The Sun to our Rescue

Possibly the start of the end of traditional means of generating electricity

A recent item by David Roberts on the Grist website/Blog caught my eye,

Solar is getting cheap fast—pay attention, Very Serious People

That was the headline to the opening, thus,

I hope everyone has read Kees Van Der Leun’s post about the rapidly falling cost of solar PV. I want to draw out one quick point that Kees leaves implicit.

He argues that PV will be the cheapest source of electricity for most of the world some time around 2018, and for the rest of the world soon after. That could be off by a few years in either direction. It depends on whether the cost curve for silicon solar cells continues as it has the past and, as Alan says in his comment, whether the cost curve for “balance of system” costs (steel, glass, installation, etc.) declines as well. Let’s say it could be off by five years either way. Let’s just assume it’s 2023 before solar PV crosses grid parity and becomes cheaper than coal.

The Kees Van Der Leun post, referred to, points out that,

For a long time, the holy grail of solar photovoltaics (PV) has been “grid parity,” the point at which it would be as cheap to generate one’s own solar electricity as it is to buy electricity from the grid. And that is indeed an important market milestone, being achieved now in many places around the world. But recently it has become clear that PV is set to go beyond grid parity and become the cheapest way to generate electricity.

A hundred solar cells, good for 380 watts of solar PV power. Photo: Ariane van Dijk

Whenever I say this I encounter incredulity, even vehement opposition, from friends and foes of renewable energy alike. Apparently, knowledge of the rapid developments of the last few years has not been widely disseminated. But it’s happening, right under our noses! It is essential to understand this so that we can leverage it to rapidly switch to a global energy system fully based on renewable energy.

Working on solar PV energy at Ecofys since 1986, I have seen steady progression: efficiency goes up, cost goes down. But it was only on a 2004 visit to Q-Cells‘ solar cell factory in Thalheim, Germany, that it dawned on me that PV could become very cheap indeed. They gave me a stack of 100 silicon solar cells, each capable of producing 3.8 watts of power in full sunshine. I still have it in the office; it’s only an inch high!

That’s when I realized how little silicon was needed to supply the annual electricity consumption of an average European family (4,000 kWh). Under European solar radiation, it would take 1,400 cells, totaling less than 30 pounds of silicon.

Of course, you need to cover the cells with some glass and add a frame, a support structure, some cables, and an inverter. But the fact that 30 pounds of silicon, an amount that costs $700 to produce, is enough to generate a lifetime of household electricity baffled me. Over 25 years, the family would pay at least $25,000 for the same 100,000 kilowatt-hours (kWh) of electricity from fossil fuels — and its generation cost alone would total over $6,000!

Back to the David Roberts article,

He argues that PV will be the cheapest source of electricity for most of the world some time around 2018, and for the rest of the world soon after. That could be off by a few years in either direction. It depends on whether the cost curve for silicon solar cells continues as it has the past and, as Alan says in his comment, whether the cost curve for “balance of system” costs (steel, glass, installation, etc.) declines as well. Let’s say it could be off by five years either way. Let’s just assume it’s 2023 before solar PV crosses grid parity and becomes cheaper than coal.

Here’s the thing: 2023 isn’t that far off. It feels distant to us in a lot of ways. My kids will be out of college. Fifty versions of the iPhone will have come and gone. We might finally have the jetpacks we were promised.

But in terms of energy infrastructure, 12 years is nothing. It can take half that long or longer to permit and build big coal and nuclear plants, and they are meant to last a long-ass time. The Perry K Steam Plant, which serves downtown Indianapolis, was built in 1938. They didn’t have color TV then. Thirty-six coal plants in the U.S. were built before 1950. If a coal plant built today lasts that long, it will still be belching all over the atmosphere in 2072. My kids will be in their 60s.

This is also true of nuclear plants (the oldest is 42 years) and to a lesser extent natural-gas plants. It’s even true of transmission lines. These are large, long-term investments.

So if solar PV is going to be cheaper than coal in the next decade or so, that seems like the kind of thing utilities, regulators, investors, and political leaders would want to, I don’t know, talk over. Grapple with. Mull. It certainly seems relevant to the investment thesis for large, centralized power infrastructure. Yet it’s all but invisible in the elite U.S. energy conversation, outside of a few voices like FERC Chair Jon Wellinghoff. Very Serious People still see solar PV as an affectation, a kind of charity project.

Hope you are still with me, because this is really an incredibly positive message.  By the time children born today are becoming teenagers, the means of harnessing the sun to deliver clean energy cheaper than carbon-based and nuclear generation will be a reality.  In a little over a decade from now!

It is so easy to see doom and gloom wherever we look.  For good reasons; these are very difficult times as societies pull back from the greed and materialism of recent times to a better, sustainable relationship with our planet, the only one we have.  But technology and innovation are quietly creating the opportunities for a new future for humanity.

Let me finish with an email received recently from good friend, John H., up here in Payson, Arizona.

Greetings from a Mountain Top,

It has been another bright and peaceful day of Indian summer in the Ponderosa pine forests of the Arizona Rocky Mountains. Our annual state-wide church convention last weekend was a metaphorical breath of fresh air.  It was an opportunity to realize where we’ve been and consider how far we have to go.

From the early evening vantage point of an upper porch with a vista of forest, mountains and sky, it appears that we’re facing spiritual, environmental, human and economic bankruptcy caused by top down idolatry, arrogance and ignorance.

It’s deeply disturbing to watch our human heritage destroyed by a corporate-government-military-industrial-intelligence complex with a clear plan to control the world through oppression. This systemic machine continues to increase the drain on the earth’s severely depleted resources.

Our present energy sources can no longer sustain exponential human population growth.  The industrial use of fossil fuels is destroying the earth which sustains us.  It’s time for us to wake up and read the book of life.  It’s time to lighten the human footprint upon the earth while we still have a choice.  Nature doesn’t care about human ambition.

Peace and love, an old lamplighter

5 thoughts on “The Sun to our Rescue

  1. Paul,
    An interesting article, I see a ray of hope! I have several friends who now use solar panels and they work amazingly well at a fraction of the cost of electricity. Also, kudos to John H., you definitely have a way with words. There is no misunderstanding your thoughts on these issues, and I happen to agree with you – Amen!
    Merci

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  2. Centralized solar power is a no brainer in the South West USA, and could help with the long term water deficit. The problems at this moment are capital (confiscated by greedy big banks), power lines (not enough), and of course the fact they are very ugly, up in the air…

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  3. Thanks to you both. Hopefully, by the end of this coming week, we shall have decided on a solar PV system for our home. Have been very impressed with how the technology has come on. Next project is rainwater harvesting! Regards to both of you, P.

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    1. Only considering the price of fossil fuels, let alone showing how to save the planet, a smart choice. If one had told economists, ten years ago of the situation now, they would have guessed the price per barrel to be around $10 or $15. Instead it’s $110… So, if the economy was OK, it would be around $200… Which sure would not make it OK… We have a paradox!
      http://patriceayme.wordpress.com/

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