The UK government’s former chief scientist, David King, a man who back in 2004 correctly identified climate change as a more serious threat than global terrorism has co-authored an article in today’s FT. In it, he argues that we need an Apollo/Manhattan style project to bring the cost of solar electricity below that of any fossil fuel by 2025. Now, solar power has been experiencing a hilariously steep cost reduction, halving in the past two years alone, a continuation of a long trend of exponential decrease in solar prices. Those of you who watch Parks and Rec may be as delighted as I was to learn that this history follows Swanson’s Law. Those of you who don’t watch Parks and Recreation, go watch some P&R.
So solar costs are falling. They’ve now fallen low enough that in sunnier parts of the world, solar PV already is cheaper than grid electricity. The graph above (adapted from Bloomberg New Energy Foundation) shows how the falling cost of solar will lead to more and more countries reaching this situation (anywhere above the line has solar cheaper than grid electricity). That’s not something David King is disputing, what he wants is for additional progress on electricity storage and distribution technology to match this and bring the cost of round-the-clock solar power (including storage and distribution) down below that of grid electricity. I presume, although it was not stated that this is also expected to provide 24-hour power year round. The ‘ambition’ was to have 1 GW of commercial, unsubsidised, round-the-clock solar in cities in Europe, Asia and America by 2025. I’d hardly call this ambitious. Every time anyone has set solar a target it has been steamrollered, absolutely smashed into tiny pieces.
In this particular case, the opportunity for a second emerging clean technology trend to make this a reality has been ignored; electric vehicles. What is an electric car if not a battery on wheels? There is good evidence from the US where electric vehicles have been making relatively good progress to show that the demographics of people who have been (relatively) early adopters of residential PV in states like California and Colorado are the same as those of people who will get in early on electric cars. They are, put simply, nerds like me (only richer). They tend to be highly educated, quite technical and to have both an understanding of the harm human consumption of fossil fuels is doing to our global environment and the financial resources to do something about it.
There are problems with electric cars as storage and perhaps the largest and most obvious is that cars will get unplugged and driven about. This is a problem because there is a rush hour. A large proportion of the electric cars on the grid will be removed at the same time and leading up to this time, the cars will have to be charged adequately to meet their expected daily requirements and a little more. Similarly, there is a fear that synchronised behaviour will also cause problems in the evening with the assumption that people will plug their EV in when they get home, causing a massive spike in power demand. I actually don’t buy this one, the technology to defer charging until electricity demand is lower overnight is basically good to go. The short story of what I’m trying to say is that the existing pattern of electricity use is informed by our activities but also by how our electricity is supplied. With ever evolving uses of ICT, we can help smooth the shift that will be required as we change where our electricity comes from to reflect the fact that new renewable energy sources don’t offer the same flexibility to deliver electricity when it’s needed as traditional fossil fuelled generation.
I seem to have digressed a little into electric vehicles as distributed storage, the point I wanted to make was this:
Solar electricity without storage or overnight capability is already cheaper than grid electricity in some places and is becoming so in more places. The way to make solar with storage for 24 hour operation cheaper than fossil fuels is not to spend more money, time and effort on primary research but to continue to ramp up installations. As scale increases, costs come down and as the market gets bigger the case for R&D within the industry becomes increasingly attractive.