The Solar Revolution

The fossil fuel tide is going out and a solar tsunami is on the horizon.

You can prepare to ride the wave or ignore it and be swamped. As the statistics and trends in this article will show, the world is on its way to a Solar Transition. Over the next two decades, solar power will become the default energy source. Other energies will not disappear, but they will become niche role players in an era of Solar Domination.

Choosing solar is no longer a nice-to-have or green option. It is the cheaper option and therefore an economic decision. This is how the revolution has played out, so far. Rapid solar energy and battery storage development has reached the point where it is cheaper than coal, petrol, diesel, nuclear, or hydro-generated power.

The Economist – the world’s leading and most authoritative publication on economics and finance dedicated its June 20th issue to the energy revolution, they called it: The exponential growth of solar power will change the world – an energy-rich future is within reach. It tracks this revolution and lays out how it will significantly impact – for the better – every human’s quality of life.

Here’s how it breaks down:

On every aspect of energy generation
Solar is cheaper, quicker, and easier to scale up or down
than any other form of energy.

How cheap is Solar?

Since the 1950s the price of solar cells has come down by a factor of 1000. In 1955 the cost per Watt of PV was $1785 – the price of a family car. In 2023 the cost per Watt of PV had come down to 16 cents – the price of a toothbrush. Since 1975, solar cells have become 99.7% cheaper per watt of capacity, allowing worldwide capacity to increase by around 2 million times.

How simple and scalable is Solar?

It is remarkably simple to scale up solar installations. The systems are modular and can be added to as need increases. One solar cell can recharge a cellphone. Seventy-two cells make up one panel which can recharge a car battery. Twelve panels are enough to power an average 3-bedroom house. 1700 panels will cover a hectare (a rugby field) and will provide power for 150 3-bedroom houses. 119 000 panels will cover an 18-hole golf course and will be able to power a town of 10500 houses.

This type of scaling can be continued on land or rooftop areas that are available.

Because solar is cheaper, quicker, and easier to scale up than any other form of energy it will become the default energy source over the next two decades.

 Is this sustainable?

Yes. The Installed capacity of solar doubles every 3 years, or 10 times every 10 years.

Solar PV Coal Nuclear Hydro Wind
2013 262 MW 36 860 MW 1 860 MW 670 MW

257 MW

2023 2 287 MW (773%) 38 800 MW (5.3%) 1 860 MW (0%) 1 600 MW (139%) 3 443 MW (1240%)
2030 5 902 MW (158%) 40 240 MW (3.7%) 1 860 MW (0%) 1 600 MW (0%) 7 911 MW (130%)

What will sustain the revolution?

For two hundred years we have relied on fossil fuels. But harvesting as little as 0.01% of the sun’s rays is enough to satisfy human energy needs.

Solar cells are made of silicon. Silicon is made of silica. Silica is one of the most abundant elements. Turning it into silicon is a relatively cheap and straightforward process.

There are 8 billion people on earth. Among them are millions of capable scientists and engineers.

These are the three pillars/cornerstones on which the Solar Revolution is built: clever people using the earth’s raw materials to harness the sun’s energy.

How cheap is Battery Storage?

Cheaper than you think, and getting cheaper all the time.

In the year If you had      You could buy
1995 $100 18 Wh of batteries
2005 $100 150 Wh of batteries
2015 $100 220 Wh of batteries
2024 $100 900 Wh of batteries

People are adopting solar faster than was initially predicted.

From the mid-1970s to the early 2000’s the cumulative shipment of PV increased by a factor of a million = 20 doublings. At the same time the price dropped by a factor of 500. That is 27% for every doubling or halving of costs with and 360% increase of installed capacity. That factor has since increased to 40%!]

How does the levelised* cost of Solar compare per MWh?

Year Solar Wind Coal Nuclear
2010 $248.00 $124.00 $111.00 $107.00
2020 $37.00 (-85%) $40.00 (-68%) $112.00 (+1%) $163.00 (+52%)

*The levelized cost of energy  is a measurement used to assess and compare alternative methods of energy production (to make economic decisions). It takes all production factors into account thus comparing apples with apples.

Since the 1970s the levelized cost of Solar has dropped by a factor of 1000.

This is unique: this has not been achieved by any other source of energy.

In the medium term, the opposite has been true,
due to natural resources becoming more scarce and more expensive to procure.
Solar remains constant and abundant.

How easy is it to install and scale up with solar?

Year Time to add 1MWp
2004 1 year
2010 1 month
2016 1 week
2023 1 day

Currently more solar is being installed per day than was being installed in the entire 2004. This growth is exponential, and the effect is mind-boggling when calculated meticulously as is done in this article: Understanding Exponential Growth.

We are in the second half of the chessboard now. Solar power adoption and expansion is getting very big, very fast.

Exponential growth

The cost of EVs vs ICE

The total cost of vehicle ownership has tipped heavily in favour of EVs over ICE vehicles. Assume that an EV sedan and a petrol sedan both cost R500k. Now levelise fuel, insurance, inflation, and maintenance costs over 10 years. Ownership of the EV is R1.01 million vs R1.45 million for the Petrol sedan. A difference of R440k. On an EV SUV the difference is even bigger. Think of what you can do with R44k every year. Can you afford to say no to a 30-35% saving?

Breaking News: Ethiopia takes the Lead

As of January 2024, importing an ICE vehicle into Ethiopia is illegal. The Ethiopian government has done the math. Switching away from ICE will save the country a whopping 3 billion in Forex. Ethiopia has 1 million registered vehicles.

South Africa has 12 million vehicles. Now let’s assume the number of cars, the population, and the petrol price stay the same. And let’s assume that electric cars replace petrol and diesel vehicles at the current rate of EV sales. Then by 2048 (2 years before the 2050 Net Zero Carbon Targets) we will have 12 million EVs on SA roads. Not only will we have cleaner air (58 million tons fewer tailpipe emissions) we are also going to save R226 Billion in foreign exchange. That’s R3767 rand per person will be spent in our local economy. Can we afford to say no to a potential 226 billion saving in Forex? No, we can’t, and we shouldn’t.

Solar: A Virtuous Cycle

The more solar energy we harvest the cheaper it becomes. The cheaper it becomes the more we can harvest…

Add Artificial Intelligence to the virtuous cycle and it becomes faster and even more efficient.

CONCLUSION

The revolution is upon us.
We can allow it to upheave and disrupt us or we can embrace it
and be swept along to the new possibilities and opportunities that cheap abundant energy offers us.