Sorry, Trump, you can’t bring back Coal when Solar costs half as Much

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

Bloomberg released a new report this week with some startling findings about solar energy. To wit:

* Solar energy can now be generated for about half the cost of coal. Coal had been the cheapest energy source, but it has now been overtaken by solar. That means it is crazy to build new coal plants– you’d be costing yourself money.

* Solar this year suddenly became cheaper than wind! This development had not been expected for another 5 years, but it came early.

* Likely there will be more solar installed this year than wind– a first! Bloomberg says, “The latest BNEF projections call for 70 gigawatts of newly installed solar in 2016 compared with 59 gigawatts of wind.”

* The world is now building more energy capacity annually in the form of solar facilities and wind farms than via coal and natural gas combined.

*Some time in the next 10 years, the world’s use of fossil fuels will peak and then begin its decline.

* In the 3rd quarter of 2016, solar installations in the US were up nearly 200% over the 3rd quarter of 2015!


Related video:

Newsy: “Tesla’s solar roofs may be cheaper than expected”

18 Responses

  1. From Popular Mechanics, we learn that:

    link to

    The Iceland Deep Drilling Project (IDDP) has already created a “magma well” by drilling to a depth of 2 kilometers (1.25 miles) to access molten rocks (magma), which when doused with water can produce steam capable of generating some 30 megawatts of power.

    Now IDDP, at another location, is close to drilling to a depth of 5 kilometers (3 miles), where pressure on the magma is 200 atmospheres, and the temperature is at least 400 degrees Celsius. Pouring water on magma at this depth is expected to produce “supercritical steam” capable of generating 50 megawatts of power.

    Iceland generates all its electric power from non-fossil fuel sources, with three quarters of its electric power coming from hydroelectric dams.

    And a video from BBC on the Forgotten Source of Free Energy

    link to

  2. Here in the great white north, the land of igloos and dog sleighs, I have been waiting for solar to become economical to install. The local power monopoly does not like competition from NUGs (non utility generators) and makes it prohibitively expensive to hook into the local power grid as well as only allowing the NUG to run the meter backward until it reaches 0 but will not pay for any power put into the system beyond that. I can’t wait until those bastards freeze in the dark.

    • If you can build things, you can already build a very nice solar and wind energy harvesting system along with a reliable storage system to make you completely independent of the local utility.

      All the information about . .

      – how to buy and install solar panel arrays

      – how to buy and install wind generators

      – how to build and install a “Li-ion power wall”

      Are all well documented on the web.

  3. From the report: The overall shift to clean energy can be more expensive in wealthier nations, where electricity demand is flat or falling and new solar must compete with existing billion-dollar coal and gas plants. But in countries that are adding new electricity capacity as quickly as possible, “renewable energy will beat any other technology in most of the world without subsidies,” said Liebreich.

    In the US the political clout of the fossil fuel corporations and the workers who depend on them for jobs will probably be a factor, too.

    • As I noted above, it is now possible to completely disconnect from the grid without spending a fortune.

      As more people disconnect, the costs for those still connected to the grid will definitely go up, causing more people to disconnect, and ht cycle will continue until the grid is nearly empty.

  4. This is why I am hopeful enterprise (Apple, Amazon) will lead the way on energy policy. There is little doubt the Trumped GOP will be actively pushing fossil fuels (economics and the Will of the the People be d*mned), but businesses have the muscle to build out their own power. Also, electric demand in the US may again increase as plug-in electric cars build market share– this is likely to occur faster than people imagine.

  5. Christian Markle

    Moreover, many mining corporation no longer tunnel for coal but use the mountain top removal method where the blast the tops of mountains with high explosives to get at the coal that takes fewer miners. These corporations have dumped the tailings and waste in more than 2000 miles of valleys and streams.

  6. Why not a massive retraining program to turn coal workers into solar installers/maintainers? All those flattened, bulldozed, basically ruined mountaintops in WV, KY, etc., coal country could become giant generating arrays, and workers would not risk black lung but could support themselves and their families.

    • Clinton proposed something like that; I’m not sure if it was specifically retraining for solar, but she has proposed spending something like $30 billion on retraining coal workers. Of course it was ignored by the press and distorted by Trump who just talked about her “war on coal.”

    • Good idea but . . .

      – many coal miners do not have sufficient basic education to even begin the process of learning to install solar which needs good mechanical and electrical training.

      – Most of the solar jobs are NOT in coal country but in large population centers and many coal miners seem reluctant to leave their “traditional” homes (although many coal miners are descendants of people that migrated to coal country).

      – Large solar plants are less efficient than small house/business solar plants.

      – The USA power grid is not designed to carry electricity from dispersed solar generation sites to cities. This has been the problem in California where the grid had to be extended into the deserts to allow the use of large solar plants. Putting solar arrays on top of remote mountain tops would be even more inefficient because a vast grid would need to be built.

      The bottom line is the coal miners are screwed unless they can convince their republican states to massively retrain them and help them move to where the jobs are – how soon do you think that will happen?


        • The USA electrical grid is not designed for remote power sources.

          How do you get power from remote wind turbines to the big cities economically?

          California found that it had to build a whole new grid structure to get the solar farm power from the deserts to “nearby” LA.

          BUT that power can not get to SF because the grid backbone through the central valley does not have the capacity and no commercial company is willing to make the investment. Since California is a “liberal” state it may eventually upgrade the central valley backbone . . .

          or the state may just decide to favor individual home and business power generation instead of large plants.

          In any case, coal workers would have to move to where the jobs are, leaving coal country forever, further depopulating that part of the USA. Right now the older coal workers are extremely resistant to moving, and deeply resent that their kids are leaving for jobs.

  7. TWO Curves . . .

    – Technology capability, especially solid state type of technology, has a very steep (almost exponential) INCREASING capability curve. We humans have now done this enough, that the development cycles now rapidly optimize the capability of the technology. For example . . . (1) at one time the NSA/CIA custom made every image sensor used in their spy equipment, now they buy off-the-shelf because the high-end digital camera market is so competitive and has had so many product iterations, the companies have now optimized the image sensors to be better than anything the NSA/CIA can custom build. (2) At one time, it took a super computer weeks to decode DNA, I have a friend that is working on an extremely complex chip set that will decode DNA in a matter of minutes. They have already done several iterations and each iteration gets faster and better. When the chips are done they will sell for thousands, not millions.

    – Technology cost has a somewhat less steep DECREASING cost. That is, as the capability increases, the cost decreases. This is why 8GB of memory now costs less than 8KB in less than 20 years.

    The energy harvesting technology will just continue to decrease in cost over the next ten years until it becomes almost free.

    The technology that is slower is the energy storage technology, but I suspect that because the market is growing so fast and is so competitive, multiple low cost ways to store energy will be developed.

    Coal is a “buggy whip” industry. It will never go away entirely, but the uses for coal will decrease until it is a “boutique” business with very few companies or employees.

    In the real world, the smart people see the handwriting on the wall and develop new skills and move to where the skills are needed, unemotionally abandoning their past. The rest of the people ignore the signs and cling to their delusions until the inevitable future hits them in the face with a baseball bat and they collapse in emotional despair.

    Coal has no future right now and soon oil and gas will have no future except for petrochemicals.

    Between technology eliminating most human labor (jobs) and making energy almost free, human social structures are going to be severely stressed over the next few years.

  8. China owns the most advanced solar generating technology. China has lots of sun-drenched land mass. Ergo, China – through 5 year plans – can develop large-scale ‘parks’ where scale of enterprise makes the whole thing pay off.

    The Chinese have the engineers, technology, money and incentive to push along these lines. They can invest in energy generation from solar origin. They will just keep making improvements, better productivity. It will be relentless, backed up by state-authorized production.

    The Chinese have proven themselves at infrastructure building – roads, rail, gas, oil. They can build the structure to move stuff around big time.

    Oh, I forgot. The Chinese are way ahead with Thorium reactors. Actually, the Chinese are pretty much ahead on most things.

  9. Remember, China is not entirely monolithic. Its new capitalists fight each other for government favors. So you have an old-paradigm China of construction, steel, concrete and coal interests too. And when it comes to foreign aid, there might be a tug-of-war between those entrepreneurs who realize that the Western centralized infrastructure model is dying and inappropriate for much of the developing world. But you have the old guys wanting their shot at covering Africa with power transmission lines and smokestacks and superhighways.

    We’ll see how this goes. The West lacks the will to overturn its own model.

    • The old model guys are losing in Africa and in China because the the distributed energy and communications technologies cost a LOT LESS than the older models and are much quicker to implement.

      One of my friends was instrumental in getting cell service throughout large parts of Nigeria using “cell in a box” technology because the costs were lower and the implementation was faster than trying to build a traditional wired phone and data network. “Cell in a box” consists of a complete cell site in a 40′ shipping container. Just throw up an ugly tower with cell antennas and digital microwave, a diesel generator and a big fuel tank and the cell site is working. It can take less than two days to have a working cell site anywhere it is needed. My friend’s company handles financial transactions via the data channel on the cell system and apps on smart phones.

      It is similar for per-packaged solar harvest and storage units.

      Basically many countries and cultures are leap-frogging the older technologies and going directly to distributed communications and energy and there is a LOT of creative energy being applied to make that happen.

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