“Solar panels are growing faster than cell phones”. Have you heard this one? That would be Amory Lovins. As with many – if not most – assertions made by Lovins, it isn’t one that has much evidence to back it up. But it is a popular one.
This week we got another version of it from the newly optimistic Al Gore.
According to the the New York Times, Gore has a new slideshow and it goes something like this:
Over an hour and a half, he delivers an endless stream of facts and trends from around the globe. Every minute in Bangladesh, two more homes get new rooftop solar panels. Dubai’s state utility accepted a bid for a solar power plant with a cost per kilowatt-hour of less than six cents. “Wow,” he says, his eyes wide. “That just set everybody on their ear.”
Such changes, he says, represent a sharp break with the past, not a slow evolution. That is the point of those slides on his laptop. In 1980, one shows, consultants for AT&T projected that 900,000 cellphones might be sold by 2000. In fact, there were 109 million by then. Today there are some seven billion. “So the question is: Why were they not only wrong, but way wrong?” he says. He presses a button, and up pops an old photo of a young Al Gore with a helmet of hair and an early mobile phone roughly the size of one of Michael Jordan’s sneakers.
The same kind of transformation that turned those expensive, clunkers into powerful computers in every pocket is happening now in energy, he says, with new technology leapfrogging old infrastructure. “It’s coming so fast,” he says. “It’s very, very exciting.”
OK. Where to begin? First, solar panels are nothing like cell phones. I type this at 6.30 pm at the tail end of a British winter. The sun is not shining and Britain’s solar panels are producing zero electricity. Yet, Britain’s electricity demand, at 50 gigawatts, is relatively high. Cellphones in the 1980s did not face such hard to overcome and obvious challenges.
Second, the infrastructural challenges for cell phones and solar panels are profoundly different. This is easy to understand. Apple, Samsung, LG, Blackberry and HTC have business models that revolve around you buying a new phone every two years. However, the power plants that provide the electricity to charge your phone are built to last half a century. It is therefore essentially impossible for solar panels to grow faster than cellphones, unless you decide to shut down billions and billions of dollars worth of power plant early.
The “revolutionary” growth of solar can be put into perspective. At its fastest rate, annual growth of solar power in Germany represented only 1% of annual electricity consumption. In other words it would take far more than a century to get close to 100% of Germany’s energy needs from solar panels. And this is the fastest it has grown anywhere on earth.
So, it is clear that solar panels are not growing faster than cellphones, not even close.
The growth of renewable energy should be placed in its proper context. There are no “renewable energy revolutions” going on anywhere on the planet. That’s what the hard numbers tell us.
Consider this. Between 1990 and 2000, Britain went from getting 0% of its electricity from natural gas to getting 40% from it. This is a reasonable benchmark for what can be achieved with conventional fossil fuels. What has Germany achieved? In 2013, it got 13.2% of its electricity from wind and solar put together, an increase from 3.1% 10 years earlier. In other words, Britain increased electricity from natural gas power plants four times faster in a decade than Germany has from wind and solar.
Now, I am not saying this to trash renewables. These are just neutral facts that people have to accept. And who benefits from hyping up and exaggerating the growth of renewables? Will delusions about the growth of renewables help to slow down the accumulation of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere?
We now live in a world where environmentalists tell us two things: the world is doomed because of inaction on climate change, and that renewable energy is taking over.
These two things cannot both be true.