Solar is getting cheap fast — pay attention, Very Serious People
I hope everyone has read Kees Van Der Leun’s post about the rapidly falling cost of solar PV. I want to draw out one quick point that Kees leaves implicit.
He argues that PV will be the cheapest source of electricity for most of the world some time around 2018, and for the rest of the world soon after. That could be off by a few years in either direction. It depends on whether the cost curve for silicon solar cells continues as it has the past and, as Alan says in his comment, whether the cost curve for “balance of system” costs (steel, glass, installation, etc.) declines as well. Let’s say it could be off by five years either way. Let’s just assume it’s 2023 before solar PV crosses grid parity and becomes cheaper than coal.
Here’s the thing: 2023 isn’t that far off. It feels distant to us in a lot of ways. My kids will be out of college. Fifty versions of the iPhone will have come and gone. We might finally have the jetpacks we were promised.
But in terms of energy infrastructure, 12 years is nothing. It can take half that long or longer to permit and build big coal and nuclear plants, and they are meant to last a long-ass time. The Perry K Steam Plant, which serves downtown Indianapolis, was built in 1938. They didn’t have color TV then. Thirty-six coal plants in the U.S. were built before 1950. If a coal plant built today lasts that long, it will still be belching all over the atmosphere in 2072. My kids will be in their 60s.
This is also true of nuclear plants (the oldest is 42 years) and to a lesser extent natural-gas plants. It’s even true of transmission lines. These are large, long-term investments.
So if solar PV is going to be cheaper than coal in the next decade or so, that seems like the kind of thing utilities, regulators, investors, and political leaders would want to, I don’t know, talk over. Grapple with. Mull. It certainly seems relevant to the investment thesis for large, centralized power infrastructure. Yet it’s all but invisible in the elite U.S. energy conversation, outside of a few voices like FERC Chair Jon Wellinghoff. Very Serious People still see solar PV as an affectation, a kind of charity project.
Putting aside ideological considerations or any concern over climate change, just for purely practical reasons, if you were involved in major energy investment decisions, wouldn’t you want to make sure you were looking at least 10 years down the road?