Solar Energy

Published on April 14th, 2014 | by Tina Casey


Solar Falls Off Cliff, World Domination Inevitable Now

April 14th, 2014 by  

Our friends over at Business Insider have been circulating a chart called Welcome to the Terrordome, which depicts an “almost violent decline in solar pricing” globally, to the point where solar beats oil and liquid natural gas in some markets. As for how much lower solar can go, we’ve been tracking the journey of solar from an exotic space technology to a backyard standard, and BI’s arguments for a solar-dominated world dovetail with our observations.

For the record, BI sourced the chart and background information from a note by Michael Parker and Flora Chang of the investment firm AllianceBernstein via its research driven subsidiary Sandford C. Bernstein.

low cost solar

Rooftop solar by CoCreatr.

The BI article is provocatively titled “The Solar Industry Has Been Waiting 60 Years For This To Happen — And It Finally Just Did.” It’s well worth a read in full but for those of you on the go, here are a couple of tantalizing bits referencing the now-notorious chart.

Low Cost Solar

1. Solar is a new technology that will continue to be cheaper as the technology advances.

We’ll strongly second that, and add the observation that at least some amount of utility-scale solar, and a practically infinite amount of distributed solar, can be piggybacked on buildings, brownfields, and other sites that have already been built upon.

That includes solar windows and other building-integrated solar elements as well as rooftop and ground mounted systems.

In that context, it’s easy to see how millions of distributed solar owners will eventually blow up the now-conventional model of an energy harvesting industry dominated by large companies.

Here in the US, the Obama Administration has been aggressively pursuing the distributed solar model, both from the foundational research end and through nuts-and-bolts initiatives like the Rooftop Challenge, which is designed to reduce the overall cost of installed solar power.

High Cost Fossils

2. Fossil fuel extraction will continue to get more expensive.

We’ll strongly second that one, too. The basic idea is that as conventional reserves are tapped out, exploration moves to sites that are far more complicated and expensive to access.

When you hear that, you naturally think of deep ocean sites, but here in the US you also have two forms of land based fossil fuel extraction, mountaintop removal for coal and fracking for oil and gas, which have undergone a recent boom and are encroaching on populated areas that formerly hosted little or no such activities.

So, in addition to the direct cost to fossil fuel companies, we’ll add the cost to communities that host fossil fuel extraction, including poor public health outcomes, economic malaise, and declining property values.

Not to pile on, but distributed solar also avoids costs and impacts related to transportation, storage, and byproduct disposal including methane leakage from natural gas pipelines and storage facilities, oil rail car and pipeline disasters, petcoke production, and coal ash spills.

The Battery Angle

3. Utility pushback will weaken as battery technology develops.

The article teases out an especially good point here, which is that the explosion of research into EV batteries (that’s another huge Obama Administration initiative, btw) will spill over into the stationary battery market, to the benefit of distributed solar owners:

A failed battery technology in the auto sector (too hot, too heavy, too rigid a form factor) might well be perfect for the home energy storage market…. with an addressable end market of 2 billion backyards.

We’re all over that one, and that’s just as far as direct electrical energy storage goes. The article doesn’t specifically mention solar powered fuel cells, which are already coming into the home market.

The basic idea behind the solar powered fuel cells is simple: solar energy is used to split hydrogen from water, which goes to a hydrogen fuel cell.

The idea is so simple that researchers are adapting it as a low-cost solar solution for providing electricity to low-usage households in developing countries, as a safer, cheaper alternative to kerosene and other fossil fuels.

A Monkey Wrench, Or Not

Citing the concerns of AllianceBernstein’s Parker, the article points out that major fossil companies could unleash their reserves now to compete with falling solar prices, which could grind solar development to a temporary halt.

We’ll add another unpredictable factor, which is the use of low cost solar energy by fossil companies to offset the rising cost of unconventional fossil extraction methods. Chevron seems to be leading the pack in that area, in partnership with the solar company BrightSource.

However, given the latest IPCC report (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change), we’re guessing that international policymakers and a growing list of stakeholders in the investment sector will ramp up support for the solar industry against competition from an engineered, temporary drop in fossil fuel prices.

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About the Author

specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.

  • Oman

    The solar powered hydrogen fuel cell makes no sense. Why waste all of that energy (4W in 1W out) when you can store it in a battery that in a process that is 3 to 4 times more efficient?

  • Just asking.

    me crazy, but I want some info. on how long the solar panels will last
    on a roof and I think they are considered toxic waste because they
    contain heavy metals. How costly is the disposal and can they be
    recycled?? I don’t know. I know they could melt down the silicon but can
    they take out the doping metals and is it even worth the effort (cost)
    to melt down the silicon? I wish somebody had answers to these
    questions. The back of my house is asbestos tiles – it never needs
    painting – so it was “great” at some point. Will these solar batteries
    have the same “long term” problem? Just asking. Nobody ever talks about
    them getting old and what do you do with them. I like them but what is
    the cost of disposal and how is it done???

    • Bob_Wallace

      The toxic elements in solar panels are in stable compounds, not in their pure state. Those compounds can safely be put in regular landfills.

      Obviously most of solar panels can be recycled. Aluminum frames, cover glass, metals used for connectors. It probably isn’t worth trying to reuse the silicon. There’s really not much in a solar panel. Those wafers are sliced very thin.

      • jeffhre

        Yep, and they are not “considered toxic” and there is not much of a market for recycling what is essentially an expensively processed form of beach sand.

        • A Solar Panel might have a toxic Production Process, but I have not yet found the break down of finished panels toxicity in use.

          As to the Warranty – yes – typically 25 years, but – what does that mean? It means that the mfg. warrants that the panel will still produce at least 80% of it’s name plate energy ratings after 25 years. So – in Perspective: While the Panels might produce 20% less energy in 25 years, my own home – renting (Meaning – I can’t do a whole lot of renovations to save on power consumption based on the building envelope thermally, and I can just change improve, or remove personal loads, like switch to LED Monitors for the PC I am commenting on here, and LED Lights instead of CFL’s for some of my lights, as I can afford to, and when I can find the right lights to make the change) – I still have seen a Power Bill reduction over a Feb. 2012 – Feb. 2014 based on energy use down over 50% – that is just in a 2 year window!

          I think – while Solar PV might not be perfect, it probably is the easiest way to generate power for most people, requires the least amount of energy expended for maintenance compared to other choices, is simple, and long lasting. By the time it has lost its 20% of Rated power, we should all be able to expect that other energy saving elements will compensate for the lower energy conversion and delivery, enabling even better Energy Reduction Improvements than I have seen!

          What we need – is the ERI (Energy Reduction Improvements) tabulated: so that we can see in tables and graphs, the amount of energy reduction for a given homes illumination loads year over year, base on current technology, new technology, and a growing mix of the new replacing the old. Similarly for things like TV Monitors, Computer Monitors, and System Power loads!

          • Bob_Wallace

            There shouldn’t be any toxic releases from finished panels. Even if the building burns down the heat is not high enough to break the chemical bond and free up toxic elements.

            Car bumpers, as someone point out, are warranted for three years. We’ve got solar panels that have been in use for 30 years that are still doing fine. In one long term study they experienced a 2% panel failure over 30 years. I would expect in the following 30 years the industry has learned more about lamination failure and contact corrosion so with current panes one might expect even less failure.

          • jeffhre

            Wow 50%. Please tell how and why that happened. And are there incentives for saving or disincentives for using more energy in your area.

    • Dirk Knapen

      Here in Europe solar cells are part of the mandatory recycling system for the so called white goods, the electric household appliances. So full recycling is covered. The sector had been working on its own recycling scheme but they weren’t fast enough to beat the EU decision.

  • sault

    Generating hydrogen with excess solar power is a potentially expensive and convoluted
    option. First of all, it is unclear whether the purchase cost of an electrolyzer / fuel cell combo will be any cheaper or last longer than an adequately-sized battery. In addition, if there was a glut of solar power energy on the grid, it would be much cheaper to just cut electricity rates during those periods to incentivize electric car charging or other electricity-consuming activities. If you’re not tied to the grid, then hydrogen energy storage might be an option, but its other drawbacks might preclude its adoption altogether
    For starters, an electrolyzer / fuel cell combo stores electricity at 1/2 to 1/3 the round-trip efficiency of today’s batteries. An electrolyzer is 70% efficient and a fuel cell is 50% efficient, but only if you run it at very low load levels (meaning that you’ll pay for a lot of peak fuel cell capacity that you will hardly ever use, and when you DID use it, the fuel cell’s efficiency will drop to 30%). Also, hydrogen tanks take up a lot of room and the compressor required to fill them adds another 10% energy loss penalty to the system. Finally, all these components (compressor, hydrogen tanks, and fuel cell) all cost a lot of money and take up space. A battery is just a stack of electrochemical cells in a container with a charge controller by comparison. So you need more pieces of more expensive equipment with more failure modes and maintenance issues when choosing a fuel cell.
    Unless there are major breakthroughs with hydrogen fuel cell technology, battery storage is going to be vastly superior, even with today’s technology.

    • There is some logic to using solar power to generate hydrogen, or a liquid hydrocarbon fuel (like methanol for example). That is for seasonal storage.

      Around where I live there is a 6:1 gap between summer and winter yield of solar power and even in sunny Spain the gap is larger than 2:1. There is currently no battery technology available or expected in the next few decades that can store the enormous amount of excess solar electricity to cover the winter’s shortfall.

      That’s where I can see a role for making hydrogen with electricity. The 50 or 60% roundtrip efficiency is irrelevant if you are using electricity that would have been curtailed anyway. Curtailment is a 100% loss. In Germany spot prices can already become negative when solar peaks during the summer, so this excess energy will be very cheap.

      But this will only happen if the equipment to make such fuels is very cheap, since it will sit idle most of the time, and then have to absorb huge amounts of power during midday in the summer months.

      It won’t happen soon, only if solar makes up most of the energy mix and there are not enough other sources (wind, geothermal, hydro or biomass) to power our societies in winter.

      • Bob_Wallace

        Pump-up hydro is another option for Europe. RT efficiency is much higher.

    • Another thing – for Land or Stationary based energy storage, Besides Batteries being better, Super Capacitors could form a bridge advantage! If Batteries are best for Energy Storage, and Super Capacitors are best for Power Absorption and Delivery, then a combined system using both, offers great advances in Grid Storage Power at the Generator Plant, Substation, and Pole Transformer Level of power Management.

      I could see a Power Management Storage Canister that looks like a Transformer Can, on a Pole Mount, that is fed with power from the actual transformer, and then feeds it out to the homes, such that it is a micro energy management unit – for managing something like 10 minutes worth of power down stream of the Transformer to the homes, giving plenty of time for Branch switches to make change-overs at the substation when there is a small local incident, such that as a UPS (Uninteruptable Power Supply) – Homes would not even know that the grid at the local level just went down for a couple minutes!

      It could also isolate some of the local surges from the Grid itself, using the Super Capacitors to manage motor starts for A/C, Fridges, etc., and the Batteries could be used to float support those for longer surge loads.

      At the Sub-station level – such a unit would of course be larger, but in the same way – it could help to manage both frequency issues due to managing whole sub-station surge demands, that might not be absorbed at the Pole Mount levels, and be equipped with 30 minutes to 2 hours worth of standby Battery power, and at least 10 minutes worth of Surge Power Capacity with Super Capacitors!

      At the Generator Plant ,Such Hybrid Battery / Super Cap systems could/should be able to manage a backup storage and run time of up to at least 8 hours equivalent of the Generator (or as a minimum – 4 hours) Output.

      Put this together – and the very grid we have, should by definition – be more stable, stronger, and better protected against switching mistakes, overloads, surges, and the like that today takes down a street, a zone, or a city!

      Community Energy Storage – is one form of this project! See: – “Offering 25 kW for one or two hours, PureWave CES has enough capacity to supply power to a group of customers for the duration of most typical outages.”

  • Will E

    BestSun China has send me a price list of Solar systems.
    ranging from 500 kWh to 50,000 kWh
    price per kWh is now april 2014 0.30 US dollar a kWh
    includes inverter.
    as Solar panels last 30 years, you get your power for 30 years at 30 cents a kWh.
    makes the cost of 1 kWh 1 US dollar cent.
    that is for now
    and prices still going down.
    Utilities must participate or stop

    • sault

      You don’t calculate the cost per kWh for one year and then divide by 30 years since that doesn’t give you a meaningful result. You need to know the all-in costs of a solar array and then divide that total by the number of kWh the array will generate over its lifetime while taking into account solar cell degradation, the cost of money and any incentives like tax breaks and your utility’s net metering (or lack thereof) policy. On a cash flow basis, your lower electricity bills allow for a source of investment revenue to offset some of the “time value of money” as well. And if you sell your home during those 30 years, you will get some or all of the money you invested in a solar array back as an addition to your sales price.

    • Aren’t you mixing up kW and kWh?

      How much a 1 kW system will generate per year depends on the location. In the US most likely between 1100 kWh and 1500 kWh per year.

  • jburt56

    The enemies of alternative energy are still out there spewing their lies. We need to get to a relative shift of 3% per year in the energy system or about 600 GW average power shift per year.

  • Michael Berndtson


    Parlaying off the issue of US brownfields and solar you mentioned. (You probably already wrote about it. Sorry if it’s old news.) There’s like 700 GW of PV or CSP solar potential on land that ain’t much good for anything else. I’m not sure if “disturbed” land means reclaimed strip mines and oil fields or it means the land has psychological problems. Like the land is haunted by man’s sins of the past.

    Here’s a cool report from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), Dec 2013:

    “Solar Development on Contaminated and Disturbed Lands”

    Because I’m too lazy to read the entire freakishly long report (like when aren’t they), here is a cut and pasted nugget from the executive summary:

    “The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) SunShot goals call for 632 GW of PV and 83 GW of CSP to be deployed by 2050. Conservative land-use estimates of this study (10 acres per megawatt) show that there are disturbed and environmentally contaminated lands throughout the country that could be suitable for utility-scale solar power, and, that there is sufficient land area to meet SunShot solar deployment goals.”

    I believe 700 GW equates to the powering a bazillion moderately sized homes for average sized families or 17 monstrous McMansions housing families the size of The Duggar Family (as seen on TV).

  • JamesWimberley

    ” ,,,,, a practically infinite amount of distributed solar, can be piggybacked on buildings, brownfields, and other sites that have already been built upon.”

    Please avoid hyperbole, the unvarnished facts are impressive enough. The area available is merely very large. At high latitudes (UK, Germany, Korea, Japan) available roofspace is a genuine constraint on the possible supply of solar energy. Check out Professor David MacKay’s online free book on sustainable energy, using UK data. The US gets up to twice as much sun on bigger houses, but it’s twice as wasteful of energy to begin with.

    Note to denialists looking for talking points: MacKay’s limit is very high and allows for years of continued growth in UK rooftop solar. His numbers are IMHO too low in that cheap solar will make it economic to instal panels over a wider segment of the compass rose, and efficiency gains in solar cells are also likely to raise ouput per unit area. I would personally double his figure. But it’s not a phony argument.

    • Bob_Wallace

      This is only for the US, but it might offer some clues as to the amount of brownfield space available in other countries.

      “On paper, brownfields are an untapped resource rivaling pristine public lands.

      The raw land potential is vast. According to the EPA, there are just under half a million contaminated properties around the country, including tens of thousands of Superfund sites and brownfields. That amounts to 15 million acres of land. By comparison, the Bureau of Land Management estimates that it controls 19 million acres suitable for solar projects and 20 million acres suitable for wind.

      These contaminated sites, many of which are former industrial parks and buildings, are often close to electricity infrastructure. Projects on remote public lands often require new transmission lines to access them — raising costs and the potential for opposition.

    • I have solar on a west facing roof in The Netherlands (which is less sunny than any location in the US). It has a payback time of around 6 years, even though many ‘experts’ would confidently say that my roof is not suitable because it doesn’t face south.

      • jeffhre

        It doesn’t face south, and it’s in the Netherlands. Thank you for the information arne.

        About 4 years ago, many people were saying solar was pointless here, because much of the US was more like Minnesota or even Colorado in contrast to California or Arizona. And that solar would never pay off in places like that.

        • Bob_Wallace

          About 4 years ago they would have been somewhat right. “Never” was likely an exaggeration, but a danged long time might have been accurate.

          But take a look at what happened about four years ago.

          The world changed.

          • jeffhre

            4 years is not that long a time range financially and many of the same folks still seem to say – never!! Solar is nothiiiing! Is also popular.

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