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Solar Power’s Gutenberg Moment

Avatar for Ben Zientara
Published on 10/18/2017 in
Updated 06/04/2019
Solar's Gutenberg Moment: 100% of energy generation within 13 years

Take a look at that chart up there. Crazy, right? Do we really think solar power will be 100% of the world’s energy supply by 2030?

Well… there are some compelling reasons to believe it, and they come from a man named Tony Seba. But we’ll get back to him later. Right now, let’s talk about Gutenberg.

What up, Johannes?

Back in the mid-15th century, Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press, started printing bibles, and the world went crazy. That’s the story, right? One visionary invention changes everything.

But that isn’t the whole story. The Chinese had been printing using wooden blocks for half a millennium before Gutenberg, and the Koreans developed cast metal movable type two hundred years before, but their written language was so complicated there wasn’t a strong enough application. Paper had even been around in Europe for about 150 years before Gutenberg’s press, along with ink that was ideally suited to write on it.

Heck, even screw presses had been around, for making wine and smashing other agricultural goodies. Looked like this:

Wikipedia

Don’t get me wrong, Gutenberg was a brilliant visionary, but he also happened to live at the right moment in history to bring together all these previous technologies. He perfected the production of tiny cast metal type that used the Latin alphabet and punctuation, could be held in adjustable frames, and applied to pages using a new version of the screw press.

It was this technological convergence of language, metalworking, paper-making, and more that enabled the invention of the printing press, and, afterward, the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Age of Enlightenment, and the Scientific Revolution.

The same kind of technological convergence has been responsible for the wildly quick adoption of other groundbreaking technologies, like automobiles, color television, the personal computer, and the cell phone.

Now it’s solar power’s turn. But don’t take my word for it.

Tony Seba predicts solar’s disruptive powers

Tony Seba is an author, entrepreneur and Stanford instructor whose work focuses on clean energy, entrepreneurship, market disruption, and exponential technology trends. He’s studied the history of disruptive how technological convergence leads to disruptive technological advancements and found some very clear parallels to the current marketplaces of transportation and clean energy, among others.

His work relies on earlier sociologists and anthropologists who’ve studies what’s call the diffusion of innovations, or the way in which radical, world-changing technologies spread through civilization.

These kinds of revolutionary changes to the way society functions are generally adopted slowly at first, then hit an inflection point and explode in popularity until the market is almost completely saturated. A chart of the adoption reveals a S-shaped curve, with groups that adopt the technology separated into groups called innovators, early adopters, early majority, late majority and laggards:

A graph of disruptive penetration of technologies

Technology S-Curves of the past

To get an idea of how this all works, here’s a quick look at past disruptions and how quickly they were adopted:

technology s-curves are happening faster

That chart covers disruptive technologies throughout the 20th and early 21st centuries. One thing you might notice there is that the pace of technological change is quickening; as we become a more technologically advanced civilization, radical changes are happening over the span of a few years.

Going back a few centuries, Gutenberg’s printing press was revolutionary, but it took hundreds of years to achieve exponential growth that’s possible in just a few years more recently:

growth in printed books in Europe following Gutenberg

Wikipedia

People underestimate disruptive technologies

In the case of many of these disruptive technologies, naysayers decry the likelihood of rapid expansion. One of Mr. Seba’s favorite stories has to do with AT&T in 1985 asking a market research firm to look into how many cellphones they expected to see as of 2000.

The firm came back with an estimate of 900,000, and AT&T acted on that advice by not moving quickly on embracing the new technology. Trouble is, the market research firm was off by a little:

AT&T got cell phones wrong

The actual number of cell phone customers was 109 million, a factor of 120 off of the prediction. Had AT&T foreseen that level of expansion, they could have much better taken advantage of the opportunities of the market.

What does this mean for solar?

Mr. Seba argues that we are now at the very beginning of a radical shift in both transportation and clean energy, and like we said above, he should know. He’s dedicated his life to studying the ways in which the kinds of disruptions spread, and he’s accurately predicted shifts in the marketplaces of transportation and clean energy.

Seba argues that the technological convergence of batteries (lithium ion chief among them), electric vehicles, autonomous vehicles, ride-hailing, and solar photovoltaics will result in exponential growth of disruptive business models and a complete change to the world’s energy markets within the next 13 years or so.

Setting aside transportation, Seba points out that the cost per watt of peak solar generation has gone down by about 11.5% per year since 1970, and that the amount of solar installed across the world has doubled every two years. And if this is indeed the inflection point for solar as a technology, we can expect that to continue.

Here’s a chart that shows what happened when solar prices finally fell below the threshold that made the technology attractive:

solar costs vs installed solar in GW capacity

Clean Technica

And now that we’ve passed that tipping point, Seba argues, the exponential growth of solar will continue, nearly doubling the installed base every two years, which will lead to solar being 100% of generation by 2030.

That sounds absurd, right? 2030 is just 13 years away. A kid born today won’t even be out of high school before the time this guy says we’ll all re running on solar power. Is that possible?

Yes, if you believe in the principal of technological convergence laid out by Seba in his talk. We have energy storage technologies and traditional solar photovoltaic technologies and new innovative technologies all colliding at once. And a lot of the final push needed to complete the expansion will come from economics.

Solar’s costs are still going down, while the cost of every other energy generation technology are going up. Seba has a great slide showing the costs of traditional energy sources since 1970:

Cost of traditionally-sourced energy over time since 1970

When you compare those costs, with increases of 6 to 16 times over the past 50 years, with solar, which has dropped 100 times in price over the same period, and is expected to drop another 50% in the next few years, you can see why Seba has drawn these conclusions.

And it’s not just one guy out there saying this. Futurist and very-good-predictor of stuff Ray Kurzweil also believes solar will dominate the energy landscape by 2030.

The U.S. government expects further reductions in cost. In a report published in early 2017 (PDF), the National Renewable Energy Laboratory revealed that its SunShot cost-reducing project has reached its 2020 goal 3 years early when it comes to utility scale solar. Now, they’re well on their way to 2030 goals.

Back in 2013, Citigroup predicted a very fast decrease of solar module prices, down to 25 cents per watt by 2020. That figure was judged very optimistic for the time, but it seems more than achievable now, with early 2017 prices at 35 cents per watt.

The bottom line

So given that the pace of adoption of radical new technologies is increasing, and given that the cost curves of solar and energy storage technologies are continuing their downward trends, and given that technological convergence has brought together all these various technologies, and given that business model innovations are proving that solar beats traditional sources of energy economically, is it possible that solar will continue to grow 35% per year until it dominates the energy generation landscape?

Yes.

Will it happen?

Well, this is where Seba’s final point comes in. He predicts that by 2020 or a little after, the levelized, unsubsidized cost (that is, cost per kilowatt-hour over the lifetime of the system) of new solar plus battery storage for any single home, business, or building, will be less than the cost of buying energy from the utility company.

If that happens, it will represent solar’s true growth moment. People, businesses, churches, and more will make the economically rational decision to go solar, without any strings attached. Whoever figures out the business model that makes it dead simple will by the next Gutenberg.

See Seba Speak

Speak, Seba! Speak!

This video starts at the point Seba begins to talk about solar, but the preceding 48 minutes are well worth your time. Check it out.

Last modified: June 4, 2019

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Nancy

Do you do solar for mobile homes

Lee Cornelius
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Lee Cornelius

Have you checked the MiaSole amorphous panels with the adhesive backing. Very lightweight and easy to install, but lower efficiency than single or multi-crystalline cells.

Chris
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Chris

I would love to have Solar power, just cant afford it

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