Making the case for utility-sized solar generation
Part 1 of an 8-part look at the pace and future of renewable technologies
To observers, like myself, who track the advance of new technologies, the importance of them attaining one per cent and two per cent of global markets become critical focal points to watch. Once a new technology grows to be above one per cent of global sales, it is no longer considered to be a niche product, but becomes a mainstream product instead, near impossible to be annihilated. When these new products or technologies grow above two per cent, it signals they are big threats to the established older products.
Solar is now at that threshold, and rechargeable lithium-ion batteries are fast approaching it too, both for transportation (electric vehicles) and power storage, albeit at household levels so far. Power markets and transportation are huge markets, so commanding one or two per cent of a massive global market is by itself a very huge accomplishment, making the new product even more dangerous a competitor to the older, entrenched technologies.
If that new technology advances from one per cent to two per cent in rapid time, a doubling of its proliferation, it signals that it will quickly dominate the global market. Motor cars (new a century ago) moved from eight per cent to 80 per cent of all transportation in under 10 years, eliminating horse-drawn carriages and stage coaches. Cellphones did their domination in just seven short years, marginalising landlines and dial phones and ushering the demise of companies whose business models were built solely on the older technology. The fastest growth of all was digital photography, obliterating Kodak and Polaroid in just two short years. Paying to develop rolls of film has given way to instant professional-quality photographs, and digital cameras have replaced tele-photo lenses. Professional-quality digital cameras are now in smartphones.
So never dismiss an emerging technology by saying it’s "just two per cent" of the market. Look out!
In the case of utility-sized solar, the price of electricity from solar power plants has already dropped so fast that its price has already eclipsed every other form of power generation in many regions of the world. In less sunny regions very far north towards the polar regions, these solar power prices very recently dropped to some 5.4 US cents per KWh (Denmark), occurring since Jamaica’s recent 8.5 cents solar offering. More equatorially, in underdeveloped India prices have dropped to 4.4 US cents. In the sun-drenched tropical belts (Jamaica included), large-scale solar has dropped to below 3 cents per kWh in the best locales, including Chile and Mexico in Latin America, and has already hit 2.4 cents in at least one other recent installation. Having become the cheapest form of power by the "two per cent of global power" mark, with solar’s installed prices dropping phenomenally — some 26 per cent on average annually over the last four years — this will soon become the dominant source of power just about everywhere in the world, and with lots of market share to capture. Middle East oil-producing countries are now moving to "cheapest solar" to provide their power which outcompetes home-grown gas-powered prices. They keep their petroleum in the ground instead for export earnings to other countries.
But three things also drive the advance of solar: the ability to "use it anywhere" (making it suitable for areas with no existing power grid, unlike all other forms of power generation); no wear-and-tear (nothing to wear out) and no water requirements (all conventional power plants use massive amounts of water for cooling); and miniaturisation (less and less land space is required.) In the last five years, the typical solar panel used in large-scale plants improved their conversion factor from sunlight from about 15 per cent to just over 20 per cent. That same panel sizing of 250 watts now produces around 330 watts, which is almost one-third more power.
Solar is on the threshold of 35 per cent sunlight conversions, not 15 per cent, expected commercially within four years. Then the march continues towards 70 per cent conversion factors by utilising infra-red and ultra-violet light spectrum which contain higher concentrations of energy beyond just daytime sunlight. This then stretches solar’s use into the night as well. No doubt, solar power plants will continue to dominate as they grow more powerful, with smaller spaces needed to produce the same quantities of power and eventually stretching their use into the night.
For utility-scale wind, land-based turbine sizing is getting larger, going in the opposite direction from solar, but each evolution causes wind prices to drop. New installations get larger turbines and blades, and higher masts. In 1990 these stood at heights of 80 metres with 40-metre diameter blades and turbine sizes of 0.8 MW each, similar to those used in Jamaica’s older wind installations. Ten years on (year 2000), these grew to stand at just over 100 metres with 50-metre blades and two-MW turbines, similar to Jamaica’s newest installations. Within just five years (2005), they grew massively and stood at some 115 metres, while blade diameters doubled, to just over 100 metres, and turbine sizes grew to five MW. With the recent advent of continental shelf wind (offshore), these sizes have increased further and now stand as tall as 190 metres with 160-metre blades (larger than a jumbo jet), and boasting eight MW turbines each (as large as Maggoty Hydro, Jamaica’s largest hydro-power facility).
You can see this progression of size in picture form by typing in your search engine the following, "evolution of wind turbine sizes". Seeing is believing.
The size adjustments translate into way more power output per turbine. Wind prices are now below 5 cents per kWh in most USA installations (in un-subsidized prices), and as low as 3.5 cents in places. Denmark’s offshore prices recently hit 5 cents in three separate locations.
To sum it up, solar power prices now marginally beat wind and is dropping fast. Wind power, which is also dropping in price, is generally now lower than low-price natural gas power in most locations. Natural gas has largely pushed out coal-fired power, causing the decline of coal mining worldwide (despite the "magic wand" of America’s new president and his pronouncements. Please note that Australia’s last prime minister made similar pronouncements and was unable to stop the proliferation of roof-top solar there, which now powers some 24 per cent of houses in large and populous regions).
Remember this: lowest price is always the determinant in energy, not pronouncements.
David Cooke is a UWI-trained electrical engineer. He has run enterprises in Jamaica that use large amounts of electricity, not least his own food-processing business. He is now a budding clean-energy developer and advisor. Contact him at: email@example.com.