Why Solar Energy Needs Innovation to Reach Its Potential


Did you know that the sun
beams down more energy in an hour than the entire world uses in a year? As the world races to avert
catastrophic climate change, the sun offers by far the most
abundant source of clean energy. And by harnessing it, countries can
also power economic growth, expand electricity access,
and reduce energy imports. Over the last decade, solar
has gone from expensive novelty to the cheapest, fastest-growing
power source on Earth. But here’s the thing. We could squander its potential
if we don’t plan for the future. Today, solar supplies just two percent
of the world’s electricity. And even though it might look
like solar power could keep on growing exponentially, its rise could very well hit a ceiling, flattening out in coming decades, far before it unseats dominant fossil fuels. In Europe, we’re already seeing this slowdown, and if that happens on a global scale, the solar revolution could sputter out. Preventing that is the point of
my new book, Taming the Sun. I argue that three types of innovation are needed to unlock solar’s full potential. The first innovation is financial. Right now, solar needs to attract
trillions of dollars to fuel its rise. But so far, the world’s most deep-pocketed
investors have largely sat on the sidelines. So, the solar industry needs to take a
page out of the playbook from the fossil fuel, automobile, and mortgage industries, and bundle together solar projects, so big institutional investors feel
comfortable buying and trading them. I’m pretty confident the industry
will figure that one out. But just as soon as solar gets over
that funding speed bump, it could run into a much more serious obstacle, known as value deflation. See, all this investment will help the industry produce and deploy more solar panels, driving down the cost
of building a new solar project. That’s the good news. But the bad news is that the value
of the electricity produced by solar will plunge even faster. As more solar panels come online,
they’ll flood the grid with power in the middle of the day,
but shut off when the sun sets. Even though customers will
need power during dinnertime, the next solar panel will just
feed them more lunchtime power. That’s not very valuable. Soon, the value will fall below the cost, so it won’t make economic sense
to install any more solar panels. That will halt the momentum of solar’s rise. Overcoming this barrier
starts with technological innovation. Breakthroughs in solar technology
could cause the cost of solar to plunge, enabling more solar to be deployed economically. Next-generation technologies, such as perovskites,
already exist in laboratories. They could transform today’s heavy, rigid,
and frankly ugly solar panels into lightweight, flexible, and colorful coatings that tomorrow could cover cityscapes around the world. Additionally, developing advanced solar thermal
plants could convert the sun’s energy into heat, and use that heat to generate power 24/7, rather than just at lunchtime. And one day, artificial leaf technology
could even harness sunlight to make portable fuels, finally making oil obsolete. Still, even with these two types of innovation,
solar will need a third to limit the decline of its value
as more of it’s deployed. And that would be systemic innovation,
which includes things like: Continent-spanning power grids that link sun-drenched deserts to power-hungry cities; Energy markets that pay for
energy storage and flexible generators to smooth out the volatile swings of solar power; And smart software that can turn
electric vehicles into mobile batteries to resupply the grid once the sun goes down. These innovative energy systems
would preserve solar’s value by making sure that solar power can be used no matter when it’s produced or how it fluctuates. Promoting all three kinds of innovation
will require urgent investments by governments all around the world. And that needs to start right now. If we wait until solar runs out of steam, it’ll be too late to get it back on track. But if we get this right, the twenty first century
will finally be the one in which humankind secures
cheap, clean, and virtually limitless energy all by taming the sun.

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