Solar + Wind, More Than the Sum of Their Parts

David Roberts has an amazing first post in his new job at Vox, on why a solar future is inevitable.

Clearly I’m bullish on solar. My own reasons are that:

1. Solar is plunging in price far faster than any other energy source.

2. Solar takes very little land: Less than 1% of US land would be required to provide US electricity needs via solar.

3. Energy storage is plunging in price at least as fast as solar, complementing it and providing backstop for it.

That said, there’s very likely a role for multiple source of electricity in the future (let alone multiple sources of energy overall, when one adds in things like transportation and manufacturing.)

Consider wind. Wind power, while not plunging in price nearly as rapidly as solar, is cheaper in many places today. And wind and solar have a dynamic that makes them greater than the sum of their parts: The wind tends to blow most when the sun isn’t shining, and vice versa. That’s true on an hour-by-hour basis, and even true on a season-by-season basis.

Consider this chart of capacity factors by hour of day for solar and coastal and inland wind from the ERCOT grid (Texas).

The top line is electricity load – demand being placed on the grid by people drawing electricity. Load peaks in daylight hours, but stays at that peak in the early evening. The sun sets before load drops, but the wind tends to kick in.  And overnight, when no sun is shining, the wind blows, on average harder than it does during the day.

Every gigawatt of solar deployed, for this reason, actually makes wind power slightly more economically valuable.

And while I’ve written extensively about the cost plunge of storage, the reality is that combining solar + wind, at the grid level, often removed the need, at least in the short term, for storage, and reduces the total amount of storage needed on the grid.

The same pattern is generally true across seasons. The sun is most available in summer months, wind most available in winter months. Here’s a view of 11 months in Germany:

The point here isn’t to knock solar. Solar’s ferocious price decline, combined with the fact that it is the most abundant renewable on the planet, give it a clear advantage. Yet there are parts of the world with less sun (Northern Europe, for instance), parts of the day with less sun, and parts of the year with less sun. Combining wind and solar is a bit like adding 1 + 1 and getting three. And for that reason, as solar penetration increases and likely passes wind power in the next 2-3 years, I expect the economic case for wind to actually grow stronger.

That also, by the way, makes the case for the grid. Renewables become far more reliable when integrated over a larger area. Integrating solar power over a wider area cuts the intermittency of clouds, for example:

And for any continent-sized area, using the grid to connect solar + wind allows the best of both worlds, drawing sunlight from the sunny areas, and wind from the windy areas to create a best of both worlds. Indeed, this is what I hope to see happen in Europe, where the northern nations have fairly little sunlight but lots of wind, and the south has abundant sunlight that it could provide to the north.

A European grid to knit these together could provide the best of both worlds to Europe’s electricity system. Energy interdependence over energy independence.

The Patents Argument Against GMOs Just Ended With the First Off-Patent GMO

I argued in my 2013 book, The Infinite Resource, that the “seeds shouldn’t be patented” argument against GMOs and specifically against Monsanto was invalid for a very specific reason:  Patents end.

As I wrote then, the patents for Monsanto’s first commercial genetically modified crop, Roundup Ready Soy I, would expire at the end of the 2014 growing season. After that, farmers would be free to save seeds to replant, universities would be free to tinker with the  genetic trait, seed breeders would be free to cross-breed it into other strains, and so on.

What wasn’t clear at the time was how likely that was to occur.

Well, now we know.

The University of Arkansas has released a free, replantable version of Roundup Ready Soy. Any farmer can take this seed, can plant it, doesn’t have to pay any technology licensing fee, and can re-plant seeds from the resulting crop for the next year.

Add to that the fact that glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup, went off-patent years ago, and so generic versions of Roundup are available, and this means that farmers can use this product developed by Monsanto without paying Monsanto a dime.

That’s how patents are supposed to work. The inventor gets a temporary monopoly to reward them for their research and development, and in exchange, society gets the permanent benefit of their invention.

And, of course, the scientific consensus is that Roundup Ready plants and other approved GM crops are safe.

I believe this is the beginning of a new era in genetically modified crops, one of much more diversity as the cost of research drops, as more work is done by non-profits, and as more and more patents expire. As I wrote in the book:

In 2014, Monsanto’s patent on Roundup Ready soybeans will expire – the first of a wave of patent expiries that will let anyone take advantage of that gene to create new seeds that can reduce the use of toxic pesticides like atrazine, while being licensed in much more open ways.

At the same time, a host of other competitors have biotech crops that have recently come onto the market or will in the next few years.  And non-profits and universities are producing GM crops that will be free to the poor and which are often developed in the ‘open source’ model.  Golden rice and C4 rice are being co-developed by a network of universities and non-profits, for example, and will be available free of charge to farmers in the developing world.

In the early days of computing, the only computers were giant IBM mainframes that cost millions of dollars.  Today, you have more computing power in your pocket than the entire planet possessed 40 years ago.  The dramatic decline in the price of computing over those decades has democratized computing tremendously.   Proverbial ‘garage startups’ like Apple, Google, and Facebook start with humble resources but can revolutionize the world.  Open source networks of unpaid developers build software used by hundreds of millions.

That revolution is on the very edge of hitting biotechnology.  The cost of gene sequencing has dropped by a factor of 1 million over the last 20 years.  That’s faster than the cost of computing has ever dropped.   Research is dropping in price.  The ability to create new GM foods, tailored exactly for local conditions and needs, is growing.   Already there are dozens of different projects to create GM crops that deliver better nutrition, higher yields, or lower need for pesticides or fertilizer underway. Some are from private companies, who’ll compete with one another to provide the best products, prices, and terms.  And many more are from non-profit foundations and universities.

What we’re going to see in the future is not a monopoly on the technology of food. We’re going to see wide open competition between dozens of companies, hundreds of universities, and some day thousands of different GM foods.   And that is exactly what we want.

I write more about the environmental and humanitarian case for genetically modified foods, agriculture in general, and how to provide enough food, water, and energy for the planet, while beating climate change, deforestation, and other challenges, in my book The Infinite Resource: The Power of Ideas on a Finite Planet.  If you think GMOs are a problem rather than a solution, if you think we can’t beat climate change, or if you think that doing so means giving up on our way of life, then I challenge you to read this book.

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.

Less Water, Less Oil

Here in the US, we consume less oil per person and less water per person than we have in decades.

Oil consumption per person per year, from the IEA.  (The last bullet point is their projection for 2030):

Water withdrawals per person, from the Pacific Institute.  While the 2010 data point is missing, it would most likely show US water withdrawals down to a level not seen since the 1940s.

It's possible to grow richer while using less.

More on how it's possible to reduce resource use while growing richer in the book for which I created these graphs: The Infinite Resouce: The Power of Ideas on a Finite Planet 

Do We Eat Oil? Farms Are More Energy Efficient Than Ever

A common refrain one hears about modern farming in the US is that it's too energy intensive.  However, data from the USDA shows that US farms use only half as much energy per unit of farm output as they did in 1950.  That includes energy for fertilizer, farm equipment, pesticides, etc..

Source: USDA: Agricultural Productivity in the United States

Can We Feed the World?

By 2050, the FAO projects that we’ll need to increase global food production by 70% to meet rising food demand.  Most of that, as Jon Foley has noted, is not from population growth, but rather from increasingly meat rich diets in the developing world.

Perhaps we can reduce that food demand growth rate, by cutting food waste or by cutting meat demand (more on that another day).  But for now, I want to ask the question: Can we raise food production by 70% by 2050?

Fundamentally, it’s possible. The key evidence is that food production per acre in rich countries, like the United States, is already twice the food production per acre of the world as a whole.  That means that if the world’s farms, overall, were as productive as farms in the US, we would aready be meeting the FAO’s projected food demand for 2050.

This difference, between global food production per acre and rich world food production per acre, is called the yield gap. It exists because farmers in the developing world have less access to fertilizer, irrigation, farm equipment, pesticides, and the other tools that make farmers in rich countries more productive.

Even so, total food production around the world is rising.

Jon Foley and his colleagues have found, unfortunately, that the rise is currently not fast enough to keep up with their projected demand increase of 100% by 2050 (somewhat higher than the FAO’s projection of 2050).

The key is to bend that line upwards, by closing the gap between the productivity of farms around the world and the productivity of farms in rich countries.  And the key to that will be a combination of economic development and continued research and development into better crops and better farm practices.

I write more about how to feed the world, while aiming at using less land, and producing less pollution, in my book about innovating to overcome climate change, energy, water, food, population, and other challenges before us: The Infinite Resouce: The Power of Ideas on a Finite Planet 

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 now consumes twice as much meat as the United States

Janet Larsen at the Earth Policy Institute has an extremely informative post on meat consumption in China.  Total meat consumption there has risen by a whopping 600% since 1980 and is now double the amount consumed in the US.  Yet on a per-capita basis, Chinese people eat slightly less meat than Americans, and only 1/9th as much of the mos resource-intensive meet, beef.

In the US, much of the discussion of environmental issues centers around the idea of limits to growth.   Yet realistically, billions of people in the developing world, who have historically consumed far less than their counterparts in the US and Europe, have appetites for food, homes, vehicles, and conveniences that will use up more resources.

The only realistic path forward is not one of restricting the rise of resource consumption.  It’s one of innovating to grow the total resource base available.

More than a quarter of all the meat produced worldwide is now eaten in China, and the country’s 1.35 billion people are hungry for more. In 1978, China’s meat consumption of 8 million tons was one third the U.S. consumption of 24 million tons. But by 1992, China had overtaken the United States as the world’s leading meat consumer—and it has not looked back since. Now China’s annual meat consumption of 71 million tons is more than double that in the United States. With U.S. meat consumption falling and China’s consumption still rising, the trajectories of these two countries are determining the shape of agriculture around the planet.

Plan B Updates - 102: Meat Consumption in China Now Double That in the United States | EPI

via Plan B Updates – 102: Meat Consumption in China Now Double That in the United States | EPI.

A roadmap for growing prosperity while saving the planet

Chris Jablonski at ZDnet interviewed me recently about my next book, The Infinite Resource.   Here’s a short excerpt.  Click at the link at the bottom to read the whole interview.

In your upcoming book, The Infinite Resource – Growing Prosperity While Reducing Impact on the Earth, you point to knowledge as the path to a prosperous future. What inspired you to pick this theme?

RN: The book is really the intersection of two lines of inquiry. The first is the state of the environment and our natural resources. We’re simultaneously facing climate change and peak oil, ocean overfishing and fresh water shortages. As someone who cares about the future, I wanted to understand those challenges for myself.

The second is about innovation and its relationship to resource use and prosperity. I come from a tech background, so I’m used to the incredible onward march of Moore’s Law. But I was surprised to discover that something like Moore’s Law operates in solar energy. In the last 30 years, the price of electricity solar photovoltaic cells has dropped by more than a factor of 10. This decade, it’ll drop below the price of electricity from coal fired plants – the current cheapest. In 20 years, if the trend continues, it’ll be half the price of electricity from coal fired plants.

The driving force behind the reduction in solar energy prices is innovation. Scientists and engineers in the area keep coming up with new ways to make solar cells cheaper, thinner, lighter, and more efficient. That’s an accumulation of knowledge that has the promise to help us offset the depletion of a physical resource – oil.

That intersection led me to view our knowledge base itself as a resource.  And as a resource, knowledge plays by different rules that make it incredibly powerful. Unlike physical resources like oil, our stockpile of useful ideas and engineering designs and insights into the laws of nature keeps growing. Ideas don’t get destroyed or consumed in usage. If I have a piece of knowledge and I share it with you, I don’t have to give it up myself – its impact gets multiplied by the number of holders. And best of all, the right knowledge can substitute for or multiply just about any other resource – energy, labor, materials, land, even time.

Read More: A roadmap for growing prosperity while saving the planet | ZDNet.