Lovins: The Myth of Baseload, Moore’s Law and the Renewable Advantage

November 2, 2011

The video above from Bloomberg shows the best and worst of energy/economics communications.

First you’ve got a next-quarter obsessed wall street wonk, incapable of stepping out of market-speak, or group-think, even for a microsecond. Then you’ve got a time pressed journalist who allows an outrageous unsupported talking point to go by unanswered at the end, as time runs out. (if time is short, cut to the chase at 7:25)

Fortunately, Amory Lovins uploaded a correction to the misinformation the same day, which I’ve spliced in at the end.

Although I quibble about the 3 cent/kw figure Lovins gives for new wind contracts, – there is a spread there that goes up to (still very competitive) 9 or 10 cents – Lovins is correct about the overwhelmingly favorable logic of renewables, as Moore’s law like price drops on key components of solar materials continue to drive down prices faster than anyone would have predicted.

Scientific American:

 Over the last 30 years, researchers have watched as the price of capturing solar energy has dropped exponentially. There’s now frequent talk of a “Moore’s law” in solar energy. In computing,  Moore’s law dictates that the number of components that can be placed on a chip doubles every 18 months. More practically speaking, the amount of computing power you can buy for a dollar has roughly doubled every 18 months, for decades. That’s the reason that the phone in your pocket has thousands of times as much memory and ten times as much processing power as a famed Cray 1 supercomputer, while weighing ounces compared to the Cray’s 10,000 lb bulk, fitting in your pocket rather than a large room, and costing tens or hundreds of dollars rather than tens of millions.

If similar dynamics worked in solar power technology, then we would eventually have the solar equivalent of an iPhone – incredibly cheap, mass distributed energy technology that was many times more effective than the giant and centralized technologies it was born from.

So is there such a phenomenon?

The cost of solar, in the average location in the U.S., will cross the current average retail electricity price of 12 cents per kilowatt hour in around 2020, or 9 years from now. In fact, given that retail electricity prices are currently rising by a few percent per year, prices will probably cross earlier, around 2018 for the country as a whole, and as early as 2015 for the sunniest parts of America.

10 years later, in 2030, solar electricity is likely to cost half what coal electricity does today. Solar capacity is being built out at an exponential pace already. When the prices become so much more favorable than those of alternate energy sources, that pace will only accelerate.

We should always be careful of extrapolating trends out, of course. Natural processes have limits. Phenomena that look exponential eventually level off or become linear at a certain point. Yet physicists and engineers in the solar world are optimistic about their roadmaps for the coming decade. The cheapest solar modules, not yet on the market, have manufacturing costs under $1 per watt, making them contenders – when they reach the market – for breaking the 12 cents per Kwh mark.

The exponential trend in solar watts per dollar has been going on for at least 31 years now. If it continues for another 8-10, which looks extremely likely, we’ll have a power source which is as cheap as coal for electricity, with virtually no carbon emissions. If it continues for 20 years, which is also well within the realm of scientific and technical possibility, then we’ll have a green power source which is half the price of coal for electricity.

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13 Responses to “Lovins: The Myth of Baseload, Moore’s Law and the Renewable Advantage”

  1. sinchiroca Says:

    Here’s another area where I’m torn. My light side really wants solar PV to work. Obviously, the world would be a much better place if we could dump all those horrid coal plants and reduce our dependence upon all fossil fuels. Wouldn’t it be great if we had so much solar PV that we could power not only regular electricity use but also transportation uses? Moreover, the shift to solar PV is theoretically solid; thermodynamically, it’s clearly superior.

    But then my dark side kicks in with cynical observations. We’ve been hearing these promises about solar PV becoming commercially viable “real soon now” for decades. I remember hearing these lines back in the 1970s. For example, here’s a quote from Amory Lovins’ “World Energy Strategies”, published in 1975:

    “Major engineering studies of large centralized systems are still embryonic, but suggest that capital costs are likely to be within striking range of present sources if reduced by research and development aimed at developing better materials.”

    This statement is, strictly speaking, right on the mark, but it left out the fact that it would take 30 or 40 years to be borne out. [By the way, I recommend Lovins' first book, "Soft Energy Paths" for its unique approach to energy analysis, although one must always treat his numbers with some skepticism.]

    There’s no question in my mind that solar PV will in fact replace fossil fuels someday. But I think we need to temper our optimism with the cold-blooded realization that there’s no such thing as a free lunch. It will take decades to replace fossil fuels; when it does, it will raise all sorts of new problems. Who owns sunlight? What if Mr. Smith’s tree blocks the sunlight to Mr. Jones’ solar panels? When we start manufacturing millions of tons of solar cells, what kind of environmental impacts will we suffer? If we place solar cells on millions of roofs, how many people will die from falling off their roofs while washing accumulated dust off the solar cells? Put a million monkey-homeowners on a million roofs and you’ll definitely get a goodly number of them falling off. Just among laborers working on roofs, falls generate about $80 million in worker compensation costs per year. Nationwide, about a million people suffer injuries from falls, and 17,000 people die, although most of the injuries are from simple slips among older people who would never go up on a roof in the first place.

    None of these considerations should deter us from aggressively pursuing solar, but let’s not get too starry-eyed, OK?

  2. BlueRock Says:

    It’s the new ‘warming stopped in 1998′:

    > …renewables are intermittent…

    Just like every other *energy* source is intermittent, except nukes can trip offline without warning and stay offline for weeks, months or years. Zero chance of all your wind turbines / solar PV doing that – just a gently fluctuating and predictable supply of juice.

    …….ahh… just finished vid and Lovins explained it. lol @ his elephant analogy.

  3. kap55 Says:

    The problem Lovins avoids regarding intermittent vs. baseload power is that renewables still require 24/7 backup from more reliable sources. And while he mentions that coal & nuclear require a backup that’s 20% of capacity (like that’s a big disadvantage), the backup requirement for renewables is closer to 80%. And that’s the elephant in the room that nobody’s talking about.

    What we really need to do is turn off the g-d fossil plants, and you just can’t get to that point with renewables — which is why nobody’s actually turned one off yet. Hydro is fine, but it’s tapped out; geothermal is fine, but it’s geographically limited. That leaves nuclear.

    Hey Peter, how about a video on LFTR? Can’t melt down, no long-term waste, and much cheaper than current nuclear technologies.

    • BlueRock Says:

      You’ve failed to understand… which is puzzling given how clearly Lovins explained. Nukes need 100% backup for when they fail, which they can do without any notice and remain offline for weeks, months or years. No chance of that with thousands or millions of micro-generators.

      LFTR? Techno fantasist wet dream / nuke lobby vapourware to distract from what they’re trying to sell now.

    • greenman3610 Says:

      “Hey Peter, how about a video on LFTR?”
      Well, I can go out and shoot video of working wind turbines not far from my house.
      Guess I’ll go shoot some video of an LFTR…oops, there are none.
      I’m for dilithium crystals and warp drive too. Let me know when they invent em.


  4. [...] Denial Crock of the Week: Lovins: The Myth of Baseload, Moore’s Law and the Renewable Advantage; Freak Newscast gets Extreme Weather story right; Mike Mann Wins one for the [...]


  5. [...] Obviously Paul Krugman read my post last week about the Moore’s Law driven transformative power of solar energy. [...]


  6. [...] (favoring fossil fuels) in the U.S. today, renewable energy costs, and the myths of baseload power. Peter Sinclair’s apt comments on the interview as follows:The video above from Bloomberg shows the best and worst of [...]


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