Top Ten Signs Solar Energy is rapidly Winning

The recent UN report on climate change points out that the world does not have much time to switch to renewables if it is to avoid catastrophes stemming from global warming. Climate change is being driven by human beings burning coal, gas and petroleum, and we need to stop doing that ASAP. The most plausible path to green energy is solar panels, which are rapidly falling in price and rising in efficiency. (A German team recently achieved 44.7% efficiency, more than doubling the typical yield per panel nowadays.) My guess is that no one will bother with hydraulic fracturing (fracking) of natural gas in only a few years because solar panels will be much cheaper. Propagandists will try to convince you that solar is not important (because it is only recently growing by leaps and bounds and so is still a small part of the world’s energy mix). But that would be like complaining in April of 2010 that there weren’t many iPad tablets in consumers’ hands compared to laptop computers. The iPad was only introduced at the beginning of that month. Over three years later the world is flooded with them. Solar panels will be far more popular than iPads over time.

The sheer scale of the building out of solar capacity in various parts of the world now is mind-boggling. Here are ten items that give a sense of that scale:

1. Worldwide in 2013, it is expected that 33 gigawatts of wind power will be added But as much as 38 gigawatts of solar could be added, so that solar is beginning to outstrip wind. Since there is far more energy available from the sun than there is wind energy, this surge of solar is good news for renewables. The world uses roughly 15,000 gigawatts of energy, so we need to vastly expand the number and rate of solar installations, but their present growth is eye-popping compared to just a few years ago.

2. The price of solar panels in the US fell by 60% from January 2011 until June of 2013. Some observers suggest that we are seeing a Moore’s law for solar panels, by analogy to the principle in computer processing that data density doubles every 18 months. The efficiency of the panels in labs has begun doubling every 2.5 years, and the cost is likewise falling rapidly.

3. India is building the largest solar farm in the world in the desert of Rajasthan, with a capacity of 4 gigawatts. It will double India’s current solar power generation (though other big solar projects are planned by state governments). It will also sell electricity at a cheaper rate than other solar installations in that country. The enormous solar complex will be four times larger than the 10 biggest such American installations. India is expected to add 2.8 gigawatts of solar power in 2014 alone.

4. Some 70% of solar power in India is now sited in Gujarat state in the country’s northwest. It has almost 1 gigawatt in solar power, filling some 4 percent of its electricity needs, and has big plans for the expansion of solar power.

5. Chile is in a race with India to build the world’s largest solar power plant.

6. The 280 megawatt Solana thermal solar power plant in Arizona can store energy in molten salt for up to six hours, so it will go on generating electricity for 6 hours after sunset.

7. The Japanese space agency, JAXA, is planning to put up stationary satellites to collect sunlight and then beam energy down to collectors via lasers or microwaves. Japan’s Fukushima nuclear disaster has idled most of its nuclear plants, and though the present government wants to reopen some of them, Japanese public opinion is now suspicious of nuclear power. New technological solution to green energy will likely be a hallmark of Japanese research and development in the coming years, and could well help reinvigorate the Japanese economy.

8. The German firm, the Schmid Group, is planning to build Latin America’s largest solar panel manufacturing facility in Argentina. It will produce 70 megawatts of panels annually.

9. The state of South Australia gets 25% of its electricity from wind and 3.7% from solar. All of Australia gets 13% of its energy from renewable sources, but its wind and solar systems are expanding very fast. One million Australian homes are equipped with rooftop solar. There are only 23 million Australians, and most live in a household with other members, so a million households is huge. It is possible that 50% of Australian homes will have rooftop solar by the end of 2014. By 2030, all of Australia’s electricity needs could be met by renewables.

10. Some 2.7 gigawatts in solar energy generation will be up for grabs at Brazil’s government auction this fall.

11 Responses

  1. Dr. Cole,

    Though this may be my first comment here, I’m a longtime reader at Informed Comment. I’ve learned a lot here, from your articles, and from a well-informed and civil commenting community.

    Your articles on the environment have become more cogent, more compelling, this past year. Was there some sort of epiphany that got you to make this more important here?

    Thanks.

  2. “The efficiency of the panels has begun doubling every 2.5 years, and the cost is likewise falling rapidly.”

    Price is the key, yes. However I can’t figure out the efficiency claim. NREL’s current chart ( link to nrel.gov ) is nothing like exponential Moore’s Law in transistors. Same chart from consumer products would be more interesting to see, that is from research-cells.

  3. Room temperature superconductors, or an efficient substitute, would really help here.

  4. @Jesper

    Solar will not be “grass roots”. The closer to “grass roots” we will have is roof solar,if companies pay for that energy going to its grid. With the lower prices and Moore’s law in favour of solar, big solar farms will be the norm.

    It is because solar have a little problem: it not produce eletricity if there is no sun. Cloud days and nights. So, solar need some way to store that eletricity when produced. A good way is hydreletric power, but it is possible the development of better capacitors (super capacitors and ultra capacitors that use graphene) can cretae huge eletricity storers.

    Anyway, that will need an intyeligent nation wide grid, that will distribute the stored eletricity. So, lower solar prices will bring us not a more descentralized grass roots production, but big nationwide grids that will need government control and regularization and big companies producing and storing solar eletricity.

    Anyway, I think the problem is the “grass roots” concept. It assumes that the industrial society will not survie to peak oil. The problem with that concept is that industrial society can survive and prosper with cheap solar and “grass roots” return to feudalism will never happen.

    • @João Carlos: Thanks for your reply. I have no problem with big farms and centralized production. In fact, I think it is probably the way to go!

      However, household PV rids the owner of both electricity taxes and grid fees for the electricity produced, so it has a significant (and arguably unfair) advantage over centralized electricity. When that advantage alone is not sufficient to get the grassroots uptake going, we can surmise that the PV costs are high.

      Alas, there is no parallel in PV manufacturing to the shrinking of features in integrated circuits, so there is nothing like Moore’s law going on. Current commercial PV efficiency stands at 20%, and those cells (single-junction) cannot go past 34% (the Shockley-Queisser-limit). For more exotic cells that may or may not be commercialized, there is the Carnot limit at 86% that cannot be overcome.

      I don’t have time to wait for exotic solar cells and storage solutions. Or rather, I don’t think the world has time to wait. Even disregarding AGW, about a quarter of a million dies every year, world-wide, due to pollution from coal. This is entirely preventable, but PV won’t do it.

  5. If solar farms in the SouthWest could be built to reliably
    provide as much power as all the dams in the West provide, and wired into the Western Grid; then the solar farms could provide power by day and the dams by night. That would allow for storing more water behind the dams to be even more sure of having enough to use through the night.

  6. Very interesting article. Thanks. I wonder why Iran is not more active with solar power instead of going to nuclear energy. Presumably Israel would not have a problem with a solar-powered Iran the way that do with nuclear power.

  7. I have been a solar proponent for 45 years, professionally involved in photovoltaic research in the early 80s, and have followed as an amateur since. I am thrilled that solar is growing and that more articles such as this one are giving it light. But, point #2 here is overwrought. There is no way PV can follows Moore’s law, nor that it can double in efficiency every any number of years. In 1980 the typical cell for unconcentrated sunlight was about 11% efficient. Now using layers and concentration that has been doubled twice. That’s on a very-small, lab-scale. And it can’t happen again (yielding almost 100% efficiency?). Nor can manufacturing costs fall so sharply as they did for computer chips (another area where I had some professional expertise). The cost of manufacturing a single “wafer” of chips didn’t fall so much. Instead, engineers managed to cram exponentially more transistors onto each chip. That doesn’t apply in any way to PV. Still, if PV can bring lab efficiencies to affordable manufacturing, and keep snipping away at manufacturing costs at even 1% to 10% per year, that will outpace and doom coal and other nonrenewables (assuming they don’t continue to get and increase their government subsidies).

    • you are being too literal minded

      I said ‘analogy’ not exact parallel

      costs of solar energy are falling rapidly & with more investment in R& D that will accelerate

      I added a link to a recent discovery that doubles efficiency. I understand that it takes time to bring this to market but the lab breakthroughs are very encouraging

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