SingularityU: Solar energy now the cheapest electricity in the world

Sexy and virtuous: Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk introduces the falcon wing door on the Model X electric sports-utility ...
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Sexy and virtuous: Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk introduces the falcon wing door on the Model X electric sports-utility vehicles in California, last year.

The world's energy needs can be almost entirely be met by wind and solar power generation, an energy futurist told a Christchurch conference on Tuesday.

A "crossover point" has just passed for solar power in the sunniest parts of the world, said Ramez Naam. Solar power is now cheaper than conventional power.

In Dubai, an oil-producing member of Opec, a solar power farm generates electricity for US2.4 cents a kilowatt hour. That's not just the cheapest ever contract price for solar power, that's the cheapest contract price for electricity in the world, Naam said. It's also half the price of existing conventional power generation in Dubai, and didn't need a subsidy.

Ramez Naam, energy futurist, who spoke at the SingularityU NZ Summit in Christchurch.
Will Harvie

Ramez Naam, energy futurist, who spoke at the SingularityU NZ Summit in Christchurch.

People are realising that renewable energies are "deflationary to energy prices". They drive energy costs down, not up. It's no longer necessary to adopt renewable energies to save the world. It's economic, he said.

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Naam describes himself as a "born optimist". He had senior roles developing Microsoft Outlook, Internet Explorer and search engine Bing. He's written the book, The Infinite Resource: The Power of Ideas on a Finite Planet, and three sci-fi novels.

He looks at exponential changes in wind and solar power, in batteries and electric vehicles, and sees a bright future.

World wind generation has increased by 1000 per cent in 12 years, he said. New Zealand wind generation has grown by a factor of 20 in 11 years. "That's not normal in a sector like energy," he said.

The cost of solar power has dropped by a factor of 200 in recent years. Ford motor company showed that doubling production of Model T cars brought the cost of production down by 16 per cent. With solar power, it's more like 25 per cent, he said. 

Put solar and wind together and 70 per cent to 80 per cent of energy needs can be met, he said. But there's too much variability in wind and solar. Sometimes it's cloudy and not windy.

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Excellent batteries are needed and Elon Musk, the Edison of our age, and others are rolling out new battery technology that's significantly better than previous technology.

These technologies collide in the electric car. Naam sees a "virtuous cycle" of improving batteries leading to lower car prices and then lower battery prices. Electrical vehicles will get radically cheaper than internal combustion engines, in part because they have 90 per cent fewer moving parts, he said.

"The use of oil for transport will be disrupted," he said.

Petrol companies such as Z Energy can let someone else disrupt their business or they can disrupt themselves and hope to get a piece of the future pie, he said in an interview.

Naam was speaking at the SingularityU NZ Summit underway in Christchurch this week. It brings together tech experts, many from Silicon Valley, with an audience of mostly business leaders who can afford the $3495 price of admission over three days.

The audience of about 1400 also includes leaders of non-profit enterprises and students who paid significantly less.

World energy consumption must change to fight pollution and climate change, Naam said.

"We know the climate is changing. We don't know if it will be really bad or nearly apocalyptic. Both are within the realm of possibility."

 

 - Stuff

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