Solar Electricity Growing Faster Than Gas and Coal

Significant growth seen in use of large scale photovoltaic electricity in the USA

Editor’s note: Tom Bond is a farmer in Northcentral West Virginia. He is respected for his expertise, experience and passion. Equally importantly, he writes from a region – Central Appalachia – that has more days that are cloudy than sunny. Yet, as you will see in this piece and the articles that follow Tom’s, solar is getting the job done in the cold and cloudy mountains of West Virginia. That bodes well for our region, which has roughly the reverse of sunny and cloudy days than Tom’s area experiences. – MMB

By S. Tom Bond

JANE LEW, W.Va. – Solar electricity generation is expanding far more rapidly than burning fossil fuels, because the cost is decreasing rapidly and because of global warming concerns. Both home installations and large scale photovoltaic generation are progressing rapidly according to a recent article in Science, the journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Solar 3 BW Long House

Autumn and Dan Long of Wallace, W.Va. built the shed at the edge of the field for their solar panels. On the day the couple held an open house in 2015, an overcast sky dropped intermittent rain, yet the solar panels generated enough power for the house – and then some, as the meter was running in reverse, ringing up credits with the local power company. Photo by Michael M. Barrick.

Installation costs in 1976 were over $90 per watt, but had fallen to 90 cents per watt by 2015. The installed volume has gone from about 750,000 kilowatts in1976 to 220 gigawatts (thousand kilowatts) in 2015. The curve is exponentially up, meaning each year’s increase is greater than the previous year.

Driving the increase is both improvements in the technology of the solar cells and improvements in manufacturing. A regular reader of Science notes developments in the efficiency and longevity of solar cells almost every month. Elsewhere we read that China, with its terrible environmental problems, is placing great emphasis on solar and has become the country with largest photovoltaic use, starting in 2015.

The article says, “Grid-integration technologies and flexibility options available today should enable at least 25 percent to 40 percent variable renewable energy (solar and wind) with feasible cost and stability.” Some engineering changes in procedure would be necessary, such as heating water at a time of day the energy is available.

Solar 1 BW church

Shepherdstown Presbyterian Church in Shepherdstown, W.Va. was a first place winner in 2015 in the annual Cool Congregations Challenge of Interfaith Power & Light. Photo courtesy of Solar Holler.

Both solar and wind would benefit from electrical storage. The most efficient storage available is lithium-ion batteries. These are being developed for use in electrical automobiles, and the same size is suitable for home electrical storage. If the car stays in the garage (such as at night) the same battery can be used for both. Lithium-ion batteries are expected to come into use in the 2020s.

The authors of the Science article predict storage of electricity for less than 2.5 cents per kilowatt by 2030. They state solar power at 3 cents per kilowatt-hour and storage at even 5 cents per kWh would be economically competitive by 2030. The solar industry is on a trajectory to reach this.

There are many things going on now that hurt the demand for fracked gas, but the public is largely unaware of them. One is a decline in the price of oil, due to the Saudi Arabia discovery that they did not need such a high price for their oil. Another is the fact the proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline (scheduled to originate just north of my home and terminate 600 miles later in North Carolina) and the Mountain Valley Pipeline (again set to originate near our home and terminate in Virginia) – both 42 inches in diameter and operating at near 100 times atmospheric pressure at a maximum – are meeting unexpected resistance in Virginia where a gubernatorial candidate is campaigning against them due to their widespread unpopularity.

Still another is the fact several huge chains, including Walgreens, Costco, Kohl’s, Ikea and Walmart are adopting solar on their roofs. Still another is whole cities planning to go all renewable. Atlanta recently became the 27th city to commit to 100 percent renewables.

The trend is undeniable. The benefits many. Every effort should be made to ensure that solar energy and other alternative, sustainable power sources continue to grow. Concurrently, we can also all learn to do with less and do all that we can to ensure our ecological footprint is as small as possible.

© S. Tom Bond, 2017. Tom Bond is is an eighth generation West Virginian writing from his farm in Jane Lew, W.Va. He is a farmer and retired chemistry professor. Michael M. Barrick contributed to this article.

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