Look Out Below. Solar Prices to Fall Further..

January 24, 2021

So, I was so freaked out and appalled by the post-election machinations of Republicans, lost in doom scrolling like so many others, as well as screaming through the phone at my election-sabotaging congressperson’s hapless staff, that I got behind on my videos for Yale Climate Connections.
That, plus December is always dicey, with American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting (even virtually as this year) and the holidays so close together.

No worries, I told my editor Bud Ward, I’ll just get you two videos in January.
So the first one of those, on arctic sea ice, will be out in coming days. The second one will be envisioning where we might go in the post-climate denial era, with a Science-friendly administration.
There’s so much here that there will have to be a series of short vids in addition to the main one to cover it all.
Start with the above, part of my drinking-from-a-firehose interview with Saul Griffith, MacArthur Genius, energy visionary, and CEO of Otherlab.

Utility Dive:

  • Based on developing technology already in the pipeline, a new report by Wood Mackenzieprojects that solar costs will fall another 15-25% over the next decade, potentially making solar the lowest-cost power resource in all U.S. states by 2030.
  • Rapid adoption of solar energy allowed the industry to scale and cut costs much faster than analysts in the early 2010s expected would be possible, according to Ravi Manghani, head of solar research for Wood MacKenzie.
  • Demand for solar continues to exceed installation capacity, and could continue to do so for some time, according to Manghani. But without affordable storage options, he said, solar installations could end up essentially giving power away.

How cheap could solar power get? So cheap, Wood MacKenzie’s Manghani said, that someday power generators may let solar energy “go to waste” by installing more solar capacity than needed and simply turning off the excess generation when it’s not.

“It’s not a bad thing, because at the end of the day, if the cost is still below the other resources, you might still go with solar,” Manghani said.

In the early 2010s, Manghani said, analysts who watch the solar industry anticipated slow but steady cost reductions as the industry grew. What they didn’t see coming, he said, was the exponential rate at which the industry would reduce costs as it scaled rapidly.

“That’s the most fascinating part,” he said. “The industry, or even industry observers such as [Wood Mackenzie] underestimated the potential of scaling.”

These cost declines might make one think that the age of falling solar prices is behind us, Manghani said, but he doesn’t believe that is the case.

“The cost decline trend is not slowing down any time soon,” he said. “Yes, there are some externalities that may change, on a short-term basis, but the level of innovation we’ve seen in the industry makes us feel good about the cost reduction possibilities that exist.”

But the industry must also manage a balancing act, Manghani said. Until the industry has an affordable, viable solution to storing and shifting the availability of variable solar energy, there is a chance that solar could essentially grow itself out of a job. In this scenario, Manghani said, demand for solar could plummet and drag prices along with it.

At present, Manghani said, this scenario seems unlikely, with storage on track to fill the coming need. But in the meantime, he said, the industry will experience another growing pain: there is currently greater demand for solar than there is capacity to deploy it, and bottlenecks have begun to build up around permitting and interconnection. Consequently, although the actual equipment and technology continues to grow more affordable, Manghani said overall PPA prices have actually begun to rise.

11 Responses to “Look Out Below. Solar Prices to Fall Further..”

  1. ecoquant Says:

    Disparities between demand and actualization as cited are not healthy, for sure. Yes, there might be repercussions of backlog into the solar PV supply chain. But these analyses fail to appreciate that when the gap between extant energy prices and potential energy prices widen as described, there is increasing incentive for clever third parties to figure out how to bridge the gap or at least exploit it.

    The longstanding question which hasn’t been addressed is why, under these circumstances, do you need interconnection at all? Why not build out means which use some kind of local interconnection independent of the authorized grid to provide decentralized energy and backup, where possible, or to offer packages where intermittent excesses of power are available to bidders for contract? I mean, sure, everyone is used to consistent anytime-you-want-it electrical power, but there are business models which are consistent with use-power-on-good-days-and-do-something-else-on-bad-ones.

    After all, there already are electricity-hungry manufacturers who have changed their business models to operating on days when they have free zero Carbon electricity by wind or solar, and, because they are so rare, choose to simply not operate on days where there is not.

    On another angle, everyone seems to think that storage is the necessary solution to all this. The other aspect is clever manipulation of demand and allocation of variable resources using digital resources and control theory. These kinds of algorithms have been used internal to high demand battery systems to model and allocate choices of charging and discharging best consistent with a plant’s chemistry and usage patterns. They could be applied to wider things.

    And storage may not only be in the form of batteries but, soon, could be Hydrogen, via electrolysis from water or cracking methane — although to be sustainable they need to figure out what to do with the resulting Carbon, impeding it converting to CO2.

    In short, when I hear of these descriptions of risky circumstances, what I come out with is a failure to apply suitably educated imagination. And if a person with that imagination may not want to invest directly in such projects and businesses, they might look about for places to put their monies that align.

  2. J4Zonian Says:

    I don’t understand why non-anti-renewable people are still talking about each clean safe renewable source as if it exists in a vacuum.

    The first answer to “too much” solar is connection across time zones, which at the end of Governor Brown’s term, when a number of renewable energy bills were passed in California, was inexplicably and ignorantly ignored by the legislature. Federal government coordination will be necessary for a more efficient and intelligent program of building and using clean safe renewable energy.

    The second solution is wind power, also distributed widely, especially offshore wind, which can supply all the energy (not just current electricity, pardon the pun) that the east coast needs, plus enough to feed into the midwest to solve the duck curve there.

    North-South connection can help too, linking Canadian plains wind and Pacific NW hydro and West Coast geothermal, to SW US and Mexican 24/7 CSP.

    The fourth answer is political change in red states, so they can build enough solar for their own time zones’ needs where the percentage of solar is lowest and in most need of increase.

    When all those are at least partly implemented, storage will be useful to capture the excess power.

    • rhymeswithgoalie Says:

      I found it weird hearing Saul Griffith referring to the “summer peak” as being the minimum load of the year. Between New Orleans and Austin I’ve spent 45 years of my life living in air-conditioning land, and expecting them to get hotter and hotter over the coming decades.

      I suppose he’s calculating all of the winter heating that was once based on direct combustion gradually being converted to electric. But still, I associate brown-outs with high a/c loads.

      • ecoquant Says:

        That’s a technical detail depending upon where you live.

        Prior to our moving to air source heat pumps, our most expensive electrical months were in hot Summer months, dumping tons of electrons into our air conditioner. Now they are our cheapest, not only because these are offset by the 13.5 kW PV array on our roof, but because the heat pumps don’t work that hard to keep it cool, since the distance between 38 degrees C and 20 C is less than 20 C and, say, -5 C in Winter.

        Moreover, as climate warms, those -5 C days will become rarer. And, while 38 C days may become more frequent, they are not likely to come in runs. If they do, the PV helps.

  3. Brent Jensen-Schmidt Says:

    The USA, eastern states 11 AM, western 7 AM. Solar power in the east, such as it is, is staring to output on a sunny January day. In the prime mid west locations the sun is not high or useful. Meanwhile the whole country is sucking on the power grid. Solar does not produce every day let alone all day. This is not (yet) a reason to stop building it, but is a reason to look for real solutions rather than hapee wishful rationalizations,

    • ecoquant Says:

      Your criticisms are true of the current configuration of solar PV and the current grid. Part of the problem is that there isn’t enough solar PV available, and what is there is badly interconnected.

      The formula for a stable zero Carbon energy electrical supply — and it can’t be done by solar PV alone, it needs wind, too — is to overbuild generation 4X where X is median of high demands across days, and supplant this with 40-70 hours of storage, be that battery, water pumped back over dams, and similar.

      On many days the ensemble will over generate. Those days the grid either pays people to consume the power or, probably more creatively, takes the excess to electrolyze water into Hydrogen. That’s stored, not for energy, but for other applications.

      It’s not that hard. It does need coordination, something which the United States has thus far done poorly, and so pays the resulting Price of Anarachy.

    • J4Zonian Says:

      You’re right—about 1 thing.

      But as I asked in the comment before yours, why are people still talking about each clean safe renewable source as if it exists in a vacuum?

      Solar provides the most energy when and where it’s most needed in most of the most-populated world—during the day, when business and AC are making the highest demands. When it’s less, demand is also less except for the duck curve. One of our first strategies for increasing RE% should be to use heat pumps instead of AC; longer term answers include better building and city design, adjusting human schedules to meet the climate rather than ignoring nature, and adjusting civilizationized psychology to fit into ecological webs.

      While solar helps by providing local power and for the duck curves to the east, wind provides more at the time of the local duck curve ramp up—the Texas coast, for example, while West Texas wind provides more at night—also useful. West Coast offshore wind will also help with eastern ducks.

      Solar will be so cheap “that someday power generators may let solar energy “go to waste” by installing more solar capacity than needed and simply turning off the excess generation when it’s not.”

      Of course, solar and wind energy is virtually free once the facility is built. Letting it “go to waste” really means letting the facility idle, which we do all the time, at much greater cost, with coal, gas and nuke burners. In fact, in a couple of years at current rates, coal and gas burners will be idling more than they’re running; before the virus they were already down to about 55% capacity factor; they continue to drop because there are ever-growing periods during which they can’t compete with solar and wind. The sudden increase in big-turbine US east coast wind over the next few years, with its much higher capacity factor, will make coal, gas and nukes even less tenable than they are now. (Most nukes and coal burners are already losing money.)

      As V2G capability improves, the distinction between EV batteries and grid batteries will shrink, even as their chemistries diverge. Both are increasing exponentially; if we have the sense to link together into a national-and-beyond grid, they’ll soon be able to fill in any daily gaps that the combination of wind, solar PV, CSP, hydro, geothermal, tidal, biomass and other energies leave. Building solar and wind where there’s almost none now—the reluctantly red states of denial, also with new, high capacity factor tech—will also add capacity easily and at low cost while the grids are being connected.

      Connecting Pacific NW, Canadian, and other hydro; BC, western US, and other geothermal; SW US and Mexican CSP; and local resources of all kinds, all over, using demand response, efficiency, and wiser lives, and storage, will give enough distributed generation to provide all the energy North America needs.

      When it’s 11am on the east coast it’s 8 on the west, and 10 am in the midwest, where there’s plenty of solar power being generated. Soon, when we can build floating wind turbines in deep enough ocean it will add another hour of power in each direction, 12 to 7.

      Various studies by NREL and others have shown that with pretty conservative use of rooftops (50%), parking lots (100%), windows (50%), and reservoirs (10%), we could supply more than 200% of current electricity even without any utility solar. 7% of current electricity is now supplied by hydro. East Coast offshore wind alone has the potential to supply 4 times the electricity the coast uses, midwest wind could provide 16 times current US electricity use, and the Gulf coast is able to provide 5 times what the Gulf states use. In all, onshore wind can provide 9 times the electricity the US uses; offshore 2 times. Most of these figures don’t include AK or HI, which have enormous untapped resources.

      Geothermal could supply somewhere between half of the energy the US uses, and 130,000 times what it uses, depending on the technology. And it can provide at least half of BC’s electricity. (Canada’s already 60% hydro and 6% wind, with awesome potential for more wind.)

      So even with only today’s wind and solar tech, no utility solar, the most primitive geothermal energy, and only existing hydro, we could supply um, a way, way lot more energy than the US will ever use. With a little storage it can meet any hour to hour needs we’ll ever have.

      • ecoquant Says:

        Since consistent supply for zero Carbon energy means overbuilding and having some storage around, there will always be times where more is generated than needed. This could be applied to a lot of things, but a favorite these days is to dump the energy into electrolysis and create Hydrogen.

        There are plenty of potential applications for such Hydrogen, especially if it can be produced at essentially zero cost.

      • Brent Jensen-Schmidt Says:

        Yep, it’s 8 AM West, more people up and its 9 AM mountain time where the deserts are.
        It is no fun dumping on renewables and risky even on this site. All have difficulties with variables of country and much more. FACT, the world is cooking and wishful thinking is Dangerous.
        Overbuild, no personal objection. Investors however, see massive overproduction over a few hours on a good day. Low price. Bad day, no price regardless of capacity.
        Storage, they are peaker plants, and as yet can not take gigawatts on demand. Or supply gigawatts on demand.
        Interconnection helps. Bad news is that all power lines do not lead to thee. Only excess power is available, IF any, for transfer.
        USA does not have Canada’s hydro, which is maxed anyhow. Oz has buggar all, used as peakers, when there is water. (The belief that another countries hydro at need often crops up.)
        Geothermal is trivial and even my wishful thinking on Hydrogen is silly.
        Renewables max 60%, firm 40%. Sad but real.

    • rhymeswithgoalie Says:

      I don’t know how much difference this makes, but PV solar sun->electricity conversion is more efficient at colder temperatures.

      • ecoquant Says:

        True, but it does not make that much practical difference, given both the higher elevation of Sun, and because Spring-Summer-Autumn weather, at least in New England, tends to produce a lot of cumulus-type clouds which provide multiple paths for sunlight to arrive on PV arrays.

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