books energy technology

Book review: The Switch, by Chris Goodall

switchThe 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.”

23 comments

  1. I have been saying to the doom-mongers and eco-warriors who disdain technological society for some time:
    What do you do when the sun is shining and the wind blowing and tide flowing?
    Some answers:
    Make aviation fuel
    Fix nitrogen
    Make cement
    Smelt metal
    I had not figured until reading your post that of course we can make and store methane for burning to smooth out the base load and for the winter.
    De-carbonizing the economy is a political problem, and a problem of our lack of imagination, not a technical problem.

    1. Yes, and the book details several interesting ways to do that. One is to make methane, and then we can use the existing gas network for heating in the winter. Making ammonia is another, as that can be burnt in a gas turbine. Hydrogen fuel cells are also a possibility.

      All of those need to be accompanied by a radical efficiency drive and a programme of refurbishment. We still waste far too much heat and energy, and it’s quite possible to build houses with almost no heating requirements.

  2. As Julian Simon said, human ingenuity is the ultimate resource. We don’t need to turn over society to solve climate change.

    Also, Peak Oil is a busted flush. As Shiek Yamani said, the stone age didn’t end because we ran out of stones.

    1. Climate change is bigger than electricity production, so solar power is not a complete solution.

      Slightly bizarre thing to say about peak oil, but if you’re still trotting out the Yamani quote, then we clearly understand it differently. No intelligent peak oil theorist thinks that peak oil is about oil running out.

      They do, on the other hand, advocate solar power. Carter responded to the oil crisis by putting solar panels on the White House. Jeremy Leggett’s work on peak oil led him to found SolarCentury. M King Hubbert, who coined the idea of peak oil in the first place, wrote that solar power was what we should be aiming for ultimately. So as far as I’m concerned it’s all part of the same energy transition story.

      1. “No intelligent peak oil theorist thinks that peak oil is about oil running out.” Rather no peak oil theorist anymore thinks that peak oil is about oil running out. They did, their predictions were proved wrong so without a word of apology have tried to change the terms of their claims. Gradually they have stopped talking about it in the hope we will forget and not hold it against them for when they come out with the next scare about forthcoming shortages.

        I would point out lots of people who rejected peak oil also predicted the solar boom so there is no great insight from believing in peak oil.

        1. I’m afraid you’re airing your ignorance about what peak oil is. Thinking that it’s about oil running out is the most common misconception about it. I’m not going to explain it all again, as 1) I’ve done it before half a dozen times and you obviously don’t listen, and 2) the wikipedia page will set you straight.

          1. Peak oil is the point of maximum extraction. It is only an issue worth banging on about if there is no replacement available at a similar price. Since we have not reached it and it looks highly likely that when it occurs it will be a non event because we are voluntarily scaling down production because there isn’t a market for it, rather than we can’t get anymore out at lower prices.

            We reached peak horse in the mid 20th century. Did anyone notice? No, because we had better replacements. Your article points to us replacing oil for many of its uses before we reach a peak from resource or technolgical constraints. Hence Peak Oil is a busted flush. Yet you are still wedded to the idea Peak Oil, I guess because it fits a wider view you resource constraints you hold.

          2. Would we have unconventional fuels if conventional oil hadn’t hit a plateau ten years back? Would US shale have boomed without the oil price spike in 2008? Would we be investing in renewable energy if supplies of fossil fuels weren’t unpredictable and increasingly problematic? The declining returns on fossil fuels are a major driver of the energy transition. To repeat myself, it’s all part of the same story.

            You can see exactly the same thing at work in the circular economy. The circular economy doesn’t show that resource depletion is nonsense. It is a response to tightening supplies and increasing competition for resources. It’s exactly what you’d hope and expect to see.

            A lot of scaremongers have been proved wrong, sure – that’s why I say the intelligent commentators were right. But this idea that our current energy situation disproves peak oil is a bit like arguing that the arrival of the fire brigade disproves the fire.

          3. One of the areas peak pokers miss us that much of the conventional oil is produced by nationalised industries who, Norway apart, aren’t investing or very innovative in their production, since restricted supply have them the revenue they wanted without the political pain of getting outsiders in to help. And if course the rise of China increased demand. Unconventional oil took advantage of the high prices that produced.

            Renewables are driven primarily by climate change. We have plenty of coal, why not use that if security of supply was the issue?

            Your characterisation of the drivers of the circular economy shows a confusion between resources and supply, stock and flow. Demand and supply are flows, resources are a stock. It matters not that I have 10 years or 100 years of reserves if my current production can’t meet demand, prices will rise the same. So again China is a cause. And of course it comes over as a lovely greenwash for “ethical” consumers

            Now this is the second time in so many weeks that you have called me ignorant. Given this type of arrogance by people very similar to you was one of the reasons we lost the EU referendum perhaps you might consider the wisdom of doing so. It is not ignorant to disagree with you unless you know everything and your interpretation is the only possible correct one.

          4. Again, you come on here making daft statements about what peak oil writers know and don’t know. Have you ever read a book on the subject? It’s utter nonsense to say they’re unaware of the differences between state run and corporate oil companies.

            Good, you understand stock and flow. Peak oil is a flow problem, not a stock problem. Now go back and look at your initial comment and quote about the stone age, and see if that sounds like a sensible thing to say.

          5. In reply to an article about the advance of solar power I think Sheik Yammi’s comments seem apposite but clearly that is a statement that goes against your wider narrative so must be criticized.

            Perhaps your holiday will allow you to reflect on your increasingly patronising tone. As I said, dismissing people as ignorant has backfired nationally and that put you into mourning. It isn’t the way to win wider arguments. Something to reflect on from your Olympian heights.

          6. I’ll tell you where I go wrong – its in taking the bait when you set out to provoke. (And don’t pretend you don’t, with your repeated comment about the EU)

            My holiday will be good practice in ignoring you more often.

  3. Unlike fossil fuels, once you have installed solar power plant, you do not have to continually pay for fuel – it is free. So over the longer term, it just gets better and better.

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