How Solar Got so Cheap

May 4, 2021

In 1956, the Bell Telephone Science Hour produced “Our Mr Sun” – a look not only at our knowledge of solar physics, but also the just-glimmering beginnings of solar’s application for power production.

The film was part of a series, directed by Frank Capra, of really exceptionally (for the time) great science communication presentations that captured the imagination of the sputnik generation. (Full movie here)

In the short clip above, our host Dr Frank Baxter, (an actual PhD, but of Shakespeare rather than physics) explains the origins of solar photovoltaic cells to his assistant, played by Eddie Albert, and some animated companions.
In a very cool Mid-century modern animation sequence, a cartoon “Dr Baxter” shows us the process for baking new solar cells.

In those days, the cost of solar was truly astronomical, and only suitable where cost was no object, like in powering spacecrafts.

A lot has changed.

I’m working on a video looking at just how realistic President Biden’s goal of a 50 percent reduction in carbon emissions by 2030 really is.
Big factor is the enormous price drop in solar photovoltaics.
Below, a German production examines the factors that pushed solar down the cost curve.

Below, interesting clip of a 2015-ish discussion with MIT’s Ray Kurzweil – you’ll see Elon Musk flash on the screen as well momentarily. Kurzweil has been saying for some time he’s not worried about climate change because solar energy is going to come on so fast, so cheap. (by his logic we’re about 10 years away from 100 percent solar)

I’ll be interviewing on of today’s most bullish techno-optimists tomorrow to find out more. Stay tuned.

18 Responses to “How Solar Got so Cheap”

  1. redskylite Says:

    That’s a gem of an informational video from 1956 – makes me wonder why we were so slow to embrace the Sun.


    “We’ve got to the point where solar is the cheapest source of energy in the world in most places. This means we’ve been trying to model a situation where the grid looks totally different today.”

    “Airports get good sun exposure because they’re not shaded by tall buildings or trees, making them a perfect spot to harness the sun’s energy.”

  2. jimbills Says:

    Kurzweil also thinks by 2029 we’re going to double life expectancy (for years remaining per person) and achieve virtual immortality by 2045:

    But, on solar, this was a good article from a week ago:

  3. rhymeswithgoalie Says:

  4. rhymeswithgoalie Says:

    Kurzweil wasn’t worried about climate change in 2015?

    That’s what happens when you have digital people commenting on natural processes.

  5. redskylite Says:

    During the 1990’s I was lucky enough to attend a talk by the late visionary Dr. James Martin (case tools). Great and interesting speaker. Just found him on youtube, a talk he gave shortly before his death in 2013. He predicts the rise of solar energy use as the dominant power source around 2 mins 20 secs into the talk.

    • J4Zonian Says:

      Martin goes on to talk about nucular pipe dreams. Hmmmm.

      If you covered the total footprint of a nuclear reactor’s grounds with solar panels, you’d produce more power than the nuke. Paraphrased, Elon Musk

      “Small modular reactors won’t achieve economies of manufacturing scale, won’t be faster to construct, forego efficiency of vertical scaling, won’t be cheaper, aren’t suitable for remote or brownfield coal sites, still face very large security costs, will still be costly and slow to decommission, and still require liability insurance caps. They don’t solve any of the problems that they purport to while intentionally choosing to be less efficient than they could be. They’ve existed since the 1950s and they aren’t any better now than they were then.” Michael Barnard

      The German-guy video says you need 2 lakes and a hill for pumped storage. He’s 1/3 right. I can’t think of any way to create large scale storage without a hill, although who knows? But a reservoir is not a lake and can be created almost anywhere, allowed to fill with rain or seawater, which could then also be used for desalination, as in the Chilean Atacama desert project being built. If evaporation is a concern, or even if it isn’t, floating solar can be added, increasing the energy output without taking up any more land. Put it on the site of an old nuke (after the 10,000 year decommissioning process, I suppose) or on the site of an old coal mine, MTR mine, coal or gas burner, or gas and oil field, and voila. I keep having “discussions” with people infected by Gibbs’ Planet of the Lying Psychopathic Cherry Pickers movie or other FFRW (fossil-fueled right wing) talking points who claim renewables lack density and will take up too much land.

      But with offshore wind, rooftop and buildingside solar, energy-&-other application combos, and ever-increasing power density of clean safe renewable energy, we could get to the point where generation takes up almost no land at all except what was ruined for generations by fossil and fissile fuels. As high speed rail replaces flying and moves transport hubs downtown, former airports may be good generation sites, too.

      I’m also fascinated by the solarwind race. Will one become the dominant form of energy for the 21st century or will they always be used in tandem despite storage (with hydro and geothermal, of course, as dispatchable renewables and later, increases in ocean energies)?

      • John Oneill Says:

        Solar and wind, as unreliable power sources needing backup, actually reduce each other’s value. Solar panels covering a reactor’s grounds? – maybe, since some reactors have a lot of untouched land around them. The story I heard was that to match the output of one reactor, you’d need enough panels to stretch right around the earth ( assuming standard panel size and average temperate latitude output, versus 1 GW nuke. ) The panels, though, would put out far more than you need at midday in summer, none all night, bugger all in winter, and hardly any when it’s cloudy. Very handy – if you’re selling gas backup.

        • J4Zonian Says:

          No, they enhance each other’s value by having largely opposite and thus complementary peaks—solar in the middle of the day and the summer, wind in the winter and at night, and along the coast, wind in early mornings and late afternoons and evenings, as it does, for example, in Texas…taking care of the duck curve. And of course, they’re tied in with the dispatchable clean safe renewable energies, hydro and geothermal, and much smaller amounts of tidal, biomass, etc.

          The only problem with clean safe renewable energy is that because of small state bias, gerrymandering, voter suppression, bribery, right wing control of media, and other elements of the SlowCoup that’s been operated since 1964, the narcissistic psychopaths who give you your talking points have kept it from being built fast enough, and we now face the likelihood of a total collapse of civilization and nature as a result.

          Ever heard of batteries? Pumped storage? Distributed generation? Complementary clean safe renewables? Of course you have, because this site has told you numerous times about all of them, and I’ve told you numerous times about all of them, and shown that damned near everything you say is false. Batteries are now being put onto the grid in large enough banks to replace medium-sized gas peakers, and have barely started up the vertical part of their exponential increase.

          Waiting til later to save society from onrushing ecological catastrophe because it’s not profitable enough yet for the already-rich is insane, it’s preventing the building of enough batteries, fast enough, to do the job at the same time it brings the price down even faster than it’s already falling. China has done it for the world; it’s time we pitched in enough to do it for ourselves. It’s also time you gave it up. Nukes lost. Stop trying to get in the way of the only solutions; at this point your astounding ignorance, whether feigned or real, is just pathetic.

        • Gingerbaker Says:

          LOL. If there was a line of solar panels around the Earth, they would be collecting sunlight all the time including “at night”.

          You can’t even keep your stupid reductio ad absurdum correct for crying out loud.

      • redskylite Says:

        Agreed – But the late Dr James Martin was talking about fusion not fission, and he was talking about the future. Having listened to the man (in the last century) who worked with Alan Turing and was a designer of great note, many of his subjects have come to fruition. I won’t be around to validate (or not) his fission prediction, but I believe it is very possible and it would be of great benefit to mankind without all the negatives of fission. May just save the last of our glaciers that are disappearing n accelerating fashion.

        • redskylite Says:

          oops ” I won’t be around to validate (or not) his fission prediction” should read “I won’t be around to validate (or not) his fusion prediction”.

        • redskylite Says:

          Fusion not fission: Watch this space

          “The principle is easy enough to understand. Take hydrogen atoms, add enough heat and pressure and they will fuse together to form helium. During that process some of the hydrogen mass is transformed into heat, which you can use to make electricity.

          The catch is that to make fusion happen here on Earth, you have to heat hydrogen isotopes to hundreds of millions of degrees, until they become so energetic they break apart into a whirling state of matter called plasma.”

      • Aren’t suitable for remote or brownfield coal sites?

        • J4Zonian Says:

          There’s nothing new there, just the SOS that will never work. Nothing nuclear that’s different from what’s already failed in so many ways will work because it will have all the same problems, often worse, and is very likely to have new ones besides. To think that anything might be designed, built, tested, redesigned, retested, rebuilt (multiple times) and then replace all the fossil fuels in the world IN THE 10 YEARS WE NEED THAT TO HAPPEN TO AVOID CATACLYSM is absolute Chiroptera defecation lunacy. Putting pretty pictures in that have nothing whatever to do with the subject does not help except to make it even more clear there’s a serious difference in perceived realities.

  6. John Oneill Says:

    Kyushu, Japan – the effect of adding 5 GW of solar to a grid with 4 GW
    of nuclear and about 9GW peak demand.

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