How Solar Power Could Slay The Fossil Fuel Empire By 2030

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​Above: Abengoa Solar’s Solnova Solar Power Station

In just 15 years, the world as we know it will have transformed forever. The ​age of oil, gas, coal and nuclear will be over. A new age of clean power and smarter cars will fundamentally, totally, and permanently disrupt the existing fossil fuel-dependent industrial infrastructure in a way that even the most starry-eyed proponents of ‘green energy’ could never have imagined.

These are not the airy-fairy hopes of a tree-hugging hippy living off the land in an eco-commune. It’s the startling verdict of ​Tony Seba, a lecturer in business entrepreneurship, disruption and clean energy at Stanford University and a serial Silicon Valley entrepreneur.

Seba began his career at Cisco Systems in 1993, where he predicted the internet-fueled mobile revolution at a time when most telecoms experts were warning of the impossibility of building an Internet the size of the US, let alone the world. Now he is predicting the “inevitable” disruption of the fossil fuel infrastructure.

Seba’s thesis, set out in more detail in his new book Clean Disruption of Energy and Transportation, is that by 2030 “the industrial age of energy and transportation will be over,” swept away by “exponentially improving technologies such as solar, electric vehicles, and self-driving cars.”

Google’s autonomous car. Image: Steve Jurvetson, ​Wikimedia

Tremors of change

Seba’s forecasts are being taken seriously by some of the world’s most powerful finance, energy, and technology institutions.

Last November, Seba was a keynote speaker at JP Morgan’s Annual Global Technology, Media, and Telecom Conference in Asia, held in Hong Kong, where he delivered a stunning presentation on what he calls the “clean disruption.”

Seba’s JP Morgan talk focused on the inevitable disruption in the internal combustion engine. By his forecast, between 2017 and 2018, a mass migration from gasoline or diesel cars will begin, rapidly picking up steam and culminating in a market entirely dominated by electric vehicles (EV) by 2030.

Not only will our cars be electric, Seba predicts, but rapid developments in self-driving technologies will mean that future EVs will also be autonomous. The game-change is happening because of revolutionary cost-reductions in information technology, and because EVs are 90 percent cheaper to fuel and maintain than gasoline cars.

The main obstacle to the mass-market availability of EVs is the battery cost, which is around $500 per kilowatt hour (kWh). But this is pitched to fall dramatically in the next decade. By 2017, it could reach $350 kWh—which is the battery price-point where an electric car becomes cost-competitive with its gasoline equivalent.

Seba estimates that by 2020, battery costs will fall to $200 kWh, and by 2024-25 to $100 kWh. At this point, the efficiency of a gasoline car would be irrelevant, as EVs would simply be far cheaper. By 2030, he predicts, “gasoline cars will be the 21st century equivalent of horse carriages.”

It took only 13 years for societies to transition from complete reliance on horse-drawn carriages to roads teeming with primitive automobiles, Seba told his audience.

Lest one imagine Seba is dreaming, in its new quarterly report, the leading global investment firm Baron Funds concurs: “We believe that BMW will likely phase out internal combustion engines within 10 years.” (Investors at rival bank Morgan Stanley are making a similar bet, and are financing Tesla.)

Two days after his JP Morgan lecture, Seba was addressing the 2014 Global Leaders’ Forum in south Korea, sponsored by Korean government ministries for science and technology, where he elaborated on the prospects of an energy revolution. Within just 15 years, he said, solar and wind power will provide 100 percent of energy in competitive markets, with no need for government subsidies.

Over the last year Seba has even been invited to share his vision with oil and gas executives in the US and Europe. “Essentially, I’m telling them you’re out of business in less than 15 years,” Seba said.

Revolutionary economics of renewables

For Seba, there is a simple reason that the economics of solar and wind are superior to the extractive industries. Extraction economics is about decreasing returns. As reserves deplete and production shifts to more expensive unconventional sources, costs of extraction rise. Oil prices may have dropped dramatically due to the OPEC supply glut, but costs of production remain high. Since 2000, the oil industry’s investments have risen threefold by 180 percent, translating into a global oil supply increase of just 14 percent.

In contrast, the clean disruption is about increasing returns and decreasing costs. Seba, who dismisses biomass, biofuels and hydro-electric as uneconomical, points out that with every doubling of solar infrastructure, the production costs of solar photovoltaic (PV) panels fall by 22 percent. “The higher the demand for solar PV, the lower the cost of solar for everyone, everywhere,” said Seba. “All this enables more growth in the solar marketplace, which, because of the solar learning curve, further pushes down costs.”

Globally installed capacity of solar PV has grown from 1.4 GW in the year 2000 to 141 GW at the end of 2013: a compound annual growth rate of 43 percent. In the United States, new solar capacity has grown from 435 megawatts (MW) in 2009 to 4,751 MW in just four years: an even higher rate of 82 percent.

Meanwhile, solar panel costs are now 154 times cheaper than they were in 1970, dropping from $100 per watt to 65 cents per watt.

What we are seeing are exponential improvements in the efficiency of solar, the cost of solar, and the installation of solar. “Put these numbers together and you find thatsolar has improved its cost basis by 5,355 times relative to oil since 1970,” Seba said. “Traditional sources of energy can’t compete with this.”

Solar plant. Image: BLM

A great delusion?

Other experts disagree. Renowned scientist Vaclav Smil of the University of Manitoba has studied the history of energy transitions, and argues that forecasts of an imminent renewable energy revolution are deluded. It took between 50 and 75 years for fossil fuels to contribute significantly to national energy requirements, in circumstances where technology was cheap and supplying baseload power (operating 24 hours continuously) was not a problem. So the idea that renewables could be scaled up in decades is fantasy, he argues.

Similarly, Australian sustainability expert Prof Ted Trainer of the University of New South Wales and the Simplicity Institute argues that renewables cannot cope with demand in industrial consumer societies. “The raw cost of PV is not crucial,” Prof Trainer told me. “Even if it was free it cannot provide any energy at all for about 17 hours on an average day, and in Europe there can be three weeks in a row with virtually no PV input.”

Trainer also flagged-up ‘energy return on investment’ (EROI)—the quantity of energy one can get out compared to how much one puts in: “EROI for PV is around 3:1. It hardly matters what it costs if it’s down there.”

Fossil fuel ostriches

“What the skeptics don’t understand is, when disruption happens, it happens swiftly, within two decades or even two years,” Seba told me. “Just ask anyone at your favorite camera film, telegraph, or typewriter company.” Kodak, a photography giant in 2003, filed for bankruptcy in 2012, as the digital photography revolutions swept away dependence on film. We’ve seen parallel disruptions with smartphones and tablets.

Seba’s main answer to Smil is to highlight the folly of extrapolating the potential for future energy transitions from the past. New clean energy industries are utterly different from old fossil fuel ones. It’s as if saying the industrial revolution could never have happened based on studying the feudal dynamics of pre-industrial societies.

Costs of solar are not just decreasing exponentially, they will continue to do so due to increasing innovation, scale, and competition. “There are 300,000 solar installations in the US right now. By 2022, there will be 20 million solar installations in the US,” Seba predicts.

As a rule, Seba said, when a technology product achieves critical mass (historically defined as about 15-20 percent of the market), its market growth accelerates further, and sometimes exponentially, due to the positive feedback effects. In hundreds of markets around the world, unsubsidized solar is already cheaper than subsidized fossil fuels and nuclear power. A new Deutsche Bank report just made headlines at the end of October for predicting that solar electricity in the US is on track to be as cheap or cheaper than fossil fuels as early as 2016.

Seba also dismisses concerns about baseload, pointing me to the new Solar Reserve110 MW baseload solar plant in the Nevada desert, running on molten salt storage, that will power Las Vegas at night.

Meanwhile, increasing efficiencies and plummeting costs of lithium ion (li-on) batteries are already making night-time residential storage of PV and wind power cost-effective. Every year, li-ion battery costs drop by 14-16 percent. By 2020, experts believe that li-on will cost around $200-250 per kilowatt per hour (kWh) in which case, according to Seba: “A user could, for about $15.30 per month, have eight hours of storage to shift solar generation from day to evening, not pay for peak prices, and participate in demand-response programs.”

Power plant. Image: ​Pixabay, CC

Judgement Day

At the current rate of growth, Seba’s projections show, globally installed solar capacity will reach 56.7 terrawatts (TW) in the next 15 years: equivalent to 18.9 TW of conventional baseload power. That would be enough to power the world, and then some—projected world energy demand at that time would be 16.9 TW.

Paul Gilding, who has spent the last 20 years advising global corporations like Ford, DuPont, BHP Billiton, among many others on sustainable business strategy, agrees that the trends Seba highlights imply “a disruptive transformational system change” that outpaces the “assumptions built on the old world view of centralised generation.” Author of The Great Disruption, Gilding said that “it’s the systemic interactions of software, new players, disruptive business models and technology that accelerates the shift,” and which “will be self reinforcing”—not just cheap prices.

EROI concerns are therefore a red-herring. Seba argues that the minimal costs of maintaining solar panels which last many decades, coupled with the free energy generation once initial costs are repaid, mean that real EROI for solar is dramatically higher than fossil fuels in the long-run.

“Should solar continue on its exponential trajectory, the energy infrastructure will be 100-percent solar by 2030,” Seba said. “The only reason for this not to happen is that governments will protect or subsidize conventional coal, nuclear, oil, gas generating stations—even when this means higher prices for consumers.”

While solar ​has already reached ‘grid parity’, becoming as cheap or cheaper than utility rates in many markets, within five years Seba anticipates the arrival of what he calls ‘God Parity’: when onsite rooftop solar generation is cheaper than transmission costs. Then, even if fossil fuel plants generated at zero costs (an impossibility), they could never compete with onsite solar. So after 2020, the conventional energy industry will start going bankrupt.

The costs of wind, which complements solar at night and in winter, is also plummeting and will beat every other energy source, except solar, in the same time-frame, according to his analysis.

“We are on the cusp of the largest disruption of industry and society since the first industrial revolution. Large, centralized, top-down, supplier-centric energy is on its way out. It is being replaced by modular, distributed, bottom-up, open, knowledge-based, consumer-centric energy,” said Seba. “The transition has already started and the disruption will be swift. Conventional energy sources are already obsolete or soon to be obsolete.”

But for Gilding, like Trainer, the clean disruption will also disrupt economic growth as we know it: “In the end we’ll have to wake up to the impossibility of endless economic growth. Even with very cheap, zero carbon energy, we can’t have endless growth nor human progress defined by shopping.”

One thing is certain: as the old energy paradigm dies, in its ruins, the opportunities for a new post-industrial paradigm are emerging faster than anyone anticipated.

  • Steve Ongerth

    Ted Trainer is a primitivist ideologue. It’s not surprising that he paints an inaccurate picture of the EROI on renewables.

  • PaulK2

    Photovoltaics only works on sunny days. However, solar thermal heat can be stored for nighttime electric generation or for heating any building. Here lies the critical engineering race that will end fossil fuel use worldwide. Solar thermal storage is no more expensive than rocks/sand, insulation and a transfer fluid (oil, air, …). Drive this price down and that’s it for fossil worldwide. Win now!

    As an alternative, learn to store PV power for those snowy days. The current top candidates are hydropumping (pumping water uphill, for example at Storm King Mountain on the Hudson River) and giant city-powering hydrogen fuel cells. Both have about a 30% energy loss.

    Fortunately for the oil companies, they have used their considerable political might to stuff all federal research in this area down a deep, deep hole. The Department of Energy will be happy to fund your Small Business Innovation Research project if it has to do with either hydrogen fusion or clean coal, but all solar research is now pinched off.

  • Z54

    How about if we replace every golf course in the country with a solar or wind farm?

  • If the panels were eight feet off the ground one could grow desert drip irrigation crops for people at the same location. The facility infrastructure is already there and chemical runoff from the structure would be minimal keeping in ind that in the future may may not have tho option to be choosy. We have got to start thinking multitask if we are to survive without killing the species’ deserts.

  • If the panels were eight feet off the ground one could grow desert drip
    irrigation crops for people at the same location. The facility
    infrastructure is already there and chemical runoff from the structure
    would be minimal keeping in mind that in the future we may not have the
    option to be choosy. We have got to start thinking multitask if we are
    to survive without killing the species’ deserts.

  • azaredaniel

    We Need Sustainable Energy Now, Not Toxic Coal, Poisoning Natural Gas, or Fukushimas, All are destroying Our Fragile Eco-Systems Right Now

    Do we have 20 years left to make to Make Global Warming Changes ?

    We Need to be Changing Our energy Policies Now.

    How Long before the Arctic is Snow and Ice Free ? 2020 ? 2025 ?

    We Need Sustainable Energy Policies, with all hands on Deck, removing Home Owners and Business Persons from investing and keeping their own profits goes against our daily childhood pledge of, With Liberty and Justice for All.

    A California Residential Feed in Tariff would allow homeowners to sell their Renewable Energy to the utility, protecting our communities from Poison Water, Grid Failures, Natural Disasters, Toxic Natural Gas and Oil Fracking. It would also create a new revenue stream for the Hard Working Taxpaying, Voting, Homeowner.

    Sign and Share this petition for a California Residential Feed in Tariff.
    http://signon.org/sign/let-california-home-owners

    We need a National Feed in Tariff, this petition starts in California.

    California currently has a Feed in Tariff that does not allow home owners to participate in the State mandated goal of 33% renewable energy by 2020.

    California also does not allow the homeowner to oversize their R.E systems, as of now, your local utility has allowed only 80% homeowner generation from your R.E system.

    California has 2 different Energy policies Net-metering and a Feed in Tariff.

    Net metering the energy policy for homeowners, allow you to bank excess electricity from R.E systems for future credits. The credits you accumulate are at the retail rate, and are reviewed at the end of the year. It will be written off with a thank you from the utility and no payment to the homeowner for producing more than what you use.

    Net metering has allowed third party leasing companies to replace one utility with another.

    “Examples of Net-metering slow down Renewable Energies:

    1. Renewable Portfolio Standards (RPSs) which create de facto caps on the deployment of renewable energies (the Germans do not have any RPSs, their Feed in Tariff has no caps.
    2. Net-metering caps, most states only allow a small percentage of one to two percent of peak load to be net metered.

    3. Third party leasing companies like Solar City, Sun Run, Verango and others fight tooth and nail to protect scarce capacity carve outs (from the States RPSs) so as to bolster their chosen business model.” Bob Tregilus

    No one is fighting for the Hard Working, Taxpaying, Voting, Homeowner, we can change that with a Ca. Residential Feed in Tariff Energy policy that allows everyone to participate. Homeowner’s, Small and Large Businesses, Small and Large farmers, and Industries, have the right to sell Renewable Energy electricity to the utility.

    Vote Solar Initiative is a Sierra Club and Solar Leasing Companies platform to ensure that One Utility will take the place of Another through the continued use of Net Metering.

    We need a Policy that will enable Hard Working, Voting, Tax Paying Citizens, get a chance to participate in the States goal of 33% Renewable Energy by 2020 through a California Residential Feed in Tariff.

    California, there is enough Residential Solar to power 2.25 San Onofres, couple that with a Commercial Feed in Tariff and we can solve some of these environmental and electrical generating problems.

    This petition will ask the California Regulators and Law makers to allocate Renewable Portfolio Standards to Ca. Home Owners for a Residential Feed in Tariff, the RPS is the allocation method that is used to set aside a certain percentage of electrical generation for Renewable Energy in the the State.

  • Robert Hodge

    THATS the best idea I’ve heard so far! Golf is a complete waste of space/time/money/energy etc. etc. and since only the wealthiest of the wealthy use ‘golf courses’, no REAL person suffers! A win-win!

  • easywriter

    excellent — doing two good things at the same time…

  • chetdude

    If you put solar cells on every golf course in your town you wouldn’t be able to power a wal-mart…

  • kevinzeese

    You obviously don’t know what you’re talking about, chetdude.

  • Southern

    How may an environmentalist paint an accurate picture when the article is based on predictions?

  • Trainer’s claim is for the present EROI of PVs, not a prediction. Steve Ongerth is correct. See my response to Trainer on this and related issues: 2014, “My Response to Trainer,” Capitalism
    Nature Socialism 25(4): 109-115
    (pdf available upon request: dschwartzman@gmail.com)

  • I disagree with this assessment. See my debate with Almuth Ernsting posted on the homepage of our website, http://solarutopia.org/ as well as a lot more on this site.

  • Man, I’m glad I’m not the only person in the ecosocialism realm who’s been underwhelmed by Trainer. I just recently stumbled upon his rather voluminous collection of personal essays online, and all I can say is, “Wow, you *really* don’t know what life was like in pre-industrial societies, do you?”

  • Southern

    Please try copy paste the text you’re referring to or just include the link, they’ll go into moderation but eventually they’ll appear and it saves me from guessing which content you’re actually referring to.

    There’s a fundamental difference between the two mentioned — Trainer is primarily all about self sustaining permaculture and de-growth as opposed to the large scale solar plants in question and which — in essence — Trainer will have nothing against – just that these have not yet been successfully applied on the large scales as Sabu suggested in this article.

    No i’m not replying to your invite to email, that would be silly.

  • There is more to Trainer’s prescriptions, why would it be silly to actually read my critique? You might learn something and so might I from your response. Btw, I strongly support degrowth in the global North, starting with the Military Industrial (Fossil Fuel Nuclear State Terror and Surveillance) Complex. Likewise permaculture and agroecologies should replace industrial/GMO agriculture.

  • Southern

    In order to supply extra information — you could simply copy paste that very text into the comment or furnish a link as opposed to ”see My Response to Trainer etc…,” hardly practical considering one is left guessing.
    (I think it’s silly to list email addresses on a public forum.)

    Ultimately I believe that everyone will agree on the need for renewable energies and degrowth etc — no argument there.

    I don’t object to large scale renewable energies – i’m confident mr Trainer would not object to the principle either, I got the impression that he objects to corporate control over renewable energies.

    Perhaps it was not fair to include mr Trainer in this article considering he is more involved with self sustainability as opposed to the scale of the projects that mr Sabu is advocating and which ensures that such ventures become corporately controlled and thus renewable energies will be operated under a for profit motive – renewable energies should not be used as a economic opportunity to facilitate economic growth for corporations, like you mentioned it’s time for de-growth, that includes corporate de-growth.

  • My CNS article I posted on Trainer goes into detail why his prescription for a GLOBAL decrease in energy consumption is ver

  • Seba’s vision of the future would mean a much cleaner, greener society sooner than most think. It’s definitely possible. Homeowners everywhere can be a part of this transition.

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