Why Energy Storage is About to Get Big – and Cheap

tl;dr: Storage of electricity in large quantities is reaching an inflection point, poised to give a big boost to renewables, to disrupt business models across the electrical industry, and to tap into a market that will eventually top many of tens of billions of dollars per year, and trillions of dollars cumulatively over the coming decades.

Update: As a follow-on to this post, I run the numbers on how cheap can energy storage get? And the answer is: Quite cheap, indeed.

The Energy Storage Virtuous Cycle

I’ve been writing about exponential decline in the price of energy storage since I was researching The Infinite Resource. Recently, though, I delivered a talk to the executives of a large energy company, the preparation of which forced me to crystallize my thinking on recent developments in the energy storage market.

Energy storage is hitting an inflection point sooner than I expected, going from being a novelty, to being suddenly economically extremely sensible. That, in turn, is kicking off a virtuous cycle of new markets opening, new scale, further declining costs, and additional markets opening.

To elaborate: Three things are happening which feed off of each other.

  1. The Price of Energy Storage Technology is Plummeting. Indeed, while high compared to grid electricity, the price of energy storage has been plummeting for twenty years. And it looks likely to continue.
  2. Cheaper Storage is on the Verge of Massively Expanding the Market.  Battery storage and next-generation compressed air are right on the edge of the prices where it becomes profitable to arbitrage shifting electricity prices – filling up batteries with cheap power (from night time sources, abundant wind or solar, or other), and using that stored energy rather than peak priced electricity from natural gas peakers.This arbitrage can happen at either the grid edge (the home or business) or as part of the grid itself. Either way, it taps into a market of potentially 100s of thousands of MWh in the US alone.
  3. A Larger Market Drives Down the Cost of Energy Storage. Batteries and other storage technologies have learning curves. Increased production leads to lower prices. Expanding the scale of the storage industry pushes forward on these curves, dropping the price. Which in turn taps into yet larger markets.


Let’s look at all three of these in turn.

1. The Price of Energy Storage is Plummeting

Lithium Ion

Lithium-ion batteries have been seeing rapidly declining prices for more than 20 years, dropping in price for laptop and consumer electronic uses by 90% between 1990 and 2005, and continuing to drop since then.

A widely reported study at Nature Climate Change finds that, since 2005, electric vehicle battery costs have plunged faster than almost anyone projected, and are now below most forecasts for the year 2020.

The authors estimate that EV batteries in 2014 cost between $310 and $400 per kwh. It’s now in the realm of possibility that we’ll see $100 / kwh lithium-ion batteries in electric vehicles by 2020, with some speculating that Tesla’s ‘gigafactory’ will push into sufficient scale to achieve that.

And the electric car market, in turn, is making large-format lithium-ion batteries cheaper for grid use.

What Really Matters is LCOE – the Cost of Electricity

Now let’s digress and talk about price. The prices we’ve just been talking about are capital costs. Those are the costs of the equipment. But how does that translate into the cost of electricity? What really matters when we talk about energy storage for electricity that can be used in homes and buildings is the impact on Levelized Cost of Electricity (LCOE) that the battery imposes. In other words, if I put a kwh of electricity into the battery, and then pull a kwh of electricity out, over the lifetime of the battery (and including maintenance costs, installation costs, and all the rest), what did that cost me?

Traditional lithium ion-batteries begin to degrade after a few hundred cycles of fully charging and fully discharging, or 1,000 cycles at most. So naively we’d take the capital cost of the battery and divide it by 1,000 to find the cost per kwh round-tripped through it (the LCOE). However, we also have to factor in that some electricity is lost due to less than 100% efficiency (Li-ion is perhaps 90% efficient in round trip). This multiplies our effective cost by 11%.

So we’d estimate that at the following battery prices we’d get the following effective LCOEs:

– $300 / kwh battery  :  33 cent / kwh electricity storage
– $200 / kwh battery  :  22 cent / kwh electricity storage
– $150 / kwh battery  :  17 cent / kwh electricity storage
– $100 / kwh battery  :  11 cent / kwh electricity storage

All of those battery costs, by the way, are functions of what the ultimate buyer pays, including installation and maintenance.

For comparison, wholesale grid electricity in the US at ‘baseload’ hours in the middle of the night averages 6-7 cents / kwh. And retail electricity rates around the US average around 12 cents per kwh. You can see why, at the several hundred dollars / kwh prices of several years ago, battery storage was a non-starter.

On the Horizon: Flow Batteries, Compressed Air

Right now, most of the talk about energy storage is about lithium-ion, and specifically about Tesla, who appear close to announcing a new home battery product at what appears to be a price of around $300 / kwh.

But there are other technologies that may be ultimately more suitable for grid energy storage than lithium-ion.

Lithium-ion is compact and light. It’s great for mobile applications. But heavier, bulkier storage technologies that last for more cycles will be long-term cheaper.

Two come to mind:

1. Flow Batteries, just starting to come to market, can theoretically operate for 5,000 charge cycles or more. In some cases they can operate for 10,000 cycles or more. In addition, the electrolyte in a flow battery is a liquid that can be replaced, refurbishing the battery at a fraction of the cost of installing a new one.

2. Compressed Air Energy Storage, like LightSail Energy’s, uses physical components that are likewise rated for 10,000+ cycles of compression and decompression.

Capital costs for these technologies are likely to be broadly similar to lithium-ion costs over the long term and at similar scale. Most flow battery companies have $100 / kwh capital cost as a target in their minds or one that they’ve publicly talked about. (ARPA-E has used $100 / kwh as a target.) And because a flow battery or compressed air system lasts for so many more cycles, the overall cost of electricity is likely to be many times lower.

How low? At this point, other variables begin to dominate the equation: The cost of capital (borrowing or opportunity cost); management and maintenance costs; siting costs.

DOE’s 2013 energy storage roadmap lists 20 cents / kwh LCOE as the ‘short term’ goal. It articulates 10 cents / kwh LCOE as the ‘long term’ goal.

At least one flow battery company, EnerVault, claims that it is ‘well below’ the DOE targets (presumably the short term target of 20 cents / kwh of electricity).

[Update: I’m informed that EnerVault has run into financial difficulties, a reminder that the storage market, like the solar market before it, will likely be fiercely Darwinian. In solar, the large majority of manufacturers went out of business, even as prices plunged by nearly 90% in the last decade. We should expect the same in batteries. The large majority of energy storage technology companies will go out of business, even as prices drop – or perhaps because of plunging prices – in the decade ahead.]

Getting back to fundamentals: In the long run, given the advantage of long life, if flow batteries or compressed air see the kind of growth that lithium-ion has seen, and thus the cost benefits of scale and learning curve, it’s conceivable that a $100 / kwh flow battery or compressed air system could reach an LCOE of 2-4 cents / kwh of electricity stored.

Of course, neither flow batteries nor compressed air are as commercially proven as lithium-ion. I’m sure many will be skeptical of them, though 2015 and 2016 look likely to be quite big years.

Come back in a year, and let’s see.

2. Storage is on the Verge of Opening Vast New Markets

Now let’s turn away from the technology and towards the economics that make it appealing. Let’s start with the simplest to understand: in the home.

A. Fill When Cheap, Drain When Pricey (Time of Use Arbitrage)

The US is increasingly going to time-of-use charges for electricity. Right now that means charging consumers a low rate in the middle of the night (when demand is low) and a high rate in the afternoon and early evening (when demand is at its peak, often twice as high as the middle of the night).

This matches real underlying economics of grid operators and electricity producers. The additional electricity to meet the surge in afternoon and early evening is generally supplied by natural-gas powered “peaker” plants. And these plants are expensive. They only operate for a few hours each day, so their construction costs are amortized over a smaller amount of electricity. And they have other problems we’ll come back to shortly. The grid itself pays other costs for the peak of demand. Everything – wires, transformers, staff – must be built out to handle the peak of capacity, not the minimum or the average.

The net result is that electricity in the afternoon and early evening is more expensive, and this is (increasingly) being passed on to consumers. How much more expensive? See below:

In California, one can choose the standard tiered rate of 18.7 cents per kwh. Or one can choose the the time-of-use rate. In the latter, there’s a 19.2 cent per kwh difference in electricity rates between the minimum (9pm to 10am) and the peak (1pm – 7pm).

Batteries cheaper than 19 cents / kwh LCOE (including financing, installation, etc.) can be used to arbitrage this price difference. Software fills the battery up with cheap power at night. Software preferentially uses that cheap power from the battery during the peak of demand, instead of drawing it from the grid.

This leads to what seems to be a paradoxical situation. A battery that is more expensive than the average price of grid electricity can nonetheless arbitrage the grid and save one money. That’s math.

That’s also presumably one of the scenarios behind Tesla’s entry into the home battery market, though it’s unlikely to be explicitly stated.

One last point on this before moving on. The arbitrage happening here is also actually good for the grid. From a grid operator’s standpoint, this is ‘peak shaving’ or ‘peak shifting’. Some of the peak load is being diverted to another time when there’s excess capacity in the system. The total amount of electricity being drawn doesn’t change. (In fact, it goes up a bit because battery efficiency is less than 100%). But it’s actually a cost savings for the grid as a whole. In any situation where electricity demand is growing, for instance, widespread use of this scenario can postpone the data at which new distribution lines need to be installed.

B. Store the Sun (Solar + Batteries, as Net Metering Gets Pressured)

Rooftop solar customers love net metering, the rules that allow solar-equipped homes to sell excess electricity back to the grid. Yet around the world and the US, net metering is under pressure. It’s likely, in the US, that the rate at which consumers are paid for their excess electricity will drop, that caps will be imposed, or both.

The more that happens, the more attractive batteries in the home look.

Indeed, it’s happening in Germany already, and the economics there are revealing.

First, let’s be clear on the scenarios, with some help from some graphics from a useful Germany Trade and Invest presentation (pdf link) that dives into “battery parity” (with some tweaks to the images from me.)

Current scenario: Excess power (the bright orange bit – electricity solar panels generate that is beyond what the home their own needs) is sold to the grid. Then, in the evening, the home need power. It buys that electricity from the grid.

Potential new situation. Excess power is available during the day. At least some of it gets stored in a battery for evening use.

Under what circumstances would the second scenario be economically advantageous over the first? In short: The difference in price between grid electricity and the net metering rate / feed-in-tariff is the price that batteries have to meet. In Germany, where electricity is expensive, and feed-in-tariffs have been plunging, this gap is opening wide.

There’s now roughly a 20 euro cent gap between the price of grid electricity and the feed-in-tariff for supplying excess solar back to the grid (the gold bands) in Germany, roughly the same gap as exists between cheapest and most expensive time of use electricity in California.

GTAI and Deutsche Bank’s conclusion – based on the price trends of solar, batteries, electricity in Germany, and German feed-in-tariffs – is that ‘battery parity’, the moment when home solar + a lithium-ion battery makes economic sense, will arrive in Germany by next summer, 2016.

Almost any sunny state in the US that did away with net metering would be at or near solar + battery parity in the next 5 years.

Tesla’s battery is almost cheap enough for this. In fact, it makes more economic sense in Germany than in the US.

Note: Solar + a battery is not the same as ‘grid defection’. It’s not going off-grid. We’re used to 99.9% availability of our electricity. Flick a switch and it’s on. Solar + a small battery may get someone in Germany to 70%, and someone in Southern California to 85%, but the amount of storage you need to deploy to increase that reliability goes up steeply as you approach 99.99%.

For most of us, the grid will always be there. But it may be relegated to slightly more of a backup role.

C. Storage as a Grid Component (Caching for Electrons)

Both of the previous scenarios have looked at this from the standpoint of installation in homes (or businesses – the same logic applies).

But the dropping price of storage isn’t inherently biased towards consumers. Utility operators can deploy storage as well, Two recent studies have assessed the economics of just that. And both find it compelling. Today. At the price of batteries that Tesla has announced.

First, Texas utility Oncor commissioned a study (pdf link – The Value of Distributed Electricity Storage in Texas) of whether it would be cost-effective to deploy storage throughout the Texas grid (called ERCOT), placing the energy storage at the ‘edge’ of the grid, close to consumers.

The conclusion was an overwhelming yes. The study authors concluded that, at a capital cost of $350 / kwh for lithium-ion batteries (which they expected by 2020, but which Tesla has already beaten), it made sense across the ERCOT region to deploy at least 15,000 MWh of battery storage. (That would be 15 million KWh, or the equivalent battery capacity of nearly 160,000 Tesla model 85Ds.)

The study authors concluded that this additional battery storage would slightly lower consumer electrical bills, reduce outages, reduce the need to build added capacity (by shifting the peak, much as a home battery would), and similarly reduce the need to build additional transmission and distribution lines.

The values shown above are in megawatts of power, by the way. The assumption is that there are 3 MWh of storage per MW of power output in the storage system.

You can also see that at a slightly lower price of storage than the $350 / kwh assumed here, the economic case for 8,000 MW (or 24,000 MWh) of storage becomes clear. And we are very likely about to see such prices.

8,000 MW or 8 GW is a very substantial amount of energy storage. For context, average US electrical draw (over day/night, 365 days a year) is roughly 400 GW. So this study is claiming that in Texas alone, the economic case for energy storage is strong enough to motivate storage capacity equivalent to 2% of the US’s average power draw.

ERCOT consumes roughly 1/11th of the US’s electricity. (ERCOT uses roughly 331,000 GWh / year. The US as a whole roughly 3.7 million GWh / year.) If similar findings hold true in other grids (unknown as of yet), that would imply an economic case fairly soon for energy storage capacity of 22% of US electric draw for 3 hours, meaning roughly 88,000 MW or 264,000 MWh.

This is, of course, speculative. We don’t know if the study findings scale to the whole of the United States. It’s back of the envelope math. Atop that, the study itself is an analysis, which is not the same value as experience. Undoubtedly in deployment we’ll discover new things which will inform future views. Even so, it appears that there is very real value at unexpectedly high prices.

Energy storage, because of its flexibility, and because it can sit in so many different places in the grid, doesn’t have to compete with wholesale grid power prices. It competes with the price of peak demand power, the price of outages, and the price of building new distribution and transmission lines. 

Which brings us to scenario 2D:

D. Replacing Natural Gas Peakers

The grid has to be built out to support the peak of use, not the average of use. Part of that peak is sheer load. Earlier I mentioned natural gas ‘peaker’ plants. Peaker plants are reserve natural gas plants. On average they’re active far less than 10% of the time. They sit idle, fueled, ready to come online to respond to peaking electricity demand. Even in this state, bringing a peaker online takes  a few minutes.

Peaker plants are expensive. They operate very little of the time, so their construction costs are amortized over few kwh; They require constant maintenance to be sure they’re ready to go; and they’re less efficient than combined cycle natural gas plants, burning roughly 1.5x as much fuel per kwh of electricity delivered, since the economics of investing in their efficiency hardly make sense when they run for so little of the time.

The net result is that energy storage appears on the verge of undercutting peaker plants. You can find multiple articles online on this topic. Let me point you to one in-depth report, by the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI): Cost-Effectiveness of Energy Storage in California (pdf).

This report specifically looked at the viability of replacing some of California’s natural gas peaker plans.

While the EPRI California study was asking a different question than the ERCOT study that looked at storage at the edge, it came to a similar conclusion. Storage would cost money, but the economic benefit to the grid of replacing natural gas peaker plants with battery storage was greater than the cost. Shockingly, this was true even when they used fairly high prices. The default assumption here was a 2020 lithium-ion battery price of $528 / kwh. The breakeven price their analysis found was $842 / kwh, three times as high as Tesla’s announced utility scale price of $250/kwh.

Flow batteries, compressed air, and pumped hydro (where geography supports it) also were economically viable.

California alone has 71 natural gas peaker plants, with a combined capacity of 7,418 MW (pdf link). The addressable market is large.

3. Scale Reduces Costs. Which Increases Scale.

In every scenario above there are large parts of the market where batteries aren’t close to competitive yet; where they won’t be in the next 5 years; where they might not be in the next 10 years.

But what we know is this: Batteries (and other storage technologies) will keep dropping in cost. Market growth accelerates that. And thus helps energy storage reach the parts of the market it isn’t priced yet for.

I take a deeper look at how fast battery prices will drop in this post: How Cheap Can Energy Storage Get? Pretty Darn Cheap.

How Cheap Can Energy Storage Get

Who Benefits?

Storage has plenty of benefits – higher reliability, lower costs, fewer outages, more resilience.

But I wouldn’t have written these three thousand words without a deep interest in carbon-free energy. And the increasing economic viability of energy storage is profoundly to the benefit of both solar and wind.

Let me be clear: A great deal can be done with solar and wind with minimal storage, by integrating over a wider region and intelligently balancing wind and solar against one another.

Even so, cheap storage is a big help. It removes a long term concern. And in the short term, storage helps whichever energy source is cheapest overcome intermittence and achieve flexibility.

Batteries are flexible. Storage added to add reliability the grid can soak up extra solar power for the hours just after sunset. It can soak up extra wind power from a breezy morning to use in the afternoon peak. Or it can dispatch saved up power to cover for an unexpected degree of cloudiness or a shortfall of wind.

Once the storage is there – whatever else it was intended for – it will get used for renewables. Particularly as those renewables become the cheapest sources of electricity on the grid.

Today, in many parts of the US, wind power is the cheapest source of new electricity, when the wind is blowing. The same is true in northern Europe. On the horizon, an increasing chorus of voices, even the normally pessimistic-on-renewables IEA, see solar as the cheapest source of electricity on the planet, heading towards 4 cents per kwh. Or, if you believe more optimistic voices, a horizon of solar at 2 cents per kwh.

Cheap energy storage adds flexibility to our energy system overall. It can help nuclear power follow the curve of electrical demand (something I didn’t explore here). It helps the grid stay stable and available. It adds caching at the edge, reducing congestion and the need for new transmission.

But for renewables, especially, cheap storage is a force multiplier.

And that’s a disruption I’m excited to see.


There’s more about the exponential pace of innovation in both storage and renewables in my book on innovating to beat climate change and resource scarcity and continue economic growth:The Infinite Resource: The Power of Ideas on a Finite Planet

2014 Was a Good Year: Better Than You Remember

Eric Garner. Michael Brown. The Sony hack and surrender to fear. 2014 seems to be ending on a crappy note. My twitter feed is full of people expressing good riddance to the year.

2014 was better than that. I want to take a moment to remind us, and to offer some perspective on the dark stories.

So, good things about 2014:

1. 2014 Was the Year Same-Sex Marriage Reached More Than Half of America

2. 2014 is the Year That American Support for Legalizing Marijuana Tipped

3. And the Year that the First Legal Marijuana Stores Opened in Two States

Colorado and Washington legalized recreational use of marijuana in the 2012 election, and opened their first stores in 2014. Oregon, Alaska, and Washington DC joined them in fully legalizing Marijuana in the 2014 election, while 20-odd other states have allowed medical use or softened penalties for recreational use.

And so far, the evidence is, legalization is working pretty well.

4. In 2014, the Internet Reached 3 Billion People for the First Time

That data is courtesy of the ITU.

Not only is that a staggering number, it’s more than half the adults on the planet. For the first time, this year, more adults have access to the internet than don’t, a trend that’s only going to continue, as seen below in this chart from a presentation by Benedict Evans.

5. 2014 Saw a Historic Climate Agreement Between the US and China

Remember when we would never act on climate change because we’d never be able to agree with China? Yeah, me neither.

While the US-China deal isn’t enough on its own to meet the world’s goal of limiting warming to 2 degrees Celsius, it represents a sea change. It’s a turn of the steering wheel, starting the process of steering us away from the cliff we’ve been headed towards. There’s much more work to do, but every course correction starts somewhere. And, as Slate shows, quantitatively, this one is a big deal.

6. 2014 Saw a Record Installation of Renewable Energy and Energy Storage

Final numbers will show that 2014 had the largest ever deployments of wind power and solar power. This was also the year that saw the largest purchase of energy storage in US history. Both of these are vital steps in bootstrapping the industries that will allow us to power our civilization while cutting the emissions that cause climate change.

And they’re just the latest in the ongoing surge in renewable energy in the market:

Renewable energy remains a tiny fraction of worldwide energy use. It’s starting from an extremely low base. Even growing at its phenomenal rate, it will likely take decades to turn the corner in climate change, but it is possible.

7. 2014 Saw Mainstream Realization of Solar and Wind’s Incredible Price Decline

That possibility is made even more clear here: 2014 saw two incredible graphs from mainstream financial analysts on the price plunge of renewables.

Lazard Capital Management put out a report showing how, in the last 5 years, wind and solar in the US have dropped 58% and 78% in price, respectively, now putting them below the price of grid electricity in many regions. (The red lines below are my own additions.)

And AllianceBernstein published their even more provocative solar “TerrorDome” chart (with slight yellow arrow annotation from me) showing how, in the long term, solar is plunging even more phenomenally in price relative to traditional fossil fuel energy sources.

Both are as important for who published them as for what they say. These are not reports from environmental groups or even greentech investment funds. These are financial analysts advising their clients on trends in the costs of energy – trends they see as upending the market.

8. In 2014, Hunger and Malnourishment Reached a New Low

In 1969, more than 30% of the developing world lived in hunger. Now that’s down to 13.5%. The rate of hunger reduction has accelerated in recent years, according to the FAO. As a percent of humanity, it’s likely that hunger has never been this rare, in the couple hundred thousand years our species existed. And even absolute numbers have dropped over the last 25 years. There is a huge amount of work left to do – but 2014 is the best yet in this measure.

9. And So Did Global Poverty, Child Mortality, and a Host of Other Ills

We don’t have the final data yet, but it’s almost certain that when we do, we’ll find out that in 2014, global life expectancy was at an all-time high, global poverty was at an all-time low, and worldwide child mortality had reached another new low, as part of the long trends of progress on each of these metrics.

For instance, see the trend on poverty, via Max Roser

Or the trend on under-five mortality, which has dropped by half since just 1990:

10. In 2014, the US Became Healthier and Safer as Well

Here again, we lack final numbers, but when we have them, it’s extremely likely that we’ll find that in the US, 2014 continued the long trend of:

– Declining infant mortality

– Declining crime rates.

11. Finally, 2014 Will Be Seen as a Transparency Tipping Point

The stories that drew the most outrage in my corner of the internet – outrage that I shared – were stories of police violence, intentional or unintentional, without proper accountability. And so I’ve saved this for last.

I’m a pragmatist who believes that police are a vital part of society, but who also believes that those who have the most power should be held to the greatest accountability. That isn’t the case today.

On the flip side, many, primarily conservatives, viewed the Mike Brown case through an entirely different lens, instinctively seeing it as a police officer confronting a criminal, and defaulting to trusting the officer’s view of the world. The debate has been loud, acrimonious, and sometimes downright nasty.

What almost everyone agrees on, though, is that more transparency is good. Support for police body cameras has been voiced across the political spectrum. That technology isn’t a panacea, by any means. As we saw in the Eric Garner case, a video doesn’t lead to even an indictment, let alone a conviction.

But the best data we have is that wearing body cameras does reduce police use of force and complaints against them. In other words, if Daniel Pantaleo, the officer who used a prohibited choke hold on Eric Garner, had been wearing a body camera, he might have reconsidered his behavior. Garner might still be alive.

What’s just as important is the increasing ubiquity of cameras in all of our hands. The video of Pantaleo choking Garner didn’t lead to an indictment, but that very fact led to voices on the right and left expressing dismay. One case won’t lead to change. But enough clear-cut cases will. And with cameras becoming cheap and ubiquitous, police officers now need to assume that their every action will be recorded.

Transparency is the key to change. You can’t fix what you don’t know is broken. The problems of police over-use of force have existed for years, if not decades. The problem of police near-immunity from prosecution is even older. These aren’t new issues. They’re simply coming further into view. Social media allows us to take issues that might once have been obscure, carried on the back page of one newspaper, and shine a glaring light onto them. And the presence of cameras everywhere – in our pockets, most of all – means a flood of imagery that we lacked even a few years ago. That visibility is essential. It informs our opinions, our conversations, our votes.

Sunlight is the best disenfectant. In the first few rays, though, the world can look grimy indeed. Just remember, the grime was there all along. What you’re seeing isn’t new. What’s new is that we have the power, for the first time, to wipe it away.

2014 will be remembered as a transparency tipping point. A sunlight tipping point. It’ll go down as a year that authority – in at least one form – had to start becoming more responsive and more accountable to the public.

–Far From a Perfect World–

I could go on about a dozen other ways the world is getting better, but I won’t. This list isn’t meant to convey that the world has no problems, or that it’s getting better in every way. Plenty of things are getting worse. But I trust you can find lists of those pretty much everywhere you turn. They’re over-represented in our discourse, and especially in the news. The good news is radically under-represented.

Good news doesn’t happen magically. The above trends didn’t pop out of thin air. They represent the hard work of millions of people – maybe billions. Some of them are improving the world out of simple self-interest. Others are doing it out of some passion, out of altruism, or out of deep conviction. Either way, optimism isn’t the same as complacency. Optimism is about action.

So here’s to those who act.

I think 2015, while it will have its share of problems too, will be even better.

Solar and Wind Plunging Below Fossil Fuel Prices

Asset management firm Lazard has a fascinating new analysis of renewable and other energy prices out.

There are a huge number of insights in this, from an outside analyst whose primary interest is financial. (Those are, in my mind, the most objective analysts in this space.)

First, the plunge in renewable prices continues, and over the last 5 years, wind has resumed its plunge as well. Their numbers show an average price decline over the last 5 years of 78% for utility scale solar and 58% for wind.

Those numbers above are unsubsidized, without investment tax credit. The range shown reflects the range of geographies – from windy areas to less windy, from sunny areas to less sunny.

This dovetails with the longer term plunge in wind and solar prices I’ve documented elsewhere:

Second, unsubsidized prices are cost competitive with grid wholesale prices.  Solar, which delivers power during the daytime and afternoon, heavily overlapping with the late afternoon and early evening peak, is well below the wholesale price of peak power (provided by ‘peaker’ natural gas plants that only operate during those few hours of the day). Solar is even closing in on the wholesale cost of 24/7 operated coal and natural gas plants that provide ‘baseload’ power overnight (and as the underlying power throughout the day.)

Wind is well below the cost of peaker plants, and the best wind sites are already well below the cost of ‘baseload’ power.

Here’s the same chart from Lazard above, but with my annotations of the wholesale peak and baseload prices in the US. Click to embiggen.

Note: Just to be clear, the baseload price (the bottom red line) is for 24/7 power, available at night and when the wind isn’t blowing, which means that solar and wind can’t always compete with that price.

Which brings us to the next point:

Third, It’s all about storage now. (Or soon, at any rate.)  Inside of a decade, in most of the US and most of the world, solar or wind will be cheaper than coal or natural gas on an instantaneous, non-stored basis. This trend appears inexorable. And so long as there is demand for more energy at the hours at which solar and wind are delivering (which is the case right now), then the situation is great.

The long-term obstacle, beyond perhaps 20% of grid penetration, is ‘dispatchability’ – the ability to issue the precise amount of energy needed, when it’s needed – perhaps hours after the energy is generated (for example, at night, when the sun isn’t shining, or during still hours of the day), or perhaps just minutes later. That means storage.

And storage is currently the long pole in prices.

Fortunately, as I’ve written before, energy storage prices are dropping exponentially.

By the time we reach 20% grid penetration of renewables, we seem on path to have storage costs down to roughly 1/10th of their current level. That’s a price at which a mix of solar, wind, and storage could outprice even current ‘baseload’ power in large fractions of the country and the world.

In the longterm, of course, the price decline of solar in particular is even more impressive, as documented by AllianceBernstein in their solar “Terrordome” graph.

In the long term, solar appears on path to be the cheapest source of energy in most parts of the world while the sun is shining, and storage may well become cheap enough to facilitate its use even at non-sunny times.

I talk much more about renewables, energy storage, and how to accelerate progress in them in my book on innovating to beat climate change and other resource and environmental challenges: The Infinite Resouce: The Power of Ideas on a Finite Planet 

Carbon Prices Drive Clean Energy Innovation

I want to point out something I see commonly missed.  Carbon prices accelerate innovation that brings down the price of green energy. So do renewable energy portfolio standards, green energy subsidies, and a whole swath of other climate policies. They do this by increasing the scale of the industry, which drives more scale (a price reducer) and also brings more players, more investment (much of which goes to direct R&D) and more price competition between players (the single best driver of reduced prices there has ever been).

The context: I noticed today a brief symposium on climate change with Larry Summers, Bjorn Lomborg, Alex Tabarrok, Tyler Cowen, and others.

There are some smart responses there.

Several of the panelists put forward, quite correctly, that green energy must ultimately be cheaper than fossil energy for us to succeed at climate change.  I agree.

And various panelists put forward cases for increased government R&D in green energy or X-Prize style prizes for major innovations in green energy.  Great ideas.

But let’s look at what’s happened in the industry recently.

Here’s the price of solar power modules, on a Log Scale, over the last 30ish years.


This is a rapid exponential decline of more than 95%. Some of that incredible progress has been driven by government sponsored R&D. But the single largest driver has been the scaling of the industry, and the innovation (both scientific and highly practical) that has come with it. That industry scaling has been made possible by a host of climate initiatives.

That’s just module cost. Here’s what’s happened with overall installed cost.

More recent data suggests the price has fallen even faster, to around $2.50 / Watt installed price in the US (weighted over all installations, which means largely utility scale).

That’s a ~75% reduction in total system price over the last 12 years. That’s staggering in almost any industry.

It’s not just solar, either. The price of wind power has plunged by 90% over the last 30ish years. And while it temporarily hit a plateau (as wind power became a major consumer of carbon fiber and demand temporarily exceeded supply) prices have once again resumed their decline.

And, though few people know, the price of energy storage is also plunging. Here, on a log scale, is how much energy storage you can buy for a dollar. Over a 15 year period, driven primarily by competition by laptop and cell phone manufacturers and their providers, the cost of lithium ion batteries dropped by a factor of 10 per unit of energy stored.

As electric cars and grid-scale storage drive up demand and heat up investment, private sector R&D, and competition in the space, the price of energy storage will continue to drop.

Again, there is some basic R&D in all of these areas funded by government. But the #1 driver of the incredible price reductions in each of these areas has been intense competition between private sector companies going after a growing market.

Why is the market growing? We’re reaching the point where it’s growing on basic price dynamics. But for the past three decades, the markets for wind and solar have been bootstrapped by governmental actions. 

Bjorn Lomborg, at the symposium, said:

the best long-term strategy to tackle global warming [is] to increase dramatically investment in green research and development. They suggested doing so 10-fold to $100bn a year globally. This would equal 0.2% of global GDP. Compare this to the EU’s climate policies, which cost $280 billion a year but reduce temperatures by a trivial 0.1 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the century.

Lomborg’s number of $280 billion is roughly an order of magnitude greater than the EU’s actual direct spending on green energy, but let’s ignore that for now. The bigger issue is that he’s missing the primary impact of their climate polices. The number one impact of Europe, and particularly Germany’s investment in clean energy has been to drop the price of clean energy for everyone, now and into the future. That means that every future dollar spent on fighting climate change via green energy is dramatically more effective, for Germany, for Europe, and for everyone else worldwide. It’s a positive externality.

The price of solar power is now roughly 1/10th of what it was when Germany started their push into it. Yet it only dropped so far because of Germany’s major push. They have, in effect, paid the early adopter tax.

More to the point, the tens of billions per year the world spends in green energy subsidies have mobilized hundreds of billions per year in industry and consumer spending (similar to the effect a prize has, I’d note!) That private spending, in turn, has translated into a massive and continuing price decline in the technology.

How is that different, in effect, than direct R&D? Indeed, do we have any indication that spending that money on direct R&D instead would have done anywhere as well?  (Note: I don’t oppose direct R&D spending. I think we should do more of it. But it’s not a replacement for creating a market explosion and tapping into price competition between market actors.)

Alex Tabbarok, of whom I’m a huge fan, is the one member of the panel to state the connection. He states that: “A carbon tax will induce innovation as people demand a way to avoid the tax.”

This is absolutely true. But I’d extend and amplify this statement.

Any policy that expands the market for green energy – and puts providers in direct price competition with one another – will induce innovation, as providers scramble to tap into that market, and compete directly with one another to bring prices down.

Indeed, this isn’t a hypothetical. One has only to look at the graphs above to see that it’s already happening.

I write much more about solar, wind, energy storage, and why the pace of innovation in them is critical – and hopeful – for both fighting climate change and for long term economic growth in the book I originally did this research for. The Infinite Resource: The Power of Ideas on a Finite Planet.

The Shrinking Dominance of the Big Dogs in Tech

"In 1981, the top ten technology companies represented 95% of the global IT market cap. Today, that share has fallen to 26% and the ratio continues to fall."  

Microsoft, IBM, DEC, HP, and so on were once titans.  Apple, Google, and Facebook may be titans now, but they capture less of the overall value in the industry than the old top players did.  More of it is captured by a larger array of smaller companies, which is a fundamentally positive thing, IMHO.

The graph and opening quote are from an interesting and detailed post by Tomasz Tungunz. 

The Sunlight is Where the Energy Poverty Is

The future world energy system will undoubtedly be a mix of many different energy technologies – nuclear, hydro, wind, solar, and some fossil fuels for decades and decades to come.  Yet I’m particularly optimistic about solar. One reason is its incredible price trajectory, a trait that no other modern energy technology shares.  Another is that solar availability lines up extremely well with the regions of the world where people live in energy poverty, generally completely off the grid.

Off-the-grid, diesel electricity often costs 3x as much as grid electricity.  And running new power grids out to these location is an expensive, capital-intensive project.  In these areas in the developing world, decentralized solar is particularly well positioned as a tool to provide energy to meet people’s needs in a low-carbon way, without the enormous cost of extending a national grid.  It’s similar to the leapfrogging of mobile phones past landlines.

See for yourself.  Here’s a map of energy poverty around the world:

And here’s a map of solar availability around the world (total amount of sunlight falling per year):

The match isn’t perfect. But the availability of sunlight is tremendously higher in Africa and South Asia than it is in, say, Germany, where solar power has been championed the most this past decade.  The US and Australia are also particularly well endowed.

I write much more about solar, wind, energy storage, and why innovation in them is a great reason for hope in combating climate change even as we lift billions out of poverty, in my book on solving the environmental and natural resource challenges that face us: The Infinite Resouce: The Power of Ideas on a Finite Planet 

Income, Energy Use, and Life Expectancy

One of the best indicators of human well-being is life expectancy.  High life expectancy means low infant mortality. It also, almost invariably, correlates with high access to food, medicine, shelter, and education, and low levels of disease and violence.  So in looking at the impact of economic growth on the developing world, it's worth looking at what correlates with high life expectancy.  And it's clear that both high income and high energy use come hand in hand with high life expectancy.

On a log scale, income per person correlates quite well with life expectancy around the world.  There are some notable outliers, like South Africa, but those are the exceptions rather than the rule.  You can find more at Gapminder.

It's also clear on a global basis that greater access to energy correlates to greater life expectancy.  From Roger Pielke Jr's blog.

For these reasons, from a humanitarian standpoint, we should welcome the developing world growing richer and increasing their access to energy, even as we work to find ways to reduce and reverse the environmental damage caused by current forms of energy use.

China’s Tipping Point on Environment?

Chinese environmental protesters have won the cancellation of an industrial waste pipeline that would have dumped waste from a paper factory into the ocean near the town of Qidong.

This is not the first such victory.  The Guardian notes that:

The protest followed similar demonstrations against projects in the Sichuan town of Shifang earlier this month and in the cities of Dalian in the north-east and Haimen in southern Guangdong province in the past year.

There’s a general pattern in concern around the environment. (And a very similar one in concern for civil liberties.)  When people are desperately poor, their concerns are food, shelter, energy, and physical safety.

As people grow richer and are able to meet their basic needs, environmental quality and civil liberties, which were once considered niceties, rise in importance.

In regard to environmental quality, this is known as the Environmental Kuznets Curve:


As countries grow richer, their levels of environmental degradation rise at first, then level, then drop. This isn’t uniform across all types of pollution.  For instance, the US has already peaked and now sharply declined in the emission of lead, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide (which causes acid rain), and CFCs (which degrade the ozone layer).  But for CO2 emissions, the US is in that middle zone.

China has been over on the left, rapidly industrializing.  But now it appears to be heading into that middle zone, as there’s increasing pressure to cancel polluting projects, to improve air quality, to reduce emissions of pollutants like sulfur dioxide.

What we’re seeing is the emergence of a Chinese environmental movement, something that’s only become possible because China’s people are rich enough that preserving the environment has become important to them.

This is still the beginning. China is a major polluter. There are years, if not decades, of work ahead. But it’s heartening to see Chinese people standing up against pollution, and in many cases, succeeding.

Perhaps we’ll see the same transition on civil liberties one day.

Pricing Nature to Save the Planet

New Scientist, covering Rio+20, talks about putting a price on the natural world:

Green economics, the theory goes, will work by quantifying nature and giving it a cash value. As Steiner put it: “Factoring natural capital into the bottom line will bring the real wealth of the planet from the invisible to the visible spectrum.” The hope is that, faced with the potential for monetary loss as a result of environmental degradation, decision-makers will feel compelled to act.

The notion of putting a price tag on nature is a powerful one. Economic self interest is a tremendous force. Given the importance of the planet to us, why isn’t it as easy to strike it rich in green tech as it is in internet tech?

If we want to unleash innovators on the task of preserving nature, we need those economic incentives. We need it to be as possible to get rich by improving the climate or solving ocean acidification or deforestation as it is to get rich creating the next Facebook.

This will, however, require action from governments. The natural behavior of markets is to treat commons as free resources to exploit, even when those commons have economic value for others. If we want markets to value them, we will need to impose a price on those resources, and only governments are empowered to do so.

via Earth Summit signals move to give nature a price tag – environment – 27 June 2012 – New Scientist.

Is Automation the Handmaiden of Inequality?

In Technology Review, Christopher Mims asks if the increasing automation of US industry has contributed to growing inequality, by bringing its gains to factory owners rather than workers.

Here’s how I would interpret the odd coincidence of these two trends: in a perfectly capitalist system, increased profit produced by automation flows to the owners of the business. Worker compensation stagnates because, while automation makes each worker more productive, it doesn’t make them any more valuable. While all these machines and IT infrastructure do require a quasi-elite caste of Mandarins to keep them running, on the whole, the skill required of individual laborers has actually gone down.

This is an important topic. Blue collar wages have stagnated in the US not only due to globalization, but also due to automation. The rise of machinery to accomplish tasks reduces the value of most workers in fields like manufacturing.

What this article misses is that this has been happening for 150 years, yet long term, wages have hugely increased. The way this has happened in the past has been through the migration of humans to higher level tasks that were not yet automated, and that saw increased productivity due to their ability to take advantage of automation.

The top long term economic issue in the US, and possibly the world, (IMHO) is the propagation of the skills, education, and training needed in the broad workforce to enable them to do ever-more useful work for others, and thus see their wages rise rather than stagnate or shrink.

(The related observation, not covered in this article, is that average wages of those with college degrees have risen steadily. The stagnation is primarily among the 72% of Americans that have a high school diploma or less.)

Is Automation the Handmaiden of Inequality? – Technology Review.