A Sunny Energy Future

Rebecca Leber spotlights two reports suggesting that “the world could be largely powered by the sun, instead of coal, within decades”:

The reports come from the International Energy Agency (IEA). It focuses on two kinds of solarthe kind that’s commonly seen installed on homes and businesses in the U.S. (solar photovoltaic) and the kind that generates heat to power (solar thermal). Within 35 years, according to the reports, they could account (respectively) for 16 and 11 percent of the world’s electricity generation.

It wouldn’t be easy to get to this level. Today, solar accounts for less than 1 percent of global energy consumption and 0.2 percent in the United States. To hit the levels IEA projects, there would have to be substantial investment upfront. But advances in technology, in addition to taxpayer subsidies, have helped solar panel costs come down some 80 percent in the last five years. If the IEA is right, costs may shrink another 65 percent by 2050.

Dave Roberts highlights the fact “that solar costs are plunging so fast that even the stodgy IEA is scrambling to keep up”:

At virtually every point in time over the last several decades, IEA has been behind the curve, underestimating the growth of renewables. Raise your hand if you think this is the last time it will reassess and upgrade solar’s potential contribution.

Relatedly, Brad Plumer analyzes the fight between solar and electric utilities. The core issue:

Rooftop solar generation has roughly tripled since 2010. By some estimates, a new solar system is installed every four minutes in the United States.

To electric utilities, this poses a dilemma. As rooftop solar becomes more popular, people will buy less and less electricity from their local power company. But utilities still have plenty of fixed costs for things like maintaining the grid. So, in response, those utilities will eventually have to raise rates on everyone else. Trouble is, those higher electricity rates could spur even more people to install their own solar rooftop panels to save money. Cue the death spiral.

Sound far-fetched? This was the doomsday scenario laid out by the Edison Electric Institute, an industry trade group, back in January 2013. Even a relatively modest increase in rooftop solar power could cause havoc. David Crane, CEO of NRG Energy, has called these trends “a mortal threat to the existing utility system.”