Published on August 2nd, 2016 | by Zachary Shahan0
The Shift To Solar, Wind, & Electric Vehicles Is Too Monumental To Overstate
August 2nd, 2016 by Zachary Shahan
Covering solar power, wind power, and electric vehicles obsessively for ~7 years, I have run across some fascinating observations regarding these technologies and the transitions we are going through — and then I’ve subsequently forgotten many of them. This article is centered around one of the coolest observations I’ve run across, which slipped my mind for a while but just came back to the forefront this week.
Technology Disruption Is Fun, But This Is Seriously Historic
And I like to share photos like this one:
Such graphs and photos help to remind people how quickly things change and how quickly new technologies can take over the market.
But to throw solar energy, wind energy, and electric vehicles into that story is actually an understatement. To live through the development and growth of the technologies in that top graph was pretty awesome, but there’s something that even sets clean energy and electric vehicles apart.
Once upon a time, humans discovered fire. Can you think of anything in human history that happened before that?
Sure, some things must have happened before the first burnt breakfast, but fire goes way back — way, way, way back. Since the discovery of fire, we have burned things to produce fire, heat, and — eventually — electricity. We burn this, we burn that, we dig deeper for more stuff to burn, we look in the ocean for “black gold” to burn, etc.
All of a sudden, we are entering a phase in human history where we can go beyond fire. Phase 2 of civilization (in an energy sense) is now beginning.
This point first landed in my head while watching a presentation from Envision Solar CEO Desmond Wheatley. (Unfortunately, the video has since been removed and I can’t find the presentation elsewhere.) While writing the above line, though, it just hit me that Amory Lovins and the Rocky Mountain Institute also highlighted the shift in Reinventing Fire. Check out the book, Amory’s TED Talk on the subject, and associated resources for some great information and entertainment.
Why This Is More Than Just Cool
This would be interesting simply for technological or historical reasons, but there’s an obvious reason why this is more than just “cool.”
Humans are running a funny experiment where we will eventually find out if we are warming the world so much that humans one day won’t be able to step outside in some regions.
There’s so much destruction from global warming that would lead to that era that even if we did let the experiment run so far out of control, no human may be around to care.
We simply have to stop burning fossil remains (I’d rather not call them “fuels” at this point) if we don’t want to wreak total havoc on our civilization.
In response to an article I wrote yesterday about Tesla’s acquisition of SolarCity, one commenter (Bob Fearn) responded to the section about solar prices with these rhetorical questions: “Good info BUT are we not moving to solar and wind to reduced climate change impacts? Is it therefore not essential that the estimated climate change costs associated with various energy sources be calculated and included?”
Indeed, the costs should be included, but if we are going to be honest with ourselves, the cost of not moving to renewables is $∞ (in case that isn’t obvious to read, that’s the dollar sign next to the infinity symbol).
That’s the logical end of this article, but since humans tend to be so illogical, I’ll add one more section (as an excuse to play with numbers and a chart again).
How Insanely Cheap Are Renewables & Electric Vehicles?
It’s hugely ironic (and depressing) that the #1 barrier to adoption of cleantech like solar energy and electric vehicles has for years been that clean technology is “too expensive.” Even today, with solar often cheaper than any other source of electricity (except maybe wind) and Tesla electric vehicles (Model S, Model X, and Model 3) offering more consumer value than anything else at their price points, the biggest barrier to solar & EV adoption is probably the misconception that they are too expensive.
But even the conventional “cost-competitive cleantech” story is misleading.
This is the (misleading) chart I shared yesterday to highlight the cost-competitiveness of solar energy:
The misleading bit is that chart doesn’t take into account externalities. The marketplace doesn’t take into account externalities.
If the externalities are so high that they wipe out the human species, then you get “$∞” as the cost of the energy source. However, even if you try to be a bit conservative, there is absolutely no case for continuing to burn fossil fuels.
A 2011 study led by the former head of the Harvard Medical School Center for Health and the Global Environment (who is now deceased) found that burning coal for electricity cost the United States ~$500 billion a year in externalities. Those are real costs not included in the price of electricity from coal (healthcare costs, premature death costs, etc.). What that worked out to was an additional 9–27 cents per kilowatt-hour. That means the bars in the chart for coal should be moved 90–270 cents per MWh to the right.
I haven’t seen a similar study for natural gas, but if we are generous and estimate that the externalities are approximately half as bad, that would be 4.5–13.5 cents per kilowatt-hour (which would mean moving the natural gas charts 45–135 cents per MWh to the right).
Hmm, which electricity choices look most sensible to you now?
It would be a very similar story for electric cars versus gasoline cars, for electric buses versus diesel buses, and so on. If someone wants to throw a chart or two together on such comparisons, I’d be happy to share.
Cleantech is ripe. The transition is happening. It could be happening faster, and it should be happening faster, but what can you do? (Oh yeah, you can share this information, go solar, and go electric.)