Jeremy Leggett, The Cheerful Edition

I love this piece, I really do.

Take the member of the renewables/efficiency/conservation family, that I know best: solar. The manufacturing costs of solar photovoltaic cells are coming down at nearly 20% every time the global industry doubles in capacity, and that is happening every two years at present. Solar PV manufacturing costs are, in fact, cheaper today than retail electricity in some markets, and by 2010 will be cheaper than today\’s electricity in most developed country markets even if the price of retail electricity grows only slightly.

OK, great. Solar is getting cheaper quickly. An excellent thing too. So we should all wait until 2011 or so and then we\’ll all switch quite happily as it\’ll be cheaper. Great.

You\’ll want to note that one of the reasons that Bjorn Lomborg was so pilloried for his book The Skeptical Environmentalist was that apropos climate change he said, well, really, we don\’t need to do anything because by 2030, 2040, solar will be cheaper and we\’ll all go and use it. Here we\’re told that Lomborg\’s mistake was in being too pessimistic. Hey, go figure!

But much, much more amusing that that is this. In the SRES, those economic models which then feed through into the IPCC scenarios for emissions, a basic assumption is that solar becomes cheaper by 30% per decade. Here we\’re told it\’s 20% every two years. Or 250%* per decade. So things are vastly better than the IPCC says: we\’ll all be switching to solar in just a few years now, we don\’t need Kyoto, we don\’t need to restict anything. Just install the cheapest power systems from 2011 on and we\’ll be fine.

You know, we really ought to thank you Jeremy. You\’ve just told us the whole global warming thing is solved. So ta very much!

* yes, yes, I know it doesn\’t work this way. About an 80% or so reduction in price each decade.

8 comments on “Jeremy Leggett, The Cheerful Edition

  1. I did find it one of the more amazing figures in his book, that covering only a few percent of the Sahara in existing solar cells would provide the entire current energy needs of the planet. Obviously politically unviable but it clearly illustrated how these concerns on energy production and capacity were being exaggerated.

  2. His most recent book is called “The Empty Tank” in the US and “Half Gone” everywhere else. I guess Americans are harder to scare.

  3. David Gillies: yes, but remember that these days “exponential” apparently just means “big”. At least if you have a journalistic gene.
    Philip Thomas: ah yes, but how do you transmit the electricity from the Sahara to Shanghai? (I’m not saying it can’t be done at all). I imagine some of the governments there would be happy to lease a few million hectares for power generation if the price were right.

  4. I think that this “cover the Sahara in PV cells’ idea is brilliant.

    It gives NATO pilots a nice big easy target to blow to pieces the next time they start to piss us off.

  5. The problem with this “20% cheaper a year” story is that it is simply not true. PV did follow this price reduction model until three or four years ago, since when demand has been outstripping supply and the price has started going up. Just because it’s vaguely hi-tech, people assume that Moore’s law will apply. Big mistake.

  6. markbrinkley is right – the issue is the cost of silicon, which is PV’s key raw material and is rising very quickly as demand outstrips supply

  7. I never realised that you could measure the cost of silicon. Just the cost of moving it around. And if you were considering covering the Sahara with PV cells you wouldn’t have to move it very far.

    Tim adds: Actually, the cost is in taking it from silica (sand or silicon oxide) to silicon (the metal). To get the high grade stuff, very energy intensive. Have to use zone refining techniques. What’s really happened in the market for solar cells is that they used to be made from material orginally intended for the computer chip market, but which failed the stringent testing and putiy standards. But now the cell market is much larger than that source.

    One of the very best things someone could do for the renewablce energy market is work on the metallurgy of silica to silicon.

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