Solar growth like compound interest has turned Al Gore into an optimist

Not even Al Gore saw that the continually decreasing price of solar power was causing exponential deployment growth that will win within a decade. But now he does. Since solar is going to win, building destructive and hazardous petroleum pipelines for short-term profit for a few executives and investors would be short-sighted at best. Let’s stop those pipelines, LNG export, and fracking, and plug in to sun, wind, and water power for a clean and prosperous future.

Experts predicted in 2000 that wind generated power worldwide would reach 30 gigawatts; by 2010, it was 200 gigawatts, and by last year it reached nearly 370, or more than 12 times higher. Installations of solar power would add one new gigawatt per year by 2010, predictions in 2002 stated. It turned out to be 17 times that by 2010 and 48 times that amount last year.

And you ain’t seen nothing yet:

Dubai’s state utility accepted a bid for a solar power plant with a cost per kilowatt-hour of less than six cents. “Wow,” he says, his eyes wide. “That just set everybody on their ear.”

Such changes, he says, represent a sharp break with the past, not a slow evolution.

Gore now understands that solar power is growing like cell phones did.

And it’s not the first subject about which he used to be way too conservative. He (or his then-wife Tipper) was the reason I was a party to a Supreme Court case against the Communications Decency Act.

But Gore is finally saying what I and others such as former FERC Chairman Jon Wellinghoff and former TVA Chair S. David Friedman have been saying for years:

“We’re going to win this.

“The only question is how long it takes.”

S. David Friedman wrote a book in 2007 saying solar will win. But Friedman was too conservative: he assumed technological breakthroughs would be necessary, when actually little more than economies of scale and business models ramping up have kept driving prices down and deployment up. While the “nuclear renaissance” fizzled, and goal got scalped like a mountaintop removal by shale gas, solar prices parachuted below all of those. As Bloomberg has noticed, solar pwoer is now cheaper than all other forms of energy.

Like former FERC Chair Jon Wellinghoff predicted in 2013,

“Solar is growing so fast it is going to overtake everything.”

Wellinghoff gave an example of exponential growth and continued:

“If a single drop of water on the pitcher’s mound at Dodger Stadium is doubled every minute, a person chained to the highest seat would be in danger of drowning in an hour.”

“That’s what is happening in solar. It could double every two years.”

It more than doubled in two years: Wellinghoff was also too conservative.

Meanwhile, the rosiest prediction for shale gas are for 56% increase over 28 years. That’s right, solar power increases more in a single year than than predicted for fracked methane over several decades.

The answer to Al Gore’s question of how long will it take depends on whether we’re following the sunny yellow 60.9%/year curve in this graph, or something closer to the sky-blue 100%/year curve:

FERC 2012 power source gigawatts and growth rates projected 20 years

Either way, we see for last year exactly what we expected to see: wind beat every other power source for total new deployed power in that year. And that will continue for a few years, until solar power passes wind in new megawatts deployed per year. Then in about seven years or sooner solar will pass wind in total cumulative megawatts deployed. That’s after both wind and solar beat coal for total deployed megawatts. Then about a year or two later solar will pass natural gas for total deployed megawatts, emerging as the biggest U.S. power source, within a decade from 2013 when Wellinghoff and I made those predictions. By 2023 at 60.9% annual increase in solar deployment. That’s eight years from now.

How much faster? Well, the actual solar deployment rate the past couple of years is at least 65% per year, not 60.9%. And the latest numbers (stay tuned) seem to be even faster than that. If we could really push the annual solar deployment rate up to 100%, solar would beat everything by 2020. That’s only five years from now.

And those projections assume that coal and natural gas deployments continue to increase at 2012 rates. Meanwhile, according to Owen Davis, International Business Times, 10 March 2015, Nearly Every Major Bank Has Ditched Mountaintop Coal Mining. Echoing what I wrote in April 2012, Kathleen Rogers and Danny Kennedy wrote for EcoWatch 14 December 2012,

Coal is dead. Nuclear is going down. Solar will eat the lunch of utilities that don’t start generating it.

Wind may help even more. There are some promising new wind turbine designs, and even without those Georgia Power (or somebody) could deploy wind off the Georgia coast and push the wind growth rate up. But solar will win with or without more help from wind.

Sure, “natural” gas companies keep trying to push their fracked methane gouges through our fields and under our rivers to pipe their poisons to LNG export plants. But Spectra and FPL’s Sabal Trail invasion aimed through Alabama and southwest Georgia to Florida, and Kinder Morgan’s Palmetto Project proposed march through southeast Georgia to the sea at Jacksonville are fighting last century’s battles. Solar is going to win. All we have to do is to stop the last thrashings of those dead pipeline snakes.

Many of the big electric utilities are trying to stop this solar revolution. But if they don’t get on board the solar train, those already on the train like SolarCity will barrel right by them. Jeremy C. Owens, San Jose Mercury News, 15 March 2015, SolarCity launches community microgrids with Tesla batteries. Be afraid, FPL, and Duke Energy, and even mighty Southern Company.

Solar energy supplying most U.S. electricity is not the end of the process. Meanwhile, the electric car conversion started by hybrids such as the Toyota Prius and continued by the Chevy Volt, the Nissan Leaf, and of course Tesla, will expand even more rapidly. Electric cars, like solar power, will be turbocharged as new storage methods get commercialized.

And the rest of the world also has to convert. But as Gore points out, Obama’s climate deal with China is indeed historic. A year ago January the WWF predicted China can go 80% sun, wind, water power by 2050, improving quality of life by reducing emissions 90%, and making Chinese citizens more prosperous. If the U.S and China can do it, the whole world can do it.

When even our beloved Georgia, famous as the most corrupt state in the union, can move in one year from way behind to fastest growing solar market in the country, a new world is indeed coming.

A world so sunny even Al Gore is smiling.