Wednesday, July 20, 2016

The Switch

FT

[Some think] the [renewable] technology humanity has come up with so far to replace planet-heating fossil fuels is feeble. Solar panels do not work at night. Wind turbines are no good on a calm day [..] The Switch is a highly readable book that argues [these critics ..] are mistaken. “It won’t take 15 years,” writes author Chris Goodall, a British clean-energy expert and investor, because “the breakthrough that [some like] Gates anticipates has already occurred”.

Goodall contends that existing technologies have brought the world to the brink of a solar power and electricity-storage revolution that is set to overturn today’s fossil-fuel-based energy system much faster than most imagine.

This argument has been gathering pace among industry insiders and some academics in recent years. Stanford University’s Mark Z Jacobson claimed last year that existing know-how provides the means for most of the world’s nearly 200 countries to be 80 per cent powered by water, wind and solar technologies by 2030, and 100 per cent by 2050 [..]

Goodall says he too once thought the shift would take much longer but there are now powerful reasons to believe otherwise. He begins by observing that the sun supplies enough power in 90 minutes to meet the world’s total energy needs for a year. The challenge is capturing it cheaply and getting it to everyone who needs it, a task made harder by the expectation that today’s global population of 7bn will balloon to nearly 10bn by 2050.

Today’s solar panels are already generating electricity at costs that would have been unimaginable when the technology was first used in space satellites in the late 1950s. Those early panels cost several thousands of dollars per watt. By the 1970s this had come down to $100 a watt and today it is about 50 cents [..]

But what happens at night, when there is no sun? And can chilly, cloudy places really be expected to run on solar panels alone? [..] But the killer app for all forms of intermittent renewable energy will be electricity storage. The experience curve for batteries will be just as dramatic as for solar panels, Goodall believes, and analysts’ predictions of future cost falls will prove to be as pessimistic as they were for solar power.