If current rates of improvement hold, solar power will be incredibly cheap by the time it’s a substantial fraction of the world’s electricity supply, writes famous author and thinker Ramez Naam. According to Naam, electricity cost is from now on coupled to the ever-decreasing price of technology. That is profoundly deflationary and disruptive.
It’s now fairly common knowledge that the cost of solar modules is dropping exponentially. I helped publicize that fact in a 2011 Scientific American blog post asking “Does Moore’s Law Apply to Solar Cells?” The answer is that something like Moore’s law, an exponential learning curve (albeit slower than in computing) applies. (For those that think Moore’s Law is a terrible analogy, here’s my post on why Moore’s Law is an excellent analogy for solar.
Solar electricity cost, not solar module cost, is key
But module prices now make up less than half of the price of complete solar deployments at the utility scale. The bulk of the price of solar is so-called “soft costs” – the DC->AC inverter, the labor to install the panels, the glass and aluminum used to cover and prop them up, the interconnection to the grid, etc. Solar module costs are now just one component in a more important question: What’s the trend in cost reduction of solar electricity? And what does that predict for the future?
Let’s look at some data. Here are cost of solar Power Purchase Agreements (PPAs) signed in the US over the last several years. PPAs are contracts to sell electricity, in this case from solar photovoltaic plants, at a pre-determined price. Most utility-scale solar installations happen with a PPA.
In the US, the price embedded in solar PPAs has dropped over the last 7-8 years from around $200 / MWh (or 20 cents / kwh) to a low of around $40 / MWh (or 4 cents per kwh).
prices – if trends hold
The most important, question, for solar, is what will future prices be? Any projection here has to be seen as just that – a projection. Not reality. History is filled with trends that reached their natural limits and stalled. Learning rates are a crude way to model the complexities involved in lowering costs. Things could deviate substantially from this trendline.
That said, if the trend in solar pricing holds, here’s what it shows for future solar prices, without subsidies, as a function of scale.
Again, these are unsubsidized prices, ranging from solar in extremely sunny areas (the gold line) to solar in more typical locations in the US, China, India, and Southern Europe (the green line).
What this graph shows is that, if solar electricity continues its current learning rate, by the time solar capacity triples to 600GW (by 2020 or 2021, as a rough estimate), we should see unsubsidized solar prices of roughly 4.5 c / kwh for very sunny places (the US southwest, the Middle East, Australia, parts of India, parts of Latin America), ranging up to 6.5 c / kwh for more moderately sunny areas (almost all of India, large swaths of the US and China, southern and central Europe, almost all of Latin America).
And beyond that, by the time solar scale has doubled 4 more times, to the equivalent of 16% of today’s electricity demand (and somewhat less of future demand), we should see solar at 3 cents per kwh in the sunniest areas, and 4.5 cents per kwh in moderately sunny areas.
If this holds, solar will cost less than half what new coal or natural gas electricity cost, even without factoring in the cost of air pollution and carbon pollution emitted by fossil fuel power plants.
As crazy as this projection sounds, it’s not unique. The IEA (International Energy Agency), in one of its scenarios, projects 4 cent per kwh solar by mid century.
Fraunhofer ISE, the German research institute, goes farther, predicting solar as cheap as 2 euro cents per kwh in the sunniest parts of Europe by 2050.
Press link for more: Ramez Naam | reneweconomy.com.au