The year 2016 has seen growing numbers of cities, countries and corporations pledging to use increasing amounts of renewable energy in the coming time.
This rapid transformation in demand for renewables has energized researchers, engineers and climate activists around the world. This surge has also led author and economist Chris Goodall to research the various options at hand and conclude that “solar power can provide the bulk of the world’s power, not just electricity, within a surprisingly short time.”This statement from the home page of Goodall’s website, carboncommentary.com, provides the theme of his book, The Switch, and the focus of the analysis contained therein.
Goodall writes that the essential ingredients for the switch to dependence on solar power are now in place around the world:
- The cheap power source, the sun, and the increasingly affordable technology for capturing solar radiance.
- The rapidly developing, and falling costs of, battery storage capacity.
- The technology and techniques to convert light into energy-rich gases and liquids that can be used in existing oil and gas distribution and storage facilities.
- The software needed to manage distribution grids.
The first principle and essential value of solar power is the fact, Goodall writes, that sunshine is free, non-polluting and readily available, albeit at varying levels of intensity, throughout the world. In 90 minutes, our sun provides enough energy to power all of our energy needs, worldwide, for one year. Because PV (photovoltaic) modules (solar panels) are maintenance free with an expected lifespan of about 35 years, solar power will undercut the cost of any alternative renewable such as wind and water.
A second essential value is the fact that the cost of a PV module is dropping dramatically due to of advances in engineering and production. Solar photovoltaics are already the cheapest way of providing energy in many parts of the world, and in the coming years will become the least expensive way of generating power nearly everywhere, Goodall believes.
Applying “Swanson’s Law”*, Goodall writes that every time the world’s accumulated solar panel production doubles, the cost of each PV module falls by 20 percent. He refers to this dynamic as the “experience curve”, shown in other technologies to be reliably predictive of the cost reduction effect of innovation and human experience in the lab and factory.
Goodall focuses heavily on the needs of those countries that are not naturally sunny all year. Sufficient battery capacity is essential if solar power is to become the dominant energy source, and battery research and development activity is intense. Because of this intense interest and the “experience curve”, battery costs, like the costs of solar energy, are falling dramatically.
But even with increasingly huge battery storage capacity, in places like the UK, northern Europe and Canada, supplementary power sources are needed during times of less sunlight. Goodall cites wind as an obvious source, but even with improvements in efficiency in wind technology, another source of energy is needed to meet demand especially in the major cities.
It is the search for this other source that Goodall writes has been an “intractable” problem so far. He writes an extensive analysis of research projects and ideas focusing on this problem. The solution he seems to like best is the use of electrolysis to make hydrogen, and the collection of CO2 either from decaying plant matter or by capturing it from the atmosphere. Both would then be fed to specific microbes that exude energy-rich molecules that become fuels such as methane that can be stored in existing energy infrastructure and sent as needed for use in low radiance areas. Research and development of solutions to this particular issue continue.
Goodall writes that as more and more people use PV, demand for, and therefore the price of, all energy sources continue to fall, making solar and wind energy cheaper than fossil fuels, with their high costs of exploration, development, refining and delivery. Goodall says that it is increasingly clear that solar and wind provide the most cost effective business plan for utilities and energy corporations, and when they realize this, the switch to solar energy will be complete.
In discussing the management of supply and demand, Goodall presents an innovative idea about how to match the demand for energy to the supply available. The traditional model is built to provide for maximum demand at all times. Instead of this costly model that encourages waste, he suggests a “demand response” technology that cuts the supply of electricity when power is in short supply or is not needed. As an example, Goodall cites the efforts of a Belgian company, REstore. They have created and run software that, under agreement, cuts electric power to their industry and commercial clients for short periods, perhaps minutes, when the supply is short. In return, these clients are paid cash for their trouble. This software enables REstore to manage the grid to the benefit of all players.
The Switch is a fascinating, highly technical, and inspiring look at what is happening to change the energy culture throughout the world. Goodall takes a realistically hard look at the challenges, yet provides the possible options in terms that offer the reader real hope that through cooperation and ingenuity, low cost and totally clean solar power can become the default energy source on Earth.[*Swanson’s Law is an observation that the price of solar photovoltaic modules tends to drop 20 percent for every doubling of cumulative shipped volume. At present rates, costs halve about every 10 years.]
The Switch: How solar, storage and new tech means cheap power for all: Chris Goodall. Published in 2016 by Profile Books, 3 Holford Yard, Bevin Way, London WC1X9HD. 274 pages.