant portion of their electricity from renewables. For example, renewable energy makes up 86.87% of electricity generation in Iceland, 71.56% in Norway, and 50.92% in Sweden. Several large economies like Germany, the UK and Spain produce between 23-30% of their electricity from renewables (3).

There is still room for growth in renewable electricity worldwide, but many countries have made great strides in scaling up sources like wind, solar, hydropower and bioenergy over the last decade.


Challenges With Scaling Up

Despite the rapidly declining costs and increased competitiveness of renewable energy sources like wind and solar, there remain significant challenges to scaling up renewable energy production and adoption on a global scale (1). Some of the key challenges include infrastructure needs, storage capacity, and transmission networks.

Vast amounts of new infrastructure like wind turbines, solar panels, and other generating capacity will need to be built to increase renewable energy production. Constructing this new infrastructure requires substantial upfront capital investments. While costs have fallen dramatically for renewables infrastructure, the scale required for deep decarbonization is unprecedented and will strain global supply chains and labor markets (2).

The intermittent nature of wind and solar power also creates complications for grid stability as renewable penetration rises. Massive investments in energy storage solutions and stronger transmission connections will be imperative. However, viable large-scale storage technologies are still under development and building new transmission lines faces siting and permitting obstacles (3).

Upgrading transmission networks is vital for balancing supply and demand across wider geographic regions. Congestion and bottlenecks on existing transmission infrastructure hamper the growth of renewable energy markets. Building out smart grids and high-voltage connections between resources, load centers, and storage sites will require substantial coordination and capital (1).

Costs and Timelines for Wind Power

Onshore wind turbines typically take less time to install compared to offshore wind turbines. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, onshore wind projects can be built in 1-2 years on average [1]. In contrast, offshore wind projects can take 3-5 years on average due to the more complex logistical and regulatory challenges of building in open water [2].

The costs for onshore wind power range from $1.3 million to $2.2 million per megawatt (MW) of capacity installed, while offshore wind power can cost $4 million to $6 million per MW [3]. Onshore wind is currently less expensive due to the ease of installation and lower transportation costs compared to building offshore. However, as offshore technology matures, costs are expected to decrease.

Overall, while onshore wind can be built more quickly and cheaply, offshore wind has significant potential advantages in terms of consistent and strong wind resources. Policy incentives can help accelerate offshore wind development and reduce costs over time.

Costs and Timelines for Solar Power

The costs and installation timelines for solar power can vary significantly depending on whether it is a rooftop solar system or a large-scale solar farm.

For rooftop solar installations, the typical cost in 2023 ranges from $2.50 to $4.50 per watt for the solar panels and inverters. A 5 kilowatt system, which could cover a modest household’s needs, costs $12,500 to $22,500 before incentives and tax credits (source). The installation itself takes approximately 1-3 days with little site preparation required beyond structural assessments (source). Permits and interconnection paperwork add about 2-4 weeks to the full process.

In comparison, a large 50 megawatt solar farm costs around $1.00 per watt. At that scale, the solar panels and equipment cost $50 million. Site preparation, permitting, installation, and grid connections can add another $50 million in expenses (source). Completing a project of this size takes 6-12 months and 200+ workers to fully build. Savings from economy of scale make utility-scale solar farms more cost efficient for renewable energy generation.

Costs and Timelines for Hydro Power

The costs and timelines for building hydroelectric power plants vary greatly depending on the size and scale of the project. Large-scale hydro projects that involve damming major rivers or utilizing large reservoirs can take 5-10 years to complete and cost billions of dollars. According to one source, it takes 4 to 7 years to build a large hydroelectric power station, from conception to completion Constructing the civil infrastructure like dams, spillways, and tunnels is time-consuming and obtaining permits and completing environmental reviews also extends timelines.

Smaller “run-of-river” hydro projects that divert a portion of a river’s flow without a major dam can be built more quickly and cheaply. For a small 100 kW hydro power project without major site complications, the timeline could be approximately 3 years from conception to completion according to one source Small hydro projects generally cost anywhere from a few hundred thousand dollars to a few million dollars depending on the site specifics.

Costs and Timelines for Geothermal

Geothermal power plants typically take 3-5 years to construct. The timeline involves several steps including exploration, test drilling, resource confirmation, permitting, plant design and construction.1 The exploration phase can take 1-2 years to locate and characterize the resource. Test drilling and production well drilling takes another 1-2 years. Permitting and plant construction each require 6-12 months.1

The capital costs for a geothermal power plant range from $2,500 to $5,600 per kilowatt of installed capacity in the U.S.2,3 This puts the total costs for a 50 MW geothermal plant between $125 million and $280 million. Costs can be higher for the first plant in an area as exploration risks are higher. Costs decrease as more wells are drilled in a geothermal field.1

Impact on Grid Reliability

One of the major challenges with scaling up renewable energy is its intermittency and the resulting impact on grid reliability. Sources like solar and wind power are weather-dependent, generating electricity only when the sun is shining or the wind is blowing (McKinsey & Company, 2019). This can lead to periods of both oversupply and undersupply on the electric grid. According to a technical report from the Missouri Public Service Commission, the variable and intermittent nature of wind and solar generation creates “challenges to system planning and operations.”

To deal with the intermittency, backup power sources are needed that can quickly ramp up generation when renewable sources are not available. As renewable penetration increases, more investment will be required in fast-responding natural gas plants, energy storage, stronger transmission connections, and advanced grid management technologies to balance supply and demand (Deloitte, 2019). Without these backups, grid reliability could suffer. According to Deloitte, the growth of renewable energy increases “the need for ancillary services or complementary services to ensure network reliability.”

In summary, while renewable sources like wind and solar will play a major role in the future, their intermittency poses challenges for grid reliability. Significant investment in backup power sources, storage, transmission, and grid modernization will be required to maintain reliability as reliance on renewables grows.

Policy and Regulation Changes Needed

To accelerate the transition to renewable energy, governments need to enact supportive policies and regulations. Some key policy priorities include:

Subsidies and incentives can help make renewable energy more cost-competitive with fossil fuels in the early stages of adoption. These may include tax credits, rebates, grants, or feed-in tariffs for renewable power generation. For example, the federal investment tax credit has spurred solar power growth in the U.S. Clean Power advocates for extending and expanding incentives to drive continued renewable energy growth.

Mandates like renewable portfolio standards require utilities to source a minimum percentage of power from renewables. As of 2021, 30 U.S. states had renewable portfolio standards or goals. IRENA recommends governments set clear mandated targets for renewable heating, cooling, and transport as well to drive broader adoption.

Streamlining permitting and siting processes could accelerate project development timelines. Complex and lengthy approvals slow down renewable energy growth. Policy changes to standardize and simplify processes, while still ensuring proper oversight, could bring projects online faster.


In summary, transitioning fully to renewable energy is a complex process that involves scaling up multiple technologies like wind, solar, hydro and geothermal power. Each of these technologies has different costs and timelines associated with going from small pilot projects to nationwide deployment. The main challenges are around manufacturing capacity, grid integration, transmission infrastructure, and policy and regulatory changes needed to incentivize and accelerate the transition.

Experts estimate it could take at minimum 10-20 years to fully transition the grid from fossil fuels to renewables in developed countries. The timeline could be longer for developing nations that do not yet have advanced energy infrastructure in place. With sustained investments, policy support, and technological innovations, a fully renewable electric grid is achievable globally by 2050. This transition is critical to meeting greenhouse gas emission reduction goals and preventing the worst impacts of climate change.

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