TVA needs to listen to former chair S. David Friedman about solar power

Will you bet on the blinkered money-only policies of the current TVA Chair, or the accurate clean solar future predictions of former TVA Chair S. David Friedman?

Seven years ago S. David Friedman wrote:

“As a substitute for oil, coal, and nuclear energy, the sun can replace the three poisons with inexhaustible fuel.”

The former TVA Chairman wrote that in 2007 his boook Winning Our Energy Independence: An Energy Insider Shows How, which also says (page 4):

There are breakthroughs in new technology that promise to make the cost of solar power as low as that of coal, nuclear, and oil. Almost simultaneously in South Africa and the Silicon Valley in the United States, companies are building huge new solar factories to manufacture a paper-thin solar coating that can generate electricity that could actually lower our electric bills. These breakthroughs promise solar power at 75 percent less than today’s price.

And that price drop has happened, according to sources such as the U.S. Department of Energy. Solar Cell Central says:

As can be seen from the graph at the left, recent solar module prices have experienced a dramatic price reduction. From 2006 to 2012, a six year span, worldwide average module prices have dropped about 75% from $3.25 per watt to about $.80 per watt, an incredible drop.

Part of the drop was due to a bottleneck in producing raw polysilicon for photovoltaic panels, which was addressed by adding capacity.

In addition to the polysilicon issue, the decline is also being driven by a) the increasing efficiency of solar cells (ratio of electrical energy produced to sunshine energy) b) dramatic manufacturing technology improvements, c) economies of scale and d) intense competition which lead to module oversupply. The incredible solar growth rate of 55% per year over the last 5 years allowed manufacturing efficiencies that are unheard of in other industries.

Interestingly, thin-film solar is not even yet a major driver of price drops. Friedman was actually too conservative in his prediction, because he assumed breakthroughs in solar-to-electricity conversion methods would be necessary, but actually so far it’s been manufacturing methods, economy of scale, and competition, all of which will continue for some years. And we will also see on top of that effects of new PV technologies, and also of storage technologies ranging from batteries to compressed air.

Meanwhile, solar power is already cheaper than all other forms of energy, because none of the others show exponential price drops, so solar has parachuted in from above.

And that price has driven deployment up, also exponentially like compound interest, and will continue to do so. It will take less than ten years for solar power to produce more electricity than any other U.S. energy source, as predicted by former FERC Chair Jon Wellinghoff in 2013.

Against that backdrop, Dave Flessner wrote for the Chattanooga Times Free Press, 23 January 2015, TVA president calls for ‘customer focus’,

CLEVELAND, Tenn. — Providing the lowest-cost energy, responsibly managing natural resources and supporting job creation are all part of Tennessee Valley Authority’s partnership with the local municipalities and power cooperatives that sell TVA power, TVA President Bill Johnson said Thursday.

“If can make sure everybody has a job, and they can go fishing and they have a bill they can afford to pay, then we’re being successful,” Johnson told the Cleveland Utilities board during a visit Thursday.

That’s nice, but what’s he actually planning?

Johnson said this year is one of the biggest ever for capital investments by the federal utility as TVA finishes construction of the Watts Bar Unit 2 reactor, installs coal scrubbers at the Cumberland Fossil Plant near Nashville and builds new natural gas plants in Tennessee and Kentucky.

But those expenditures will taper off in the near future, said Johnson.

A “big decision” will likely need to be made in the next five or six years regarding whether TVA will build new nuclear power plants, he said.

With no mention of solar power. And no mention of nuclear waste, cost overruns, and radioctive leaks. And no mention of natural gas methane lakes, or pipeline leaks or explosions or damage to the environment and takings of private land.

So “customer focus” means concentrating blindly on money while ignoring all those economic externalities.

Back in 2007 David Friedman wrote:

This book will demonstrate that it is entirely practical and feasible to get all our energy from renewable resources and to do so with today’s technology. We don’t need to wait for decades in order to get started. The day that the United States commits itself to a sustainable march to an all-renewable energy economy is the day the world changes. It will change in these dramatic ways:

  • We will become freer to assert a sane foreign policy without fear of blackmail by oil-producing nations.
  • Suddenly the whole outlook toward the environment will change. The oceans will get cleaner, the air in our cities will become breathable and, most importantly, we will begin to reduce our carbon emissions rather than watching them increase. The damage from global warming, which may already be irreversible, will at least be contained and the worst may not happen.
  • Our balance of trade numbers will get better and more of our money that formerly went overseas will be spent at home to create new green jobs and more economic growth in America.
  • We will no longer debate over whether to drill in the areas we wish to preserve because we won’t need the oil. We will use less and less oil each year.

And we will use less and less “natural” gas each year, and we won’t need any new land-taking environmentally damging pipelines, much less fracking.

And this energy transition is already happening, even without any formal U.S. commitment, because of the massive continuing price drop in solar power and the continuing massive solar deployment that price drop is causing.

Current TVA Chair Johnson did say:

Overall, Johnson said he expects to see less coal use, more renewable energy and improved efficiency in TVA’s future.

Technological advances in the next 20 years will likely surpass the advances made in the last 100 years of electrical power, he said.

“I think we are on the precipice … of tremendous change,” said Johnson. “Customers use electricity a lot differently than they used to. We make it differently.”

Well, yeah, we are in fact in the middle of a revolution like the one from horses and buggies to automobiles, this time from fossil fuels and nuclear to solar and wind power, first for electricity, then for transportation. And TVA is still living in the last century.

Former TVA Chair S. David Friedman accurately predicted the future that has happened in the past seven years. My money is on him.

It’s not like it’s a hard problem once you think about it. As Friedman also wrote:

It is an unhappy fact that the places where additional oil in the U.S. may be found are places of extreme beauty that most Americans believe ought to be left alone. What we know is that today’s epidemics of asthma and cancer are caused in significant part by burning over 7 billion barrels of oil a year in close proximity to Americans. Just think if all vehicles ran on renewable electricity that emitted zero pollution? The air would be fit to breathe. The streets would be free of the oil spills from cars and trucks that pollute nearby waterways.

… efficiency and renewables are cheaper even on the misleading pricing system we use. If we consider ”and we must ”the health costs of air pollution, the proliferation and radiation risks of nuclear, and the health and global warming costs of coal, it is a no-brainer.

If you want more detail, Stanford Professor Mark Jacobson has spelled out how to power each state with sun, wind, and water and how much each state will save, not only in reduced power costs, but also in reduced health care costs and healthier lives.

To help the sun rise on Georgia, you can ask your state legislator to support solar financing bill HB 57, in the legislature right now.