The end of fossil fuels? Solar, storage and 'The Switch'

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Last week, award-winning author Chris Goodall came to Second Home. Promoting his latest book 'The Switch' he gave a fascinating talk about solar energy and storage. Hayden Wood, Bulb's co-founder, held a Q&A with Chris. There were some great contributions from a packed room full of switched on attendees. Who, it's fair to say, kept Chris on his toes with their attention to detail! Chris took us through the central argument of The Switch, a whirlwind tour of some of the most exciting technological developments in renewable energy and discussed the major challenges we face in making 'The Switch' a reality.

Are you experienced?

Chris argued that solar will be the cheapest way of generating electricity everywhere around the world by 2030. This is possible as a result of the rapidly reducing costs of producing photovoltaic (PV) systems commonly known as solar power. Solar is doubling in size and falling 20% in price per year due to the 'experience curve'. The idea that the unit costs of manufacturing a product reduce by ~25% for each doubling of volume produced.

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There was an interesting question from the audience on where other types of power sit on the 'experience curve'. Chris responded that solar was by far the quickest technology to reduce in value versus other technologies. For example, onshore wind at 10%. And traditional fuels sit at a meager 1 or 2%.

Because of this rapid cost reduction 'The Switch' to solar power becoming the dominant source of energy is inevitable. However, Chris was quick to point out inevitability doesn't mean certainty. And there are many challenges to overcome before 'The Switch' can happen.  

Battery Storage

During the discussion, Chris emphasised the importance of battery storage. The intermittent nature of solar power is a huge barrier to achieving 'The Switch'. So we need to produce batteries that people can afford and rely on. Battery storage, both commercial and domestic, is reducing in price at a similar rate to solar PV. Chris referenced some of the most successful commercial offerings. Chris felt that the more battery storage technology was in tune with domestic demand, the more successful it would be on the market.  

Storing solar for winter

One of the most significant challenges will occur in parts of the world like Blighty. Places where the sun does not shine consistently year round. For the ~7% of the population that live north of London, the major question is, how you store surplus electricity created by solar PV in the summer for use in the less sunny winter months.

Chris argued that the answer was one of the developments that he found most exciting: using electricity to turn water into methane. He claimed the simplest way of doing that is to use surplus electricity to electrolyse water splitting the water into separate oxygen and hydrogen elements. Then, merge the Hydrogen (H) with Carbon Dioxide (CO2) creating methane (CH4). Methane is the principal ingredient in natural gas, which is then collected and stored within the gas network. The gas network has a far greater storage than electricity, so there is far more potential for the power of solar to be saved and used to make electricity during colder parts of the year.

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The Future is Bright

The room was full of optimism and had a fantastic level of engagement with the detail Chris analyses in 'The Switch'. You can see the whole event on our Facebook page and judge for yourself. Let us know what you think!

We'll be having similar events in the future. We love talking to experts who know what we should be looking out for in the rapidly developing world of renewable technology. If you have any ideas of people, organisations or ideas that we should be focussing on, let us know in this discussion over on the Bulb community.

matthewRenewables