King Solar by 2020: Show in Silicon Valley Five Killer Trends

by Diane Francis

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SAN FRANCISCO — It has been said that renewable energy is the energy of the future and always will be.

But the tipping point is nigh, thanks to Germany’s leadership, China’s pollution catastrophe and technological advances in battery storage, materials science and software.

At this year’s giant solar show – Solar 2016 – a future with abundant, clean and cheap energy was discussed and on display.

Success will be based on the continuation of five trends:

— The Germans and Chinese have been dramatically transitioning to renewable energy by government edict, which has massively driven down costs for everyone through innovation and mass production;

— The Americans, wary of government edicts of any kind, are increasingly adopting and developing viable solar “distributed power” units — a do-it-yourself and market-based approach designed to dramatically reduce or free residences and industries from any dependency on grids or utilities;

— “Distributed power” is being adopted by developing countries to leapfrog the traditional giant power utility and extensive grid model. Power demands are high, fossil fuels are expensive and power grids inadequate so two-thirds of renewable development is underway in developing nations, led by China;

— A materials science breakthrough involving solar cells made from a material called perovskite will be introduced next year and will drive down solar cell costs and exponentially increase efficiency;

— Battery storage technology is advancing so dramatically that within three years a “tipping point” cost-wise will allow anyone with renewable power generation such as a rooftop solar system to go off grid.

The Germans have led the world to rid themselves of any dependency on fossil fuels from the Middle East or Russia as well as from nuclear power, which will be phased out by 2022. Their grand scheme — called Energeiwende — is publicly supported and German consumers pay a “green tax” of 24 billion euros annually to convert their economy to renewables such as biomass, wind and solar. Scaling and inventions have greatly reduced subsidies.

In the sunnier U.S., the biggest “tipping point” is closer thanks to cheaper storage, said Adara Power Inc. founder Greg Maguire. “Batteries are now US$650 per kilowatt hour and will be US$425 soon. In less than three years, they will hit US$200 and then there will be mass adoption.”

The solar and storage model already makes sense in many regions, he said. In Nevada, utilities charge US36 cents per kilowatt hour during peak times of 1pm to 7 pm in the summer and only US5 cents per kilowatt hour the rest of the day. “Solar and storage will eliminate the 36-cent charges,” he said.

In California, he added, the cost of recharging an electric vehicle is US5 cents per kilowatt hour between midnight and 6 a.m. and US33 cents the rest of the time. Solar plus storage means refills from stored energy can be free anytime.

Two interesting solar and storage systems were on display at the show: one by JLM Energy in Arizona and another called Smartflower from Austria.

JLM is doing a pilot project in Arizona involving 75 homes. Its four-foot by nine-inch battery pack hangs on a wall and is connected to a rooftop solar system with software that can allow consumers to dictate a monthly budget in power costs from the grid. The system stores excess power and reduces usage to stay within a budget.

“You can run it from your mobile phone and remotely turn appliances off or on — the washing machine or pool pump — and it will tell you the dollar consequences,” said a JLM spokesman.

The cost is US$25,000 for a solar and storage system that will meet the needs of a three-bedroom, two-bathroom home in a region where air conditioning and power costs are high.

The “Smartflower” system is a solar and storage system but not a rooftop installation. The device is a freestanding, 18-foot-high petal-shaped unit that can be installed in one hour and moved anytime. Endorsed by Austrian actor and politician Arnold Schwarzenegger, the “Smartflower” opens like a blossom at sunrise and shuts at sunset and moves with the sun during the day.

“It is at a 90-degree angle to the sun all day which makes it 40 per cent more efficient than a rooftop system,” said CEL Alexander Swatek. The unit shuts down in high winds, cleans itself, stores enough power to supply an average-sized home in Europe and costs US$24,900 all in.

Clearly, technology and governments are accelerating this energy revolution. Already one-quarter of power generation is from renewables and is nearly the size of China, India and Brazil’s energy markets.

And we ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

diane@dianefrancis.com published July 16 in National Post

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