Monday, January 16, 2017

The new economics of solar power


My partner in life likes to watch the British costume dramas that are so popular on PBS. Not that long ago, she started watching a 6-part mini-series called Wolf Hall. This is another retelling of the rise of Henry VIII, only this time through the eyes of Thomas Cromwell—who is usually cast as a petty schemer in this sordid tale. I am not certain why the Brits are so fascinated by the story of the founder of the Church of England who was in fact, a serial killer. But they are. So this vile little tale has been made into so many films and television specials that to make another version, they needed a new angle. So Cromwell as a good guy was their gimmick of choice.

In this market, the over-the-air high-definition broadcasts by PBS have easily the best pictures available—just short of blu-ray in fact. So when partner began to rave about the picture quality of Wolf Hall, I became curious enough to watch a couple of episodes. The great advantage of the latest video gear is its ability to capture high-quality shots in low light—something that was being employed to full advantage. And the makers of Wolf Hall have not missed a trick and they do it so well, it looks effortless instead of the product of years of perfecting highly sensitive light capture. The interior shots look realistically dark and foreboding without any noticeable noise or loss of detail.

After drooling over the amazing photography for awhile, I soon snapped back to the reality that I was watching, once again, the ugly story of Henry VIII and Cromwell. The photographic reality only enhanced the shallow, vain, arrogant, and violent stupidity of the British upper classes. But while I was fuming about wasting some more of my remaining life on earth on the story of these truly vile creatures, I noticed something that almost inspired hope. The high video quality also showed some seriously fine details of that era's buildings.

So the lesson of the evening was that even though politicians and the members of the upper classes may be relentlessly stupid and boring people, the Producers of Henry VIII's day could make things that can still take your breath away. And the reason this gives me hope is that even though we elected a climate-change denier as President this late in the game, it probably won't matter. And the reason it won't matter is because solving climate change is a Producer Class assignment and as we can see, the Producers are still making miracles happen. Elon Musk has now demonstrated that electric cars can be objectively better than any fossil-fueled IC vehicle, and soon it will be obvious that solar is the low-cost energy option. Turns out you don't have to be concerned for mother earth, or lobby for new carbon taxes, or have your awareness raised. All you need to be is cheap. And that most of us can master. What follows is a Bloomberg account of the new economics of solar power.

Solar Could Beat Coal to Become the Cheapest Power on Earth

Global average solar cost may fall below coal within 10 years
Countries from Saudi Arabia to Mexico planning auctions

by Jessica Shankleman and Chris Martin, January 3, 2017

Solar power is now cheaper than coal in some parts of the world. In less than a decade, it’s likely to be the lowest-cost option almost everywhere.

In 2016, countries from Chile to the United Arab Emirates broke records with deals to generate electricity from sunshine for less than 3 cents a kilowatt-hour, half the average global cost of coal power. Now, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Mexico are planning auctions and tenders for this year, aiming to drop prices even further. Taking advantage: Companies such as Italy’s Enel SpA and Dublin’s Mainstream Renewable Power, who gained experienced in Europe and now seek new markets abroad as subsidies dry up at home.

Since 2009, solar prices are down 62 percent, with every part of the supply chain trimming costs. That’s help cut risk premiums on bank loans, and pushed manufacturing capacity to record levels. By 2025, solar may be cheaper than using coal on average globally, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance.

“These are game-changing numbers, and it’s becoming normal in more and more markets," said Adnan Amin, International Renewable Energy Agency ’s director general, an Abu Dhabi-based intergovernmental group. "Every time you double capacity, you reduce the price by 20 percent.”

Better technology has been key in boosting the industry, from the use of diamond-wire saws that more efficiently cut wafers to better cells that provide more spark from the same amount of sun. It’s also driven by economies of scale and manufacturing experience since the solar boom started more than a decade ago, giving the industry an increasing edge in the competition with fossil fuels.

The average 1 megawatt-plus ground mounted solar system will cost 73 cents a watt by 2025 compared with $1.14 now, a 36 percent drop, said Jenny Chase, head of solar analysis for New Energy Finance.

That’s in step with other forecasts.
  • GTM Research expects some parts of the U.S. Southwest approaching $1 a watt today, and may drop as low as 75 cents in 2021, according to its analyst MJ Shiao.
  • The U.S. Energy Department’s National Renewable Energy Lab expects costs of about $1.20 a watt now declining to $1 by 2020. By 2030, current technology will squeeze out most potential savings, said Donald Chung, a senior project leader.
  • The International Energy Agency expects utility-scale generation costs to fall by another 25 percent on average in the next five years.
  • The International Renewable Energy Agency anticipates a further drop of 43 percent to 65 percent for solar costs by 2025. That would bring to 84 percent the cumulative decline since 2009.
The solar supply chain is experiencing “a Wal-Mart effect” from higher volumes and lower margins, according to Sami Khoreibi, founder and chief executive officer of Enviromena Power Systems, an Abu Dhabi-based developer.

The speed at which the price of solar will drop below coal varies in each country. Places that import coal or tax polluters with a carbon price, such as Europe and Brazil, will see a crossover in the 2020s, if not before. Countries with large domestic coal reserves such as India and China will probably take longer.

Coal’s Rebuttal

Coal industry officials point out that cost comparisons involving renewables don’t take into account the need to maintain backup supplies that can work when the sun doesn’t shine or wind doesn’t blow. When those other expenses are included, coal looks more economical, even around 2035, said Benjamin Sporton, chief executive officer of the World Coal Association.

“All advanced economies demand full-time electricity,” Sporton said. “Wind and solar can only generate part-time, intermittent electricity. While some renewable technologies have achieved significant cost reductions in recent years, it’s important to look at total system costs.”

Even so, solar’s plunge in price is starting to make the technology a plausible competitor.

In China, the biggest solar market, will see costs falling below coal by 2030, according to New Energy Finance. The country has surpassed Germany as the nation with the most installed solar capacity as the government seeks to increase use to cut carbon emissions and boost home consumption of clean energy. Yet curtailment remains a problem, particularly in sunnier parts of the country as congestion on the grid forces some solar plants to switch off.

Sunbelt countries are leading the way in cutting costs, though there’s more to it than just the weather. The use of auctions to award power-purchase contracts is forcing energy companies to compete with each other to lower costs.

An August auction in Chile yielded a contract for 2.91 cents a kilowatt-hour. In September, a United Arab Emirates auction grabbed headlines with a bid of 2.42 cents a kilowatt-hour. Developers have been emboldened to submit lower bids by expectations that the cost of the technology will continue to fall.

“We’re seeing a new reality where solar is the lowest-cost source of energy, and I don’t see an end in sight in terms of the decline in costs,” said Enviromena’s Khoreibi.  more

9 comments:

  1. Do you suppose the day will come where people with solar panels aren't criticized for putting the coal miners out of work by people from Ohio & W. Virginia? I hope they figure it out.

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    1. I am not at all sure I should waste my sympathy on the coal industry. They have known since at least the days when acid rain was the big issue that coal's day were over. The problem isn't so much what we should do about displaced coal miners. The problem is neoliberal economics which prevents us from growing the green economy which should be giving all these people plenty of jobs by now.

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    2. That's the way I see it...if coal mining is your thing, maybe learning a new trade above ground needs to be in your future.

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