Economics Renewable Energy Supply Chain

Cheaper than Coal?

My friend Cherish over at Faraday’s Cage is where you put your Schroedinger’s Cat sent me an article on solar power approaching the cost of coal (generated electricity). It’s a great article and it quotes Ray Kurzweil so I’m automatically a fan. However, I have no doubt in my mind that it WILL hit this price point (~$1/watt), it’s just a question of when.

The real thing I want to touch on and get responses to is: What happens when solar energy is cheaper than coal?

Coal is dumb

I think there will be gradual uptake by the large energy companies (most already have dipped a toe in the shallow end for solar power). Even large scale consumers will start to put renewable energy on their balance sheets, assuming it is cheaper. But then what? Business as usual? Am I allowed to keep my lights on all night, even if it is silly to do so? I’m confident that not only will solar be cheaper than coal, but over the long term, it will be MUCH cheaper because you get more lifetime out of a panel or a solar thermal system than you do with a lump of coal. So will prices go down from the power company? I’m not so sure about that one as I’m guessing they’ll want to pass their “investment costs” down to the consumers.

Another facet to this idea is whether or not consumers will start to take on the burden of their own energy generation. Will there be a deficit in the north and a surplus in the south? Will there be a grid efficient enough to transfer this energy transcontinentally? Will there ever be a storage mechanism that is feasible for all of the energy we could potentially harvest from the sun (I just heard about this idea and thought it was really cool)? Or is the individual power generation scheme doomed to fail because there is still an energy broker in the middle (the power company) for all those times when the sun isn’t shining (and the wind isn’t blowing if that becomes a more efficient source of power also).

If power consumption continues to get cheaper and everyone adopts a renewable stance on it, will the environment actually improve? Will there be as much focus on conservation, both in reducing power needed in devices and total consumption per capita (reducing our individual “carbon footprint”)? Will the cheap energy of the future fuel the next boom and pull us out of the doldrums of this dumb recession?

So many questions. So so many and we still haven’t even found out if we CAN make it cheaper than coal yet (cautiously optimistic here). Renewable energy will be translating to big money for some people over the next ten years and that means lots of conflict. What do you think will happen when/if solar becomes cheaper than coal?

By Chris Gammell

Chris Gammell is an engineer who talks more than most other engineers. He also writes, makes videos and a couple podcasts. While analog electronics happen to be his primary interests, he also dablles in FPGAs and system level design.

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