The Switch: How solar, storage and new tech means cheap power for all is the optimistic title of Chris Goodall‘s latest book. If you haven’t come across Goodall before, he’s one of the most astute energy writers and commentators out there, and always worth hearing. The Switch is his latest book, and it’s all about how solar power is set to become the world’s primary source in the coming decades.
That’s a bold claim to make. Solar power currently provides about 1% of the world’s energy. Can it really become the dominant source? Renewable energy overall, sure – but solar power specifically?
The reason for the author’s confidence is the ‘experience curve’: the more solar power is installed, the better we get at it and the cheaper it becomes. It’s the same phenomenon that was observed in microchips and in computer memory. It’s happening with solar power, and if current trends continue, it will be five times cheaper again by 2040. It will be the cheapest form of power for most of us, and even without climate change, it would make complete sense to switch to it.
Although the falling cost of solar has been much reported, nobody has quite come out and predicted a solar future like this. At least, not until very recently. “Rarely have opinions changed so rapidly or so conclusively about something this important,” Goodall notes. The International Energy Agency didn’t think that solar power would ever be affordable at any great scale, and didn’t include it in its projections. In 2013, George Monbiot wrote that “solar power is unlikely to make a large contribution to electricity supply in the UK.” Goodall himself admits that didn’t think it had much to offer until very recently. (One of the few people who did see it coming, incidentally, is Jeremy Leggett.) I began to pick up on the story myself about two years ago.
In the course of a couple of years, prices have dropped so low that people are finally taking notice. Solar is at ‘grid parity’ in many parts of the world already, including India, Brazil and large parts of the US. That means it is as cheap or cheaper than fossil fuels. It is becoming the first choice for those adding new capacity, and coal power is being driven out of business as investors hesitate to fund new coal plants.
As I mentioned last week, this wouldn’t be much of a revolution in itself. But when combined with advances in battery technology, we have something transformative on our hands. The cost of batteries has halved since 2010, with further advances in the pipeline. “Batteries increasingly look as though they will provide most of the electricity needed for overnight use, at a cost far less than seemed possible just a couple of years ago.”
Perhaps one of the reasons why we’ve been slow to catch on to solar power in Britain is that – well, it’s Britain. As anyone with solar panels fitted knows, we don’t get much sunlight in the winter. Even with all the new efficiency breakthroughs, we will never be able to rely on solar and batteries alone to get us through the winter. So once the book has run through the history of solar and how we got to where we are, it turns to storage. And the good news is that even in Britain, we’d be able to run mainly on solar power if we could bank a surplus in the summer and store it. Ideally, we’d turn it into gas or fuels and store it in existing infrastructure, and there are a number of technologies that could do this.
The better news, from a global perspective, is that Britain is the exception rather than the rule. Goodall estimates that around 6% of the world’s population live in Northern countries that couldn’t be entirely solar powered. For 80% of the world’s population, solar with batteries for overnight will meet most electricity needs. For Africa, the long-expected leap-frogging to solar power looks very hopeful, skipping the need for a grid and the massive infrastructure of centralised power.
There’s lots more I could say, and I will return to the topic in future posts. If you want all the details, you’ll have to read the book. It’s one of those books with a central idea that I really hope is correct. It’s also a book that has made me go and look up lots of things, as Goodall is a highly informed watcher of renewable energy technology, and there are all sorts of case studies and details of intriguing energy start-ups. Most of all, if you need a dose of optimism about the state of the world’s energy, The Switch may be just what you need.
“Running through this book is a consistent theme: that the conventional view of renewable energy as inherently more expensive than fossil fuels is mistaken. Energy from the sun is becoming cheaper than other sources and in a couple of decades’ time it will be cheaper still.”