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Solar power continues to grow rapidly [ClearOnMoney]
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Solar power continues to grow rapidly

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Commentary

Solar power continues to grow rapidly

10 Jun 2011 by Jim Fickett.

The average growth rate of installed solar capacity since 1997 has been about 40%/year, and from 2009 to 2010 growth was 73%. If such growth rates were to continue, solar could replace fossil fuels by 2030. The biggest challenge is night. Perhaps a global grid could share power from sunny to dark.

Stuart Staniford at Early Warning has an interesting article today on the global growth of installed solar power capacity.

Just a few top highlights:

  • The great majority of installed capacity is in Europe
  • Solar capacity has been growing, on average, about 40%/year since 1997; growth from 2009 to 2010 was an impressive 73%
  • Solar is currently only about 0.5% of global electrical generation, but if growth were to continue at 40%/year, all power would be solar by 2030

Of course there are some very big challenges for solar to continue rapid growth. Perhaps the biggest is that half the earth is dark at any given time. All the discussions I've seen propose various energy storage solutions – molten salt for thermal storage, batteries or hydrogen cells for chemical storage. Staniford says there is a better solution, a global grid to share the power from sunny regions to dark ones:

There are massive barriers to continuing this level of growth, and in particular it implies the ability to either store large amounts of solar electricity overnight, or trade it around the world between the sunny regions and the dark or cloudy regions. The latter is a lot more feasible, since it can largely be done with existing technology.

In support of this statement that a global grid is feasible, he refers to another of his articles, which says,

However, existing technology for high energy transmission lines appear to be able to do the job, albeit with significant losses. High voltage direct current lines lose about 3% per 1000km. The earth has 6378km radius, so it's 20,000km to go to the exact opposite point on the other side. However, if we figure the average electron only needs to go about 2/3 of the way around the planet to get to its customer, then average losses will be 1- 0.97^13 = 33%. In short, by shipping PV around the world, we lose about a third of the part that's shipped. However, if we figure on average two thirds of PV goes locally to the awake/bright side of the earth with little loss, and one third goes to the asleep/dark side at 1/3 lost, overall losses are a fairly manageable 1/9 of total power generated. This is in the same ballpark as the losses of natural gas in LNG shipping (about 15% of the natural gas). In short, existing technology appears able to get the job done - it's an enormous global infrastructure project, but doesn't require breakthroughs. Any breakthroughs in electric transmission can only make it better. …

Now, the cost of HVDC lines is ballpark $1m/km/GW. So given that we need 7000 GW x 60,000km, we will have to spend about 400 trillion dollars ($2007) between now and 2050 to achieve that. That's a lot (learning curve may reduce it somewhat - I'm not assuming any). However, if by this means we keep economic growth going, then the system will certainly be affordable. Recall that above I gave the IMF investment data and a projection of it. In my scenario, GDP from 2008 to 2050 totals about $7700 trillion, and investment at the historical ratio is $1700 trillion. So the cost of the renewable grid is about 25% of investment, or 5% of GDP. However, we save on all the fuel. For example, in 2006, the global fuel bill for oil, coal, and natural gas (at commodity prices) was about $3.6 trillion, which was 5.4% of 2006 global GDP according to the IMF. Presumably fuel prices going forward are not likely to be much better than 2006. Thus, although a global renewables grid would require a major investment over the course of the next forty - fifty years, it's only comparable to what we would be spending on fuel if we stick with our current course of action

Interesting idea. The political barriers seem quite high (just imagine the Pentagon's reaction), but perhaps it could work.