Tech Trends: Solar Energy Part 3 — The Future of Solar Energy

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(Image by Jukka Niittymaa from Pixabay)

In the last two articles, we covered the basics of solar energy, its applications and technology advances. In today’s column, we’ll delve into how governments, companies and money managers are reacting to solar power’s rapid growth. We’ll also peer into the mind of tech futurists to get a glimpse of what the world will look like with increasing adoption of solar energy and a world where most of our energy is derived from the sun and not from fossil fuels.

What are the USA and China Doing?

China is leading the world in solar power, but is ranked 78th for preparedness to transition to renewable energy generation in the World Economic Forum’s Energy Transition Index 2020. The largest solar power plant in the world went online in October, 2020… in China. Located deep in the Tengger  Desert in China’s Qinghai Province, Huanghe Hydropower Development turned on a 2.2 GW solar power plant. The reason they’re so low on the list is due to their legacy power generation, using dirty fuels such as oil, coal, gas and nuclear. They now produce over 25 percent of their energy from renewable sources.

A recent Forbes article stated estimated global solar power growth will exceed 100 GW/year and more than triple that by 2050, with the USA and Canada responsible for about 20 percent of total deployment. The USA and China are neck-and-neck for the most power generated from renewables, but China’s acceleration may leave the U.S. in the dust. 

Just 18 percent of USA’s energy is from renewable resources, and the lack of commitment to renewables from the current administration is partly to blame. It’s a futile strategy to justify fossil fuels for power generation when the renewable alternatives have such a clear advantage.

What Are USA Utilities Doing?

U.S. energy utilities are ramping up capital investments into solar power generation and storage, but there are many factors that prevent a wholesale cutover, and now there’s COVID-19. Yale University’s E360 report released in May states, “Some 40 percent of wind and solar capacity that was scheduled for the rest of 2020 has been delayed,” partly due to business shutdowns worldwide. However, these projects will be accelerated once the pandemic subsides, hopefully in Q1 2021.

In May 2020, the Department of the Interior and the Bureau of Land Management approved the largest solar farm (in power output) in the United States. The $1 billion, 7,100-acre project near Las Vegas will have a total output of 690 Mega Watts (MW) and a minimum of 380 MW of energy storage capacity. Solar “farms” have minimal land development requirements and typically take three months for every 2 MW DC of power generation. Compare that to a hydroelectric power plant (four to seven years) or an oil power plant (one to six years or more, depending upon size).

What do Amazon, Tesla and Walmart Say?

Walmart committed to renewable energy on a huge scale, with a goal of 100 percent renewable energy usage. They’ve been installing solar roofs on their stores and warehouses for years now, and their goal was the production of, or procurement of, 7 billion kilowatt hours (kWh) of renewable energy globally by December 31, 2020. They are currently at 25 percent renewable energy, but aggressively shooting for the 100 percent goal.

Jeff Bezos, Amazon Founder and CEO, is pushing for 100 percent renewable energy usage and investing heavily to do so. Bezos stated, “Amazon is helping fight climate change by moving quickly to power our businesses with renewable energy. With a total of 127 solar and wind projects, Amazon is now the biggest corporate buyer of renewable energy ever. We are on a path to running 100 percent of our business on renewable energy by 2025 — five years ahead of our original target of 2030.”

Elon Musk’s commitment is evidenced by his acquisition of SolarCity in 2016 and the massive ramp-up of solar battery storage solutions. Elon believes it’s possible to power the entire planet’s needs by 2030, by renewable energy, primarily solar. Musk remarks, “Let’s say if the only thing we had was solar energy, if that was the only power source, if you just took a small section of Spain you could power all of Europe, or in the case of the U.S., like a little corner of Nevada or Utah would power the United States.”

What Do the Futurists Say?

Prominent futurist Peter Diamandis sees a world where renewable energy becomes so abundant and cheap that all other sources of energy will become obsolete. Diamandis states, “Skyrocketing advancements in materials science, battery technology and solar-capturing surfaces are driving our future of solar energy abundance. According to a recent Harvard study, cost decreases are anticipated to drive the growth of solar power production by at least 700 percent in the next 20 years (by 2040).”

Renowned futurist Ray Kurtzweil sees solar overtaking fossil fuels within the next decade. As reported in a Fortune article four years ago, “… while solar is still tiny, it has begun to reliably double its market share every two years; today’s 2 percent share is up from 0.5 percent in 2012. Many analysts extend growth linearly from that sort of pattern, concluding we’ll see 0.5 percent annual growth in solar in the future, reaching 12 percent solar share in 20 years. But linear analysis ignores what Kurzweil calls the law of accelerating returns — that as new technologies get smaller and cheaper, their growth becomes exponential. So instead of looking at year-over-year growth in percentage terms, Kurzweil says we should look at the rate of growth — the fact that solar market share is doubling every two years. If the current 2 percent share doubles every two years, solar should have a 100 percent share of the market in 12 years.”

So far, he’s right, as we have seen solar power grow roughly 2 percent year-over-year.

What Investors are Doing?

It was recently reported that banks are turning down financing for new coal and oil plants. As the old saying goes, follow the money. Wall Street, and Main Street investors like the rest of us, are putting their money where they believe the future returns are, and it’s not fossil fuels. Coal, gas and oil stock prices, for example Exxon, have plummeted. Big funds are divesting, and banks are no longer willing to take the risk on their loans. 

A recent study found that the people aged 45 and younger are overwhelmingly committed to clean tech, from electric vehicles to selecting cleaner options for their utility bills. However, the surprise in the survey is that older people, 46 years and up, are more likely than younger generations to buy EVs and clean power alternatives, partly due to less price sensitivity but also for similar reasons as their younger counterparts.

What if the World is Powered by Solar?

It’s speculation time. Peering into my crystal ball, I see an alternate universe where humanity replaces all fossil fuel and nuclear power plants with solar power plants within ten years. With increased production of solar panels on an epic scale, the price per watt drops to pennies, making power nearly free for everyone. The side effects of limitless power from sunlight affects everything that depends on it. Electric Vehicles will go hundreds of miles for pennies. Climate change reverses and the glaciers grow back to pre-industrial-era size. All products and services (the internet/cloud, for example) will cost less to provide. Every human being has access to virtually free power, enabling them to heat/cool their homes, cook their meals and provide a cheap commute to work.

Bottom-Line

Solar power is rapidly becoming the thousand-pound gorilla in renewable energy, with its costs rapidly declining and its use exponentially growing. As a result, we may have a fighting chance against the effects of climate change. A likely engraving on Fossil Fuels’ tombstone might be, “I overstayed my welcome.”

Find Out More

bit.ly/Forbes-Future-Is-Bright; bit.ly/PV-Mag-Largest-Solar-Plant-China; bit.ly/GasandPwr-Renewable-Energy-Rankings; bit.ly/Diamandis-Abundant-Solar-Energy; bit.ly/SolarPowerWorld-Walmart-Committed; bit.ly/Forbes-Ray-Kurtzweil-Solar; bit.ly/Ozy-Asian-Banks-Dump-Coal; bit.ly/CoalWire-Banks-Going-Anti-Coal 

About the Author

Preston Callicott is a “tech-humanist,” and all-in for powering the future with clean, renewable energy sources such as solar, wind and hydro, in the hopes of leaving the planet better than when his eyes first gazed upon it.

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