6 Signs the Big Global Switch to Solar has already Begun

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

China has installed 20 gigawatts of new solar power just in the first half of this year. This achievement beats analysts’ expectations by a wide margin. China wants to add 20 GW of new solar every year for the next four, but apparently could do twice that. At the end of 2015, China had about 40 gigawatts of installed solar power, so in just six months it has added half again as much. It already surpasses the previous solar champ, Germany.

The Crescent Dunes “concentrating solar power” plant in Nevada, operated by a Santa Monica firm, is using molten salt as a battery so that it can generate electricity 24/7. It is the first such plant to use solar energy to melt the salt directly instead of via oil, e.g,, which is a huge advance in efficiency. All electricity plants are just a way to turn turbines using boiling water. If you can turn the turbines with molten salt heated hours ago by the sun, then you can make electricity all day and all night. The Crescent Dunes plant can power 75,000 homes. All those critics of solar power who maintain that it needs gas or nuclear for baseload generation when it is dark or very overcast can now find some other talking point. Solar can do it all. Concentrating solar power costs as little as 10 cents a kilowatt hour, making it competitive with nuclear both in cost and in non-intermittency. Photovoltaic cells plus battery storage may ultimately be cheaper but this means that at the very least we have a relatively inexpensive solar technology that isn’t intermittent.

Economists have now demonstrated what we solar panel owners have known all along: people who put photovoltaic panels on their roofs actually save money for all the ratepayers. That’s because the panels generate best in the summer months when everyone is running their airconditioners. (Future philosophers will ponder how we made the earth so hot by burning hydrocarbons to stay cool. . .) To those homeowners who can afford it and don’t have solar panels yet, you’re welcome.

A plane just flew all the way around the world using nothing but solar power.

On one day in mid-July, California’s largest power grid, ISO, generated enough electricity from solar to power 2 million homes. This does not, I repeat not, count the many homes with owner solar panels on the roof. We’re talking just utility scale here, and also are excluding several smaller grids. So there were many more homes than the two million being powered by solar that day. The state only has about 13 million households, so this was about 15% of them!

The World Bank has approved $1 billion in loans to India for utility-scale and grid-connected solar power. This shows how far along the Bretton Woods institutions have come in supported development through renewables, and is a big deal. India has 45 GW of all kinds of clean energy today, but wants that to rise to 175 gigawatts in 2022. Solar is a big part of India’s renewables future.

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Related video:

European Bank for Reconstruction and Development: “Greening Chernobyl: Investing in Solar Power”

13 Responses

  1. A bit churlish of you professor to put down we doubters of solar, wind and hydro power sources as being a viable alternative to hydro carbons. Clearly renewable power sources is the ideal way to go but unless this energy source can be stored and made available for when the renewable’s aren’t producing power, they will always just play a supporting role. However, I have not heard about molten salt before professor and it sounds exciting. Can you elaborate or direct us to a site giving more info on the subject.

    • John Wilson,

      Your question deserves a serious reply. I will have more time “after work” to give it one. For now, let me just say that since plant-based photosynthesis is in itself solar powered, then any storage of plant-based biomass is in itself a storage of solar energy – – – the solar energy embodied in the chemical bonds within carbohydrates and fats and oils produced by the plant from the solar energy it net-net harvests and embodies in carbohydrate and fats’n’oils storage. Fossil fuels are themselves the fossilized remains of huge volumes of solar-power-produced plant-mass.

      We can’t grow the volumes of renewable plant mass equivalent to the volumes of fossil carbon we are burning . . . but we can grow and store some for best use at best times. For example, think of the example of a house which is solar-heated in Spring, Summer and Fall; and is firewood-heated in Winter. The firewood IS the stored solar energy.

    • Even molten salt is old technology. In just the last year, there’s been an explosion of activity in using giant stacks of lithium-ion batteries for electricity storage at every scale from homes to major utility projects. Not because they’re particularly well-suited for the role, but because the sheer staggering increase in their worldwide production has caused their price to collapse to levels comparable to lead-acid batteries. A further collapse will be possible as batteries used in electric cars are removed because they have aged to the point where their capacity has fallen to only 70-80% of specification, yet are still capable of use for stationary power storage. This may be why automakers Tesla, Mercedes and Nissan have all announced home electricity storage ventures.

      So it isn’t that Prof. Cole is being churlish, it is that developments in this field are so rapid that it is hard to convey their larger implications. For instance, we are now seeing solar farms signing contracts with utility companies to provide electricity at unsubsidized rates competitive with natural gas and coal; we’ve seen 5 to 6 cents/kwh in Nevada and Austin, Texas, and 3 cents in Dubai. This leaves more money to pay for storage.

      Yet few Americans know that this is happening. They live in a myth world where coal, natural gas and nuclear must always be king because they were told so as children, and stubbornly resist seeking out any new information.

  2. Although back up to $42 a barrel….oil briefly dipped below $40 and there speculations it will go lower.

    With all of the wars having been fought through out history over oil…. solar, wind and power generated by ocean currents could be a catalyst for peace. Sorry Dick Cheney!

  3. From a human perspective, there are ONLY THREE “permanent” sources of energy, yet any one of the three is capable of supplying much more energy than humans can ever use . . .

    – Geothermal energy – the internal heat of our planet. Although there are technical problems with using this for many parts of the earth it is still usable and very little research has been done with using the earth itself as an energy source and cooling source 24/7.

    – Gravitational energy – the energy made by the movement of the planets and stars. Humans have not really tried to use this energy although it is huge. Tidal systems appear to be a goo way to use this energy 24/7.

    – Solar radiation – This radiation is the most easy to tap into and the cost of technology to do so is getting less expensive by the week. Note that hydroelectric is actually a form of solar energy where the earth moves water from low altitudes to higher altitudes to create potential energy.

    The Chinese government wants to stay in power and to do that they need to do one thing well – IMPROVE THE LIVED OF A BILLION PEOPLE. That is, they need to provide each human with enough CLEAN energy to thrive. The energy can not destroy the air or water and can not bankrupt the nation. Chinese leaders have figured out that making solar energy collection devices as cheaply as possible even if the efficient is low, solves their energy availability/cost and pollution problems.

    Now that the stationary energy situation is being addressed and the costs are decreasing rapidly, the next step for mankind is mobile energy.

    Gasoline has very high energy storage density and “refueling” is easy. So far, non-gasoline vehicles have severe limitations that not a lot of research has addressed. While some exotic energy storage systems have been designed, so far most fail the practical world test. While Teslas sort of work, they fail the practical world test due to very high purchase cost and slow “refuel.”

    The best thing countries can do is put economic barriers in place for the continued production of gas vehicles and trigger the innovation.

  4. Sadly, with people like Lamar Smith in charge of science committees, the transition to solar power is slowed and even, at times, stopped in the US, allowing countries like China to explore and advance such technology, leaving the US to wallow in their wake.

  5. For those interested in molten solar, I suggest the article from IEEE, link to spectrum.ieee.org (Please wiki IEEE if you are unfamiliar with this standard-setting group of engineers.)
    There are other informative articles to be found with a search engine, using the terms “Solar + molten salt.”

    The Tesla model 3 will sell for about ~$35,000. Fiat electrics, before rebates, are around $30,000.
    Their main problem for electrics is charging infrastructure in urban areas. The Tesla superchargers take less than an hour.
    Regarding the Tesla 3 & infrastructure for electrics, I suggest an article from MIT’s “Technology Review “, link to technologyreview.com

  6. This is great news. The bad news is that we should have been at this point 20 years ago. As it is, without some technology to remove carbon dioxide from the environment, significant climate change is now unavoidable. We need a Manhattan Project level of commitment to attack the problem.

  7. The problem is that fossil fuel extraction and use continues to increase, still attracts massive investment, and seems set to continue do so for decades because the only step that could prevent global warming – cessation of further extraction – will be stopped by politicians everywhere. Barring unforeseeable technological miracles for removing carbon from the seas and/or atmosphere, we have doomed ourselves to environmental catastrophe on a scale unknown for millions of years.

  8. THe fossil-fuel interests in places like Texas are buying up the transmission lines that connect wind and solar power sources to the grid. The “Hunt /ONCOR deal” for example.

    • In your opinion, are the fossil-fuel interests buying up the transmission lines in order to shut the wind and solar projects down? Or in order to monopolize and profitize all-for-themselves the post-fossil future they see coming?

      • B. “Or in order to monopolize and profitize all-for-themselves the post-fossil future they see coming?”

        By extracting a higher lease rate for use of their transmission lines they can make wind and solar power less profitable. Bear in mind Texas has the worst air in our country. We need cleaner sources of energy.

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