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Published on May 14th, 2015 | by Steve Hanley


Today’s Solar Panels Can Power The World, MIT Study Finds

May 14th, 2015 by  

Originally published on Solar Love.

An interdisciplinary MIT study led by the MIT Energy Initiative has led to a 332-page report entitled The Future of Solar Energy. Among its key findings are that today’s solar panels are all that is needed to supply the world with many terawatts of clean solar power by 2050 (a terawatt is equivalent to 1,000,000 megawatts). The other main point the study makes is that it will take political will to finally wean the world off of fossil fuels.

Today's solar panels are fine for tomorrow's needs says a new report from MITThe MIT researchers suggest the crystalline silicon photovoltaic technology of today will remain viable and relevant in the future. While further research may improve solar panel efficiency, we have all the tools we need right now to supply all of the world’s energy needs. What we don’t have is the combination of financial incentives and political muscle that it will take to break our old habit of pumping fossil fuels out of the ground to satisfy our modern lifestyle.

The International Energy Agency (IEA) says that the fossil fuel industries receive almost $548 billion in subsidies each year. That’s as of 2013, the latest year for which data is available. The MIT report says those funds must be diverted to clean energy to make the dream of a carbon-free future a reality. The authors say, “Solar electricity generation is one of very few low-carbon energy technologies with the potential to grow to very large scale.” But that growth won’t happen fast enough unless the money to build the solar infrastructure is allocated.

Rather than hoping for new breakthroughs that will lower the cost of solar panels even more, the MIT researchers think our emphasis should be on building a “smart grid” that integrates all of the solar energy available from rooftop solar systems, community solar, and utility-scale solar projects into an efficient whole.

It also denominates the relatively new field of electricity storage as an area where further research could lower costs dramatically. Just as the cost of solar panels has plummeted over the past decade, new battery technology and the economies of scale that flow from greater production will combine to drive down the price of energy storage in the next decade. Batteries are the critical component to bring out solar power’s full potential.

Any time there is a shift in technology, some entrenched interests suffer economically while some new businesses prosper. Particularly in America, we need to remove Luddites like Senator James Inhofe from office. He is the chairmen of the Senate Environment Committee who brought a snowball onto the floor of the Senate to make the point that climate change cannot possibly be taking place because it was really, really cold outside. Such mindless buffoonery earned him a place in history as the ignoramus who will forever be known as “Senator Snowball.” Our society simply cannot afford to be held hostage any longer by such a stooge of the fossil fuel companies.

The MIT report is written in the dense argot so popular among scientists, but its message is clear. We have the tools we need to produce all the energy we need from renewable sources. Now all we need to do is make up our minds to put those tools to work.

Photo Credit: MIT

About the Author

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Rhode Island. You can follow him on Google + and on Twitter.

  • Sal Rojo

    Hello , I hope you can help me , where I could study for solar panel installer in california ?

  • R Howe

    A very detailed study report on many aspects of solar energy technology
    and policy! However, I would appreciate thoughts from the article author about these points.
    1. While the study report is about the future of solar energy, there does not appear to be many or any persons on the Advisory Committee that represent technology companies in the solar industry, either solar panels or invertor technology. Why?
    2. Did the report authors consider including in the study how distributed solar energy can enable net zero homes and buildings in the future, and the benefits and potential cost savings of net zero homes and buildings?
    3. Did the report authors consider calculations related to the higher transmission losses during peak demand periods and how local generation adds value by reducing
    these losses. As a reference, use an internet search to find the Nov 2012 article “Electric Utilities and The HVAC Industry” and see the diagram at top of page. Was this peak demand transmission loss considered in the study?

  • Joe Ferguson

    I wonder what Sen. James Inhofe’s constituents think about the issue of climate change now that they’re being blown away or washed away by the unprecidented weather of the past few weeks?

  • Tesla Fan

    There is literally and even more than enough electricity to become a second sun. Light could appear around the Earth’s equator as the ring on Saturn. The entire world can be powered by the Sun!!!!!!

    Let’s make the change!!! Tesla and Solar City!

  • Christine Svitak Stipek

    Great article! Thiis can’t happen soon enough!

  • NRG4All

    According to “Unprecedented Can Civilization Survive the CO2 Crisis”, by David Ray Griffin, Senator Snowball has received over $1.3 million from oil and gas interests by 2012. It gives you an idea of who he is representing.

  • creature

    A little honesty, the subsidy breakdown is $69/billion BTU for fossil and $1,724/billion BTU for renewables.

    Doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be done with solar but keep it real, the subsidies alone do not make solar uncompetitive.

    • Johnny Le

      Do you have some links to back up the $1,724/billion claim?

    • Chris

      and… is that BTU of fuel or BTU of generation capacity? 1MBTU of nat gas plants is SIGNIFICANTLY less valuable than 1MBTU of solar panels. PV comes with a lifetime supply of ‘fuel’. Nat Gas comes with a lifetime supply of poisoned ground water and earthquakes.

  • Jason hm

    Their is nothing that can stop the train at this point. The US isn’t even the main driver it’s going to happen regardless of weather intrenched interest and their representatives want it to or not.

    It’s going to like when technology switched from steam to Internal combustion in 30 years fossil fuel will be left powering niche roles and classic vehicles and look as antiquated and inefficient as steam tractors did in 1940’s.

  • Sam C. Syvertsen

    Excellent article and report that add to the plethora of reports that shows solar plus wind will change the landscape of wholesale and distributed power. There are however two elements that are usually underestimated in the process to achieve this.
    1) The planning
    From starting a process to plan a nuclear plant, to realization takes more than 10 years, a coal plant is probably not doable in less than 6, a CCGT maybe 5, a wind mill 3 years. For solar it is doable in less than a year. With the rapid changes going on, who will start investing in something coming online in 10 years. It is far less risk investing in something which starts next year. With the same return you would clearly prefer solar.
    2) Size of the investment follows the same pattern and has the same consequence, solar is far less uncertain than other projects (look at the construction of the new nuclear plant in Finland).
    3) When solar and wind increase significantly this will influence pricing. If the politicians then allow the price signals to reach the consumers history (Pricing sulfur dioxide,pricing CO2 in Europe, green certificates in Scandinavia++) tells us that there are ways to cope with it (demand response, dispatching hydro etc). Price volatility should be considered a friend of renewable energy, and be allowed to reach the users.

    In sum I am sure the renewable energy sector will continue to surprise, and outcompete carbon based generation quicker than generally anticipated.

    • JamesWimberley

      Good points. But they don’t generalise to all sources of fossil or renewable energy. NG peaker plants can be built fast, combined-cycle a little longer. On the renewable side, geothermal fields take several years to work up; big dams (not many more of those to come) and tidal can take a decade.

      The point holds that renewable energy projects are generally much less risky than the alternatives, in fact and in the perception of investors. The running costs are very low and predictable. There is very little to go wrong mechanically. Coal, oil and gas have inherent fuel price and regulatory risk built in. Nuclear has huge construction cost risk.

      • Brett

        Nuclear capital costs and regulatory approval lead times are insane. They are vulnerable to natural disasters, catastrophic malfunction, create waste that takes thousands of years to stabilize, presents a tempting target for extremist or military forces, the list of cons goes on and on. I don’t know how anyone can realistically think nuclear is still an option when you can open a wind farm / solar farm within a year.

        Peaker plants are going to be in the game for as long as it takes to establish sufficient grid level storage capacity, which is probably a decade, although who knows, if a Gen1 Powerwall is starting at $350/kW, who knows where things could be in 5 years.

        • eveee

          Try this. At less than $350/kwhr, batteries replace peakers. Its 2015. Tesla PowerWall is $250/kwhr…

          Response is phenomenal.

          How long will it take for the latest batteries to flow into the market?

          See the reference from Texas ISO, ERCOT.


          • Brett

            The PowerWall is 10kWh for $3,500, without install. Install has been roughly estimated at $1,500 so more like $500/kWh installed. PowerPack, the pricing isn’t really known, but Musk rumored it to be closer to $250/kWh. Batteries will replace peakers at some point, but given the glut of natural gas on the market, the sharp decline in fossil fuel prices, and the sunk costs of the facilities that are already in use, I still don’t see them being replaced for a good 10 years. You need to provide a reasonable amount of time to amortize capital investments.

            The AES install looks to be much bigger, its a good step, I’m looking forward to seeing more announcements of GWh level storage, although, depending on how power storage shifts the distribution dynamics, maybe that won’t happen, maybe it’ll just be hundreds of thousands of small installations instead of a really big one.

          • eveee

            If you mean all of the peakers being replaced in a good ten years, I would venture to say yes, and that would be ambitious, but stranger things have happened.

            All I am saying is that the ERCOT study says peakers are replaceable at $350/kwhr.

            Tesla is offering $250/kwhr for utilities. That sounds like gas peaker days are numbered. No, the utilities don’t want to take sunk costs off the market, but they will have no choice. Even the utilities are adding storage and when they do, peakers will see capacity factor drop. New orders for gas peakers will now see an impact. How much, time will tell.

            The PowerWall has two versions. The 10kwhr is for emergency backup only. Thats not the one for arbitrage or solar. The 7kwhr is for that and its $3000, no markup, just installation. It has a 10 year daily use warranty and the expected life is greater than the warranty period.

            5000 cycles is reasonable expectation.

            Tesla is working with the California storage mandate. Response to the PowerPack is strong. Each PowerPack is 10x PowerWall.

            2500 PowerPack requests. About 10 PowerPacks per request.

            In all, 10x 10x 2500 = 250,000 PowerWall equivalent.

            Thats about 4.5x larger amount than the 38000 x 1.5 = 57,000 for individual requests.

            Thats how Bloomberg calculated 624 million of the 800 million in orders as PowerPacks.


            It could just be that utilities were caught off guard by the sudden, unexpected drop in storage prices.

          • Bob_Wallace

            I think we need some more complex thinking about battery storage and gas peakers. Clearly we’re at, or close to, the point at which storage starts taking away single day fill-in from gas peakers. (Grid smoothing is probably a battle batteries have now won.)

            Pay $350/kWh for 10,000 cycle storage. Finance it at 5% for 20 years. The annual payment is going to be $24.72.

            Cycle daily and the cost is $0.076. Add in four cents for wind and the price is higher ($0.116) than using a gas peaker. Bring the price down to $100/kWh and storage plus electricity drops to $0.77. Somewhere between $100 and $350 gas peakers are pushed out of the single day cycle market.

            But out past daily cycling gas peakers have an advantage. Assume it costs $0.077/kWh for a single day stored. The price rises to $0.101 for power stored on the average for two days. For power stored on an average of seven days the cost $0.219.

            The gas peaker can produce on the second day for “8 cents”. And on day three for 8 cents, on day four for 8 cents and on day seven for 8 cents. The more the peaker runs, the lower the per kWh capital/fixed cost costs and gas prices remain the same.

          • eveee

            Brattle group and ERCOT have done some analysis.
            According to their numbers, we have already passed the point where storage beats gas peakers.


            The main takeaway is a surprise. We don’t need storage for renewables for a decade, but we can decrease the use of gas peakers already because storage has advanced far ahead of some predictions.

            Ramez Naam has done some calculations for the PowerWall.


            Ramez numbers don’t include the time value of money, but a crude lumped end of year analysis shows a 5% interest raises the costs by about 30%. This overestimates the cost because payback is daily, not annual lumps.

            The ERCOT reference is more authoritative. In some areas, TOU differentials are from 25 to 35cents/kwhr, more than enough to support storage arbitrage.

            Although Musk did not emphasize it, storage this inexpensive can be economic in the continental US depending on the rate structure in some regions.

            These developments highlight the stark difference between EIA and IEA predictions and real world experience.

        • eveee

          Heres another reference. AES is putting storage on the grid.


    • Bob_Wallace

      Not only can the cash flow start within an year or two with wind and solar, the power produced for the following 20 or 25 years can be sold prior to the first shovelful of dirt is turned.

      With PPAs wind and solar become very safe investments. This mean that wind and solar are going to have little trouble with raising capital. Financing rates will drop. Nothing else can compete with their generation costs.

  • RBKobe

    Thank you for this excellent article! Now let’s get that fat Fossil Fuel monster out of the subsidy picture & get going! 🙂

    (“The International Energy Agency (IEA) says that the fossil fuel
    industries receive almost $548 billion in subsidies each year. That’s as
    of 2013, the latest year for which data is available. The MIT report
    says those funds must be diverted to clean energy to make the dream of a
    carbon-free future a reality.”)

    • Matt

      And that is only the direct subsidy. Do not include health, environment, or climate impact. I don’t think it even include the indirect subsidies, like special corp structures to support pipelines etc.

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