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Is the Solar Singularity Near?

Is the Solar Singularity Near? post image

There are quite a few of signs that the transition to sustainable energy is proceeding at a decent pace worldwide, despite the very pro-fossil fuel signals currently being issued from the White House. There are technological and market indications that the Trump administration is not going to be able to stop the march of renewable energy. Even at this stage, the steadily declining costs of renewables, and of solar power in particular, appear to have made the transition to sustainable energy irreversible.

Tam Hunt has recently published a significant article on the very real idea of the forthcoming “solar singularity”. This is described as the point where solar power becomes cheap enough in a majority of countries around the world that it is established as the default new power source.

The report looks not only at the growth of solar power, but also takes into account battery storage, electric vehicles and self-driving cars in combination with solar. As I discussed in a recent post, based on the assertions of Tony Seba, these four technologies combined have the very real potential to quickly transform energy systems globally. While Seba maintains that solar power and electric cars will be ubiquitous as early as 2030, on current evidence Hunt concludes that by 2035 to 2040 we can reasonably expect to see a world powered predominantly with renewable energy.

Hunt summaries that in early 2017 we are progressing at a faster pace toward the solar singularity than initially expected, and that it’s unlikely that a pro-fossil fuel White House will be able do much to slow the advance. The world’s installed solar capacity is now projected to be about 700 gigawatts by 2020, and that’s with a little more than 300 gigawatts installed at the end of 2016. To put that into some perspective, the whole world installed only 30 gigawatts  in 2012, and 700 gigawatts of solar is enough power to supply about one-third of current US electricity demand.

In terms of costs, according to Greentech Media data, in the US, utility-scale solar projects recently met the US Department of Energy SunShot Initiative’s $1 per watt all-in cost goal 3 years early. At $1 per watt, the levelized cost falls to just 5.7 cents per kilowatt-hour, well below cost parity with new natural gas plants, coal plants, and nuclear plants. In addition, a 2017 report from Lazard found that new solar and wind power projects can already supply the lowest-cost electricity in many parts of the world.

Another interesting statistic of note from Hunt is that the US solar market reached 1% of the overall electricity market in 2016. This may not seem like much, but with the exponential growth curve being experienced, 1% of the market is actually halfway to solar power ubiquity. That 1% is halfway to 100% in terms of exponential doublings, because there are 7 doublings from .01% to 1%, and only 7 more to get to the full 100%.

Battery storage is widely thought to be a key to developing ubiquitous solar power, as the energy can then be used at night during peak hours of household use. Huge amounts of storage capacity will be needed to help evenly distribute intermittent renewable energy  Hunt notes that we are still low on the energy storage growth curve. Although just 300 megawatt-hours of storage was installed in the US in 2016, GTM Research projects that over 2,000 megawatt-hours are likely to be installed annually in the US by 2021. IHS Energy has projected that the global energy storage market will grow as fast as solar has grown recently.

It does look like an exponential growth curve could be kicking in for energy storage, and sooner than many expected. Storage deployments are still quite small, but it seems clear that many markets are poised for significant growth. This growth will fuel a cycle of ongoing cost declines, as has been the case for solar.

Electric vehicles are obviously still in their infancy in terms of overall market penetration, but again, this is likely to change. There is some analysis that indicates that widespread adoption of electric vehicles could take place during the next decade. Falls in EV battery prices are on course to make unsubsidized electric cars as affordable as combustion engine cars within the next 6 years, according to analysis by Bloomberg New Energy Finance. On the other hand, Wood Mackenzie has projected that a truly mass-market for electric vehicles won’t happen in Europe until after 2025.

It will be interesting to see what happens when Tesla begins its rollout of its Model 3. This more affordable all-electric car is aimed firmly at the mass-market. Tesla has around 400,000 pre-orders before going into production, so that’s certainly a sign a mass-market could arrive sooner rather than later. Many car companies are also developing advanced self-driving or autonomous technologies for their new cars, including Tesla. So far, Hunt’s best estimate is that self-driving cars will become ubiquitous in the 2025-2035 timeframe.

It remains to be seen when self-driving electric cars will become ubiquitous, but it’s becoming clear that a solar singularity is indeed on its way. In combination, these 4 technologies have the potential to change the world a lot faster than many people currently believe.

Image CC licensed by h080: Rooftop solar array.

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