A Solar Revolution

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Issue 286
September/October 2014
Politics of Peace

Ecologist

A Solar Revolution
by

issue cover 286

Cover: Navigation by Susanna Bauer. Photo © Simon Cook

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Jonathon Porritt highlights the positive impact of solar power around the world.

Solar panels © MACIEJ NOSKOWSKI/iStock

Solar panels © MACIEJ NOSKOWSKI/iStock

One of the very first big pieces of research that Forum for the Future conducted was for BP in the late 1990s, looking at the prospects for the growth of solar PV in the UK; BP had its own solar business in those days. Prospects were good, we argued, just depending on the speed with which costs in manufacturing PV could be reduced and average efficiencies in the solar cells themselves increased. I’m sorry to say that our report made little impact, and BP axed its solar business just as soon as it could.

Since then, as we all know, costs of solar PV have plummeted, primarily because of Chinese manufacturers driving them down. Efficiencies (in converting that solar radiation into electricity) have also improved, though much more slowly. More importantly, costs are continuing to come down by an astonishing 6–8% per annum. Most experts in the industry believe that this will continue for quite some time to come, as will be the case with the inverters and other bits of kit associated with any PV installation, be that roof-mounted, ground-mounted, embedded in building materials (roofing tiles, cladding, and so on), grid-connected or off-grid.

So let’s cut to the quick here: the Solar Revolution that has been talked about for so long is with us here and now. It’s not ‘for the future’, or ‘just over the horizon’: it’s our reality today – which explains a new-found sense of excitement about the global implications of this technology-driven transition.

All sorts of mainstream organisation (such as the World Bank and the International Energy Agency, as well as various UN agencies) are now talking up the prospects for solar, especially for the hundreds of millions of people who are not connected to the grid. Policy think tanks are increasingly interested in modelling the potential impact of this transition on all sorts of bigger economic, social and cultural agendas. Could capitalism itself – eventually – be transformed?

What makes this so compelling is the universality of the benign impacts of mass solar roll-outs, both in the rich world and in developing and emerging countries. It’s impossible not to be moved by the instant, dramatic improvements in the lives of some of the world’s poorest people: light where there was once darkness; refrigerated vaccines where there was once death and disease; access to markets (via solar mobiles) where there was once ignorance and poverty.

But it’s a big deal too in the rich world. I had a chance to see this at this year’s Large-Scale Solar Conference in the UK. From a standing start, 4,000MW of ground-mounted PV has been installed over the last couple of years, with the strong support of both farmers and local authorities – an 81% success rate on planning applications shows just how acceptable this particular form of renewables has become. And there’s every prospect of this growing to 20,000MW within a few years.

Sounds great, doesn’t it? Unfortunately, as ever, it’s not quite as easy as that. The biggest threat to this unfolding revolution is ineffective, backward-looking and increasingly dysfunctional policymaking by governments. Most governments – even now – just don’t get it, and most politicians (particularly here in the UK) still see solar power as ‘a nice little niche’ to distract people’s attention from the still grim reality of their dependency on fossil fuels.

That continuing collective idiocy has been compounded by the fracking fantasy that is now sweeping the world – even to the extent of some companies describing fracked gas as “renewables-lite”! There’s no doubt that, as a less carbon-intensive source of energy than both coal and oil, gas can help reduce overall greenhouse-gas emissions, especially where it helps to kill off coal – but, sadly, that’s not what’s happening.

More often than not, fracked gas comes on stream in addition to coal, not as an alternative to it. And that’s already jeopardising both the speed and the scale of new investments in renewables – at exactly the time where the rate of uptake is making even the most sceptical investor sit up and open up those fossilised brain circuits. I can pretty much guarantee that the following data points (from the USA) will be unknown to all but a tiny minority of Resurgence & Ecologist readers:

• Wind and solar provided 80.9% of new installed US electricity-generating capacity for February 2014.

• For the first two months of 2014, renewable energy (biomass, geothermal, solar, water and wind) accounted for 91.9% of the 568MW of new electricity-generating capacity installed.

• Coal, oil and nuclear provided none, while natural gas and 1MW of ‘other’ provided the balance.

(My thanks to Ben Adler of Grist for directing my attention to those figures from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.)

So we shouldn’t panic. In the worst of all worlds, a short-lived, over-hyped fracking bubble will just slow the transition to solar and other renewables. That transition will still happen – though from the perspective of accelerating climate change, it is of course a big deal whether it happens in the next 5 years or the next 15 years. As costs fall and efficiencies rise, some of those much-touted laws of competitive markets will eventually kick in. It’s not necessarily governments, fixated as they still are on fossil fuels, that will call the shots. It’s more likely to be capital markets.

And there are all sorts of positive signals here. Back in May, Barclays downgraded the bond market for the whole electricity sector in the USA on the grounds that over the next few years all electric utilities will be threatened by “a confluence of declining cost trends in distributed solar photovoltaic (PV) power generation and residential-scale power storage”. Paul Barwell, the Chief Executive of the UK’s Solar Trade Association, said at the time: “In the USA, the penny has dropped. We are up for the challenge of ‘properly costed’ policy, based on fact, not emotion. The simple fact is that with stable, logical policies, solar should be competing with fossil fuels by the end of this decade. When it does, subsidy-free solar will fundamentally reshape the energy system.”

Paul is being appropriately conservative here. The truth is that solar PV is already competing with fossil fuels in many countries – especially when you take account of the insane subsidies that fossil fuels still receive. This all-important indicator continues to move in the right direction year on year.

Companies like BP once had a chance to be on the right side of this historic, destiny-driving divide. Unfortunately, BP made the wrong choice, and to all intents and purposes, it is now dead in the water.

And, frankly, as one amongst many who tried hard to point to the extra-ordinary significance of that decision, all I can say is good riddance.

Jonathon Porritt is Founder Director of Forum for the Future. His latest book is The World We Made (Phaidon). www.forumforthefuture.org

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