Little Things Can Make a Big Difference
- They don’t know it yet but those little things are TQD’s. According to this article $2.50 per watt, would drive over 50 gigawatts of demand even with no government incentives! http://www.greentechmedia.com/articles/read/Guest-Post-Brad-Mattson-on-the-Real-Birth-of-the-Solar-Industry
There is a fine book by Malcolm Gladwell, The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference, that provides an in-depth examination of the concept of the tipping point. We can only get into a somewhat limited analysis in this forum, but the short story is that it is my belief that we have passed the tipping point in solar.?
It is not so much that solar is already economically competitive with traditional sources of energy, although it is in many cases. It is more that the momentum has shifted so far and so fast, that it is unlikely that any other renewable energy source will be able to catch up. To put a sharper focus on the issues, just look at the possible scenarios for 30 to 50 years from now:
• There is little chance we can continue to use fossil fuel to satisfy our growing energy needs.
• Hydro is great, but will be limited by geography.
• Wind is great, but blows at night when we don’t need it, and grid storage is really tough.
• Nuclear is, well, even if it makes sense no one wants it in their back yard. You can’t site it.
• Solar is clean, abundant, works at any scale, is easily distributed, and now it is cheap.
I’m sure the quick summary above does not do justice to the world of renewable energy, but from the 30,000 ft. level, it looks like solar is really ready to take off.
It is the price of solar and its comparison to the existing cost of electricity that drives industry growth. This is the concept of grid parity, where the cost of solar electricity = cost of grid electricity
The charts below summarize a study done by NREL to determine when and where we hit grid parity in the United States. It should be noted that this chart is using the retail price of electricity -- that is, the prices that you or I pay at the meter at our home or the price businesses pay at their factories. This retail price, of course, is much higher than the cost to generate electricity. For example, in Monte Sereno, California, I pay $0.28 per kilowatt-hour for electricity. This electricity probably only costs $0.08 to 0.10 per kilowatt-hour to generate. Of course, the electricity generators are typically many miles from my home, so there is also the cost of transmission and distribution. And of course, PG&E has to make a profit.
Some would say we have not reached grid parity until we hit the wholesale, not the retail, cost of electricity. I disagree. It just depends on who the customer is. As a paying customer for grid electricity (from PG&E), I can tell you that we are at grid parity at my house. I am a believer that the future of U.S. energy independence will come through more distributed (i.e., solar on rooftops) generation. That battle between distributed and centralized generation is yet another important topic that we don’t have time to cover here.
So, with the caveat that we are talking about retail costs, we can look at the NREL data. The figure on the left shows the status of the United States in 2008. The dark red areas are where we are already at retail grid parity. You can see it is a fairly small portion of the map on the left. But, this level of grid parity is based on an installed cost of solar of about $8.00 per watt, or roughly the cost in 2008.
The chart on the right shows the anticipated areas of grid parity if the install price of solar is lowered to $3.50 per watt. This is an amazing increase in coverage. So, when will we get to $3.50 per watt? The answer is we are already there in some states and will soon be in many others.
Let’s try to translate that into demand in terms of gigawatts. Some great work has been done by Richard Keiser at Keiser Analytics. He went through each state, country and even area code in the U.S. to determine cost and demand for electricity at each price point. There are, of course, some simplifying assumptions that need to be made to translate installed cost into the levelized cost of electricity (LCOE), but without getting into complicated LCOE discussions, it seems that reasonable assumptions have been made. Figures are given with and without the government ITC subsidy (Investment Tax Credit). Here are the estimates made of demand at each level of installed cost:
As you can see, at the $3.50 per watt install cost, where much of the map above goes red, there is almost 100 gigawatts of demand in the U.S. To put that in perspective, the U.S had a record-breaking year in 2012 for solar installations with 3.2 gigawatts installed. Obviously, we have just scratched the surface. Of course this depends on maintaining the Investment Tax Credit. But even with no government subsidy at all, we just need to get to $2.50 per watt installed cost to see more than 50 gigawatts in demand.
There is so much money, people, supportive data, policy, and even entire countries behind solar that I feel it has become a fait accompli. We have passed the tipping point and we are witnessing the true birth of the solar industry. These are very exciting times.
In the coming months, I hope to engage in a dialog with those who might share some of this optimism to discuss a roadmap for that success, and how the U.S. has real competitive advantages and can, must and will succeed in this brave new world of Solar 2.0.
Brad Mattson will be speaking in more detail on the dawn of Solar 2.0 at a free event in Palo Alto, California on the evening of February 13. For more details, visit the Silicon Valley IEEE Photovoltaic Chapter website.
Waiting patiently to retire!