The price of solar power has been rapidly decling over the past several decades (~ 7%/year decline in US$/watt or a cost halving every 10 years ). This drop , combined with peristently high oil prices is producing some interesting dynamics. New Scientist has an interesting article on the rapid drop in the price of solar power in India. Where many people and unconnected to the power grid, and for those that are the brittleness of the grid means that many people rely on generators:
Recent figures from market analysts Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF)show that the price of solar panels fell by almost 50 per cent in 2011. They are now just one-quarter of what they were in 2008. That makes them a cost-effective option for many people in developing countries. .. Now [India's] generators could be on their way out. In India, electricity from solar supplied to the grid has fallen to just 8.78 rupees per kilowatt-hour compared with 17 rupees for diesel. The drop has little to do with improvements in the notoriously poor efficiency of solar panels: industrial panels still only convery 15 to 18 per cent of the energy they receive into electricity. But they are now much cheaper to produce, so inefficiency is no longer a major sticking point. …The one thing stopping households buying a solar panel is the initial cost, says Amit Kumar, director of energy-environment technology development at The Energy and Resources Institute in New Delhi, India. Buying a solar panel is more expensive than buying a diesel generator, but according to Chase’s calculations solar becomes cheaper than diesel after seven years. The panels last 25 years. Even in India, solar electricity remains twice as expensive as electricity from coal, but that may soon change. While the price drop in 2011 was exceptional, analysts agree that solar will keep getting cheaper. Suntech’s in-house analysts predict that, by 2015, solar electricity will be as cheap as grid electricity in half of all countries. When that happens, expect to see solar panels wherever you go.
A similar article about the USA, was recently in the business magazine Fast Company.
It is too early for a resilience analysis of Japan’s cascading disaster, but here are some links. First on the fast variables, and then on the slow.
1) International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is posting their continuously updated report on situation at Update on the Japan Earthquake web page.
2) Christian Science Monitor Reports: Lax oversight, ‘greed’ preceded Japan nuclear crisis
3) In his New Yorker blog, Evan Osnos reflects on China’s Nuclear Binge. Rapid building combined with poor monitoring and corruption is not a good recipe for nuclear safety. He writes about the a recent corruption case of Kang Rixin:
His was a $260 million corruption case connected to rigged bids in the construction of nuclear power plants. Keith Bradsher, in the Times, wrote, “While none of Mr. Kang’s decisions publicly documented would have created hazardous conditions at nuclear plants, the case is a worrisome sign that nuclear executives in China may not always put safety first in their decision-making.”
4) Miller-Mcune writes Nuclear Disasters: Do Plans Trump Actions? about a new report from Union of Concerned Scientists which says that U.S. nuclear regulators are way too complacent about the possibility of a catastrophe.
5) On the STEPS centre‘s blog Andy Stirling writes about Japan’s neglected nuclear lessons:
So the most serious lesson already emerging outside Japan is about the pressures, driven by established nuclear commitments, to obscure information; compromise objectivity; and suppress political choice about energy futures. We may live in hope that there will come a time when more comprehensive and dispassionate attention will be given to the full global potential of viable alternatives to nuclear power. Many of these are manifestly more resilient in the face of technical mishap, natural disaster or deliberate acts of violence. Distributed renewable energy infrastructures, for instance, offer a way to avoid huge regulation-enforced losses of electricity-generating capacity when a series of similar plants have to be closed due to safety failings in any one. They minimise the compounding economic impacts of the knock-on self-destruction of massively expensive capital equipment, some time after an initial shock. They do not threaten to exacerbate natural disaster with forced precautionary evacuations of large tracts of urban industrial areas. And there is no scenario at all – unlikely or otherwise – under which they can render significant areas of land effectively uninhabitable for decades, let alone commit large populations to the potential long-term (and untraceable) harm of elevated low doses of ionising radiation.
A new paper in Transport Reviews by Adam Millard-Ball and Lee Schipper asks Are We Reaching Peak Travel? Trends in Passenger Transport in Eight Industrialized Countries.
Ball and Schipper looked at data from 1970-2008 in the United States, Canada, Sweden, France, Germany, the United Kingdom, Japan and Australia. They show that increases in passenger activity have driven energy use in transport, because growths in activity have swamped increases in efficiency. But the relationship between travel and GDP changed during the last decade. Previously increases in GDP lead to increases in travel, but in the last decade travel seems to have plateaued, and this halting of growth does not appear to be due to increases in gas prices. This is shown in Figure 2 in their paper.
One of the challenges in planning for the future is anticipating inflection points in ongoing trends. This paper could have made this point stronger if they compared predicted vehicle use against actual vehicle use, but that was not their main point.
As with total travel activity, the recent decline in car and light truck use is difficult to attribute solely to higher fuel prices, as it is far in excess of what recent estimates of fuel price elasticities would suggest. For example, Hughes et al. (2006) estimate the short-run fuel price elasticity in the U.S. to range from -0.034 to -0.077, which corresponds to a reduction in fuel consumption by just over 1% in response to the 15% increase in gasoline prices between 2007 and 2008. In reality, per capita energy use for light-duty vehicles fell by 4.3% over this period.
…[in these countries transportation sector] the major factor behind increasing energy use and CO2 emissions since the 1970s – activity – has ceased its rise, at least for the time being. Should this plateau continue, it is possible that accelerated decline in the energy intensity of car travel, some shifts back to rail and bus modes, and at least somewhat less carbon per unit of energy might leave absolute levels of emissions in 2020 or 2030 lower than today.
From the UK’s Department of Business Enterprise and Regulatory Reform
It is based on statistics taken from the Digest of United Kingdom Energy Statistics 2008, Table 1.1 – Energy Balance 2007. The flow chart is a simplification of these figures, illustrating the flow of primary fuels from the point at which they become available from home production or imports (on the left) to their eventual final uses (on the right). They are shown in their original state and after being converted into different kinds of energy by the secondary fuel producers. The flows are measured in million tonnes of oil equivalent, with the widths of the bands approximately proportional to the size of the flow they represent.
More detailed flow charts are available by fuel on the BERR website.
I previously posted WRI’s world greenhouse gas emissions flowchart.
This week Shell oil published an article by their chief executive Jeroen van der Veer that presents two scenarios of global energy development – Scramble and Blueprints. Shell has long been a leader in scenario planning. Other Shell scenarios and previous Shell scenarios are also available online.
…the distant future looks bright, but much depends on how we get there. There are two possible routes. Let’s call the first scenario Scramble. Like an off-road rally through a mountainous desert, it promises excitement and fierce competition. However, the unintended consequence of “more haste” will often be “less speed,” and many will crash along the way.The alternative scenario can be called Blueprints, which resembles a cautious ride, with some false starts, on a road that is still under construction. Whether we arrive safely at our destination depends on the discipline of the drivers and the ingenuity of all those involved in the construction effort. Technological innovation provides the excitement.
Regardless of which route we choose, the world’s current predicament limits our room to maneuver. We are experiencing a step-change in the growth rate of energy demand due to rising population and economic development. After 2015, easily accessible supplies of oil and gas probably will no longer keep up with demand.
As a result, we will have no choice but to add other sources of energy – renewables, yes, but also more nuclear power and unconventional fossil fuels such as oil sands. Using more energy inevitably means emitting more CO2 at a time when climate change has become a critical global issue.
Helmut Haberl from the Institute of Social Ecology, at Klagenfurt University in Vienna, who does interesting work on human appropriation of ecological production, has a paper The global socioeconomic energetic metabolism as a sustainability problem in a special issue of Energy 31 (2006) 87–99. In the paper, Haberl some interesting figures that estimate total human energy use over the last 1,000,000 years and since the widespread use of fossil fuel.
conventional energy balances and statistics only account for energy carriers used in technical energy conversions as, for example, combustion in furnaces, steam engines or internal combustion engines, production and use of electricity or district heat, etc. That is, energy statistics neglect, among others, biomass used as a raw material as well as all sorts of human or animal nutrition. These are very important energy conversions in hunter-gatherer and agricultural societies, but are still significant even in industrial society.
Global socioeconomic energy metabolism in the last 1 Million years. The increase in socioeconomic energy flows encompasses six orders of magnitude, from 0.001 Exajoule per year (EJ/yr) about 1 million years ago to nearly 1,000 EJ/yr today.