Every two minutes, the sun bathes the world with enough energy to run our cars and provide our electricity needs for a year.
We don’t even have to worry about ‘peak sun’ for five billion years, give or take a billion years or so.
It’s a tautology to mumble that the challenge is to make it “useable”, but we mumble it nonetheless.
That challenge is being met, if not yet, by microwaving the sun’s output direct to terrestrial power plants from outside the earth’s atmosphere. And it will roil the $5 trillion global energy market and upset the geostrategic order in the process.
I wouldn’t buy ‘big oil and gas’ for the grand-childrens’ trust funds.
The evolution and rapidly increasing use of solar energy will be prominent at the UN Climate Change summit in Paris, known as COP21 – ‘Conference of the Parties’.
196 nations are to convene between the 30th of this month and December 11th to agree to time-lined schedules to reduce CO2 emissions.
The last COP was held in Copenhagen six years ago. It was a damp squib, largely because, understandably, China and India could not commit to reducing their dependence on coal in which they were richly endowed and which was by far the most economical way to fuel their power plants and grids.
The sherpas, who are preparing the ground for COP21, are leaking that this time “it will be different.”
We’ve heard that before but epic pollution in China has forced the Party chiefs to start reversing the engines on the ‘grow first, clean up later’ policy of using coal primarily to fuel base load power in the economy.
The government has pledged to stop building new coal-based power stations by 2017 and the Energy Research Institute forecasts that ‘renewables’ will account for over 80% of China’s energy requirements by 2050 – pretty meaningless but out there, nonetheless, in the public domain.
The Party chiefs were wobbled earlier this year when a documentary, Under the Dome, about China’s pollution problem was watched online by over 100 million people in short order. They moved fast to take it off the air.
The problem is currently as bad as ever. Last week, for example, the North-Eastern city of Shenyang has air pollution 40 times higher than that recommended by WHO (the World Health Organisation).
A key reason China can now, as it must, reduce its dependence on coal and other fossil fuels is that it spawned a solar industry nearly a decade ago, which through innovation and the creation of vast State sponsored overcapacity, transformed the price/performance of photovoltaic panels. They are now on all fours with coal and LNG, and the electricity cost of solar is set to match coal-powered stations by 2017.
Six years ago, solar provided a measly 20 gigawatts of energy worldwide – a vanishingly small proportion of the world’s energy. Now, thanks very largely to the Chinese swamping the global market with cheap photovoltaic technology, solar now provides 180 GW, still a tiny part of the energy mix, but it’s only just limbering up for the main event as events in Paris will show.
Solar installations, worldwide, have now overtaken wind turbines.
More important: There are now 19 regional markets where solar has achieved grid parity with gas and coal, including Chile, Australia, Turkey, Israel, Germany, Japan, Italy and Spain and for industrial power China. India, for example, is expected to reveal in Paris that it will meet 40% of its energy needs from renewable, predominantly solar, by 2030.
All this collides with BP’s projection of over 40%, worldwide, still provided by fossil fuels by 2030. Shell has it at over 40% too and Exxon at 35%. The underlying argument is that the world is saturated with exploitable oil and gas which costly technology is able to make available. If so, and it is so, how will the oil and gas industry be able to supply the market at even marginal cost?
The smart money is on solar and other renewables over the next 10-15 years to fundamentally reshape the global energy economy, especially as grid-scale storage batteries and PowerPacks to power homes, offices and factories come on stream, and as urban transport shifts to fleets of electric vehicles.
We hardly dare mention it after all this but by 2050, perhaps by 2030, the ‘sun in a box’ of nuclear fusion may actually be in operation, commercially, and then it’s – Again, Re-set. That’s for another time as is proper discussion about batteries and PowerPacks.
For now, though, let’s wait to read between the lines of the communiqués that issue from Paris on December 11th.