Ramez Naam @ramez Books: Nexus Series / The Infinite Resource. Faculty @SingularityU. Energy, climate, & innovation wonk. Optimist. Jan. 04, 2018 2 min read

I'm really disappointed in this piece throwing cold water on solar by @tylercowen (based on his conversation with @vsiv).  https://www.bloomberg.com/view/articles/2018-01-02/solar-s-bright-future-is-further-away-than-it-seems  I'm a huge fan of Tyler's, but this went astray. A few points on where and why.

1. There's a myth that "solar needs breakthrough technology to get cheap enough". This is not backed by the data. Solar has plunged in price not through innovation in panel technology, but by innovation that reduces the cost of *manufacturing* the panels.

2. This drop in the price of solar is best characterized as a function of scale. This is the so-called learning curve. Every doubling of manufacturing of panels drops prices by ~20-28%. Every doubling of scale of solar projects brings whole solar electricity prices down by ~15%.

3. I wrote about the learning curve and how it drives down the price of solar (and what that means for future prices) in 2015 here:  http://rameznaam.com/2015/08/10/how-cheap-can-solar-get-very-cheap-indeed/ . And I was, in fact, too conservative. Actual prices have dropped faster than I projected. See:  http://rameznaam.com/2016/09/21/new-record-low-solar-price-in-abu-dhabi-costs-plunging-faster-than-expected/ 

4. Most of the reduction in prices of solar is *not related to formal R&D spending*. It's "learning by doing". So the fact that solar companies spend only 1% of revenue on R&D is irrelevant. That's always been the case. Yet "learning by doing" has continued to bring down prices

5. How cheap can solar get? It's only 2% of world electricity now, and can get to ~30% before hitting serious obstacles. That's 4 doublings, or at least another 50% price reduction. (Again, see learning curve here:  http://rameznaam.com/2015/08/10/how-cheap-can-solar-get-very-cheap-indeed/ ). That's without more formal R&D spend.

6. Tyler and Varun also blow it in talking about storage, in two important ways. I agree that batteries do not solve the "seasonal storage" problem of storing days, weeks or months of power. But they miss two big things:

7. The most important innovation to increase clean energy isn't storage. It's large scale grids that mix solar and *wind*. Wind is counter-cyclical to solar, producing more at night and in winter, while solar produces only daytime, and more in summer.

8. Wind power is massively under-rated, especially for Europe and East Asia . New on-land wind turbines are headed for capacity factors > 60%, approaching "baseload" levels of reliability  http://rameznaam.com/2015/08/30/how-steady-can-the-wind-blow/  and the hours they don't produce are the best solar hours.

9. Offshore wind power could have capacity factors more like 70-80%, and for the first time this year, we saw offshore wind power bids, *without subsidies*, come in below wholesale grid electricity prices.  https://www.greentechmedia.com/articles/read/offshore-wind-costs-towards-a-zero-subsidy-era#gs.A8YQkFI 

10. Batteries, meanwhile, while not able to store weeks of power, are perfect for storing a few hours of power and cycling daily. And their prices are on path to drop by another 4-5x through the learning curve as they scale:  http://rameznaam.com/2015/10/14/how-cheap-can-energy-storage-get/ 

11. Indeed, battery prices have plunged dramatically faster than forecasters expected, and have made government forecasters the US EIA look utterly incompetent in their ability to predict what is actually quite predictable price innovation.

12. Put this all together: Solar + wind + batteries, *on their current pace of improvement* are on path to be able to provide 80 - 90% of electricity.

Some mix of hydro, nuclear, natural gas, and new innovations can fill the rest. The future is indeed bright for clean power.


You can follow @ramez.



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