Friday, June 22, 2012

Solar salvation for Rio climate woes?

See that shiny new smartphone in your hand - I had one of those 10 years ago.  Granted it was big, ugly, slow, buggy and furiously expensive, but at the time it was at the cutting edge of mobile technology.  Now of course smartphones are powerful, ubiquitous and above all cheap. This is largely thanks to continued technological advancement that’s made electronics cheaper and better year after year, a process known in the industry as Moore’s Law.

The reason I mention this is that the world desperately needs energy technologies that are following a similar ‘better, cheaper’ path.  The lack of any meaningful media coverage of the current Rio+20 conference is making a rather telling point -  the media and the world’s leaders are squarely focused on our economic woes. Environmental concerns are, it seems, yesterday’s news.  Against this harsh backdrop green energy will start having to pay its way in cold hard cash, rather than avoided external costs added in a cost-benefit analysis.

Into this space steps solar photovoltaic (electric) technology.  This technology’s most recent brush with the UK news has been through the Feed-in-Tariffs scheme.  This is (or was) a generous subsidy scheme to support the use of solar PV that was suddenly scaled back, much to distress of the solar industry and environmentalists alike.  The Government’s stated reasons for reducing the available subsidy was the falling cost of PV modules, which made an already generous payment over the top and unaffordable.  So what’s the real story?

Well, the internet is awash with suggestions that solar is following a Moore’s Law style path, and good sources seem to substantiate these claims.  Solar costs have been falling at an exponential rate for several years now and, assuming this trend continues, it will soon be price competitive with conventional fossil fuel power in sunnier parts of the world.  If this happens solar’s status as a green technology would become irrelevant: people will use it simply because it is cost effective to do so.

Of course solar is not a silver bullet to the world’s energy and climate woes.  Solar only produces power when and where the sun shines.  With electricity notoriously difficult to store and transport solar is only ever likely to be part of the picture, particularly in the UK where it would take an awful lot of cost reduction for solar to be competitive with fossil fuels in the north of the country.  And the cost of a solar installation doesn’t simply follow the cost of the panel – the man crawling round on your roof fitting the system would not be amused at the idea of his salary following a Moore’s Law style trajectory.

Nevertheless the solar story, and that of some other energy technologies, offers a little hope for the future in the otherwise grim environmental picture of 2012. The problem with the barrage of subsidies, taxes and economic instruments used (or not used) to prop up more expensive forms of low carbon energy is that they can be reversed. When the economic noose tightens politicians tend to focus on short term financial problems and lose sight of longer term environmental issues. The idea that green energy may become genuinely cheap might therefore offer some degree of environmental salvation in these uncertain economic times.