August 31, 2017 Read More →

Big Reductions Seen in Wind-Energy Costs; Global Solar Growth Exceeds Expectations


Solar and wind energy have been underestimated by analysts and politicians again and again and again. They have gotten cheaper and scaled up faster than even the most optimistic forecasts of a decade ago, or even a few years ago.

And there’s good evidence we’re still underestimating them. In fact, two new reports — one on solar, one on wind — make the point vividly. They argue that the radical trends of the last decade are going to continue, which is all that needs to happen for the energy system to tip over from disruption into revolution.

Why are models still so tepid on PV, despite its record? What are they missing? The researchers hone in on three phenomena that most models fail to properly account for:

Policy support: For the most part, models can’t or don’t take into account the kinds of tech-specific, country- or state-level policies that have been crucial to PV’s growth — especially feed-in tariffs (which guarantee homeowners a fixed 20-year return on PV investments) implemented early on in Germany, Spain, Italy, and China. The US used the investment tax credits and net metering. Other countries have other tools, but almost every country has some kind of support for PV. That support has dramatically accelerated its growth and innovation.

Rapid learning: The costs for solar PV modules “have decreased by 22.5% with each doubling of installed capacity,” which is a considerably more rapid learning rate than your average tech. (It’s a “steep learning curve,” in the jargon.) Faster capacity growth than expected + faster technological learning than expected = lower prices than expected.

Cost increases of competing clean energy sources: Models tend to be wildly optimistic on nuclear power and carbon capture and sequestration (CCS), despite the fact that, unlike PV, those technologies fall short of model projections again and again. The more decarbonization work that models assign to them, the less is left over for PV. Put more bluntly: Models stubbornly keep favoring nuclear and CCS over PV; the real world stubbornly keeps favoring PV over nuclear and CCS.

The second bit of happy news comes from researchers at Atmosphere to Electrons, an R&D program for wind power at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL).

Their new paper is primarily about the scientific and technical challenges their team is researching — high-tech ways to further improve wind turbines and farms. But as part of the exercise, they project just how much wind costs could fall if all those high-tech solutions are implemented. It’s pretty mind-blowing.

The researchers are pursuing what they call “System Management of Atmospheric Resource through Technology” (SMART) strategies — a cluster of technologies and practices that will allow next-generation wind farms to produce more energy, more reliably, for more hours of the day. Here are the four areas of innovation they are going after, translated into English:

Better predicting performance through high-fidelity physics modeling (HFM) of local conditions.

Better design and control at the plant level by using sensors and real-time monitoring of wind flows as they move through the turbines.

Better design and control at the turbine level through “innovative rotor and drivetrain technology” and scale (i.e., taller towers and bigger blades).

Smarter grid integration by giving each turbine the ability to communicate directly with the grid, play a role in its “stability and operational planning,” and offer it various extra services like voltage regulation (don’t ask).

More: Wind power costs could drop 50%. Solar PV could provide up to 50% of global power. Damn.

Comments are closed.