It’s Here Now: Cheap 100% Renewable Energy

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Above Photo: Germany/Licensed under CC BY 2.0

George Goodall’s The Switch: How Solar Storage and New Technology Means Cheap Power for All was enormously valuable in rectifying many of my prior misconceptions about renewable energy. First and foremost was my erroneous belief that high production costs would make renewable energy far more expensive than fossil fuels – that the renewable energy revolution would require either a) a major reduction in population or b) major sacrifice in terms of lifestyle choices.

Both turn out to be totally untrue. Renewable energy (mainly photo-voltaic solar energy) is already cheaper than fossil fuels in many parts of the world. By 2040 the low cost of producing renewable energy will make fossil fuels virtually obsolete.

The first section of the book focuses on a mathematical explanation of what he refers to as the “experience curve.” Energy economists use this formula to explain the rapid decrease in the cost of manufacturing PV cells, solar panels and solar batters. The same process can be used to predict future costs of manufacture. Which is one of the main reasons Wall Street financiers are refusing to invest in new coal and gas-fired power plants. They know the electricity they produce will never compete with the low cost and efficiency of renewable energy.

In the past two decades, the main purpose of new gas-fired power plants has been to address power outages during peak demand periods. Because they only power up 10-50 hours a year, they are extremely inefficient and expensive to operate. In a number of regions, power suppliers using smart technology and creative billing schemes are flattening out peak demand by encouraging large energy consumers to shift their energy usage to non-peak periods.

Goodall asserts that six billion of the world’s seven billion population could easily switch to 100% solar energy now because they live in hot sunny regions. The other one billion, in Northern Europe and parts of the US (and New Zealand), will need to supplement PV solar with other forms of renewable energy (wind, hydro, geothermal, biofuel, etc) and develop short and long term storage technology to meet their winter energy needs.

The cost of lithium ion storage batteries is also dropping rapidly, though it lags several years behind PV production costs. As more and more energy consumers invest in solar storage systems, grid-based energy will continue to increase rapidly – with the cost of maintaining energy transmission infrastructure falling on fewer and fewer shoulders. This will only hasten the switch to renewable technology.

  • mwildfire

    I recommend Richard Heinberg’s Our Renewable Future for a more comprehensive and balanced take on this. First of all, electricity production is 20% of US energy use (and a similar percentage globally). So even if transitioning to 100% renewable electricity provenance happens soon, we still need to figure out how to deal with transportation, agriculture, cement and plastic production. There are solutions for most of these, but implementing them all at once would require a tremendous amount of political will and cooperation, and to say such political will is not in sight is a gargantuan understatement.
    I will also mention that i joined a discussion group about the energy transition, most of its members European scientists and engineers, and the key division within the group is over the question of whether a transition to an economy much like today’s only powered by renewables, is feasible or will it require a reduction in population and/or per capita use and waste. As Heinberg’s book points out, a 100% renewable energy future within a century is a certainty, given the dwindling fossil reserves and burgeoning environmental impacts. The question is what kind of future we’ll have, and the best scenarios come with early action, and insistence on egalitarian treatment, an end to the inequality in which a few demand most of the profits and control.