Scientists are embroiled in a bitter debate about whether or not renewable energy can power the world. But new research—and insights from a leading industry insider—suggest that the dialogue overlooks an imminent tipping point that could permanently disrupt fossil fuels: the capacity to store a lot of solar energy, cheaply and efficiently.
A study published in January in the Journal of Sustainable Finance & Investment predicts that the combination of battery storage with renewable energy will make fossil fuels increasingly obsolete. The driving forces of this disruption include the "decline in retail renewable electricity prices," along with plummeting costs of batteries, in which technological efficiencies are improving exponentially.
Fossil fuels are the most widely used source of energy because of base load power, which means they provide energy at all times, night and day. In contrast, renewables have faced the 'intermittency' challenge—the sun doesn't always shine, and the wind doesn't always blow.
But authors Jemma Green and Peter Newman of Curtin University in Australia show that as storage gets cheaper, renewables will become more competitive with fossil fuels on costs and reliability. By 2050, these irresistible technological and market forces could make oil, gas and coal seem too costly and cumbersome, leading renewables to account for "100 percent of global energy demand."
According to Vicente Lopez-Ibor Mayor, chairman of Lightsource—the biggest solar energy company in Europe—there will be an immediate impact within just three years.
Mayor knows his industry well. He co-founded the UK-based Lightsource in 2010 with CEO Nick Boyle. Just seven years later, the company produces 1.5 Gigawatts (GW) of energy from solar power—enough to power over 300,000 homes.
Last year Mayor, alongside Boyle and Lightsource director Alexandre Diez Baumann, set up a new company in Spain called Ampere Energy that focuses on where he believes the most radical transformations will occur: combining storage, solar PV (solar panel electricity systems which capture the sun's energy from photovoltaic cells) with Big Data to create what he calls "a new electricity ecosystem."
Mayor told Motherboard that the speed of technological improvement means solar storage is "going to be massively disruptive to the business-as-usual processes of oil, gas and coal."
In three years, he said, it will "begin to transform" the electricity infrastructure of major cities. "Solar storage is pitched to become so cheap it will make relying on natural gas peaker plants pointless…It will lead to rapid adoption of solar by businesses, local governments, and households—not because people are environmentally conscious, but simply because it will make more economic sense."
Green and Newman back up this idea of an emerging electricity market transformation in a separate paper focusing on the city of Perth, Australia.
The study, published in February in Energy Policy, looks at how in less than a decade, 23 percent of homes in Perth have acquired rooftop solar—largely without government support. Rooftop solar, the authors observe, has become "Perth's largest power station."
The next stage in this process will come when these solar households start buying lithium-ion battery systems. The combined price of solar storage, say Green and Newman, could guide us toward grid parity—equal to or less than the price of purchasing electricity from the national grid. When this happens, solar storage "will flood the market, increasing supply and creating a lower market price for electricity," Mayor said.
The coming storage revolution
Not everyone agrees. One paper published in June in BioPhysical Economics and Resource Quality attempts to calculate the "EROI"ㄧthe Energy Return on Investment or 'net energy' costㄧof renewables with storage. Or, more simply: how much energy is required to manufacture and sustain the entire new renewable energy system.
The study, by Graham Palmer of the University of Melbourne, concludes that the EROI of a renewable energy system reliant on lithium batteries "would rapidly fall below the minimum useful EROI for society." This means we wouldn't be able to sustain modern economies as we know them on renewables just yet.
I put this to Mayor, but he was unfazed.
"These sorts of studies are valuable but they are based on old data. The efficiency and costs of battery technologies are improving all the time," he said. "I can tell youㄧwe have already seen exponential improvements in the way batteries work, and corresponding cost reductions."
One recently reported battery breakthrough has come from Professor John Goodenough of the Cockrell School of Engineering at the University of Texas at Austin, who co-invented the lithium-ion battery.
Goodenough's new lithium battery technology is said to have over three times greater energy density as today's batteries. This means: faster charging, longer-lasting charge, a greater overall life cycle, and overall reduced costs.
According to Mayor, such technological improvements mean that "within about five to seven years" solar storage will start seriously affecting consumer demand for fossil fuels.
National grids will still exist, but they will have to adapt
"We will see an increasing proliferation of electric vehicles, charging stations, and new enterprises using solar PV to produce energy for local consumption," Mayor said. "Big Data and smart metering will allow consumers to buy and sell energy from and to the grid at the push of a button."
Green and Newman similarly conclude that these changes will be transformational. National grids will still exist, but they will have to adapt to new, democratic forms of local renewable power, controlled by a different type of 'utility' altogether: citizens themselves.
An inevitable disruption
Even if renewables with storage are a disruptive game-changer, can they really replace fossil fuels completely and sustain modern industrial civilization as we know it?
Mayor is notably less bullish on this point. "When I say that our cities will be transformed, I am not suggesting that our societies will just carry on business-as-usual thanks to solar PV with storage," he said. "Societies will change. Maybe we will need to consume less energy overall. Maybe our economies will look very different to how they look today."
Another issue is whether the solar storage disruption will survive growing hostility from the fossil fuel industries, and the governments protecting them. The Trump administration, for instance, has openly declared war on clean energy. I asked Mayor whether this will throw a giant spanner in the works of the "new electricity ecosystem".
"No", said Mayor—not if emerging technologies are able to create a new service at "cheapest cost and greatest efficiency" that disrupts the old—which he believes is exactly what is about to happen with solar storage.
If he's right, then that means "there's literally nothing they [governments] can do to stop the changes underway."
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