Solar Science to Soon Outpace Fossil Fuels

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Why use solar power? Scientific American broke it down this way: The sun bestows 89 petawatts of power on the Earth every day; yet all of human civilization uses around 15 terawatts of power, or one six-thousandth as much. In other words, in just over 14 seconds, the sun provides as much energy to Earth as humanity uses in a day. So the point is not if solar will take over, but simply, when.

The Acceleration of Solar Tech

Solar technology is improving at a breakneck pace. In North America, Europe and Japan, the race is on to drive down solar costs with the relentless march of advanced technology.  The University of Buffalo has developed a nanoscale microchip that can capture a full spectrum of wavelengths and absorb far more light. Researchers at Oxford are using of perovskite, an abundant material that is cheaper than silicon and produces 40 percent more voltage.

Scientific American pinpoints two things that are driving down the cost of solar. Solar cell manufacturers are learning how to reduce the fabrication costs of solar panels and equipment. But equally important is the rise in solar cell efficiency or how effectively they can convert the sun’s energy into electricity. In the lab, solar efficiencies have climbed as high as 41 percent, unheard of 30 years ago. First Solar Corporation recently noted that they have reduced internal production costs to 75 cents per watt, dropping to 50 cents per watt in 2016.

Solar Already Competing with Oil, Diesel, Natural Gas

Photovoltaic energy already competes with oil, diesel and liquefied natural gas in a growing number of countries. Nearly 29 percent of electric capacity added in the US last year was from solar, with up to 100 percent in Massachusetts and Vermont. Last year, the US Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) noted that more solar had been installed in the US in the past 18 months than in the last 30 years.

Fossil Fuels Losing Their Global Price Advantage

Global energy deflation is challenging the viability of oil, gas and fossil fuels. Technology will eventually drive down solar costs so that fossil based alternatives will lose their price advantage.  When that happens, solar will become so attractive it will push the technology irrevocably into the mainstream. The solar momentum has already convinced the Saudis to invest more than $100 billion in 41 gigawatts of capacity, which by some estimates will satisfy as much as 30 percent of their power needs by 2030. A McKinsey study notes that the average cost of installed solar power in the US is expected to drop to $1.60 by 2020, challenging the price advantage of coal and gas. Deutsche Bank indicated that 19 regional markets worldwide have achieved “grid parity” with local electricity prices–without subsidies. The cost of solar in the average location in the U.S. is expected to reach an average retail electricity price of 12 cents per kilowatt-hour by 2020. A decade later, solar electricity will probably cost half what coal electricity does today.

Solar Not Coming to Soon Enough

The relentless expansion of energy consuming economies led by India and China will force solar dominance as an energy source. As billions of these consumers begin driving vehicles and running AC units, the call for a cheap, renewable energy will once and forever silence the demand for ever-more expensive fossil-fuels. Solar will have arrived. And oil will remain in the ground.

 

Posted on Monday, March 2nd, 2015