Why clean energy can scale today

Introducing energy reporter Stephen Lacey

StephenLaceyI am delighted to announce that ClimateProgress has a new journalist/blogger/podcaster-extraordinaire, Stephen Lacey.  He is joining us after 5 years at  He will be reporting and pod-casting on a range of issues, but focusing especially on the reality of clean energy today — how it is ready to scale up — while kicking the tires on what works and what doesn’t here and around the world.

I asked CP readers weeks ago, “What would you like to know about clean energy?” and “What investigative reporting would you like to see?”  We are going to deliver as much of what you asked for as possible in the coming year.

Join me in welcoming Lacey, whose introductory post follows:

Throughout my years covering clean energy, I’ve found that people involved in the field generally fall into two camps. The first camp – typically made up of investors, engineers and developers in the business of renewable energy – argues that clean energy can scale to high penetrations with current technologies. The second camp – made up of a diverse group of doubters, spin artists, cautious supporters and high-minded futurists – believes that we can only bring renewables to scale with dramatic breakthroughs in technology.

Of course, the latter group’s view is not completely wrong:  We certainly need continued technological progress in order to bring down the cost of manufacturing, increase efficiencies and make installation easier. However, their arguments often lead to the perception that renewables are not ready today – which is completely false (see Pro-geoengineering Bill Gates disses efficiency, “cute” solar, deployment).

Saying that clean energy can’t scale without significant breakthroughs is like saying we shouldn’t bother with the internet because all we have is desktop computers and DSL, rather than powerful mobile devices and a 4G network. The fact is we are in the middle of an important period of technological progress today, and saying that we need to wait for something “game-changing” to take action is wrong and downright dangerous.

Critics often complain that we’ve thrown hundreds of billions of dollars behind renewable energy deployment, with little to show for it. But when looking at the rate of growth for existing “conventional” clean energy technologies like silicon-based PV, solar hot water, biomass combined heat and power and industrial wind turbines, the truth is that these sectors are making incredible progress.

Take solar PV: still a very small piece of the energy mix, but now hitting an incredible boom period as it reaches the back end of a decades-long commercialization process that most energy technologies must go through.

In 2000, the total global market for solar photovoltaics was around 170 MW. Last year, the market had grown to more than 17 GW (130% growth over 2009), with analysts projecting the PV market to reach 20 GW in 2011. In California, SunPower, a leading manufacturer/developer, is constructing a 250-MW solar PV plant – one project representing 80 MW more than the entire global installed capacity a decade earlier. In the last 3 1/2 years, the price of PV modules has dropped more than 50%, allowing solar developers in California to sign contracts for utility-scale projects (1-5 MW) for less than the projected price of electricity from a 500-MW combined cycle natural gas plant in California. (Note: This so-called Market Price Referent assumes a carbon price. Also, these contracts do not mean all the plants will get built, just that they have bid below a certain price threshold.)

What’s been driving this? The most promising steps haven’t been in creating “revolutionary” solar plastics and spray-on inks – they’ve been in steady, incremental improvements to cell and module manufacturing, racking systems, power electronics and enhanced business efficiencies through web-based software. Due to these improvements, the dramatic expansion of solar manufacturing and the shift toward large commercial and utility-scale installations, the average installed price of a PV system in the U.S. fell by almost 20% in 2010 to $5.13 a watt.

Solar expert Jigar Shah – who founded SunEdison, one of the largest solar integrators in the U.S., and who is now CEO of the climate-change solutions organization Carbon War Room – says that by 2012, the price of a 1-MW conventional silicon-based solar system will fall as low as $2.60 a watt installed. At around $2 a watt installed, solar PV could competitively supply 30% of the world’s electricity, says Shah. He believes the focus on breakthrough solar technologies, while important, should not overshadow the rapid price and cost reductions in the solar PV space.

“By the end of this decade, 100% of our incremental electricity needs globally will come from low-carbon sources,” he says. “Major breakthroughs are also coming given our heavy R&D investments but they will take over 15 years to come to market given the conservative nature of infrastructure investors.”

This is an important fact to note: It takes decades to scale any energy technology. Nothing in this sector happens overnight. We’re talking about turning over the most complicated, expensive set of infrastructure ever created; energy suppliers, investment banks and developers need to get comfortable with a particular technology in order to commercially deploy it. (For a look at why new energy technologies have such a hard time scaling quickly, listen to this audio story I put together on the “Valley of Death” problem in the financial sector.) The idea that we’re going to get some big breakthrough that will revolutionize the energy sector in a short period of time ignores the reality of how the energy transitions have historically unfolded.

Energy writer Vaclav Smil sums up the historical context quite well in a piece from 2008:

It took oil about 50 years since the beginning of its commercial production during the 1860s to capture 10 percent of the global primary energy market, and then almost exactly 30 years to go from 10 percent to about 25 percent of the total. Analogical spans for natural gas are almost identical: approximately 50 years and 40 years….  Nuclear fission reached 10 percent of global electricity generation 27 years after the commissioning of the first nuclear power plant in 1956, and its share is now roughly the same as that of hydropower.

After three decades of on-gain/off-again support, renewables represent around 13 percent of our global primary energy consumption. In the power sector, renewables (including large hydro) represent around 25% of total electricity production. A report out this week from the UN IPCC on clean energy development suggests that by 2050, renewables could feasibly represent over 75% of primary energy. In fact, between 2008 and 2009, today’s suite of technologies made up almost half of all electricity generating capacity installed worldwide.

Indeed, a number of countries have proven that a wide range of renewable energy technologies can be deployed to produce 20%, 30% and, theoretically, 100% of electricity or heating needs.

Take Germany, which plans to get 35% of its electricity from wind, solar, biomass and hydropower by 2035 and 80% from those resources by 2050. Germany’s experience suggests it may even pass those targets: From 2000 to 2010, the country increased its share of renewable electricity from 5% to 17%. Government officials predict that Germany will get beyond the 35% target before 2035. And the cost to ratepayers? The equivalent of a few dollars a month.

A project in Germany has also theoretically proven that existing renewable energy technologies can provide 100% of the country’s electricity. The Regenerative Combined Power Plant, a software-enabled “virtual power plant” was built in 2008 to allow the grid operator to call upon different renewable resources depending on demand and available supply. The project blended three wind farms worth 12.6 MW, 20 solar PV plants totaling 5.5 MW, four biogas systems equaling 4 MW and a pumped storage system with 8.4 GWh of storage. The project coordinators modeled the project to represent 1/10,000 of Germany’s energy system – and have said that the virtual power plant proves Germany could meet its energy needs with no fossil fuels.

Utilities around the world are increasingly looking toward intelligent demand response capabilities – aggregating supply-side and demand-side resources with web-based tools to match intermittent generation with a diverse set of renewable energy assets – and scale clean energy without the need for significant amounts of storage.

Spain has made a similar effort to integrate renewables in the last decade: From 2000 to 2010, the country increased its electricity generation from wind and solar from 2% to 20%. When factoring in large hydropower, the country gets 35% of its electricity from renewables.

And in Upper Austria, a state which currently gets 45% of its heat from renewables, there is a goal to get 100% of its space heating from technologies like solar thermal and biomass by 2030. According to Wilson Rickerson, a renewable energy analyst from Meister Consultants, Upper Austria was able to double solar water heating installations from 5 million m2 (3,500 MW thermal) to 10 million m2 (7,000 MW thermal).

“Upper Austria is well on the way to its goal. Looking around the world, renewable heat is something that can be scaled quickly and in a distributed manner with the right policies in place,” says Rickerson.

Renewable energy advocate and wind expert Paul Gipe agrees, calling the debate around the readiness of the technology “one for the 70’s, not 2011. The challenge today is regulating rapid growth.”

While R&D is extraordinarily important to the continued progression of renewables, the key to the next decade isn’t in some new-fangled, groundbreaking technology in the lab – it’s putting the right policies and price signals in place to ensure that commercially proven technologies have the opportunity to continue their current growth in a sustainable way.

That’s what we hope to accomplish here at CP with our clean energy reporting. There are legitimate debates about how, where, why and if different technologies should be deployed. But one thing is for certain: We have the resources available right now to get large portions of our energy from renewables.

As we increase our coverage of the business, economics and politics around clean energy, we want to put to rest the notion that addressing our climate challenges with renewable energy technologies is not possible. It is happening today.

— Stephen LaceyLacey is a former producer and editor for where he produced the Inside Renewable Energy Podcast, a program focused on the business of clean energy with 20,000 listeners each week. The program won a 2010 Neal Award for excellence in national business reporting — an award considered to be the “Pulitzer Prize” of business-to-business journalism. He also edited online contributors, wrote magazine features and produced multi-media stories on new technologies, international policy and financial issues.

53 Responses to Why clean energy can scale today

  1. Noah says:

    And the difference between the United States and Europe/California is…a price on carbon.

  2. joy hughes says:

    Yes! I’ve been loving the reporting and commentary at Renewable energy World – Paul Gipe, John Farrell, Ceal Smith and more…

    I’m very interested in some of the psychology surrounding the energy transition. For instance, personal involvement in community projects can cure some of the paralysis that comes from “apocalypse fatigue”. To quote Lizzie Rubado of the Energy Trust of Oregon, “Solar is the gateway drug,” leading people to energy efficiency. Also, how do we create real community involvement from the ground up, for local people to initiate and benefit from projects. Opposition can occur whether we are talking about 10,000 acres in the desert or a single panel on a power pole outside someone’s bedroom window.

    A lot of the innovation today is happening in the realm of finance and community ownership. Now that solar (at least crystalline silicon) is considered “bankable”, how can this become a new home for long term individual investments such as retirement accounts. How does this accomplish solar infill and multiple use, such as covered parking lots?

    I’m looking forward to this!


  3. climate undergrad says:

    Welcome! Very excited for the added content!

    Also interesting to this post is the Mark Jacobses/Mark Delucchi study in Energy Policy concluding;

    “With sensible broad-based policies and social changes, it may be possible to convert 25% of the current energy system to WWS in 10–15 years and 85% in 20–30 years, and 100% by 2050”

    It is discussed in some detail on skeptical science but I don’t remember it being covered here.

  4. climate undergrad says:


  5. madcitysmitty says:

    Welcome aboard. Hopefully, at some point, you can explain at what were the essential political, regulatory and financal-sector changes that made these breakthroughs happen in Germany, Spain, et al., and the extent to which they offer conepts that are genuinely transferrable to U.S. state and federal systems. What barriers are the easiest to remove…and offer a payoff disproportionate to the effort?

  6. Jeff Huggins says:

    Bravo, and Welcome!



  7. Anne says:

    Excellent choice! Welcome Stephen!

    I am also involved with solar energy, with a local trade association. We will have to compare notes and talk about furthering the adoption of low- and zero-carbon energy choices in and around the nation’s capitol. There is much good fodder there for your work at Climate Progress.

    And congrats to you, JR, for choosing such a capable candidate. Looking forward to seeing (more) great work!

  8. Solar Jim says:

    Welcome Stephen Lacey.

    “Critics often complain that we’ve thrown hundreds of billions of dollars behind renewable energy deployment, with little to show for it.”

    Actually the reverse is true as you indicate. Nation-state governments have been spending hundreds of billions annually subsidizing poisonous and explosive materials, fossil hydrocarbons and uranium. What we have to show for decades of these types of investments are an implosion of cascading disasters and impoverishment, manifested most profoundly in the exponential geophysical response to ecosphere contamination, or “climate change.”

    The Atomic Age god of unlimited power through the combustion/destruction of explosive materials (fossil hydrocarbons and uranium) does not seem to be working so well. Perhaps it is time to differentiate between materials located in the earth’s lithosphere and sustainable energy policy planning. There seems to be a revolution coming for elimination (of emissions) and counter action (carbon draw down) rather than the tepid framing of “mitigation and adaptation.”

    What the matter with energy seems to be is confusion of matter being defined as energy. Thus, we have an economy of explosives with the resulting economically socialized poisonous contaminants for ourselves and the entire ecosphere.

    You might consider an analysis of planned restructuring of the existing power paradigm, rather than uncontrolled cascading continuous bankruptcies as these “toxic assets” become perceived as financial liabilities. There are a number of new national and international reports indicating the abundant economy of a 100% clean energy transition within one generation or so. Let’s hear more.

  9. Kota says:

    Welcome to CP Stephen Lacey!!

    Good to see you here helping old Joe dodder around the place. ;]

  10. Preston says:

    Welcome Stephen!!!! I can’t wait to read your stories!

  11. Mike Roddy says:

    A Southern California Edison engineer said at a seminar I attended last week in Palm Springs that solar is already $2 a watt in this part of the country, down from $8 about 15 years ago. I’ll email him to find out what his definition of solar power is.

    Regarding scaling, there are typically two limitations: greater size may have to mean more and stronger materials. When you double the span of a beam, it must be 7 times stronger.

    The other limitation to efficiency in scale is price pressure on key commodities.

    Solar thermal has neither of these limitations, since expansion means more identical heliostats and boilers, made from abundant commodities, and giant elements are not required.

    As to PV and wind turbines, rare earth metals are being discovered in new locations, and substitutes are being investigated.

    Renewables are a lot closer to parity right now than anyone would have predicted a few years ago, as you pointed out so well. With a price on carbon, they are there. With externalities included- real dollar costs, such as health care and watershed damage- solar and wind are cheaper right now if transmission is properly designed and amortized.

    Anyway, welcome. I hope you’re on the West Coast, where the action is.

  12. S.W. Ela says:

    On “SunPower … is constructing:” Not true yet. On April 19 the San Luis Obispo Board of Supervisors unanimously rejected four appeals of the County Planning Commission’s approval of the project. A clock is ticking for the appellants to file legal action by May 19. Appellants include, among others, the Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife, and the Santa Lucian chapter of the Sierra Club. Stay tuned … .

  13. Jim says:

    Really well said. Smil likes to talk about how long it takes new technologies to deploy — but the US deployment of (new) gas-fired combined-cycle power plants shows that we can have quite prompt and large-scale movement in energy infrastructure, when economics is aligned with policy.

    In the 90’s, IPPs built about 1/4 total US grid capacity in 10 years using what was then completely new technology and fuel: bit (dot) ly (slash) new-power — 250 GW and a transformation of transmission and fuel movement.

    We have all kinds of mis-aligned policies on transmission, rates, etc. — Southern Company likes it that way (balkanized by state). Steve Chu used to talk about fixing this problem, and, FERC could set things up for massive deployment of renewables. If they acted.

    Well said. It’s not a question of technology breakthrough, but simple will to get the job done.

  14. Joan Savage says:

    Welcome, Stephen!

    Excellent (reusable!) post.

    I went looking for your old website to see what you may have written or said already about resilience in climate change conditions, or about the relationships among base load, smart-grid and renewables.

    The link in the CP post to the should be modified, as that goes to an empty site.
    seems more promising.

  15. OregonStream says:

    Good piece. Really it looks like a conditional “can scale”, since the rate of deployment in a given country is influenced by efficiency, renewable resource intensity vs. population, regional fossil fuel prices and availability, and levels of support for subsidy or carbon control policy. The potential near-term scalability of clean energy may not be as high in today’s politically-charged America, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t keep pushing for investment in it. And in the improved efficiency and conservation that will help low-carbon options gain a serious foothold.

  16. Pierre says:

    Great to see you back, Stephen! I miss listening to your informative podcasts on Renewable Energy World, but look forward to seeing your material with CAP/Climate Progress.

  17. American_Idle says:

    Great post Stephen! CP is now an even more indispensable Blog.

  18. catman306 says:

    Welcome! Thanks for posting here. I hope it will be a regular addition. If we survive it will be through efficiency and renewable energy. Your information will help.

  19. Nick Bentley says:

    Amazing! I’ve been listening to Stephen’s *excellent* podcasts for a long time now – you could not, in my view, have chosen a better journo to cover the space. Bravo.

  20. many thanks for good reporting–these numbers are really useful!

  21. MarkF says:

    Thank you. This is very informative without leaving me, a non-wonk, behind.

    I am looking forward to your contributions to this site.

  22. Mintakan says:

    I get my “renewable energy fix” on and a faithful listener to Stephen’s podcasts. Pleasantly surprised see him in another of my bookmarked regularly visited sites. Along the same theme of “we can scale with existing technologies” (and breakthroughs will make it even better), is Amory Lovins, though his emphasis is on design and energy efficiency, and “end use goods and services”.

    The counter arguments come from Robert Bryce in “Power Hungry” (emphasis on “energy density” which is the strength of traditional fuels). If one had to compromise, barring radical redesigns and reimplementation for energy efficiency, or breakthrough in storage, our power hungry civilization will need nuclear (relatively carbon free) and natural gas (as a transition fuel) for load balancing. Then there’s the “wedge theory” which says no energy system can do it all (including renewables) and each contributes to wedges in the pie. This seems to be mainstream thinking right now. (However, even given this, I’d still like to see us try to max out on renewables. Currently, the politics is harder than the technology.)

  23. Richard Brenne says:


  24. catman306 says:

    Here’s some good news:

    Orlando officials think they’ve perfected a technology that has flummoxed scientists for decades — one they hope will be used worldwide to turn sewage into electricity and earn the city tens of millions of dollars in royalties.,0,3417213.story

  25. Mike Roddy says:


    It would be helpful if you could devote a couple of long posts to detailing what the quoted cost of power both per watt and per kwh actually mean, along with the variables (busbar, levelized, geographic location, etc).

    As you know, this can get complicated- especially since various banking and government studies come up with different numbers.

    When this is finished, let’s look at subsidies and externalities for fossil fuels. CP readers have a pretty good idea of what’s going on here, but detailed references would help.

  26. Michael Tucker says:

    I did enjoy Dr Smil’s piece in the current issue of American Scientist.

    I am curious about the massive disparity in per capita energy use between the US and say Germany or Japan. Is it solely attributable to greater efficiency in those countries? The US could make a big difference right now if we could reduce our per capita use by half.

  27. Chad says:

    If the solar industry were to continue to scale at the 40% per year rate that it has been for the last couple decades, until it reached the size in terms of sales as the auto industry, and then simply grow at the same rate as the economy, it would take about 25 years to provide 100% of future projected energy demands with solar. This assumes no cost or technological improvements.

    Those who say we cannot solve this problem are lying or deliberately ignorant. There is no “buts” about it.

  28. Mike # 22 says:

    Welcome Stephen!

  29. Sunshine says:

    Welcome, Stephen.

    – – –

    Here’s a light hearted piece (fictional, but not by much):

  30. Mike # 22 says:

    (first link in post should be

  31. Merrelyn Emery says:

    Joy Hughes #2, have a look at the site

    The Search Conference works well if you have a full weekend but failing that, we have developed a one day workshop for communities to come together to plan and implement the future of their most desirable, sustainable future. People resist the change that is forced upon them. When communities do it themselves, they are not going to resist their own ideas and plans, ME.

  32. Lisa Boucher says:

    This is good news.  I look forward to seeing what Mr. Lacey writes.

    Meanwhile, since I was too busy at work to catch the question a month ago, I’ll offer a belated answer here.

    “What would you like to know about clean energy?”

    I would like to know the degree to which each form of “alternative” energy is dependent on fossil fuel for manufacturing, transport, backup, etc.  For example, you cannot make a wind tower without a smelting furnace, which is normally heated by fossil fuels.  There are also significant fossil fuel inputs to manufacturing photovoltaic cells.

    “Sustainability” is most often a hackneyed term that is used to conceal action that is actually NOT sustainable.  So I would like to see an investigation of how well each energy source can sustain itself or “stand on its own” without assistance from coal, oil or natural gas.

  33. kiwichick says:

    +1 lisa @31

  34. S.W. Ela says:

    31 Lisa and 32 kiwichick are asking for Life Cycle Analyses (LCAs) – a great topic. LCAs are going to become important politically as the Federal NEPA and the California CEQA get rewritten to include LCAs in every EIS and EIR for a fed and state project, respectively.

    And, I’d like to see posts on LCAs on land use, too. Here’s one for starters:

  35. David B. Benson says:

    Michael Tucker @25 — Smil makes mistakes regarding world construction of NPPs; for example, Rusatom is building 15 new NPPs right now.

    The retail price of electricity in Germany and Japan is around 30 UScents/kWh. That high price probably helps inhibit demand.

  36. Barry says:

    What a great opening post. Thanks. Really happy to have another amazing blogger to complement Joe.

    Joe has been one of the very best voices on the critical issue of deployment vs r&d.

    Big Fossil clearly wants to slow deployment of renewables as much as possible because that is what leads to rapid price drop. In the 70s and 80s they did it by buying solar companies and sitting on them and their patents. Now it seems they are funding and pushing the “breakthrough” meme that the only thing we should be doing is r&d on renewables.

    So it is great to know there will be lots more great posts on why deployment is critical in past and future.

    A second point I’d love to see more reporting on is solar PV costs vs retail electricity pricing around the world…especially top tier rates. As solar PV prices continue to fall it will become cheaper than retail electricity pricing across the world in sunny climates first. These are the areas that can lead to truly explosive solar PV growth with the right policies. As Joe has reported, Italy already meets this test. The trend lines on this would make very exciting reading for many people and really drive home the point that solar PV is coming in a big way.

    Finally I would just love some posts showing the basic data on solar PV price history and deployment history to date. I’m finding this data to be incredibly hard to find yet essential to telling the story.

  37. Barry says:

    Michael (#25) said: “I am curious about the massive disparity in per capita energy use between the US and say Germany or Japan. Is it solely attributable to greater efficiency in those countries? ”

    The difference is price of energy. The governments of EU and Japan have added far more taxes to gasoline. For years the cost of gasoline has been 2 to 4 times greater in these nations than in USA. As a result, the average American emits 6 tCO2 per year for “transportation” while citizens of EU and Japan are under 2 tCO2.

    You can see the same thing with electricity pricing. In USA the average is around 12c/kWh. In EU and Japan the pricing ranges from 15c to 40c per kWh. Guess what? They figured out how to have the same quality of life using less energy. (I have a chart of electricity prices in many nations on the front page of my website

    A good example in USA itself is California. It embarked decades ago on a plan to raise electricity prices while also mandating efficiency. The result today is electricity pricing pushing 30c and yet Californians spending LESS overall on electricity than other Americans. The reason is that while the rest of the nation increased electricity use about 50% per capita, Californians use the same amount as they did decades ago per person. Californians not only saved money they also got to scrap a bunch of nukes that were on the drawing board to generate the energy they no longer needed because they cut energy waste so much.

    The twin policies of high per-unit energy pricing coupled with efficiency policies leads to same quality of life using much less energy.

  38. Alan Sangster says:

    ‘Break-through’ advances in physics based technology has, I think it is fair to say, largely come from improved knowledge and a growing sophistication in our understanding of materials – for example in nuclear fission, aeronautics, computers, large scale integrated circuits, MEMS, nano-technolgy. Renewable energy, on the other hand, exploits physical principles which are so fundamental that a ‘break-through’ source of energy would require an Einsteinian input. Material science will bring improvements in efficiency and reliability of renewably systems but little more.

    Where advantageous break-throughs could occur with the aid of material science is in the evolution of massive energy storage systems (MES). Generously funded research is needed to develop battery, inductor, capacitor, flywheel, and thermal storage systems, all of which could benefit from material advances such as room temperature super-conductors and frictionless bearings.

    Future electricity super-grid systems are likely to be supplied, not directly from renewable power systems, but from MES systems, to overcome intermittency and variability of supply. The MES systems will buffer the renewable sources from the grid, while the renewable generators will operate ‘non-stop’ topping up the MES network. This is discussed in some detail in ‘Energy for a Warming World’, published by Springer-Verlag Ltd., London.

  39. Tom Lewis says:

    How about acknowledging and covering a third clean-energy camp, for those who believe that renewable is not sustainable if it’s industrial? Huge arrays of solar panels or wind turbines feeding the grid create huge new problems while solving others. But distributed energy — a commitment to produce your energy where you consume it — there’s a way to a newer world.

  40. Joan Savage says:

    Welcome Stephen!

    As all can see, you are now in an eager and informed readership community, chafing at the bit, devouring excellent reporting, and wanting more.

    My earlier greeting (Mon May 9, 3:11 PM) is in moderation, an occasional feature of this site. It included an editing note that was directed only to you the author.

    Joe Romm’s moderation responsibilities are big enough in addition to research and writing. I don’t know how you-two will work that out.

  41. Eve says:

    Welcome Stephen – reporting on clean energy technologies in terms
    intelligent lay people can understand would be very helpful. I love
    Tom Lewis’ idea of producing your energy where you consume it. Maybe this is trivial, but having solar panels on our roof which heat all of
    our water for much of the year has changed my way of thinking about
    energy. Couldnt more panels provide power for lights and electrical appliances? What about a small windmill?

  42. Mike Roddy says:


    Distributed solar on home rooftops is a feel good idea, but the numbers are tough. It costs about $30,000 per house before rebates, so if one is realistic about the discount rate it is not competitive. Even if the cost of the PV’s is halved it won’t matter much- only about a third of the cost is for the panels, the rest is for labor, wiring, roof work, inverters, etc.

    [JR: This claim is just not correct. Every major contributor to the cost of home PV has been dropping steadily in price — including things like the inverters and even total labor costs. With subsidies, PV is cheaper in many part of the country (remember, it competes on retail price at peak), and it is increasingly competitive even as subsidies drop in more and more places. By 2020, home PV should be competitive in many parts of the country without any subsidies — even without a CO2 price. Now if we were doing the costs correctly include all harm to humans and the environment than PV wouldn’t need any subsidies today.]

    Roof mounted wind is much cheaper, but for some reason bureaucratic obstacles are preventing deployment. It’s hard to retrofit for zero net, but there are many ways to halve home energy bills, and they are still not being deployed.

    People recoil about big solar plants, but that’s what we need. We can power the whole US with .2% of our land area. The fraction of the desert that would be covered in panels is unfortunate, but it’s nothing in the larger scheme of things, especially since desert ecosystems will be shattered by climate change. We destroyed 95% of our native forests, and you don’t hear much complaining about that. For what? Houses out of two by fours?

  43. Leif says:

    A large part of the problem of distributed PV costs is that our homes in general are SO wasteful. I am in the pipeline for solar PV later this summer. (Our local installer is booked ~3 months out.) A 2.5 kW array will most likely cover my total usage and perhaps even allow exporting some to the grid in the summer thou heat loads in the winter offset most of that in the winter.) I have to go ground mount which will add some to the instillation costs but with tax rebates, no state sales tax, and a generous WA State “feed in tariff,” (supported by state green power donations, not a fossil fuel carbon tax as it should be), our personal investment is defiantly doable with our modest savings. (I am quite sure most folks invested in Wall Street lost more the last bubble bust than my total costs.) I am expecting ~ 9% RoI for the next 8.5 years. It is in my back yard. I will have ~zero energy bills going forward. I feel GOOD about my investment.

    Conservation first, then distributed Solar PV looks a lot better.

  44. Mike # 22 says:

    Alan Sangster, @ #38,

    a) Renewables are ready to scale cheaply now, and grid penetration of renewables can proceed near term without energy storage systems.

    b) You say claims that the deserts of the world could generate more than enough power for 7 billion people to live as we do now are frankly incredible. Well, the facts say you are wrong, and I find it incredible you have managed to get out a textbook that has this material in it. No one is proposing such a lopsided solution as 100% desert generation, but the quantity of available resource is far in excess to the end use requirements.

    c) Utility scale PV is expected to be 8.6 cents/kwh by 2016, and could go much lower with sufficient investment.

  45. Steven Leibo says:

    I could not be more pleased that Stephen Lacey has joined Climate Progress. I have been a big fan of Stephen’s work on the podcast Inside Renewable Energy for years.

  46. Anne van der Bom says:

    Mike Roddy, #42

    It costs about $30,000 per house before rebates

    What system size are we talking about?

    Roof mounted wind is much cheaper

    Can you support that claim? There is a test bed for small wind turbines in Zeeland, The Netherlands (sorry only in Dutch), and it shows even the best one is more expensive per kWh as PV. Mind you, these are actually installed in a field, not on a roof in a built-up area where the wind is not as strong and more turbulent. The best one is the Skystream that produces ~2100 kWh per year for a price of 10700 euros. What it would produce if it were installed on a rooftop is unknown. A rooftop PV system of 10700 euros will deliver at least 3000 kWh per year, guaranteed.

  47. BlueRock says:

    Excellent addition. Welcome, Stephen.

    We need all the communication we can get on this issue. The FUD and propaganda directed at renewables is arguably as bad as that directed at climate science – and, not surprisingly, it originates from the same sources.

    In fact, renewable energy is the real prize – not convincing every last person that global warming is fact. /heresy


    36. Barry:

    > …I would just love some posts showing the basic data on solar PV price history and deployment history to date.

    * Solar PV cost trend. +

    Growth rate has been exponential: “…2010 saw a growth increase of 141% over the previous year, more than doubling the amount of new solar installations from 7.2 GW to 17.5 GW!”

  48. spiritkas says:


    I’d love to see an article comparing the costs of coal, natural gas, nuclear, wind on/off shore, solar PV/CSP/other, etc. The costs with and without subsidies for fossil fuels. All in common units, reporting is about clarity and the messaging has to be right. The idea, sadly, is like an echo chamber, where awesome stories like the one above and most of the stuff on CP get picked up and recycled endlessly in the conservative pro-business mainstream media. (oops, bias speaking ;) there)

    Also there is a LOT of talk about solar growth, 2010 wasn’t a great year for investment in anything, yet I see how the MSM loves to jump on coverage of installed solar/wind being down in 2010. I’d like to see how coal is growing or not growing as it were in the developed countries. It is important to frame the growth of renewable vs the growth of fossil fuels.

    This is the kind of information I read in reports by think tanks and scientific bodies, it would be nice to see this more than once a year in a technical paper meant for a small audience.

    Keep up the good work and I hope to read more of your articles in the future.



  49. Andrew Y says:

    Hi Stephen,
    Wonderful to see one of my few subscribed podcasts’ host joining an excellent blog I subscribe to!

    Just a question regarding the number: 13% of global energy consumption coming from renewable energy.
    The new IPCC report that just came out with the Summary says a similar number, but with 1/2 coming from “traditional biomass”. Does that apply to the 13% you mention as well?

    And, the REN21 GSR 2010 says renewable = 19% of global energy consumption is renewable energy, with biomass being 13% of it.

    Why the large discrepancy?

    Thanks, and keep up the awesome work!

  50. Tom Lewis says:

    Mike Roddy et al:
    Providing your own sustainable energy does not mean generating enough power to run the hot tub, the sauna and the always-on plasma flatscreen. (The solar system I built to provide for baseline necessities cost less than $6k.) Nor does it mean finding the cheapest available source. We are entering an era of extreme shortages, and it will not be long before our top concern will be whether we have any electricity available. It DOES mean rationalizing both production and consumption; we will select among wind, water and solar sources according to our location and its assets; and we will have to manage our consumption accordingly.

    Joe’s right — the costs of small solar, wind and hydro installations are coming down, and would come down a lot faster if we could pry the industry’s attention away from the mega projects. But industry is industry, and renewable is not sustainable if it’s industrial.

  51. Larry Gilman says:

    Good post, down-to-earth on the nature of vast technology shifts. They _can_ be fast but _tend_ to be slow. It’s all about motivation: in wartime, industrial economies transform themselves on timescales measured in months rather than decades. Sans a clear motive, they plug along at about the pace of genetic drift.

    We need to take hard, hard, non-cheerleaderish looks at the drawbacks of renewables, too. I can’t think of any for PV deployed on pre-developed land, especially rooftops and over parking lots, but we _must not_ scorn or belittle concerns about noisy turbines installed near residences, bat and bird kills by turbines in some locations, the inevitable drowning-out of landscapes and communities by large hydro (plus siltation and river-habitat destruction and methane production for tropical dams), harms to desert ecosystems by vast PV farms, etc. I’m not saying that Stephen Lacey has been dismissive of such concerns — I see no sign of that; I’m just throwing in a caution about an orientation we all need to keep. Deserts are not Nature’s parking lots, dead land that we can casually stomp on or sterilize in the name of The Cause. That kind of thinking has got us into our present eco-pickle. Nor am I saying that there can or will be _no_ development. But development and other harms must be acknowledged as real, weighed.

    The mockery of “NIMBY” that I sometimes hear in passionate pro-renewables circles has got to be rejected, disowned. While there is occasionally silly or hypocritical opposition to certain kinds of development, a lot of opposition to specific projects comes from inhabitants’ love and knowledge of local places. That species of love and knowledge is going to be essential to any livable, sustainable society we might hope to attain, and must be respected and nurtured rather than swept aside. Some modern renewable technologies, e.g. wind turbines, are large industrial installations and there is nothing silly or hypocritical about not wanting one “in my backyard”. Here in Vermont, there is nothing silly or hypocritical about not wanting to see bulldozers ascending the ridgelines to make way for turbines — while our Wal-Marts are still lighting their parking lots all night long. Nor is there anything intrinsically silly or hypocritical about environmental groups’ concern about desert development for megascale solar farms to feed power into a system that still uses that power with abysmally low overall efficiency.

    Wendell Berry said once that if we discovered a sustainable, perfectly clean, low-cost source of plentiful energy tomorrow, we would probably destroy the world with it. It’s worth remembering that the pre-Industrial Revolution rape of the planet by European invaders was conducted ~100% using what we would now call renewable energy and organic foods.

    We need to be self-questioning, balanced, to forego anything resembling a crusader mentality. We can’t let this be _just_ about pumping out a certain number of clean kWh.

  52. Stephen says:

    Andrew Y —
    Thanks for the note. And just to let you know: We’re going to be rolling out a podcast over the coming weeks too!

    Regarding the discrepancy in those figures: The IPCC report is looking at primary energy (before it’s used) and the REN21 Report was looking at final energy (after it’s used).

    Hope that helps!