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Massive price drop in solar power: Alternative energy will no longer be "alternative"

Posted by on May. 31, 2013 at 12:21 AM
  • 48 Replies
6 moms liked this

Alternative energy will no longer be alternative

Rebranding is always a tricky exercise, but for one field of technology 2013 will be the year when its proponents need to bite the bullet and do it. That field is alternative energy. The word “alternative”, with its connotations of hand-wringing greenery and a need for taxpayer subsidy, has to go. And in 2013 it will. “Renewable” power will start to be seen as normal.

Wind farms already provide 2% of the world’s electricity, and their capacity is doubling every three years. If that growth rate is maintained, wind power will overtake nuclear’s contribution to the world’s energy accounts in about a decade. Though it still has its opponents, wind is thus already a grown-up technology. But it is in the field of solar energy, currently only a quarter of a percent of the planet’s electricity supply, but which grew 86% last year, that the biggest shift of attitude will be seen, for sunlight has the potential to disrupt the electricity market completely.

The underlying cause of this disruption is a phenomenon that solar’s supporters call Swanson’s law, in imitation of Moore’s law of transistor cost. Moore’s law suggests that the size of transistors (and also their cost) halves every 18 months or so. Swanson’s law, named after Richard Swanson, the founder of SunPower, a big American solar-cell manufacturer, suggests that the cost of the photovoltaic cells needed to generate solar power falls by 20% with each doubling of global manufacturing capacity. The upshot (see chart) is that the modules used to make solar-power plants now cost less than a dollar per watt of capacity. Power-station construction costs can add $4 to that, but these, too, are falling as builders work out how to do the job better. And running a solar power station is cheap because the fuel is free.

Coal-fired plants, for comparison, cost about $3 a watt to build in the United States, and natural-gas plants cost $1. But that is before the fuel to run them is bought. In sunny regions such as California, then, photovoltaic power could already compete without subsidy with the more expensive parts of the traditional power market, such as the natural-gas-fired “peaker” plants kept on stand-by to meet surges in demand. Moreover, technological developments that have been proved in the laboratory but have not yet moved into the factory mean Swanson’s law still has many years to run.

Running a solar power station is cheap because the fuel is free

Comparing the cost of wind and solar power with that of coal- and gas-fired electricity generation is more than just a matter of comparing the costs of the plant and the fuel, of course. Reliability of supply is a crucial factor, for the sun does not always shine and the wind does not always blow. But the problem of reliability is the subject of intensive research. Many organisations, both academic and commercial, are working on ways to store electricity when it is in surplus, so that it can be used when it is scarce.

Progress is particularly likely during 2013 in the field of flow batteries. These devices, hybrids between traditional batteries and fuel cells, use liquid electrolytes, often made from cheap materials such as iron, to squirrel away huge amounts of energy in chemical form. “Grid-scale” storage of this or some other sort is the second way, after Swanson’s law, that the economics of renewable energy will be transformed.

One consequence of all this progress is that subsidies for wind and solar power have fallen over recent years. In 2013, they will fall further. Though subsidies will not disappear entirely, the so-called alternatives will be seen to stand on their own feet in a way that was not true in the past. That will give them political clout and lead to questions about the subventions which more traditional forms of power generation enjoy (coal production, for example, is heavily subsidised in parts of Europe).

Fossil-fuel-powered electricity will not be pushed aside quickly. Fracking, a technological breakthrough which enables natural gas to be extracted cheaply from shale, means that gas-fired power stations, which already produce a fifth of the world’s electricity, will keep the pressure on wind and solar to get better still. But even if natural gas were free, no Swanson’s law-like process applies to the plant required to turn it into electricity. Nuclear power is not a realistic alternative. It is too unpopular and the capital costs are huge. And coal’s days seem numbered. In America, the share of electricity generated from coal has fallen from almost 80% in the mid-1980s to less than a third in April 2012, and coal-fired power stations are closing in droves.

It may take longer to make the change in China and India, where demand for power is growing almost insatiably, and where the grids to take that power from windy and sunny places to the cities are less developed than in rich countries. In the end, though, they too will change as the alternatives become normal, and what was once normal becomes quaintly old-fashioned.

Geoffrey Carr: science editor, The Economis

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by on May. 31, 2013 at 12:21 AM
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Replies (1-10):
Jack_Squat
by Silver Member on May. 31, 2013 at 12:34 AM
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Who owns the majority of shares in wind farms? Oh, that's right......oil companies. 

brookiecookie87
by Platinum Member on May. 31, 2013 at 12:36 AM
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Quoting Jack_Squat:

Who owns the majority of shares in wind farms? Oh, that's right......oil companies. 

How is this relevant to this topic?


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If they enforced bank regulations like they do park rules, we wouldn't be in this mess

Jack_Squat
by Silver Member on May. 31, 2013 at 1:01 AM
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The article states that alternative power (wind) companies will stand on their own two feet, which will give them political clout, blah blah blah. 

That is an untrue statement. The only effect it will have is big oil companies/CEO's having a bit more clout because they own the majority of shares in wind farms. They also fund the majority of the construction of the wind farm projects. BP, alone, has invested over 55 billion dollars in alternative energy just in the past half a decade.

They also fund a huge chunk of other alternative sources like biofuel research and ethanol refining. 

Also, tax credits for wind farms expire after 2014, which causes the value of assets to drop drastically, which in turn will cause the price of this particular energy source to skyrocket, again. People and businesses are also bowing out of investing in wind energy because the main manufacturer sold out and is going downhill. 


Quoting brookiecookie87:



Quoting Jack_Squat:

Who owns the majority of shares in wind farms? Oh, that's right......oil companies. 

How is this relevant to this topic?




brookiecookie87
by Platinum Member on May. 31, 2013 at 1:07 AM

That doesn't make any sense.

It doesn't matter who is investing in Solar power, or Wind. If they are starting to stand on their own two feet they are starting to stand on their own two feet.

Some of the money coming from Oil companies doesn't diminish what they are doing. And considering Big Oil companies/CEO's are use to doing whatever needs to be done to get profits. Having them in the corner of Wind or Solar could be a boon to that industry as well.

Quoting Jack_Squat:

The article states that alternative power (wind) companies will stand on their own two feet, which will give them political clout, blah blah blah. 

That is an untrue statement. The only effect it will have is big oil companies/CEO's having a bit more clout because they own the majority of shares in wind farms. 

Quoting brookiecookie87:
Quoting Jack_Squat:

Who owns the majority of shares in wind farms? Oh, that's right......oil companies. 

How is this relevant to this topic?



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If they enforced bank regulations like they do park rules, we wouldn't be in this mess

Jack_Squat
by Silver Member on May. 31, 2013 at 1:19 AM
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I edited the reply you just quoted, if you want to check it out.

It matters VERY MUCH who is investing in the companies that produce wind power (and solar), especially when they are losing much of their government subsidies. "Standing on their own two feet" means they rely on their investors and not government subsidies. That's how major companies work. In this case, the majority of investors are big oil companies like BP, EXXON, etc., some of the biggest companies in the world. I guarantee you, after 2014, wind farms are going to take a MAJOR hit, and many will go bankrupt, especially considering BP is selling all of their shares. 



Quoting brookiecookie87:

That doesn't make any sense.

It doesn't matter who is investing in Solar power, or Wind. If they are starting to stand on their own two feet they are starting to stand on their own two feet.

Some of the money coming from Oil companies doesn't diminish what they are doing. And considering Big Oil companies/CEO's are use to doing whatever needs to be done to get profits. Having them in the corner of Wind or Solar could be a boon to that industry as well.

Quoting Jack_Squat:

The article states that alternative power (wind) companies will stand on their own two feet, which will give them political clout, blah blah blah. 

That is an untrue statement. The only effect it will have is big oil companies/CEO's having a bit more clout because they own the majority of shares in wind farms. 

Quoting brookiecookie87:
Quoting Jack_Squat:

Who owns the majority of shares in wind farms? Oh, that's right......oil companies. 

How is this relevant to this topic?





brookiecookie87
by Platinum Member on May. 31, 2013 at 1:35 AM

You crack me up.

It's a problem if BP is investing in Wind. And it's a problem if they are selling what they invested in Wind. So pretty much no matter which way it goes-It's a problem to you.

Shall we go back to the topic of Solar Power and it's massive price drop now?

Quoting Jack_Squat:

I edited the reply you just quoted, if you want to check it out.

It matters VERY MUCH who is investing in the companies that produce wind power (and solar), especially when they are losing much of their government subsidies. "Standing on their own two feet" means they rely on their investors and not government subsidies. That's how major companies work. In this case, the majority of investors are big oil companies like BP, EXXON, etc., some of the biggest companies in the world. I guarantee you, after 2014, wind farms are going to take a MAJOR hit, and many will go bankrupt, especially considering BP is selling all of their shares. 

Quoting brookiecookie87:

That doesn't make any sense.

It doesn't matter who is investing in Solar power, or Wind. If they are starting to stand on their own two feet they are starting to stand on their own two feet.

Some of the money coming from Oil companies doesn't diminish what they are doing. And considering Big Oil companies/CEO's are use to doing whatever needs to be done to get profits. Having them in the corner of Wind or Solar could be a boon to that industry as well.

Quoting Jack_Squat:

The article states that alternative power (wind) companies will stand on their own two feet, which will give them political clout, blah blah blah. 

That is an untrue statement. The only effect it will have is big oil companies/CEO's having a bit more clout because they own the majority of shares in wind farms. 

Quoting brookiecookie87:
Quoting Jack_Squat:

Who owns the majority of shares in wind farms? Oh, that's right......oil companies. 

How is this relevant to this topic?







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If they enforced bank regulations like they do park rules, we wouldn't be in this mess

Goodwoman614
by Satan on May. 31, 2013 at 2:26 AM

BUMP!

Goodwoman614
by Satan on May. 31, 2013 at 2:28 AM
4 moms liked this

One of my favorite sayings to dd12 is "geeks save the day." And they will. Innovators, designers, technologists in many interrelated fields...will continue to move us forward and off fossil fuels completely. 

paganbaby
by Teflon Don on May. 31, 2013 at 2:30 AM

Fantastic!

Farmlady09
by Silver Member on May. 31, 2013 at 2:44 AM
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The biggest problem with solar power is still going to be cities and large towns that rely on a company to funnel power to each home. That cost is not going to come down any time soon ~ and Americans as a whole use far too much electric each day to make it feasible.

Solar power requires a massive reduction of personal use per household. You can kiss off your hairdryers, your clothes dryers, your huge refrigerators and freezers, and pretty much all of your countertop appliances.

Another huge issue will be heating and cooling. Most homes today (and for the past 4 decades) have been built to city codes. Most are horribly inefficient as far as insulation, using passive heating and cooling, or catching the prevailing breezes. If you think you can't live without AC ~ especially central heat/air ~ you won't be able to function on solar power.

If you currently have three tv's blasting, a computer or two, always on appliances that you never remember to plug in with a power strip and actually 'turn them completely off' (or hate doing so because the clock needs to be reset), if you have electric alarm clocks, 6-8 lights in each room, etc. you are going to have problems.

I know this. I live on solar power. We started slow, and still use some of the 'free' options. Solar heat catchers, a homemade solar hwh, small solar units on the wells and outdoor lighting. We have led lightbulbs in addition to an emergency 12 volt led backup system. My countertop appliances consist of a crockpot and a dehydrator. I do have a high end mixer, but I rarely use it, and if I do I may have to shut something else off (it's an older model). I have on window AC unit but mostly rely on fans and natural prevailing winds, properly placed venting, etc.

I have one small frig and a small chest freezer. I have a wood burning/coal cookstove that cost more than the solar setup lol ... but doubles as a heat source in the winter. Since it's far too much of a heat source in the summer my kitchen is not actually attached to the house. For heating we have a wood stove and an outdoor heat exchange system, also wood burning.

I also have mostly rechargeable solar lighting througout my home (meaning during the day those expensive lanterns hang outside in the sun and are brought in at dusk). My clothes hang on a washline to dry. I have a normal washing machine, as well as a wringer washer that can be powered three ways.

Could I do this in a town or city? Maybe some of it, but not all. People living in cities would need to choose between purchasing propane appliances, giving up most appliances, and staying warm or cool depending on the season. Most would have to scrap just about every electrical user in the home ... all those little plug in gadgets, docking stations to charge up phones, electronic games, etc. It all adds up. Constantly.

The batteries need to be stored outside and out of the elements. They require upkeep AND replacing. Speaking of outside, you'll have to rethink things if you have a sprinkler system, outdoor lights, an outdoor kitchen along with an indoor kitchen, a big shop for wood or metal or automotive work, etc.

A lot of city codes would require using only the city source for power ... meaning you get what you get, not what you can produce yourself ~ AND you're actually still dependent on both another source and the grid that is a shambles. A major part of any energy revamp is going to be replacing that grid.

All of that aside, I absolutely think that America needs to get going with alternative energy. A major plus will be an end to endless waste and mindless spending that so many people in this country just ... do. Oil isn't going to last forever, and most of the American gluttony happened because oil was cheap and plentiful. Those days are gone. Natural gas is an interim option, but it has some fairly explosive dangers attached to it ... particularly in cities and towns that are already strapped for cash. If your town is laying off cops and firefighters, natural gas is probably a bad idea.

And, that change, if dependent on individuals waiting around for the government to set it up, maintain it, and deliver any alternative power are going to cost most people as much each year to pay for as it costs for a homeowner to provide their own for 7-10 years.

Right now I set aside a small sum per month exclusively for occasional maintenance costs. I've dipped into it once in two years. I wouldn't go back to being tied to the grid at this point for any reason. Spending roughly 4 grand, over a period of 5 years will provide us with electricity for the next 7-10 years. That averages out to a cost of $33 - $48 a month for all the electricity we need ... whether or not the power goes down around us. How much was your last electric bill? How much does it cost you a year ... or 7 years? Do the math ~ but 'you' can maintain your own electric production for far less than ANY company can provide it to you 'at a cost'.

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