Why solar is unstoppable and changes everything: Chris Goodall interview

Reading time: 6 minutes
27 April 2016

The Climate Group interviews author Chris Goodall about his latest release, The Switch. Chris is an expert on low carbon living in the home and workplace, writing award-winning books on clean technologies and green business. He regularly writes for UK newspapers and has a blog about energy efficiency and clean tech.

  • The Switch focuses on the global transition to solar and storage. Why are these technologies so important?

Solar photovoltaics are now the cheapest way of providing energy in many parts of the world. Over the nearly 60 years since PV was first commercially used, it has experienced consistent and predictable cost declines. These will continue and within the next decade or so, solar will be the cheapest way of generating power almost everywhere.

It is very difficult to find a single reason why this won’t be the case. Under reasonable assumptions the cost of electricity from PV will be below 2 US cents per kilowatt hour. For comparison, the UK government has said that a new gas-fired power station needs to be paid almost 10 US cents for the same quantity of electricity.

But the transition to PV needs to be supported by a rapid rollout of energy storage technologies. Whatever we do to shift our electricity consumption from night to day, we’ll still need power for lights, appliances and machines. That’s where batteries come in.

The good news is that the cost of batteries is falling at approximately the same curve as solar PV. They are becoming cheaper by the week and in locations with high-priced electricity, such as Germany, Hawaii or California, batteries already make financial sense. The advent of the electric car has been very helpful in reducing the costs of lithium ion batteries but grid operators, such as PJM in the US, have assisted by realizing that batteries offer a way of providing emergency power that is cheaper than alternatives.

In many countries, particularly those in the Tropics, PV plus battery storage will be enough to provide all the power we need. But in higher latitude locations, we’ll require storage that captures PV electricity in summer and keeps it for use in winter. We’ll do this easily and cheaply by using simple electrolysis (splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen using surplus electricity), by capturing carbon dioxide from the air and using small microbes to ‘eat’ the hydrogen and CO2 to make easily storable carbon based molecules for future energy use.

This sounds like science fiction but commercial trials around the world are showing that conversion of summer PV power to hydocarbons and high energy value alcohols is relatively easy and commercially attractive, even at current oil prices.

  • What barriers in international policy or regulatory frameworks could curb the rapid scale-up of solar energy and how can they be overcome?

To be clear, PV is already a competitor in many places, even without any regulatory support. Solar generated electricity will grow, even without subsidy. And as cost reductions occur, they will be rapidly spread across the world, meaning that low sun locations will eventually no longer need support. In the UK, for example, this will probably be within five years. For locations at which the power produced is directly used by the owner of the PV array, the economics are already favourable. There is little governments can do to stop it. 

But, like most of your readers, I know that change would be even faster if the world introduced a realistic carbon tax. Even US$20 or £30 a tonne would hugely increase the speed of the switch to solar. And my work shows, if I have done my sums correctly, that the global community would actually save money by speeding up the transition to PV and storage. The reduction in the costs of buying fossil fuels will be greater than the expense of adding PV that produced the same amount of energy.

  • At the global climate talks in COP21 bold commitments were made by leaders to invest in the research and development of clean energy. Where would you say this investment is most needed with regards to solar and storage?

Overwhelmingly, the answer is in the conversion of hydrogen and CO2 to hydrocarbon and other fossil fuel replacements. I've mentioned the vital role that fuel excreting microbes will have in the energy transition – bugs that use simple molecules as food and then exude fuels we can use to replace oil and gas. A huge global research program would be enormously beneficial at speeding up the work in this area.

But at the moment, VC money is scarce and public cash non-existent. The fundamental science is relatively simple – we know which microbes can make useful molecules containing hydrogen, carbon and oxygen – but scaling up to industrial size plants is of extraordinary importance. There’s lots of cash going in to batteries now. We need to move on to using ordinary microbes to enable long-term storage.

The other thing is carbon capture. I think that the idea of collecting it from the flue of power stations is a pointless dream. It looks expensive, inefficient and will never capture more than 85% of the CO2. We need what is known as ‘direct air capture’, dragging it from the atmosphere around us. People say to me that this is very expensive in terms of energy. I respond by saying that when July midday electricity will be so abundant to be costless, who cares?

One again, the chemistry of this is simple; we just need to find a way of doing this at a scale of billions of tonnes a year.

  • Despite the historic Paris Agreement at COP21 which was signed by 175 countries in New York last week, commitments are not binding. And the past few months has also seen the price of oil drop to an all-time low. So what is needed for leaders to move their commitments to actions? And what role do you think non-state actors such as businesses and regional governments play in driving forward real climate action?

The most obvious thing that countries can do is to encourage carbon-based biotechnology in universities and research institutes. The energy economy of 20 years time is going to be based around engineered microbes that make our fuels for us if we give them the CO2 and hydrogen. And, to state the obvious, a decent carbon price would really help. But I should stress that I think we will eventually be able to make clean oil-equivalent for less than US$40 a barrel. 

The Switch will be published in July, 2016.

Interview by Antonia Jennings

 

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