Technology has a way of taking off more quickly than expected. Consider the mobile phone. In 1981, its inventor, Martin Cooper, said: “Cellular phones will absolutely not replace local wire systems. Even if you project it beyond our lifetimes, it won’t be cheap enough.” Today, well, you’re probably reading this on your relatively cheap, amazingly capable smartphone.
Which leads us to another fast-evolving technology: solar photovoltaics. Will it become ubiquitous like washing machines and automobiles? Will solar become the default way we get power?
That may sound like a ridiculous suggestion as solar currently represents only about 1% of U.S. electricity generation. But, as a new report says, people have been underestimating its potential for years:
… in 2000, the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) projected U.S. solar generation would total about 2.6 billion kilowatt hours (kWh) in 2015. Fast forward to 2014, and the country generated nearly 29 billion kWh of solar power, with EIA projecting more than 36 billion kWh in 2015, roughly 15 times the amount projected 15 years earlier.
Deloitte, which wrote the report, doesn’t say solar—which had a compound annual growth rate of 43% between 2004 and 2014—will keep growing exponentially. But it does say some of the ingredients are there for that to happen, including declining costs, technological advances and new business models that expand the “addressable market.” In the past, solar has been limited to relatively affluent homeowners, but that’s changing due to solar leasing, community solar, and new solar-sharing platforms.
“We have only to look back at the adoption of the automobile, the cell phone, or electricity itself to find other examples of technologies whose growth followed an exponential progression for an extended period of time,” the report says. “In each of these cases, analysts in the original core industry were taken by surprise at the speed with which these innovations displaced prior technologies.”
Deloitte spoke to a lot of people in the solar industry and nobody said solar would grow as fast in the future as it has in the last five years (59% annual growth). It’s generally non-industry futurists like Ray Kurzweil who see solar taking over the world. The case against that includes factors like solar’s intermittency (the sun is not always available), the lack of energy storage capacity in the grid, and other associated costs with installing solar that haven’t been falling as fast as module costs have. That means things like labor, permitting, financing, and racking equipment, which remain quite high in the U.S. compared to other countries.
The case for exponential growth is that solar panels are becoming more efficient all the time and that electric vehicles will help continue to fuel their adoption. If everyone has an EV, we’ll be able to store power more effectively with the help of car batteries, thus spurring more investment in solar and storage and more growth. Prices for large-scale energy storage have also been falling more quickly than projected.
Consultants like Tony Seba, author of books like Solar Trillions, argue that it will eventually be cheaper to generate power at home than transmitting power over long distances, as happens now. Meanwhile, those people who can’t generate their own power will be able to buy it via an Ebay-like marketplace from people who have more than they need. We already have early versions of this, like Yeloha.
Given all the constraints on solar’s progress, including the probable loss of the main federal subsidy next year, it seems unlikely that solar will become completely dominant in the next 25 years. But it’s not impossible either. The last 10 years of solar—and the last 100 years of technology—shows that extreme growth happens more often than many people think likely.