Tony Seba is well known to CleanTechnica readers. Founder of RethinkX, he is a futurist of some renown. RethinkX says its mission is to analyze and forecast the scope, speed, and scale of technology driven disruption and predict what impact those disruptions will have on society. Seba began predicting the ascendancy of solar power a decade ago, when the cost of solar panels was ten times what it is today. While any fool can make predictions — I predict the Chicago Bears will win the Super Bowl in 2027, for instance — Seba’s track record of making predictions that actually come true gives weight to his prognostications.
The latest report from RethinkX is called “Disruption, Implications, and Choices — Rethinking Energy 2020-2030.” Crafted by co-authors Seba and Adam Dorr, it makes the rather startling prediction that the combination of solar, wind, and battery storage, which the pair calls SWB for the sake of brevity, will completely disrupt the utility industry by 2030.
Adoption of SWB is growing exponentially worldwide and disruption is now inevitable because by 2030 they will offer the cheapest electricity option for most regions. Coal, gas, and nuclear power assets will become stranded during the 2020s, and no new investment in these technologies is rational from this point forward. But the replacement of conventional energy technology with SWB is just the beginning. As has been the case for many other disruptions, SWB will transform our energy system in fundamental ways. The new system that emerges will be much larger than the existing one we know today and will have a completely different architecture that operates in unfamiliar ways.
One of the most counterintuitive and extraordinary properties of the new system is that it will produce a much larger amount of energy overall, and that this superabundance of clean energy output — which we call super power — will be available at near-zero marginal cost throughout much of the year in nearly all populated locations. The SWB disruption of energy will closely parallel the digital disruption of information technology. Just as computers and the Internet slashed the marginal cost of information and opened the door to hundreds of new business models that collectively have had a transformative impact upon the global economy, so too will SWB slash the marginal cost of electricity and create a plethora of opportunities for innovation and entrepreneurship. What happened in the world of bits is now poised to happen in the world of electrons.
The analysis we present here marks the beginning of a series of reports that call upon decision makers at all levels of society to rethink the future of energy so that we can fully capture the benefits of the SWB disruption. In this first report, we aim to answer the question: is it possible to generate 100% of our electricity with solar, wind, and batteries? Our analysis shows that the answer is a clear and unequivocal yes. In subsequent reports we will explore other aspects of the SWB disruption, including its impact upon the incumbent coal, gas, petroleum, and nuclear power industries, its need for a new policy and regulatory framework that breaks up utility monopolies and supports individual energy rights, and its interactions with other disruptions that will be occurring simultaneously in the transportation and food sectors during the 2020s.
More Renewable Energy Equals Less Need For Storage
The RethinkX analysis states, “There is a fundamental cost trade off between energy generation (solar and wind) and energy storage (batteries). When we optimize the balance between the two, we find that the least expensive 100% SWB system will have three to five times more total generating capacity than today’s grid but require only 35 to 90 hours’ worth of batteries, depending on geography.
“In California, for example, a 100% SWB system with 3.8x more generating capacity than the state’s existing grid would need only 37 hours’ worth of batteries. The cost to build these assets between now and 2030 would be $115 billion. That’s $11.5 billion for ten years, or 0.35% of California’s $3.2 trillion GDP. The cost of electricity from this system would be less than 3 cents per kilowatt-hour, which would not only be the cheapest available option for new power generation but would be less expensive than continuing to operate most conventional power plants in the state as well.”
With America on the verge of having a president who promises to add millions of good paying jobs through investments in clean energy and energy efficiency, the latest RethinkX report is encouraging. Whereas his opponent has spent 4 years suggesting the clean energy revolution will cost $100 trillion, this report shows just the opposite is true. In a synopsis of the report for Utility Dive, Seba and Dorr offer an appealing alternative view.
Imagine hyper abundant clean energy at a marginal cost close to zero. We call it “super power”. Our existing fossil based energy system views super power as a problem — and a threat. But super power is one of the greatest opportunities of our time. It could replace a large fraction of all fossil fuel use by electrifying road transportation, residential and commercial heating, water desalination and treatment, waste processing and recycling, metal smelting and refining, chemical processing and manufacturing, or carbon removal — to name just a few applications.
Super power is a race to the top. The sooner a region adopts SWB, the more companies, talent and investment it will attract. Super power will lower the region’s cost of energy and trigger a virtuous cycle in which more individuals move in attracted by higher quality of life, more companies move in attracted by low energy costs (and talent), and more investments move in attracted by growth opportunities.
Going even further, super power returns on investment are disproportionally large. A region that makes an additional 20% investment in generating capacity can double or even triple its super power output. No known energy source can match the economics of SWB.
“We recommend that everyone should have the right to generate, store and sell electricity, just like we have the right to publish information or buy and sell goods online,” Seba and Dorr write. “For instance, individuals and fleets should be able to sell electricity stored in their electric vehicles as well as stationary batteries.
“We should stop subsidizing and protecting legacy monopolies, business models and energy sources, including nuclear, oil, gas and coal power plants as well as pipelines and other extraction assets. Vertically integrated electric power monopolies were created to ration scarce, centralized, expensive and polluting resources. They do not have the organizational capabilities to deliver a system of hyperabundant, distributed, cheap and clean electricity.” Joe Biden has promised to end fossil fuel subsidies. The sooner, the better.
The authors continue, “Just like the 20th century computing and information monopolies (such as AT&T) were broken up to make way for the personal computer, internet and smartphones, regulators must design competitive electricity markets that allow entrepreneurs and investors to deliver the new products, services and business models that will emerge with the SWB system. Walmart, Safeway, or your local shopping center should be able to sell or give away electricity to attract customers to their retail business.”
Asset Management And The Coming Energy Disruption
“The coming disruption has profound implications for investments and asset management as well,” Seba and Dorr suggest. “Trillions of dollars in conventional generation will be stranded in the 2020s. Our pensions and savings must be protected from these enormous losses and should instead be used to build out the new system. SWB projects should qualify under legal structures such as master limited partnerships and real estate investment trusts. This will unlock trillions in private investment money to build the SWB infrastructure. We also need to create new asset classes to allow individuals to invest directly in small cash generating projects such as local community solar, wind and battery power plants.”
Earth Justice = Social Justice
We at CleanTechnica have always advocated for social justice policies that protect the people who will be most affected by changes in technology. At the core of the policies recommended by Seba and Dorr is the imperative of protecting people, not businesses or industries. “Allow unviable incumbent energy businesses to go bankrupt but protect people through policies to retrain, provide financial and health care support, and access to social capital through the transition.”
“Wherever energy is utilized in abundance, prosperity follows. Regions which choose to embrace the clean disruption of energy will be the first to become super powered and capture the extraordinary social, economic, political and environmental benefits that 100% SWB systems have to offer. The disruption has already begun. The time to lead is now.”
The latest RethinkX report is packed with good ideas and the data to back them up. You are invited to delve more deeply into its findings and projections. It presents the forward vision that will be crucial to creating a thriving America where people can live in abundance rather than social and economic poverty. A new era is upon us. Let us seize the day and make the clean energy revolution a reality.
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