Dawn of the Solar Age

“Thirty years from now there will be a huge amount of oil – and no buyers. Oil will be left in the ground. The Stone Age came to an end, not because we had a lack of stones, and the oil age will come to an end not because we have a lack of oil.”

– Ahmed-Zaki Yamani, former Oil Minister for Saudi Arabia, speaking in 2000

Future Solar

Oil is in decline and solar is on the rise. This is being reported with increasing frequency and emphasis in newspapers, journals and online. Bloomsburg New Energy Finance has announced 2030 will be the tipping point when fossil fuels are no longer cost-effective compared to new technologies. McKinsey puts the estimate closer to 2020, when the solar cost per watt will be an estimated $1.60 – “striking distance” of high carbon fuels like coal and gas. Deutsche Bank has already identified 19 territories where solar undercuts fossil power without any subsidy: California, Chile, Australia, Turkey, Israel, Germany, Japan, Italy, Spain and Greece, Mexico and China.

Today solar represents only 0.17% of the world’s $5 trillion (3% electricity) energy market, but its growth and developing efficiency has a momentum that seems inevitable, according to financial researchers at Sanford Bernstein. Although periodical oil booms are predicted, and fracking—or preferably nuclear—is likely to provide a transitional source of energy, solar is the obvious emergent energy technology in this imminent era of “global energy deflation”. We will see solar “become so large that there will be consequences everywhere”.

"The price will stay high for the moment because of the high demand. But down the road, as you call it, I have no illusion: I am positive there will be, sometime in the future, a crash in the price of oil."

– Yamani again, in that same interview back in 2000

Saudi Arabia has invested $100bn in 41GW of solar that will provide 30% of its power by 2030. For them, solar is a better option than burning what they sell to countries without renewable options. Other gulf states are following their lead. The oil industry’s past dominance is probably coming to an end, and when big forces roll over there are significant consequences. As with any declining empire its smarter agents have seen what is coming a long way off, such as Yamani, whose quote is at the top of this article.

The International Business Editor of the Daily Telegraph, Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, is the latest journalist to write about the end of oil. He writes about solar being the future of energy, more so than the other renewables: he describes wind as “static by comparison, a regional niche at best,” and says new technologies will make solar the obvious energy choice.

Momentum in solar research is far greater than any other energy industry. The US military is investing heavily—it can’t afford not to, both in terms of saving money and gaining the technological edge over other nations—and military research is traditionally where the greatest breakthroughs are made. Efficiency records are being broken continuously; the US National Renewable Energy Laboratory can now capture 31% of the sun’s energy with a new solar cell. Add to this MIT Tech Review naming solar company 1366 Technologies in their 50 smartest companies on the planet, and it is clear that some of the smartest people on the planet are working in solar.

Table of MIT Smartest Companies Results

The University of Buffalo’s ‘rainbow’ of wavelengths absorbs far more light, an Oxford research group is using perovskite to produce 40% more voltage at less cost than silicon, and Israel’s Ecoppia is cleaning its PV panels using microfibers, saving water, which in the desert is obviously helpful, and with other energy methods, such as fracking, is splurged wastefully at a shocking rate each day.

At Harvard, flow-batteries are being developed to cut energy storage costs by two-thirds, which would make solar yields steady; both wind and solar suffer from intermittency, and criticism over irregular performance stops people from buying into the idea of renewables. For the renewable energy industries this kind of hindrance is infuriatingly negative and unconstructive. And they only highlight temporary issues: this criticism is fleeting. Problems are identified, research is done, efficiency is improved and the technology progresses. The US Solar Energy Industries Association has announced that the past 18 months has seen more solar being installed than in the past 30 years.

In other words, we are entering a new era, beyond the Oil Age. Evans-Pritchard argues, “Solar energy has won the global argument”. Its victory comes as a result, he says, of finally becoming efficient and inexpensive enough to be deployed on a large scale. Soon it will be just a question of deployment, as we transition to what might become known as the Solar Age.

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