The Next King

Last year was another spectacular year for solar energy as a total of 73 gigawatts (GW) came online, breaking the record posted in 2015 of 56 GW installed capacity.

China and the United States contributed the most to the high growth of solar power last year as both almost doubled their installed solar power from 2015. China added 34.2 GW from 15 GW in 2015 and the U.S. with 13 GW from 7.3 GW. Other countries also added more power sourced from the sun such as India with 4.2 GW and UK, France and Germany with each adding at least one GW.

Naturally, more employment was generated from solar PV as it provided some 2.8 million full-time equivalent jobs. This figure accounts for one-third of the all the jobs for renewable energy (RE) sector worldwide. In the U.S., solar PV added around 73,000 jobs last year, twice the jobs generated by the coal industry in the country.

Aside from the growth in installed capacity, solar prices dropped significantly, too. The World Economic Forum notes that the price of solar power is currently lower than coal in some 30 countries. Indeed, there has been a continuous decrease in prices of solar power in the last few years as costs have dropped by 62% since 2009 according to the Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF). And many predict that this trend is likely to continue.

Sohail Hasnie, Principal Energy Specialist for Central and West Asia Department of the Asian Development Bank, for one, foresees that global average price of coal would increase to $65- $100 per megawatt hour (MWh) for 2017 from its $60 per MWh. On the other hand, solar prices, he notes are now at $60-70 MWh, and likely to go lower in the next few months as solar energy in some countries were sold at low levels early this year.  Hasnie cites the case of India’s Madhya Pradesh state where solar power was sold was roughly $45 per MWh for 750 MW generated last February.  He believes that prices could drop below $25 per MWh this year in some auctions abroad.

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India’s 750 MW solar plant. Photo c/o http://www.hindustantimes.com

Battery storage costs are crucial to the expected price drop in solar PV, Hasnie stresses. He notes that lithium-ion battery prices dropped by 22% last year given the increase of manufacturers and awareness on the technology as the use of battery storage increased to roughly 750 MW globally. Hasnie anticipates that battery prices will likely drop by $75 per kilowatt (KWh) by 2020 from $350 per KWh in 2016.

Hasnie isn’t the only one to make such forecasts. The BNEF sees that solar energy is likely to be the lowest cost option in less than a decade.  The head of solar analysis for BNEF, Jenny Chase predicts that one MW ground-mounted solar system will be around 73 cents per watt by 2025, a 36% drop compared to its current price of $1.14. The BNEF also anticipates battery costs to decrease to roughly $200 per kWh by 2020.

Similarly, the International Energy Agency also predicts that solar generation cost will decrease by 25% in the next five years, and a drop by 65% by 2025 according to the International Renewable Energy Agency.

It looks like solar power would soon dethrone coal as the cheapest source of energy. And if these predictions come true, then we might see solar energy take over coal as the king of the energy mix.

Developing countries such as the Philippines should be sensitive to these developments.  Given our penchant on “quick fixes,” we might miss the boat (again) on this one. Our regulators should realize that the “least cost” in today’s environment takes on a different meaning. As I pointed out in my previous blogs, traditional power planning uses the least cost generation methodology where planners only look at stand-alone costs. The least cost generation method, however, does not compute for the risks involved.

For example, we never thought of Indonesia’s changing rules about exporting coal.  A few years back, Indonesia suddenly decided that it will not allow the export of certain grades of coal.  This led to a much higher cost for coal-fired power plant operators in the Philippines.  One company started to bleed because its ERC-approved formula did not take into consideration the fundamental change in the base prices.

To look at a price without considering risks behind the price can lead us to a completely wrong decision.

The global energy and political leaders should now realize that pushing for solar and other renewable energy sources is not just being good citizens of the planet, but also makes economic sense.

References:

https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2017-01-03/for-cheapest-power-on-earth-look-skyward-as-coal-falls-to-solar

https://blogs.adb.org/blog/5-predictions-clean-energy-2017

State of Solar 2016: Globally and in Australia. Climate Council

https://www.climatecouncil.org.au/uploads/4127a8c364c1f9fa8ab096b04cd93f78.pdf

 

 

 

 

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