Trusting Solar and Compound Annual Interest

In my recent series of posts prognosticating the trajectory of climate change during this century, I basically project that we are still in for a lot of warming due to huge increases in energy consumption, but that we will be ‘rescued’ by the growth of energy delivered by renewable sources, primarily solar.

I have nothing against wind, biofuels or hydropower. I’m sure they will grow and make valuable contributions.

But I can see what is happening in solar and I can connect it to the growth of past transformative technologies. I have faith in its growth.

Faith is kind of a dirty word when talking science and technology, but really–we all take actions based on trust or belief rather than checking every fact and item, else we would never board a commercial airline or eat a Big Mac.

Installations were 29 GW in 2012. In 2007 installations were 5 GW. In 2002 they were less than 1 GW. The global total is now over 100 GW in capacity.

That’s an asterisk in global production, amounting to less than 0.4% of electricity generated.

Solar power has been growing by 30% annually for the past two decades. If it continued to grow at that rate we would have 41,754 Terawatts in capacity.

I think we’d run out of sand first. At any rate it would be more electricity than we would actually need, even with growing population and higher living standards. About ten times as much, even accepting my outlandish projection of a need for 3,000 quads by 2075.

Let’s assume that last year’s disappointing 5% growth is what will happen over the coming years. By 2035 we get 307 GW, by 2050 it grows to 639 GW and by 2075 it hits 2,162 GW. That’s a lot of clean energy, even at the slowest growth rate solar has experienced since it was invented. And by the end of the century it reaches 7,322 GW.

The ‘inside baseball story’ is worth mentioning briefly:

  • Last year is considered a disappointment for the solar industry. In 2012 it only grew by 5%. On the other hand, 30% of all the solar ever installed was installed last year–29 GW worth.
  • Installations faltered in Europe in general and Germany specifically, but picked up in China, which became the largest customer for solar, largely of their own products. As recently as 2011, China exported 95% of the solar modules they produced. Last year that dropped to 70%. Europe is still by far the largest market for solar power, double the size of Asia and five times as big as the Americas.
  • One-third of all the solar installed in the Americas is installed in California.
  • There is still more manufacturing capacity than is being used for production. Without adding any more plants we could install 40 GW a year.
  • Oh, yes–industry analysts predict a return to high growth in 2013–as much as 20%. Or more.



37 responses to “Trusting Solar and Compound Annual Interest

  1. Hi Tom,

    I’m curious if you know the “inside baseball” scuttlebut on chinese solar co’s panel efficiency? My understanding is that most of the chinese panels are using somewhat older technology with lower efficiency. No?

    One could argue that the Chinese panel manufacturers were born to take advantage of Europe’s massive subsidies. It’s no surprise that those subsidies disappeared. It is interesting that the Chinese gov kicked up it’s solar installations after it became obvious that there would be a massive glut in solar panels due to the unexpected disappearence of European subsidies.

    All of that’s a long way of saying that I think China’s on the wrong track and will pay for it. If they’re buying low efficiency panels to soak up the panel glut, they already are paying for it. And it shows what you get when you suddenly introduce subsidies that massively distort the market: trashy products, which demonstrates that Europe was on the wrong track too.

    In the US, OTOH, manufacturers, subject to price pressure from competing forms of generation, are stridently working to improve the efficiency and reduce the cost of their products.

    So what I’m getting around to is this: there is much more potential for solar generation growth than I think you’re crediting because the same amount of money buys more capacity every year, while it buys less capacity every year in other forms of generation. That will be true even if prices for gas and coal stay low, because the cost of the facilities will rise. And of course as demand continues to rise, gas and coal themsselves will also become pricier.

    It’ll be interesting to see how growth pans out this year and next, and what forms of solar – more costly higher efficiency, or less costly lower efficiency – progress.

  2. Conrad Dunkerson

    This article seems to be directly at odds with your contention that coal will be the ‘go to’ power source in 2075. I disagreed with that precisely because it seems clear that solar power is on the cusp of breakout growth. You insisted this meant I ‘know nothing about coal’… yet here you are saying that even if solar were to somehow remain stuck at a record low 5% annual growth every year for the rest of the century it would still be able to handle global demand.

    Is this some kind of split personality or do you just have an overwhelming urge to tell ‘alarmists’ (i.e. people who have rationally examined the evidence) that they are wrong… even when you agree with them?

    Meanwhile… the EPA is about to announce rules requiring all new power plants in the U.S. to produce less than 1000 lbs of CO2 per megawatt hour. Which would effectively outlaw new coal plants in the U.S. given that the ‘cleanest’ of them produce ~2200 lbs of CO2 per megawatt hour. Natural gas at ~900 lbs would make the cut, and since it is more economically viable than coal ANYWAY will be the go to technology for the short term. However, there isn’t enough natural gas to last to 2100 if it becomes the primary power source… which means we’ll be going to solar or some technology yet to be developed.

    • Obviously i assume those rules exclude the actually production transportation and installation of the wind and solar power per MW hour and they will base it on nameplate capacity and not actual production.

      As far as I know steel and cement production are still highly CO2 intensive activity’s and that does not even consider the backup or storage needs and associated emissions.

      Tom what would the surface area need to be to maintain 5% annual Growth of solar? If we do a kWh per acre calculation and even double efficiency what would the land use need to be by 2075 to reach those numbers?

      I have work to get done so I will leave it to somebody else to look up or I can another day but I expect the land use alone to be prohibitive not to mention that at least for the immediate future the impact on actual emissions will be essentially null until we have some storage breakthrough.

    • CBD, the correct parable is the one of the lilypads on the lake that double in area covered every 24 hours. On the day before the lake is completely covered, it is only halfway covered. Solar will save us indeed–but it will really be the cavalry charging over the hill at the last moment.

      • Oddly we sort of agree on that… I just put the arrival of widespread solar and the ‘last moment’ to avoid dangerous warming a lot sooner than 2075. I expect we’ll see worldwide plans for rapid conversion to solar power in place by 2025 and more than 75% of all power generation from solar by 2075. Always subject to change with unforeseen new technological advances.

  3. There are lot’s of ‘green ways’ to solve the energy puzzle IF cheap energy storage becomes a reality.

    Unfortunately, cheap energy storage still remains firmly rooted in pipe dream territory.

    IMHO Solar will have a place at the table…primarily as a summer peak shaving technology.

    On a more technical note…the rate of installation of solar doesn’t compound like interest because unlike interest deposited in an account…solar panels have a relatively short lifespan.

    • True panels installed in the 90’s are already being replaced so some of the annual installation is only a net gain of increased efficiency not new capacity.

      • Hi Ben, apart from the odd lemon that can be the result of any manufacturing process, solar panels have a good record. It is the inverters that convert the DC to AC that are problematical.

    • I need to balance my portfolio, harrywr2. I have a bet with Joe Romm on temperatures. Shall we undertake a wager on the future of green energy in general, solar in particular?

      Some of the panels put up in 1978 are still working. They come nowadays with a guarantee of 25 years at 90% of rated delivery. Panels last a long, long time.

      Now, about those inverters… (sigh…)

    • To be fair, as solar becomes cheaper, the market for energy storage is going to grow. The cheaper the solar, the more $$ to be made by whoever can figure out storage.
      The market’s not so big right now, but it’ll be in the hundreds of billions if solar ever drops much below the cost of coal. That’ll get the R&D moving.

  4. As long as the sun sets and clouds fill the sky solar is extremely unlikely to be more than a niche power source. If I built a custom home today, I would use solar power in attic ventilation, yard and garden lighting, and other applications that are minor and not fundamental to the running of the home.
    There is no way I would spend the money to put a roof sized array on the house.
    There are some developments in space-based solar that could possibly work. NASA is now developing the concept stage of self-assembling large scale orbital structures. These could deliver power to Earth via microwave systems that would pose reduced footprint problems, as well as negligible microwave issues.
    But the start-up costs are literally astronomical.
    One development that is promising is a new way to burn coal cleanly…but the only thing AGW/enviro kooks hate more than nuclear is coal in any form.
    Which cycles the discussion back to the bigotries and prejudices of the AGW fanatics and their use of science to rationalize them.

    • Well, I hope to live long enough to see space-based solar systems deliver energy. Mitsubishi Heavy Industries set themselves a 30-year goal to do so a couple of years back, and ‘my’ utility, PG&E, has already signed a contract to purchase space-based energy–if it gets built…

      I (obviously) think you’re mistaken about the potential for solar. When I hear people say (or see people write) things like you wrote, I really flash back on people of the past saying nobody will need a personal computer or everything’s been invented.

      • Tom,
        If personal computers only worked when the sun shines, I doubt if they would be as popular as they are.
        I had (and managed to lose) a great article showing a breakthrough in space construction….that could also revolutionize land based construction.
        But I think it will be clean burning technologies, nuke power and possibly later large space based power that will put a stop to the AGW kooks. The windmills we drive past (next to the wintering grounds of the incredibly rare whooping crane!) on the way to South Texas clutter up the landscape terribly. They remind of just how non-rational the ‘climate concerned’ really are. And for anyone who claims to care about the environment to support wind is amazing.

      • Hiya Hunter

        Yeah but if PCs only worked during the day my wife would buy roses for whoever instigated the change.

        Do you read Jerry Pournelle? He’s written a ton about space construction.

        I think the answer’s staring everyone in the face–use natural gas as a bridge to nuclear power on the same scale the French use it, pick a winner from the renewable candidates and let the others drift into oblivion. I think solar is the best candidate, and I think it will scale up enough to make it worth what we’re spending on it now.

        As for wind–well, they made every mistake it was possible to make and put themselves into too deep a whole, I fear. They could have done it differently. But what could have happened, did, to quote North Dallas Forty.

    • Space-based solar.

      hunter, my name’s not CBD and I don’t get my rocks off questioning other people’s sanity or whether their parents knew each other etc.

      But the space-based solar idea is so comical that I’m glad I wasn’t drinking coffee when I read it.

      So please accept this in a spirit of good humor and feel free to flame me right back.

      The whole global warming thing is about the climate flux, as Trenberth so neatly diagrammed it.

      To prevent warming we need fewer watts making it from space down to the earth’s surface, and we also need more watts escaping from the surface back into space.

      Space-based solar proposes that we increase the incoming energy flux. (Snort, coffee coming out of my nose.)

      Next point:

      A one percent change in earth’s albedo has the same surface temperature effect as a ten percent change in CO2.

      Light-colored and neutral-colored surfaces reflect the incoming SWR straight back into space, with very little being intercepted by GHGs on the way.

      The dark surface of a solar panel converts a certain limited amount of the incoming SWR to electricity. The rest it radiates into the atmosphere as LWR, almost all of which is intercepted by GHGs before making it back into space.

      Please correct me if I’m wrong.

      I’d be interested if anyone can provide links to studies that measure the LWR effects of PV solar panels.

      • The best way to evaluate any heating effect due to solar panels is to compare the ratio of electrical energy they produce to the heat they give off to the ratio that another source produces to its waste heat. If we assume that about a sixth of the energy hitting a PV becomes electricity and the rest becomes LWR and if the PV replaces something with an albedo of one half (3/6) then it gives off about twice the energy into the atmosphere as energy it produces, which is comparable to most nuclear and fossil fuel plants. Of course, the efficiency of a PV may vary and the pre-existing albedo may vary. Anyway, waste heat is generally considered a small term when it comes to climate. The effect it does have has more to do with it being released in large concentrations and increasing the scale of turbulence changing wind patterns.
        In short, I don’t think it’s a big deal.

    • The “burn coal without burning coal” article is a bit of a joke. It’s a neat trick, but it’s extremely unlikely it’ll ever be viable – but I hope to be proven wrong! It just isn’t going to be economical – there are easier ways to sequester carbon, and *those* are already too expensive.

      As an “AGW fanatic” and a fan of free market principles, I’m 100% for coal power, provided the consumer pays the *true* cost for it. No more abuse of the commons. If, after all the externalities are taken into account (aerosols, climate change, etc.), it’s still the cheapest form of power, then by all means, let’s burn the stuff.

      But it’s wrong to pretend that because you can foist a cost onto the public, it doesn’t exist, as was done >40 years ago with air pollution and the resulting respiratory health problems. A rational approach requires looking at the entire problem: all the costs and all the benefits.

  5. 30% growth per year when they are not economically competitive can only be due to external influences….subsidies. My guess is you graphed the solar subsidies it would have an amazing correlation with solar growth.

    If you pull out the subsides rug, growth will collapse.

    Nothing has changed here. The push to artificially change the competitive economics between solar and fossil fuels only distorts the picture we care about.

    Can solar become economically viable on its own, and is the “no energy when the sun don’t shine” a fatal flaw?

    • Subsidies have indeed driven the growth of solar, as they have so many energy deliverables. But the subsidies are working. They have created an ecosystem of suppliers that are fiercely competitive, led to higher efficiencies and dramatically lower prices–and increasing penetration in the marketplace.

      What you need to grasp, Tom, is that even with subsidies solar power is more expensive than the fuels they replace–which to you is a sign that they are not competitive. But the real truth is that millions of people and tens of thousands of businesses are signing up for solar despite its higher cost–because absolute cost is not the only factor operating in a well-managed market. There are other signals than price. There are other market goods than savings.

      People want solar and are willing to pay more for it (even after subsidies) than other forms of electricity. You should really ponder that.

      • Could you please provide a reference for “People want solar and are willing to pay more for it (even after subsidies) than other forms of electricity.” As far as I know many utilities in the country offer the option to buy “green” power but I am unaware of any location where that option is chosen by any significant percentage. If that were not the case then we would not need the government dictating renewable portfolio standards and the like because plenty of money would be available for renewables from those folks who want green power.

      • “California Leads the Nation–141,025 solar projects”

      • How many rate payers voluntarily paid for those projects or are you saying that those are projects that people have developed for personal use?
        I favor local solar, especially hot water heating, but oppose utility-scale solar voltaic projects. So if those are local projects all to the good and i agree that some people will pay for it.

      • 91,497 residential projects. As of last Wednesday, anyhow.

      • “You should really ponder that”

        I have no dispute if people want to pay more for solar if they so choose. That aligns quite nicely with my libertarian streak. I also have no real problem with short lived subsidies that are designed to jump start an industry in order to make it competitive. R & D costs are effectively subsides in this aspect. I support R & D.

        The problem is what to do when these aren’t working? Wind and solar have been going on with “will be competitive in 5 years” for decades now. And the score keeping appears to be rigged with costs. From not using actual energy delivered from wind and solar to adding vague “externalities” to oil and gas prices. I’ve seen the cost a future nuclear war added to a nuclear energy cost calculation. All the while the greens are designing legislation to hide the actual end cost energy increases to consumers. It is deceptive.

        If you want to debate whether increasing a consumer’s energy bill $10, $50, or $100 a month for better environmental outcomes, that is an honest discussion with an honest trade off. You could also make this cost voluntary, but we know this will never work (tried and failed I think in CA?).

        I am not arguing against most of what you say, not arguing against developing alternate technologies. I am arguing against trying to force things before they are ready.

        This is a prevalent theme in green policy. They want to subsidize “good” wind and solar on the backs of “evil” oil and gas. Recent carbon tax proposal as an example.

        Wind and solar wins if they reach cost parity. Rigging the system to achieve cost parity is transparently dishonest and only invites corruption and worse outcomes for consumers.

      • Have you ever seen a bubble map? The number of bubbles where solar is at grid parity now is growing and the size of the bubbles are, too.

      • I saw a story, I think it was in Europe, where the buy back costs for solar energy from households projects was so (artificially) high that people were buying floodlights to power their solar arrays at night to increase their profits. Feel good policies gone wrong.

      • I saw that too, Tom. Not sure if it was an urban legend or not. The way I heard it it was one guy in Germany using an arc lamp.

    • Well, the market for power is rather heterogenous – solar will become viable in some places much quicker than others, even *without* subsidies. Because of this, you’d still expect large exponential growth if the prices are coming down fast enough.

      Solar is more viable where there’s a lack of energy resources, no power grid, or lots of sunshine. Even without subsidies, solar is close to (or below) grid parity in Hawai’i, Italy, and Spain – places with lots of sunshine and not much coal/gas.

      Pull out the subsidies rug, and you knock growth back by a few years. It’s not permanent.

  6. I’m surprised by the number of comments claiming that solar will never make a significant contribution to the electrical grid. Today you can buy thin-film solar and coat your building with it – imagine the benefits to your tenants if they know that they have access to both local and grid power.

    I’m a strong supporter of O&G but there’s no doubt that solar is on it’s way up.

  7. With solar mirrors, or beamed microwave from space maybe.
    Without 24/7 light or practical energy storage, photo voltaic power will always be the energy of the future, it was in 1976 and still is in 2013.
    Of course we probably could not get regulatory permission to build MegaWatt batteries, as they will also be MegaWatt bombs, in the event of a system failure.

    • Don’t agree, John. Solar delivers most of its energy in the afternoon when most of it’s consumed. It can grow to up to 30% with grids built the way they are. If we ever get around to improving our grid it can do a lot more.

  8. If 30% of all capacity was installed last year, then shouldn’t it have increased by 30/70=43%?

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