Is this picture our renewable energy future? Look at the technology deployed. There are the obvious solar panels. But there is also a battery storage system that would enable this outdoor light to operate at night using solar electricity generated and stored during the day. And there is the worker installing this technology on an age-old timber pole, speaking volumes on the potential for growing green jobs.
What this picture doesn’t speak to is cost. Utility electric lighting is typically supplied from the utility’s “base loaded” power plants that are the most efficient and therefore have the lowest per kWh operating costs. The implementation path suggested by this picture is directly tied to the economics of solar and batteries compared to based load power plants.
In much of the U.S. based loaded power comes from either nuclear or coal. The great news for the consumers during the last couple decades is that this is really low cost energy, averaging around 5 cents per kWh, or less! But that trend could be changing. Utilities across America that rely on coal fired power plants are announcing significantly sized rate increases. Independent rate tracking organizations are projecting up to 50% rate increases for customers in the Midwest and South.
And the cost for solar and battery storage is declining. How soon and how low are critical strategic issues the world solar industry is pursuing out of recognition that someday subsidies will go away and they will have to compete on price. A telling example comes from India where their government recently committed to a national program targeting solar electricity pricing parity with utility generated electricity by 2022. Their expectation is that price parity will result in solar accounting for 22,000 MWs of electricity supply.
I will always remember this picture as a symbol of what could be and what might be happening sooner than later.