Solar Power Cheaper Than Coal Foreseen By German Solar CEO

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In a new interview with Deutsche Welle, the CEO of a Germany-based global solar developer made a good case for the potential for solar power to become cheaper than coal sooner rather than later. That would be Bernhard Beck, CEO of BELECTRIC. In the interview Beck had some interesting things to say about the direction of the global solar market and the potential for growth in large-scale solar power generating plants, and if anything, we think his forecast could come true even sooner than he thinks.

Belectric CEO predicts solar power cheaper than coal.
Coal mine by Bert Kaufmann.

Solar Power Cheaper Than Coal

BELECTRIC specializes in utility-scale solar power plants as well as rooftop solar, and the former area is where the focus of the Deutsche Welle interview takes place.

According to Beck, large scale solar power in Germany is already “approaching the costs” of conventional power, at 10 euro cents per kilowatt-hour (kWh).

Beck was reluctant to lay out a specific timetable, but he did predict that with additional technological improvements, the cost of solar power in Germany (and by extension, other relatively sun-poor countries), will ultimately fall below the cost of conventional energy.

He foresees a much shorter time span in “sun-rich” countries, where the trend is rapidly moving in the direction of solar power for less than 10 euro cents per kWh. That could put solar power below the cost of wind power as well as coal or gas.

However, Beck indicates that these countries have some obstacles to overcome. By “sun-rich” he means countries with a less developed transmission infrastructure, which puts large scale power plants at a disadvantage in terms of operating costs. Also contributing to higher operating costs is the characteristic dust-heavy environment of the “sun-rich” countries to which he refers, which translates into higher costs for cleaning and maintaining solar panels.

Cheaper Solar Power And The Grid

Regardless of those obstacles, overall Beck is optimistic about the potential for future innovation to drive down costs. That optimism is partly based on his own company’s track record, which goes beyond advanced thin film solar cell technology to embrace the key area of grid integration.

In that regard, BELECTRIC won this year’s InterSolar Award in the Solar Projects category, for its new utility scale solar power plant in Templin, Brandenburg.

The Templin solar array, which is currently billed as the largest thin film, ground-mounted solar plant in Europe, was designed as an “integrated intelligent power plant” that self-adjusts to ensure a stable operating voltage while compensating for grid fluctuations in real time.

The Templin plant also involves a couple of other cost-related factors that Beck does not mention in the interview, but which could become deciding factors when siting new power plants in densely developed regions.

First, the construction involved use of a previously developed brownfield for a construction site, rather than impinging on valuable farmland or open space. It occupies the site of a former Soviet military airport, which at one time was the largest in central Europe.

Along those lines, consider that the actual construction took only four months, and weigh that against the cost and the timeline for constructing a coal powered generating plant with advance pollution controls.

Another factor that could affect future cost parity is transportation. The shortest line between a solar power plant and its fuel supply is, literally, the shortest distance between two points. Compare that to coal, which is increasingly making a laborious international trek across oceans, into congested inland shipping routes.

Some of these factors are already coming into play in the US, where earlier this year the El Paso Electric Company and First Solar collaborated in a major deal to sell solar-generated electricity for less than coal (the First Solar price was reported as 5.8 cents per kWh and “new” coal is currently in the 10-14 cent range).

More Danger Signs Ahead For Fossil Fuels

The cost of financing new power plants is also going to have a significant effect on parity between solar and fossil fuels, and the warning signs have already been floated where fossil fuels are concerned.

Earlier this spring we noted that Moody’s foresees dark skies ahead for conventional thermal power plants in Europe due to the strength of the renewables sector. Just about the only thing keeping the conventional sector afloat is the need to satisfy peak demand, but the rapid development of advanced energy storage solutions could make that a moot point sooner rather than later.

That naturally includes utility scale energy storage, ranging from pumped hydro to a massive dry cell battery array in Texas.

Aside from that, small-scale energy storage is also rapidly emerging as a big time player in the peak demand game. Aside from the potential for storing energy from rooftop solar arrays in the form of fuel cells, Navigant is one research company that foresees growth in the use of electric vehicle batteries to store energy for peak periods.

Here in the US you can see that EV/peak energy storage trend hard at work in Ford’s MyEnergi Lifestyle system, which recently upped the ante by partnering with the major US home builder KB Home’s ZeroHouse 2.0.

And since you regulars know that CleanTechnica is all over the US military’s adoption of advanced clean technology, let’s not fail to mention that the Department of Defense kicked off 2013 by announcing a $20 million EV leasing program that will involve 500 vehicles integrated with energy storage, smart grid and renewable energy generating systems.

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Tina Casey

Tina specializes in advanced energy technology, military sustainability, emerging materials, biofuels, ESG and related policy and political matters. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on LinkedIn, Threads, or Bluesky.

Tina Casey has 3148 posts and counting. See all posts by Tina Casey

11 thoughts on “Solar Power Cheaper Than Coal Foreseen By German Solar CEO

  • To sum up the so-called “intermittency and storage” problem for renewables: Geothermal has no intermittency issues and experiences fewer ephemeral shut downs than coal, nuclear, and natural gas. Solar thermal—-with molten salt as its storage medium—-can be designed to have no intermittency issues. Offshore wind yields power more or less 24/7 with relatively limited intemittency compared with onshore wind. The two most common sources of renewable electricity, onshore wind and solar photovoltaics, are, of course, complementary: wind turbines (which, in the case of GE, already have built-in storage capacity) yield more power at night, while solar panels yield power during the day; hence, used in tandem, they can provide electricity 24/7 with “intermittency” being experienced only locally at each individual solar installation. The experience in Germany shows that the more wind and solar PV installations one has in the various regions of one’s country, the less the so-called intermittency problem is an issue because electricity is generated at varying wattages in the various locations more or less 24/7 and the actual total daily electric power levels become more and more stable and more and more foreseeable as the number of installations increases nationwide. At that point, the intermittency deficit is more easily and more predictably counterbalanced with reserve power (natural gas and hydro), storage (pumped hydro, compressed air, flywheels, grid storage batteries), and grid power from neighboring nations. The European experience shows that the “intermittency” issue is being widely and very inaccurately exaggerated by America’s energy specialists. What is more, if one has a mix of renewable energy sources online that includes the non-intermittent forms of renewable energy (hydro, geothermal, and solar thermal with molten salt), the far less intermittent sources (offshore wind), and the complementary locally “intermittent” sources (solar PV and onshore wind with its own built-in storage capacity), then the limited remaining “intermittency problem” can be far more easily overcome.

    • Very good points. And let’s not forget that with TOU rates, the entire consumption side can be made more flexible around intermittent supply as well.

    • A good summary. However, what is your source for saying that “offshore wind yields power more or less 24/7”? The capacity factors I’ve seen are around 50%. It’s true that any wind turbine produces some power most of the time, with shorter periods of maximum and zero output. That does not affect your overall conclusion, which is only reinforced if you add power-to-gas storage.
      The Australian study of 100% renewables scenarios by its grid operator AEMO concluded that they are doable, with quite large reserves of dispatchables, either geothermal or CSP plus storage. On the last, they concluded that 24-hour designs are not worth it; six or seven hours to cover the evening peak is enough, as there’s little demand at 3 a.m.

      • In the U.K., individual offshore wind turbines produce power 80% of the time, but that numerical figure is far less relevant than the percentage of the time that the entire wind farm is actually producing some electrical power and the percentage of the time that the other nearby or more distant wind farms are actually producing some electrical power. The more wind turbines & wind farms that have been installed, & the more different geographical locations at which a nation has sited its various wind farms, the less the issue of “intermittency” is relevant. The U.K.’s “National Grid” recently calculated that only 22 GWh of fossil fuel power was needed to supplement the U.K.’s 23,700 GWh of annual wind power production, i.e., less than ONE THOUSANDTH of the total. This shows that the ENTIRE current discussion in the U.S. about the “intermittency problem” for renewables is comically uninformed.

        • Actually the period during which the 23,700 GWh of wind electricity was produced in the U.K. was 17 months, not a year.

    • i think this deserves to be upgraded to a “Reader Post.” Keep your eyes peeled. And let me know if you want anything changed or added.

  • I have been really happy seeing solar panels being used more for commercial businesses. And even for homes, especially if they live outside the city limits where they can potentially harvest more sun. I don’t see a decline in usage for solar power any time soon. Happy about the new job opportunities as well. They have some really neat info at Ambassador Energy College. What kind of courses they have. I’m excited.

  • And the cost of solar drops again…

    “A new Silicon Valley developer of thin film solar PV modules, backed
    by an Australian venture capitalist, has claimed an engineering
    breakthrough that could cut the manufacturing costs of PV modules by one

    RSI has broken cover after five years of development to announce it
    has created a 1.5 square metre cadmium telluride PV (CdTe) module, twice
    the size of conventional modules.

    It says this will enable solar PV modules to be manufactured at a
    cost of less than 40c/Watt, around one third cheaper than current
    mass-produced thin film and silicon based modules – and hastening the
    charge towards grid parity for solar PV.

    First Solar, currently the world’s largest thin film solar PV module
    manufacturer, had predicted reaching 40c/W by 2017 through increases in
    efficiency. RSI says it can deliver that cost in 2014 by doubling the
    size of the module through a process known as Rapid Efficient
    Electroplating on Large- areas (REEL).”

    If RSI brings 40 cent (their manufacturing cost) panels to market next year they will force silicon PV makers to install more efficient equipment sooner in order to drop their manufacturing cost.

    There’s going to be an enormous worldwide market for solar panels for the next many years. Companies are going to be able to operate on very thin margins and still make a lot of money.

  • The El Paso Electric Company and First Solar 5.8 cent PPA was made possible by both state and federal subsidies. Add them in and the price is likely between 10 and 11 cents/kWh.

    The UK recently installed a large array for $1.59/watt (no subsidies). Install at that cost in the sunny Southwest and the LCOE would be about 6 cents.

    Spain recently announced that they will build a new large array without subsidies for $1.41/watt. LCOE of 5.4 cents in the SW, 6.8 cents in the not so sunny parts of the lower 48.

    If we can’t install as cheaply as the UK and Spain then there is something badly flawed with our country.

  • This is a great site to get the latest info on Solar and other renewables. I have read many articles and am amazed at the rate of advancements in solar. IMO, efficiency will double in ten years at the rate of innovation. Upgrades will be easy. No spent nuclear fuel to store for a thousand years. No years of planning and getting approval for a new coal or gas plant. Just pop in new panels and go!

    • So simple. The biggest hurdle right now seems to be that the regulatory structures are set up for those huge, polluting power plants… yet applied to solar. o.O

      Oh yeah, plus, we don’t have a price on CO2 & methane.

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