Is the sun about to set on the Age of Oil? Solar, battery developments becoming the new Black Gold
May 22, 2015 at 11:13 AM
Originally published in the Financial Post. Read the original article here
By Diane Francis
In Silicon Valley jargon, disruption is the euphemism for destruction, and the consensus is that Canada as whole, along with big oil producers Saudi Arabia, Russia or Venezuela, will be “disrupted” within one generation.
That’s not because the oil will run out or because new pipelines won’t be built. Canada will be in trouble because neither oil nor pipelines will be needed.
By 2030, the sun will begin to set on the Age of Oil as the economics and technology behind solar energy, battery technologies and distributed power are rapidly becoming the new Black Gold.
Exponential developments in solar panels and battery storage have driven down solar costs and driven up their effectiveness. By next year, solar power costs will reach parity with most grid prices in North America.
Quietly, the amount of solar power has doubled every two years for 20 years. By 2030 or so, cost and technology improvements will each have improved by doubling and redoubling eight more times, and solar will be cheaper and better than any other energy sources.
This won’t mean solar panels everywhere. One estimate by a Silicon Valley friend is that solar farms on a relatively small portion of the world’s unused deserts will be able to meet all the world’s energy needs.
That means Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern kingdoms will be able to convert oil fields into desert solar farms. So will Nevada, Arizona and the Mojave. But others won’t be so fortunate.
This week, the newly crowned King of Saudi Arabia mused that his country will be a solar producer by 2050 and be out of the oil business.
But solar won’t create an Electricity OPEC because everyone will be able to generate power, store it and sell it. This will happen as cheap, compressed batteries will overcome the fact that solar power can only be generated during the day when the sun shines. (That is why utilities with some renewables must still rely on fossil, nuclear or other fuels to produce the base load and why homeowners with some solar panels must still rely on utilities.)
But that is changing.
This month Tesla founder Elon Musk announced plans to provide low-cost batteries for homes, businesses and utilities. Initially, the batteries won’t be cheap, costing $3,500 for 10-kilowatt hours storage. (It would take four to power an average home).
But it’s a start and prices will fall as demand and technical advances rise.
Batteries allow the storage of surplus solar power when the sun shines so that it can be used at night or when the day is overcast. Householders could tap into the power grid, and also tap into their own storage of power from renewals. Down the road, consumers could purposely capture more solar power than needed and sell it back to the grid.
This system – called “distributed power” – will ultimately eliminate the need and economics for large centralized power plants (goodbye huge power utilities) and their business models are slowly crumbling in certain regions of the United States and Germany.
Germany is the world’s renewable energy leader as result of Energiewend, which means energy transition, launched a few years ago as a national strategy to enhance conservation and replace nuclear power and fossil fuels. In May 2014, Germany became the first nation to meet 74 per cent of its energy needs with renewables — a peak day and world record. But by 2020, the giant will have the world’s first fully renewable energy grid and “distributed power” system, giving it a competitive and strategic advantage.
This shifting energy situation is in large measure why Canada’s economy has decoupled from the United States and is why, in my opinion, the two countries had better economically integrate soon.
The issue is that Canada’s engine of economic growth — Alberta — will continue to sputter while the United States will hum along. Chinese and other money pours into American real estate and corporations, exports grow and its technology sector is eating the world alive with its innovations and capital.
A recent bank report called the “Great Decoupling” quantified the growing gap: In the early 2000s, a one per cent increase in U.S. domestic demand triggered a 0.5 per cent boost in Canada’s GDP. Now that’s been cut in half – a one per cent increase in U.S. domestic demand triggers a 0.25 per cent lift in Canada’s GDP.
This means, said the analysis, that even as U.S. growth accelerates this year and next, Canada’s won’t. And the collapse in natural gas exports, prices and slowdown in oil exports is mostly to blame.
While depressing, it simply means changes in attitudes and strategy are in order. The good news is that the rise of solar will clean up the environment and benefit consumers and companies who understand and can cash in on what’s irreversibly underway. But everyone must realize that the sunshine train has left the station.