“Renewable” power will soon start to be seen as normal.
Wind farms already provide 2% of the world’s electricity, and their capacity is doubling every three years. If that growth rate is maintained, wind power will overtake nuclear’s contribution to the world’s energy accounts in about a decade. Though it still has its opponents, wind is thus already a grown-up technology. But it is in the field of solar energy, currently only a quarter of a percent of the planet’s electricity supply, but which grew 86% last year, that the biggest shift of attitude will be seen, for sunlight has the potential to disrupt the electricity market completely.
The underlying cause of this disruption is a phenomenon that solar’s supporters call Swanson’s law, in imitation of Moore’s law of transistor cost. Moore’s law suggests that the size of transistors (and also their cost) halves every 18 months or so. Swanson’s law, named after Richard Swanson, the founder of SunPower, a big American solar-cell manufacturer, suggests that the cost of the photovoltaic cells needed to generate solar power falls by 20% with each doubling of global manufacturing capacity. The upshot (see chart) is that the modules used to make solar-power plants now cost less than a dollar per watt of capacity. Power-station construction costs can add $4 to that, but these, too, are falling as builders work out how to do the job better. And running a solar power station is cheap because the fuel is free.
Coal-fired plants, for comparison, cost about $3 a watt to build in the United States, and natural-gas plants cost $1. But that is before the fuel to run them is bought. In sunny regions such as California, then, photovoltaic power could already compete without subsidy with the more expensive parts of the traditional power market, such as the natural-gas-fired “peaker” plants kept on stand-by to meet surges in demand. Moreover, technological developments that have been proved in the laboratory but have not yet moved into the factory mean Swanson’s law still has many years to run.
Fossil-fuel-powered electricity will not be pushed aside quickly. Fracking, a technological breakthrough which enables natural gas to be extracted cheaply from shale, means that gas-fired power stations, which already produce a fifth of the world’s electricity, will keep the pressure on wind and solar to get better still. But even if natural gas were free, no Swanson’s law-like process applies to the plant required to turn it into electricity. Nuclear power is not a realistic alternative. It is too unpopular and the capital costs are huge. And coal’s days seem numbered. In America, the share of electricity generated from coal has fallen from almost 80% in the mid-1980s to less than a third in April 2012, and coal-fired power stations are closing in droves.
It may take longer to make the change in China and India, where demand for power is growing almost insatiably, and where the grids to take that power from windy and sunny places to the cities are less developed than in rich countries. In the end, though, they too will change as the alternatives become normal, and what was once normal becomes quaintly old-fashioned.