The solar revolution pays off

Jay Owen Green Prosperity, Reforming Global Finance, SRI/ESG News, Greentech, Trendspotting, Beyond GDP

We at Ethical Markets thank Nathaniel Bullard for this reporting, which conforms with our ten years of Green Transition Scoreboard® reports, now forthcoming as an

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In climate news today…

·         Methane emissions are likely to increase during lockdown.

·         Weather is the wild card in global food supply.

·         Investors urge JPMorgan to push former Exxon CEO off its board.

·         50th Earth Day highlighted challenges and progress.

We just marked the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, and as I sat writing this column at home, I could gaze out the window at a day that would have made its founders proud.

Washington, D.C. is currently enjoying its cleanest air in at least 25 years, thanks to decades of local, state, and federal policies combined with a wet, windy spring. Bicycles abound; there’s almost no car traffic. Birdsong awakens us, sometimes far too early.  There is, of course, a global pandemic element to the quietness, and pandemic-induced shutdowns are really not the way to way to get clean air. The same way an economic collapse is really not the best way to get cheap gasoline.

There’s another thing I can see that Earth Day’s founders would be delighted by. On my roof, barely visible through a skylight, is a solar-power system that will more than meet my power demand for the day. It’s a small thing now, but it would have been an unimaginably big deal in 1970. Five decades on from the first Earth Day, an energy resolution that started low and slow is now changing the world in real time.

It all started 16 years before the first Earth Day, in 1954, when Bell Laboratories unveiled the first photovoltaic cell. They called it the “solar battery,” and the ads for it are charming. “The same kindly rays that help the flowers and the grains and the fruits to grow,” reads one, “also send us almost limitless power.” But the early marketing also contained a strong dose of realism: “There’s still much to be done before the battery’s possibilities in telephony and for other uses are fully developed.”

There were so few commercial uses for PV cells that it wasn’t even possible to estimate their cost until the mid-1970s. The earliest data BloombergNEF has on solar costs shows that panels went for more than $100 per watt in 1976. A residential solar installation needs output of at least several kilowatts. That means a few years after the first Earth Day, a pioneering solar homeowner would have had to spend tens of thousands just on panels, not to mention the costs of engineering, installation, and power equipment.

What a difference four decades makes. Last year, one PV panel cost $0.23 per watt—a 99.3% decrease. Entire systems now cost less than what the PV module alone cost just seven years ago. Today’s panels are also much better than what came before: more efficient, more reliable, more durable, and lighter-weight. I could heft a solar panel on my own if I wanted to. My neighborhood is now dotted with “We went solar!” signs.

Clear skies over Germany meant that intraday wholesale power prices were negative earlier this week. In the U.K. on April 19, electric vehicle charging platform Ohme said that its customers were paid 69 pence to add 130 miles of charge to their vehicles.

Negative prices are a feature of a properly functioning energy market, and perhaps you noticed on Monday that the key U.S. oil benchmark closed trading at -$37.63 a barrel. The negative prices that indicate a profoundly dislocated oil market also indicate a world of new applications for solar.

This is bigger than the market havoc of the pandemic. It’s just the beginning, really. People will get paid to charge. Services will crop up, on-demand, to use free or negatively-priced electricity. Fleets of electrolyzers will use renewable electrons to produce hydrogen and help reduce emissions in all the things like steel, cement, and glass production that are right now a massive environmental challenge.

And that’s the revolution. It would have seemed ridiculous even 10 years ago, much less 50, and yet here we are.