Updated: Thirty-Year Solar PV Forecast

Since writing my original long-term PV forecast, I’ve been doing additional research into PV futures and technology trends, along with reviewing analysis from both large mfrs-utilities and smaller advocacy groups. Allow me to update my forecast: By 2042, small photovoltaic (PV) electricity systems will cost less than $0.90/watt, installed and commissioned, which is equivalent to $0.02/kwh to $0.05/kwh, depending on geographic location. All costs expressed in 2012 dollars. All per-watt prices expressed as DC nameplate rating of panel or inverter. All “kwh” expressed as AC at the meter, after 0.73 derating from DC nameplate rating, shown as an annual average from a fixed-mount pointing south. Assuming 25-year warranted system life with 20% end-of-life PV panel derating. There is evidence that end-of-life performance will improve with newer generation panels, but this is not factored into my forecast. Moreover, most “25 year” systems will remain in operation much longer, making PV less expensive than this forecast. … Over the last 30 years, solar cell technology has halved its price-per-watt roughly every 7-8 years. Today, more capital than ever is being poured into PV research on all levels – academia, industry, government. Because of this and other strong market forces and indicators, it seems a reasonable assumption that PV technology will more or less follow its historical 30 year price trajectory into the next 30 years. If anything, affordability should accelerate. To keep a conservative forecast, I am assuming that PV panel price will halve every 12 years (not the historical 7 years) for the next 30 years, until reaching  a minimum cost-to-produce+profit of silicon, aluminum, glass. This gives us commodity solar panels at roughly $0.20/watt by 2042. Today, DC-AC central inversion is roughly 50 cents-per-watt. The preferred DC-AC micro inversion technology is around 80 cents-per-watt with 25 year warranty. Texas Instruments (et al) are moving towards total integration of micro-inversion components, leaving just a few externals. And those externals (filters, flybacks, caps, switching transistors, etc.) are being life-optimized and scaled. As more major players move into the micro-inv business (China, Korea, India, etc.), look for a continuous drop in price per watt. Being very familiar with power supply design and high efficiency manufacturing, I have a high confidence that integration and scaling will push installed micro inversion to under $0.20/watt by 2042 (if not far sooner, perhaps 2025-2030). Energy Secretary Steven Chu is forecasting central inversion at $0.10/watt. Commodity crystalline PV efficiency is around 15-16% today. PV research labs (Sharp, First Solar, etc.) have proven manufacturable efficiencies beyond 40%, but lab results have historically migrated slowly into real-world manufacturing. Historical 30-year PV efficiency has improved roughly 3% per year (1.03x per yr). To remain conservative, let’s assume that PV efficiencies will improve at just 2% per year over the next 30 years (keep in mind that, when looking at total PV system costs, “efficiency” is not nearly as important as cost-per-watt). A 2% per-year PV efficiency improvement gives us 30% efficient panels by 2042, effectively halving the number of physical panels and mounting structures required per site — lowering freight, installation, and job management costs to roughly $0.50/watt. For new construction and re-roof jobs, new generations of “integrated thin-film solar roofing” will bring combined costs down even further, while solar permit processes become more streamlined (my solar permit app was about 12 pages plus formally drawn plan set – Germany’s solar permit app is 2 pages + simple written description). Innovative PV leasing and financing will continue to grow, allowing solar power installation with zero customer investment. And if a business or homeowner self-contracts (far simpler in 2030-2040), installation cost drops even more. By 2042, this conservative forecast gives us: Panels: $0.20/watt Micro-Inversion: $0.20/watt Install, Mgmt, Profit: $0.50/watt Installed grid-tied PV systems at $0.90/watt puts us around $0.02/kwh in high sun areas (Las Vegas-Phoenix) and $0.05/kwh in weak solar areas (Seattle-Fairbanks) — all without rebates or other incentives. By 2042, the median U.S. cost to generate PV electricity becomes $0.035/kwh, which is roughly 1/3 the median U.S. rate of utility-delivered power. My research shows that U.S. coal-gas electric generation plants must sell electricity to the grid at roughly $0.06/kwh to remain profitable. The slope of this forecast suggests that median U.S. PV electricity may become cheaper to generate than median fossil electricity starting around 2030. Our remaining “night time and cloudy day” electricity will be increasingly on-grid from other renewable sources, such as hydro, wind, geothermal, marine, biomass, compressed air batteries, “common dirt” batteries, nano-batteries, vanadium redox batteries, vortex engines, infrared nano-thermal, atmospheric differential, 24-hour PV hybrids, hydrogen, solar funnels, efficient catalyzers, and so forth. And I’m confident that surprisingly new and disruptive energy generation and storage technologies will enter the picture over the next 30 years – technologies we cannot yet imagine! This historic and dramatic disconnect of electrical energy from fossils will change significantly the “power-utility company” model we know today. By 2042, on-site PV will no longer be receiving incentives, but will be paying a grid-use tax (grid maintenance tariff). The “grid dynamics” of renewable energy will require significant structural changes to the grid itself — no small challenge as power generation becomes increasingly distributed. By 2050-2060, the widespread economic shift to PV (et al) will likely leave fossil-nuke plants producing less than 40% of U.S. electricity (down from 85% today). And by 2070-2080, most of the industrialized world will be generating well over 80% of its electricity from renewable sources. Germany is now predicting 100% renewable by 2050, and California is mandating 33% renewable electricity by 2020 (realistically, I think California will achieve around 25% by 2020). In 2012, renewable energy sources (i.e., biomass, geothermal, solar, water, wind) accounted for 46% of new electrical generating capacity installed in the USA. Very good news! Simplified graphs of my forecast: … Now the bad news. Cheap, clean, renewable electricity does NOT mean we will solve our energy problem by 2040-2060 (For reasons too lengthy for this post, I’m calling 2040-2060 “the hump”). The majority of world transportation is expected to run on fossil oil through 2040-2050. Fully 1/3 of U.S. energy demand is sourced from oil. One forecast puts 2032 as the year when hybrids+EVs outsell pure internal combustion automobiles, but globally there will still be over one-billion petrol-based vehicles and apps (cars, trucks, engines, aircraft, mfg stock, military, agriculture, derivative, etc.). Fossil oil demand has more or less peaked in the Western world. Exxon predicts that U.S. oil demand will drop 15% (20M b/d to 17M b/d) by 2040. On the other hand, the non-OECD industrializing world (India, China, etc.) is predicted to nearly double its oil demand over the next three decades, requiring an increase of worldwide oil production from 90M b/d to nearly 120M b/d by 2040. (It’s been noted that increased U.S. immigration could also spark a new population boom, re-kindling U.S. oil demand into 2040.) Many energy researchers (myself included) are not convinced that world oil production can (affordably) supply 120M b/d. As world oil demand ramps up, it’s not clear that emerging economies can support healthy economic growth while paying $150-200/bbl for oil (in 2012 dollars). Global industrialization occurred thanks to cheap, abundant oil ($20/bbl throughout most of the 20th century). Increasingly expensive oil will likely lead to growing economic stagnation and increasingly crippling global boom-bust cycles. A wild-card in our energy future is natural gas. Gas provides 1/4 of total U.S. energy demand. Fracking (etc.) is opening up vast new U.S. gas resources. How much is there? Estimates vary, but it could be significant enough to provide relatively cheap local NG for decades, especially as PV and other renewables displace NG-generated electricity. Any long-term energy forecast should allow for lower cost gas to assume some of oil’s historical roles (vehicle fuel, feed stock, etc.). On the other hand, large U.S. LNG export ports now being built will force U.S. NG to compete on a global market, pushing prices up to global parity. My gut sense is that, in the long term, cheaper North American NG will help offset U.S. oil demand, but will have little impact on a global scale. Energy giant Sasol is building a massive $20B NG-to-oil conversion plant (100,000 b/d) in Louisiana, betting that gas prices will stay low, and oil prices will keep rising. This project is the “…largest foreign manufacturing investment in the history of the United States.” I personally see North America becoming free from most OPEC oil by 2040, but domestic independence does not solve oil demand and depletion on a global level. Our domestic economy is inexorably linked to the global economy, and I suggest that oil will remain the #1 impediment to global growth for the next half century. … Looking past this conservative forecast, it’s my hope that PV achieves “median global grid parity” far sooner – say 2025 – and that the accelerating move to PV electricity will be a strong market signal towards rapidly prioritized electric mobility and storage research. Given the power of economics to change historical momenta, I would not be surprised to see pure electric vehicles by 2042 that outperform IC vehicles in every metric, including life-cost and range, with short charge times. For those requiring “fast fill” I would not be surprised to see the average 2042 “plug-in hybrid sedan” approaching 100 MPG, nor would I be surprised to see pure EVs with a small “emergency” fossil engine. … (Often overlooked in these discussions is the true social and environmental costs of carbon-based power. The complete cost of fossil energy is higher than its raw extraction and generation costs, even before considering any nightmarish greenhouse gas scenario. Depending on who you read, the social cost of atmospheric carbon is anywhere from $2 to $250 per ton. Let’s use the current U.S. Government estimate of $21/ton. We know that coal creates 2.1 pounds of CO2 per kwh. At $21/ton, coal’s social cost becomes $0.02/kwh. A growing number researchers say this cost should be closer to  

Plenty Of Oil

A very good two-minute animated overview of fossil energy and energy industry PR. Heinberg is spot-on. We’re not “running out” of oil. That is not, and has never been, peak-oil theory. It’s rather a supply and demand issue: extraction of “economically cheap” oil (as we enjoyed for 100+ years) is over. The cheap and abundant oil is gone and will never return (abiogenic theories notwithstanding). We are now entering into the “hard to get” oil phase (deep water, frack, oil sand, shale, polar, etc.) which comes at increasingly higher prices. As world energy demand increases, oil will continue to get more expensive. And that’s the problem: just a few years ago, energy represented less than 8% of median household expenditure. It is now around 13%. Health care and energy are the two most rapidly rising common costs in the U.S. economy, rising far faster than inflation. What Heinberg doesn’t mention is natural gas. In the USA, newly available (fracked) NG reserves will probably give us many additional years of cheaper NG energy (but with significant environmental penalties – see Julian Lennon’s new campaign — watch the video on his site). Newly fracked NG reserves have already caused a number of coal plants to be shuttered. This is great news for N. America, but in the global energy picture it doesn’t change much. We are still (as a global community) up against rising long-term fossil energy supply constraints, which will almost certainly be the #1 structural cause of continued global debt and economic struggle moving  

A National Strategic Narrative

I attended a conference last year called PopTech in Camden Maine. Couldn’t go this year, but did have a chance to watch some of the live feed. One of the presentations featured Naval Captain Wayne Porter and Marine Col. Mark Mykleby — military strategists working at the highest level of government. Together, they present highlights from their paper, “A National Strategic Narrative.” Their ideas ” less military force, more social capital and more sustainable energy practices ” have caused a stir in policy communities. Their proposal is one of transition away from some old policy ideas that no longer apply in the Google age.They want to move the nation towards an open system that seeks equilibrium in an interdependent global ecology; to move the idea of national security from containment to sustainability: from theories of control to theories of credible influence; from power to narrative: a national strategic story that doesn’t “hold the jello” quite so tight; towards a citizenry that demands purposeful participation. They rightly point out that government can only reflect the values that its citizens embody and that competition cannot be a zero-sum game in a deeply interdependent world. They focus on three issues they believe to be the highest social priorities to maintain a healthy nation moving forward. 1.) Education 2.) Security 3.) Energy I would personally put energy at the top, for without cheap, concentrated energy, access to education will erode as our economy weakens. Their brilliant talk concludes that we, as a nation, are moving towards polarizing ideologies that offer little more than divisive ultimata. Porter and Mykleby insist that we need a collective narrative that takes us beyond today’s ideologies; that will inform our skill, knowledge, and ultimately our technologies. Please invest 21 minutes in this important  

Growth Has An Expiration Date

Well, at least the kind of growth we’ve come to expect over the last 100 years. Tom Murphy is a physics professor at University of California, San Diego. His recent talk at the Compass Summit beautifully describes our #1 global issue moving forward — the energy trap. I think his term “energy trap” is better than “peak oil” for describing the volatile economic consequences that await our new century. Tom has “done the math” (as many of us have) and recognizes a high probability for ever-increasing levels of energy-based economic impediments over the coming decades. Moreover, Tom is the best numbers-oriented speaker I’ve heard on this issue. His talk reminds me of a more focused version of Richard Smalley’s famous energy talks in the late-1990s. Take 23 minutes and listen to Tom’s brilliant – “there is no financing in nature” – overview. If you’re limited for time, start around 11:30. And just for fun… The Daily ShowGet More: Daily Show Full Episodes,Political Humor & Satire Blog,The Daily Show on Facebook  

IX

I go by a field where once I cultivated a few poor crops. It is now covered with young trees, for the forest that belongs here has come back and reclaimed its own. And I think of all the effort I have wasted and all the time, and of how much joy I took in that failed work and how much it taught me. For in so failing I learned something of my place, something of myself, and now I welcome back the trees. IX by Wendell Berry (from  

Zeitgeist 3 – Moving Forward

Peter Joseph (probably not his real last name) has released a new Zeitgeist film. I disagree with a number of Peter’s “Venus Project” assumptions, conclusions, and leading questions. I also found his first two films especially lacking in solid content, relying more on hearsay, dubious history, and weak conspiracy theories. In some cases, Zeit 3 is terribly naive (“upgradable” technology, idealized production and distribution incentives and strategies, utopian city design, overstated energy alternatives, etc.). Yet I’m sharing this movie with you because I think the film is a good conversation starter and especially good thought provoker, addressing a number of profoundly important questions. I find it ironic that the filmmaker, an atheist, uses a John Ortberg lecture as his core value statement — ultimately pointing to the failure of GDP as an adequate, or even relevant, measurement of our individual and collective well-being (a position I passionately agree with). I’m convinced that we need to start thinking towards third-way “systems-based” economies that combine the best elements of free-markets and central resource planning, while retaining the liberties of an unalienable rights-based republic re-imagined in healthier paradigms of resource sustainability, human empathy, and global-equitable access to fundamental human needs. Centralized economies fail for many reasons. One reason is because, historically, they haven’t appropriately rewarded the people and organizations who excel and add real value back into the community. But cultural definitions of excellence, value, reward, and community vary subjectively. Corrupt, bailed-out banking systems and an obese military-industrial economy are two areas in which we can start to radically re-define the terms excellence and reward. And we can start to expand our definition of community from tribes and borders to a sense of global family. I agree with the filmmaker (@ 2:16) that we are faced today with a potentially fatal “value system” disorder and (@ 2:20) that many of today’s economic assumptions are gross distortions driven by temporary access to cheap, concentrated energy. For the health and well-being of our great grandchildren and our planet in general, we need to develop a better informed and more comprehensively linked value system between our economic systems, our natural resources, and our fundamental connectedness as a human  

Addicted to Risk

“Ignore those creeping fears that we have finally hit the wall. There are still no limits. There will always be another frontier. So stop worrying, and keep shopping.” – Naomi Klein, TEDTalk I appreciate Naomi’s voice in the conversation on sustainability vs. risk as we enter the era of “extreme energy.” This is a compelling talk about “master narratives” which may challenge you to reconsider your preconceptions. Her overview on the Alberta Tar Sands is especially powerful. “Just when we understand that we must live off the surface of our planet – off the power of sun, wind, and waves – we are frantically digging to get at the dirtiest, highest carbon-emitting stuff imaginable… This is how Jared Diamond and others have shown that empires commit suicide – by stepping on the accelerator at the exact moment they should be putting on the brakes… Life is too precious to be risked for just any profit… We need different  

The Six-Day Skyscraper

As China increases their ownership of U.S. debt (at a rate now exceeding $1 billion per DAY), they are also methodically leapfrogging us in terms of everyday technologies. A good example is China’s Broad Construction Company (www.broad.com). They can now build a fifteen story hotel that meets our best green energy standards. And they can build it in SIX DAYS. From Broad’s Chinese website: Level 9 Earthquake Resistance: diagonal bracing structure, light weight, steel construction, passed level 9 earthquake resistance testing. . 6x Less Material: even though the construction materials are much lighter(250kg/m2) than the traditional materials(over 1500kg/m2), the floors and walls are solid with surefootedness, airtight and sound-proofing. . 5x Energy Efficient: 150mm thermal insulation for walls and roofs, triple glazed plastic windows, external solar shading, heat insulation, fresh air heat recovery, LED lighting, yearly HVAC A/C energy consumption equivalent to 7 liters oil. [ed., i doubt that last figure] . 20x Purification: after 3 levels of purification, the purification efficiency for fresh air reaches 95%-99.9%; air exchanged 1-2.5 times per hour, and indoor air is 20x cleaner than out door air. . 1% Construction Waste: all components are factory made, construction waste, mainly package materials, result from on site set-up only and amount to 1% of the total weight of the building. . This is the first building in human history which combines almost all environmental friendly, comfortable and secure elements. So, we call it: Sustainable