Solar Power Looking Brighter Economically

John Quiggin of Crooked Timber sends us to Grist.org for “Solar Gets Cheap Fast” for good news about solar power.  The cost of producing solar photovoltaic cells (the silicon-based cells that convert sunlight to electricity) has been declining consistently at 20% per year since the early 1980’s.  Solar power is now close to the point where it is cost-competitive with fossil-fuel (coal, natural gas) and nuclear.  When we consider that any new coal-fired power plants will take 5 years or more to build (nuke even longer), then solar is now in the competitive horizon.  This is great news.

It really shouldn’t be news though.  We should have expected it.  Anytime a new product/technology goes into production, per-unit costs generally decline.  And, they generally decline at a predictable rate.  Two micro-economic phenomena combine to produce this predictable declining cost curve.  The first is often described in principles textbooks (although often over-stated):  economies of scale.  As production volumes get larger, often (not always) per unit costs decline because cheaper production technologies become feasible – it’s the phenomenon of mass production.  But another curve is involved.  It’s called an experience curve. Basically an experience curve summarizes how, even with using the same scale technology, as producers get more cumulative experience with producing the item, they produce it more efficiently.  In plain talk it’s called learning-by-doing.  It’s a staple of many business strategies, particularly in electronics.  While the specific improvements aren’t foreseeable ahead of time, the fact that costs will decline is predictable.  In other words, it’s predictable that we will learn.

Socially and economically, the arrival of wide-scale solar electricity generation is a good thing.  Solar electricity generation doesn’t create green house gases or other pollutants. It can be more effectively decentralized, relying less on huge power plants. The systems involved aren’t dependent on the kind of complex safety systems that make nuke power and coal dangerous. It doesn’t require a huge distribution and logistics network to mine/drill and transport a scarce natural resource like coal or gas.  And, solar installations can do double duty.  Unlike growing plants for bio-fuel or strip mining for coal, solar can be generated on top of existing buildings.   Critics often claim that solar is unreliable because “the sun doesn’t always shine”.  But solar system fit well with the demand for electricity.  Demand for electricity peaks in summer when the sun shines the most (think air conditioning). So the condition that creates peak demand for electricity is exactly the condition that generates solar power.  Further, newer solar systems are increasingly capable of generating electricity (albeit not as much) from just daylight even when bright sunlight is not present (does your solar-powered calculator stop indoors?).  Personally I’d rather trust the sun to rise each  day and provide daylight than to trust that engineers have perfect control of the safety of an inherently dangerous and polluting power plant (Fukushima anyone?).

The arrival of cost-effective solar power is also an object lesson in why government subsidies are often justified for new technologies.  Often, when new technologies are invented, the costs (“business case”) are too high to be practical or competitive with existing alternatives, despite the conceptual attractiveness.  We have a “new technology chicken-and-egg”.  Private investors and private firms won’t touch the new technology because it will take too long for costs to decline to a point where they can make the kind of high returns they want.  It’s too risky for them and too-long range.  Private investors and corporations really don’t think very long term.  But, until somebody actually begins producing the item we don’t gain the benefits of economies of scale or learning experience.  It’s at times like this that governments can play a great role.  Governments, by borrowing at the lowest interest rates, can take the long-run view.  They can invest because the benefits will be social and benefit the larger economy later.  Governments have, in fact, been key to creating new technologies and economic growth throughout the last several hundred years.  The telegraph, the telephone, electrical generation/distribution, canals, railroads, improved ocean navigation, computers, networks (including the Internet and World Wide Web that brings you this story), automobiles, aircraft and airlines — all these were dependent upon government early on and would not have happened had it not been for government.

That’s not to say government should always own, operate, and scale up the businesses that do it.  There’s a variety of mechanisms for government to seed and feed new technologies.  But that’s a different discussion.