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By Robert Rapier on May 26, 2016 with 21 responses

The Solar Story Is Just Getting Started

Several years ago, when I was working on my book Power Plays, I spent a lot of time thinking about the future of energy. One thing I concluded was that solar power would become one of the world’s most important sources of energy – if not eventually the most important source of energy. I also discussed this in the 2007 column “The Future Is Solar.”

There are a couple of reasons I still believe this. But first, I should make it clear that it will be a long time before solar power rivals the consumption of oil in the global energy market.

While solar power is growing rapidly, we still use about 100 times as much energy in the form of oil (and about 90 times as much in the form of coal). Further, even though solar power is growing at a fast rate, the absolute growth in oil consumption from 2013 to 2014 was about 3 times the growth in solar power consumption. In other words, even though solar consumption grew at a 38% rate and oil consumption grew at about a 0.7% rate, this amounted to an increase in solar consumption of 11.6 million metric tons of oil equivalent versus an increase in oil consumption of 32 million metric tons.

So I want to at least offer that perspective, which is often missing in articles about renewable energy sources. Still, what I would say today is that solar is the most important emerging energy source, and over the next one to two decades it will surpass coal and begin to rival oil in the amount of energy supplied globally.

I believe the key drivers behind solar’s continued growth are that the energy conversion efficiency is relatively high (~an order of magnitude greater than photosynthesis) and that the costs for solar PV have become competitive in many markets. Further, those costs continue to fall. Solar is a very attractive option for those seeking to reduce carbon dioxide emissions.

Among all major energy sources, none added capacity as rapidly as the 50% average annual growth rate of solar photovoltaics (PV) over the past five years.


Growth in solar PV over the past decade has resulted in a nearly 50-fold expansion in the amount of deployed solar PV capacity since 2004:


Of course capacity isn’t the same as production. As I pointed out in Don’t Blame Renewable Energy For Dying U.S. Coal Industry, the capacity factors for renewables like wind and solar power are low relative to their fossil fuel competitors. So an installed megawatt (MW) of solar PV capacity won’t produce the same amount of electricity over the course of a year as an installed MW of coal-fired power (for instance). In fact, it could take more than three times the installed capacity of solar to generate the amount of electricity from a given capacity of coal-fired power in a year.

This means that if solar is to make a serious dent in the world’s fossil fuel demand, we are going to be installing a lot of solar panels. Who makes these solar panels?

According to research and consulting firm GlobalData, the Top 5 solar PV manufacturers in 2015 were China’s Trina Solar with 4.55 Gigawatts (GW) of solar PV panels produced, followed by Canadian Solar (3.9 GW), Chinese companies JinkoSolar Holding Co., Ltd. (3.79 GW) and JA Solar Holdings Co., Ltd. (3.38 GW), with South Korea’s Hanwha Q CELLS Co., Ltd. (3.2 GW) round out the Top 5. While China dominates in global PV manufacturing, two U.S. producers in the Top 10 are First Solar and SunPower.

If solar PV growth continues as I expect, the sector should do quite well overall, but SunEdison’s recent bankruptcy show that bad decisions can quickly take down large companies in rapidly growing sectors. It’s important to keep that in mind and do your due diligence before diving into this sector.

Link to Original Article: The Solar Story Is Just Getting Started

Follow Robert Rapier on Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, or at Forbes.

  1. By Forrest on May 27, 2016 at 7:23 am

    Solar panel manufacturing, currently subsidized per the national desire to acquire more market share and drive competition out. So, the true market cost yet to be realized. Market share is very price competitive and demand is elastic. So, not a lucrative market for investment dollars for a long time. It would change if a capitalistic economy manufacturer had a breakthrough invention and patented.

    While biological solar has lower conversion of sunlight, it’s dirt cheap, and encompasses all of the natural landmass. So, in entirety dwarfing all energy sectors energy storage production. Mankind has always been on a quest to make the plant kingdom grow faster, taller, healthier, and more productive. Modern day this improves the supply of food, biofuel, biochemicals, biomass, and landscaping. Hybrids played a huge role as did improving agronomic practices and forestry. Genetic hybridization is proving to be an incredible powerful tool to maximize value of plant life. Just today, read University of Guelph, Ontario stumbled upon a genetic key to control plant growth. Their initial results improve plant growth 200% and seed growth 400%. They claim the results will have big impact on food and fuel production. Researchers have been studying plants such as spinach to understand the high solar conversion efficiency of sixty percent.

    • By Advocatus Diaboli on May 29, 2016 at 6:09 am


      “Solar panel manufacturing, currently subsidized”
      So is bioenergy. Very heavily. Not just its use, but also its production (farm subsidies, etc.).

      “it’s dirt cheap, and encompasses all of the natural landmass.”
      It is not dirt cheap and does not encompass the entire landmass. Much of the landmass is not productive, most of the productive land is already overutilised for food production, timber and other industrial crops (cotton), while also overutilising other resources like water.

      “Mankind has always been on a quest to make the plant kingdom grow faster, taller, healthier, and more productive. ”
      The opposite is closer to the truth. Mankind has decimated the plant kingdom. Dominant agricultural production systems are genetically impoverished monocultures that carry just a fraction of the carbon stock of the original vegetation. They are optimised for food production (e.g., grain instead of total biomass), which we need to feed the population. Total biomass production (NPP) MAY be higher than in natural ecosystems, but then it is due to very high inputs of energy, in the form of nitrogen and irrigation. Mostly fossil, totally unsustainable.

      In industrialised countries, forests have been making a limited comeback in the past century (increasing area and volume), which was made possible only by cheap and more efficient fossil energy (i.e., we stopped relying on forests for energy and many other things like fodder, and abandoned pastures could be recolonised by forest.

      There is very little potential there, and none if you want to feed people with less fossil input.

      • By Forrest on May 29, 2016 at 1:13 pm

        Well, a farm subsidy would be present with or without ethanol. Do you really want to bring up subsidies? IEA has accounted $540 billion for oil, but the type of subsidy that oil receives disadvantages biofuel to the tune of $600 billion/year. Indirect subsidies are immeasurable, but include cost of portion of defense department and use thereof. Environmental clean ups and cost of related health cost per emissions, including GW. Were talking of some incredible subsidies for the oil market. Middle East terrorism runs on illegal drugs and black market oil. Why did we fight Gulf War I? Answer; to protect foreign oil well supply from invading tyrant. I don’t think ethanol carries such costly military defense measures.

        • By Advocatus Diaboli on May 30, 2016 at 4:29 pm

          My main point was that it is not “dirt cheap”. Land is finite, it is increasingly scarce and expensive. Food is not cheap – hundreds of millions cannot afford to buy enough of the basic staples (preferred feedstock for biofuel) to feed themselves.

          Subsidies must be taken into account in calculating cost (total social cost). You have a point regarding fossil fuels, but the fact that fossil fuels may be more expensive than they seem does not make agricultural products cheaper. Actually, it makes biomass more expensive, as they contain an awful lot of embedded fossil energy. In fact, a significant part of agricultural subsidies come from fossil fuel subsidies directly (e.g., reduced excise tax on fuel for farm machinery) or indirectly (subsidies for embedded emissions).

          Ethanol may not account for much of the military spending because it is marginal. If you were to replace more than a trivial share of global oil production with bioethanol, you would have a mighty problem containing the impacts (even militarily, to secure all that land and water, keep hungry and thirsty masses at bay, etc.). Moreover, the military can run on oil that it “protects”, but it could not run on the ethanol it would protect. Cannot use it in jets, cumbersome in everything else, inefficient to transport…

          I don’t like the reliance on oil (or on the military), just trying to be realistic.

          • By Forrest on May 31, 2016 at 7:09 am

            “Dirt cheap” refers to photosynthesis process as compared to PV. It wasn’t a cost reference to ethanol fuel. But, the plant kingdom does have a bounty of waste to process and if one were to take GW seriously, the processing of plant waste would be very attractive. This is why landfill gas is valued so high with EPA. All of that refuse would rot and emit CO2 and methane if not harvested and combusted. Much interest in cellulosic ethanol and aerobic digesters to defray GW emissions. This is a huge playing field to work within. Much bigger than man made.

            The food growing trend is organic and local. This excludes the petrol products. The food is rated higher in nutrition as a result. Fresh produce is better.

            Corn harvest yields are continually increasing per better practices and technology. If as experts expect, the rate of increase would be swallowed up by ethanol as to not impact the animal feed market, in addition the cellulose portion, the future of farm agriculture would project to fuel the country needs. The poor farming acreage planted with biomass supply , is calculating out to have large potential, as well. Just think, the cellulose portion of corn kernel itself is projected to 2 billion gallons and a good portion of biodiesel fuel.

            The military is desperately attempting to transition away from petrol diesel fuel. I’ve read the best path forward, would be the process technology to convert ample supplies of ethanol. They are currently improving processing to do just that.

            Natural gas is the largest fossil fuel input to ethanol fuel.The Poet cellulosic model as combined with traditional grain ethanol removes that burden. The co-process is more than energy independent. Poet fully expects to configure all their current ethanol plants this way and to sell the technology to other plants as well. The Emmetsburg plant now processing at the rate of 770 one ton bales per day as I have read.

            Wind and solar energy are very interested in production of hydrogen per energy storage needs. This is the supply gas for fertilizer. So, in the future that minor input of petrol, probably gone as well. Farm tractors and other high torque needs can transition to ethanol. The fuel can generate tremendous torque. The Cummings E85 engine produced more low end torque than diesel engine that was twice the size. Fuel cost per mile were equal. They estimated that engine operating on cellulosic fuel would be rated 85% decrease in CO2 emissions as compared to regular diesel engine running on plain diesel fuel for the same job. Now, that is better decrease in GW emissions than most all estimates of grid power transportation. Also, studies that attempt to rate energy supply for counties future needs are crude, in my opinion, as all the damage projections of GW, but if you read the estimates, ethanol fuel could easily go to negative carbon rating. In fact one ethanol process that produces as much charcoal as ethanol should be rated a stop gap if ever GW damage estimates were to materialize. While the ethanol fuel is more expensive, the value of the charcoal to soil fertility and locking up carbon for thousands of years is priceless.

            • By Advocatus Diaboli on May 31, 2016 at 9:59 am

              Photosynthesis is not dirt cheap, but free. Plants do it without humans, and would do much more of it if humans did not interfere.
              Capturing photosynthates for energy (beyond a very limited scale coming from residues) is very costly. It requires a lot of land, it requires a lot of inputs and it competes with other needs. In addition to the above (or because of the above) it is also not very energy efficient.

            • By Forrest on June 1, 2016 at 7:53 am

              Biomass products are very efficient per natural resources as they are biological “solar panels” storing energy in readily available form. Timber has immense use as does combustion of wood. Just about all of the planet has plant matter growing on arable soil. Per our landscaping, forestry, and agricultural practices much improvement within the plant kingdom to maximize the growth rate. I don’t think plants compete with your needs. Good modern practices of agriculture and forestry work to decrease GW emissions. More so than the natural wild process. Even wildlife benefits. The solution has always been to maximize our utilization of land and resources. To improve environment and migrate to renewable solutions. It’s a false assumption to address the problem as agriculture taking competing resources. A straw man argument. For example most corn does take water, but since some 90% of the water is plain rain, is that competing with man’s needs or simply meeting man’s needs in a more responsible method? Don’t forget water is a renewable source, meaning it’s is not consumed. Agriculture in general is currently on a steep path to minimize water use. Same for domestic usage. Israelis grow incredible crops on arid climate and have learned to minimize water use. California is learning quickly the same. Corn farmers are converting to no or low till farming that drastically minimizes irrigation needs. Compare the efficiency of biomass energy solution to that of crude oil resources. Generating energy from crude oil takes maximum resources. It takes much more than a gallon of crude oil energy to make a gallon of crude oil product. It has to have low energy rating as no energy is added. There is no season of solar energy to boost return on the resource. Every gallon of crude is a gallon gone forever. If you cut a tree you can plant another. If you grow energy crops, you can have another harvest, or two, or three in 12 months.

            • By Advocatus Diaboli on June 1, 2016 at 3:18 pm

              I use firewood and wish I could use more. Don’t have the land. If I used my share of productive land in my country (<2 acres/person) entirely to produce wood just for heating (no lumber, no food), it would barely be enough to heat my house. Forget electricity or driving, let alone flying.

              It is not irrelevant, but not a viable alternative to fossil energy. PV captures an order of magnitude (or two) more energy per unit area. Less convenient for heating, but better for almost everything else and leaves enough land for food and timber.

            • By Forrest on June 1, 2016 at 7:28 pm

              I wasn’t advocating to grow your own, but if you would be surprised how much waste wood is available even within metro zones. It’s nice to have a wood fire heat source for cold evenings and the emergency preparedness is invaluable when utilities fail. Cost of setup depends on your budget and aesthetic needs. Most will save money even as compared to natural gas. Pellet stoves run almost automatically. That is what folks around here utilize when there is no NG pipeline. It sure beats the price of propane. Notice the rage for fire cooked pizza. Why do ribs taste so good with ceramic grills such as kamdo? They take very little charcoal to maintain steady high temperatures.

              The 6.41 million square miles of Boreal forest are in jeopardy of increasing forest fire threat. The main defense is to control burn as the understudy has so much fuel. But, forestry practices can clear cut to accomplish the same as controlled burn and be able to utilize all of the wood for our needs. Our western forests suffer the same threat unless the threat is managed by controlled burn. If we had a robust market for wood, it would be best to clear cut as this gives the pine needles time to decompose and improve carbon sequestration as oppose to losing it all to fire.

              The U.S. has tremendous reserves of biomass. U.S. biomass has been assessed at one billion tons/annually. Others claim it could be pushed to two billion tones with GMO farm production. Cellulosic ethanol process alone can yield 89 gallons per ton with potential all the way to 100.

            • By Forrest on June 5, 2016 at 6:16 am

              In theory your 2 acre limitation/person-

              Miscanthus grass is currently under scrutiny for research on improving biomass production. University testing of growth of the perennial sits at 14-17 tons/acre with highest harvest at 27t/acre. So, do the math for fuel production. If you needed 1,000 gallons for your car/year, that would only be 70% of one acre and possibility of 40% of one acre. The biomass can be pelletized and utilized for space heating as well. A home in northern part of U.S. will use 2-4 tons pellets per season. Acreage required calculates to 10% to 30% of one acre per heating season. Miscanthus grows up to 14 ft tall and biomass hybrids and GMOs will hit the market to maximize their growth. The grass will support the prairie wildlife that the plain states historically were at one time. Field test have shown staggering harvest or timing harvest is best to minimize wildlife disruption. Fields next to low lands (marsh areas) especially attractive to wildlife. This land base, also, sensitive to needs of corn plantings per the fertilizer. Better for everyone to plant biomass crop here.

          • By TimC on June 8, 2016 at 12:05 pm

            “Cannot use it in jets…”

            I think that would be news to Gevo …


            … and Vertimass …


            … among many others. Almost every fuel the military uses, including JP-8, can be derived from corn or other renewable feedstocks, if they are willing and able to pay the cost.

            • By Advocatus Diaboli on June 9, 2016 at 2:34 pm

              Gevo makes its fuel not from ethanol, but from isobutanol:

              I don’t know about Vertimass (your source has no detail, and I won’t search).
              In any event, “if they are willing to pay the cost”, they may as well make the fuel out of CO2. Not a source of energy, but if the purpose is to use expensive fuels that are not better than kerosene and do not reduce emissions, there are plenty of opportunities.

            • By Forrest on June 9, 2016 at 5:28 pm

              TimC’s link is a slide presentation. Look at bottom of page for large arrows 1-8.

              Gevo’s management must be adept. They are very good at minimizing their cash flow burn rate. For example they are in production of ethanol to pay the bills as the processes are very similar.

            • By AChemPhD on May 16, 2017 at 11:15 am

              At > $30/gallon.

            • By Forrest on May 17, 2017 at 8:50 am

              I just read an ’07 post on “The Hidden Cost of Oil”. It’s about the true cost of imported oil to the economy. The economic hit is equivalent to adding $8.25 to the price of one gallon of gasoline. Nice to know we’re doing much better in 2017, thank you very much, but one must understand that the concerns of oil are increasing. Most citizens want minimal cost to the environment for their energy needs. The public wants maximum efficiency upon consumption of energy, as well. The goal is pollution free with no potential to impact environment.

              So, the coal mines, chimney stacks, nuclear threats, oil rigs, refineries, hydro dams and the rest are old school. A growing percentage of population is on the hunt for minimalist living. Enjoying the simple high per different living standards. Smaller extremely efficient homes, cars, and transportation. Solar fits into this well and may result in one of the disruptive technologies. Same for autonomous vehicles powered by fuel cell or battery power. Car ownership may lose popularity and cost of transportation may be but a fraction as compared to today’s standards.

              I do think the U.S. is poised for a tremendous upheaval and opportunity for economic growth. Analysis are looking at 2030 as the linchpin year. One could make some good short term money on crude oil or coal, but it may be prudent to get out early. I do think military and air transportation pushing hard for renewable fuel at any cost for good reasons. They know what the public demands and in the long run the alternative fuels a better choice.The alternative fuels including ethanol will continue to increase in production with lower prices. Ironically, this may assist crude oil upon longer sales and high volumes.

    • By Plant Matter on May 31, 2016 at 12:27 pm

      There is nothing “cheap” about using biomass to create power. On a capital cost per nameplate megawatt basis, biomass is as or more expensive than nuclear. The plants still typically pay for fuel, are maintenance intensive, and have short lifespans as compared to nuclear or solar. Then there is the little matter of siting the plant within an economical distance of the fuel source, which is typically no more than a 50 mile radius.

      Biomass can be a good power solution for niche applications. It cannot and will not ever be a dominant power source for the seven billion and growing inhabitants of this planet.

      • By Forrest on June 1, 2016 at 7:17 am

        Wood pellet industry continues to enjoy robust growth rate. Europe is utilizing the pellets with coal for continued use of older power plants. Typically, the more expensive fuel is utilized to bring coal plants into environmental conformance standards. The pellets mixed in with coal at required percentage. A lot of that is going on in U.S. as well. The EPA rating of biomass fueled electricity is close to wind power.

        A U.S. pellet supply company expects the ethanol process plants will migrate to biomass pellets per lowering carbon rating of the fuel. Also, the cellulosic ethanol supply market may go to biomass pellets to improve material handling efficiency. A pellet supply company in Alabama has port access and large contracts with European customers. They have a patent on “black” pellets wherein they gasify biomass to remove moisture and condense back combustible gas into pellet. These pellets are equivalent to coal btu per pound, but little emissions and basically carbon neutral.

  2. By takchess on June 3, 2016 at 5:46 pm

    Ramez has some interesting things to say about solar and is worth following.

    • By Forrest on June 3, 2016 at 7:34 pm

      Ramez has interesting things to say, but most of it is a false dichotomy between what has happen and what will happen. It is wholly inaccurate to make assumptions upon the future based on past trends. If it were that easy we just look at charts of past earnings to ascertain the winning stock picks. Predicting the cost of energy storage is hopeless as the predictions of most competitive power. It could be base line coal that has ample U.S. reserves and low cost fuel. The coal technology power plants could up their efficiency and lower emissions to continue dominance. GE could realize steady growth in new nuclear technology and lower cost plants. Hydro could steadily grow in popularity per steady state power production, better siting, and the conversion of in place dams. Natural gas could just continue to increase dominance per low cost power plants that can quickly adjust power production and maximize efficiency per cogenertion. CHP power production per the vast need of heat and the ability to generate power at the same time could increase in popularity. This blends into energy parks that accomplish the same. Wind could stall out as most predict and solar could just establish itself as supplemental power for the taking during a few hours of sunny skies. It’s very complicated to manage a grid and supply power at continuously variable rates. Energy storage helps and the reason hydro so effective.

      • By takchess on June 3, 2016 at 8:19 pm

        Re: It is wholly inaccurate to make assumptions upon the future based on past trends.
        I will agree and disagree with you on that one. It depends on what you are basing it on. Moores Law which is running it’s course now is a perfect example of where it worked. If it’s based on research and not expecting it to occur mathematically just because.

        I think that work by 1366 has some predictions which have run pretty much true and is based on less waste per ingot. (see statement below) If there is a path and not just wishful thinking. I think also statements on battery improvements also have improved and continue to based on myriad research in different directions.


        from 1366 website

        Over the last 30 years, the cost of silicon PV has dropped by a factor of 30. This phenomenon will hold true for the coming decades.

        Manufacturing innovations in silicon PV will decrease costs by 10% per year through 2020, at which point solar electricity becomes cheaper than coal.

        At 1366, we are developing the key technologies to enable such rapid cost reductions.

        • By Forrest on June 4, 2016 at 7:47 am

          Agree with most of your thoughts, will just add the Moore’s law mass production vs cost would apply to solar panels. In my judgement the law works only for those products with very low material costs. Hence, the solar panel cost is directly a factor of manufacturing efficiency.

          Battery cost may not fit Moore’s law? Material cost is the primary factor and assembly batteries in more efficient manner would make less impact. Mining efficiency or R&D improvement would. If they could magically invent let’s say for argument sake a cement battery. However, I’ve read reports on the science of battery R&D and some are not expecting dramatic or breakthrough performance or cost. Lots of hype, but in reality being marginal improvements,

          Solar cell cost is already not the largest cost factor of install per the article. So, decreasing cost will have less and less impact on solar power production. They have to invent better and less expensive equipment to control, store, install, and interconnect the power. These are hard bare knuckle improvements that require other participants cooperation. For example does big labor want or allow more install efficiency? They are the main obstacle in power line construction. How will these solar cells affect roof construction and leaking? Who will be responsible for cleaning cost, interconnects, insurance, control, payback, and investment? Will big labor and utility interests allow a diy contribution to their industry? What will the value of short production cycle power upon irregular production schedule? I’m thinking not worth much.

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