A team led by renowned Stanford University futurist Tony Seba says most of the world can transition to 100 per cent wind, solar and storage electricity grids within the coming decade, in what they describe as the fastest, deepest and most profound disruptions ever seen in the energy industry.
The RethinkX team led by Seba, one of the few analysts to correctly forecast the plunging cost of solar over the last decade, predicts that the disruption caused by solar, wind and lithium-ion battery storage, or SWB, will be similar to the digital disruption of information technology.
“What happened in the world of bits is now poised to happen in the world of electrons,” they write.
“Just as computers and the Internet slashed the marginal cost of information and opened the door to hundreds of new business models that collectively have had a transformative impact upon the global economy, so too will SWB slash the marginal cost of electricity and create a plethora of opportunities for innovation and entrepreneurship.”
The key to this disruption, they say, is the near-zero marginal cost of wind and solar, and the falling costs of those technologies and of storage. They say there will inevitably be more wind and solar produced than needed, but that’s OK because this excess production, which they dub “super power”, can be used for long-term storage, electrification of housing and industrial processes and, of course, transport.
“Our analysis shows that 100% clean electricity from the combination of solar, wind, and batteries (SWB) is both physically possible and economically affordable across the entire continental United States as well as the overwhelming majority of other populated regions of the world by 2030.
“Adoption of SWB is growing exponentially worldwide and disruption is now inevitable because by 2030 they will offer the cheapest electricity option for most regions. Coal, gas, and nuclear power assets will become stranded during the 2020s, and no new investment in these technologies is rational from this point forward.”
The analysis from Seba and the RethinkX team is just the latest of a series of important reports that have been released in recent weeks and months that look at the pace of technology change, the energy transition and climate goals.
The key difference is that most reports, including those by the International Energy Agency, and even from BloombergNEF, say their most disruptive and climate-safe scenarios depend on pro-active policy making, and less on technology change.
RethinkX assumes that change is driven by technology, and given the disruption already caused by the uptake of wind and solar, and particularly in the behind-the-meter market in Australia, then they may have a point.
What the RethinkX want policymakers and energy institutions to do is to get ready, and start to rethink the way they manage the energy sector, and what it can do. That will require an understanding of what is possible, the purpose of this new report, and of the need for new policy and regulatory frameworks.
“The implications of the SWB disruption of energy are profound, but in order to maximize the extraordinary benefits of the new energy system, we as individuals, communities, industries, regions, and entire nations need to make the right choices today,” they say. “That process must begin with an understanding of what is possible.”
“The implications of this clean electricity disruption are profound,” says Seba, a co-founder of RethinkX and a co-author of this new report.
“Not only can it solve some of society’s most critical challenges but it will usher in hundreds of new business models and create industries that collectively transform the global economy. When a system generates hyperabundant electricity at a marginal cost close to zero, the potential for new value creation is limitless. This isn’t a problem of overcapacity. This is a Super Power solution.”
The numbers that are discussed in the report- titled 100% Solar, Wind, and Batteries is Just the Beginning – are phenomenal, and just a little bit mind bending.
Take these numbers for the California grid – it assumes anything between 202GW and 320GW of solar capacity, with another 25GW of wind and up to 1,200GWh of battery storage capacity. The overall cost increases as more surplus capacity is added, but at the same time the delivered cost falls, because more wind and solar is used as “super power” and the storage need reduces.
According to RethinkX, the investment to construct a 100 per cent SWB system in the continental United States would be less than $2 trillion over the next ten years – just 1 percent of GDP – and would support millions of new jobs. And the super power produced by 100 percent SWB systems could displace up to half of fossil fuel energy use outside of the existing electric power sector.
Reaching 100 per cent SWB will eliminate virtually all greenhouse gas emissions from the existing electric power sector, and further reduce emissions by displacing fossil fuel use in the residential, commercial, industrial, transportation, and agriculture sectors as well.
“There is a misconception that too much solar and wind energy is a problem,” says Dr Adam Dorr, another principal co-author of the report.
“That is looking at the equation through the old fossil fuel system lens, and doesn’t recognize the fundamentals of disruption. Sunlight and wind are free, and it is irrational to curtail the nearly costless clean energy we produce with them. As with other technology disruptions, it is a mistake to ask how the existing system will accommodate SWB.
“The grid as we know it will rapidly evolve into a larger, more flexible, diverse and capable system, just like the landline telephone network evolved into the Internet. Instead we must ask, ‘how can a new energy system based on SWB minimize costs and maximize benefits at every level of society and the economy’?’”
Many energy experts in Australia, and even some governments, would agree with this assessment. It is why the Tasmania Liberal government has a target of 200 per cent renewables by 2040, and why the South Australia Liberal government aims for “net 100 per cent” renewables by 2030, and a lot more thereafter.
It is also why the likes of Australian Renewable Energy Agency chief executive Darren Miller talk of “700 per cent renewables” as a target. All are based on the principal of surplus wind and solar, with the super power being used variously for industry, transport, buildings, increased manufacturing and export, either through cables or a transportable hydrogen fuel such as ammonia.