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Three scenarios, three barriers for solar-power deployment

Jan. 15, 2018

Technologies from perovskite solar-cell processes to stationary energy storage hold promise for the wide deployment of solar energy. Christopher Mims in The Wall Street Journal envisions three possible scenarios for a renewal-energy-powered future:

  • Citizens and corporations defect from the power grid, ending their dependence on monopolies that date to the time of Thomas Edison.
  • Utilities themselves oversee and balance a grid increasingly powered by renewable resources.
  • An increasingly politically messy and technologically diverse power landscape emerges as customers and politicians and utilities battle.

“Whichever scenario we end up with, solar power is an odds-on favorite source, because of its abundance,” Mims writes. “Every hour, our sun bombards the Earth with enough light to satisfy humanity’s energy needs for an entire year.”

However, Mims sees at least three barriers standing “…between us and that sunny future.”

First is cell cost. Mims cites Varun Sivaram, a science and technology expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, as saying solar-cell costs would need to fall from $1/W today to $0.25/W to meet 30% of worldwide electricity needs. Perovskite is promising but brings no guarantees.

Second is management of intermittent renewable-energy production. “The first solar panel added to the grid helps offset mid-day consumption,” Mims writes, “but the last one to be added may be completely unnecessary, because the grid may already be saturated when it’s capable of producing the most power.” In fact, as previously reported, California at times needs to pay out-of-state utilities to take its excess energy during times of peak solar production. The solution would rely on utility-scale power storage—from batteries on the grid to pumped hydro storage.

The third barrier Mims mentions includes the “…’soft costs’ related to building utility-scale solar power plants, including project design, permitting, siting and interconnection to the grid.” He cites DoE estimates that soft costs contribute up to 64% of a solar installation.

Mims quotes Rob Day, a general partner at Spring Lane Capital, which invests in clean water, energy, food and waste projects, as saying, “People in the tech community either conveniently ignore or truly don’t understand that they could honestly just give away solar panels for free now and soft costs would remain the bigger problem.”

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