Yielding solar energy in space

A solar panel reaps only a small portion of its potential due to night, weather, and seasons, simultaneously introducing intermittency so that large-scale storage is required to make solar power work at a large scale. A perennial proposition for surmounting these impediments is that we launch solar collectors into space—where the sun always shines, clouds are impossible, and the tilt of the Earth’s axis is irrelevant. On Earth, a flat panel inclined toward the south averages about 5 full-sun-equivalent hours per day for typical locations, which is about a factor of five worse than what could be expected in space. More importantly, the constancy of solar flux in space reduces the need for storage—especially over seasonal timescales. I love solar power. And I am connected to the space enterprise. Surely putting the two together really floats my boat, no? No.

I’ll take a break from writing about behavioral adaptations and get back to Do the Math roots with an evaluation of solar power from space and the giant hurdles such a scheme would face. On balance, I don’t expect to see this technology escape the realm of fantasy and find a place in our world. The expense and difficulty are incommensurate with the gains.

How Much Better is Space?

First, let’s understand the ground-based alternative well enough to know what space buys us. But in comparing ground-based solar to space-based solar, I will depart from what I think may be the most practical/economic path for ground-based solar. I do this because space-based solar adds so much expense and complexity that we gain a large margin for upping the expense and complexity on the ground as well.

For example, transmission of power from space-based solar installations would likely be by microwave link to the ground. If we’re talking about sending power 36,000 km from geosynchronous orbit, I presume we would not balk about transporting it a few thousand kilometers across the surface of the Earth. This allows us to put solar collectors in hotspots, like the Desert Southwest of the U.S. or Northern Africa to supply Europe. A flat panel tilted south at latitude in the Mojave Desert of California would gather an annual average of 6.6 full-sun-equivalent hours per day across the year, varying from 5.2 to 7.4 across the months of the year, according to the NREL redbook study.

Next, surely we would allow our fancy ground-based panels to articulate and track the sun through the sky. One-axis tracking about a north-south axis tilted to the site latitude improves our Mojave site to an annual average of 9.1 hours per day, ranging from 6.3 to 11.2 throughout the year. A step up in complexity, two-axis tracking moves the yearly average to 9.4 hours per day, ranging from 6.8 to 12.0 hours. We only gain a few percent in going from one to two axes, because the one-axis tracker is always pointing within 23.5° of the direction to the sun, and the cosine projection of this angle is never less than 92%. In other words, it is useful to know that a simple one-axis tracker does almost as well as a more sophisticated two-axis tracker. Nonetheless, we will use the full-up two-axis performance against which to benchmark the space gain.

On a yearly basis, then, getting continuous 24-hour solar illumination beats the California desert by a factor of 2.6 averaged over the year, ranging from 2.0 in the summer to 3.5 in the winter. One of my points will be that launching into space is a heck of a lot of work and expense to gain a factor of three in exposure. It seems a good bet that it’s cheaper to build three times as many panels and stick them on the ground. It’s not rocket science.

For technical accuracy, we would also want to correct for the atmosphere, which takes a 21% hit for the energy available to a silicon photovoltaic (PV) on the ground vs. space, using the 1.5 airmass standard. Even though the 1347 W/m² solar constant in space is 35% larger than that on the ground, much of the atmospheric absorption is at infrared wavelengths, where silicon PV is ineffective. But taking the 21% hit into account, we’ll just put the space gain at a factor of three and call it close enough.

What follows can apply to straight-up PV panels as collectors, or to concentrated reflectors so that less photovoltaic material is used. Once we are comparing to two-axis tracking on the ground, concentration is on the table.

Orbital Options

Are we indeed dealing with 24 hours of exposure in space? A common run-of-the mill low-earth-orbit (LEO) satellite orbits at a height of about 500 km. At this height, the earth-hugging satellite spends almost half its time blocked from the Sun by the Earth. The actual number for that altitude is 38% of the time, or 15 hours per day of sun exposure. It is possible to arrange a nearly polar “sun synchronous” orbit that rides the sunrise/sunset line on Earth so that the satellite is always bathed in sunlight, with no eclipsing by Earth.

But any LEO satellite will sweep past the ground at over 7 km/s, appearing for only 2 minutes above a 30° elevation even for a direct overhead pass (and only about 6 minutes from horizon to horizon). What’s worse, this particular satellite in a sun-synchronous orbit will not frequently generate overhead passes at the same point on the Earth, which rotates underneath the orbit.

In short, solar installations in LEO could at best provide intermittent power to any given site—which is the main rationale for leaving the ground in the first place. Possibly an armada of smaller installations could zip by, each squirting out energy as it passes by. But besides being a colossal headache to coordinate, the sun-synchronous full-sun satellites would necessarily only pass over sites experiencing sunrise or sunset. You would get all your energy in two doses per day, which is not a very smooth packaging, and seems to defeat a primary advantage of space-based solar power in avoiding the need for storage.

Any serious talk of solar power in space is based on geosynchronous orbits. The period of a satellite around the Earth can be computed from Kepler’s Law relating the square of the period, T, to the cube of the semi-major axis, a: T² = 4p²a³/GM, where GM ˜ 3.98×1014 m³/s² is Newton’s gravitational constant times the mass of the Earth. For a 500 km-high orbit (a ˜ 6878 km), we get a 94 minute period. The period becomes 86400 seconds (24 hours) at a ˜ 42.2 thousand kilometers, or about 6.6 Earth radii. For a standard-sized Earth globe, this is about a meter from the center of the globe, if you want to visualize the geometry.

A geosynchronous satellite indeed orbits the Earth, but the Earth rotates underneath it at like rate, so that a given location on Earth always has a sight-line to the satellite, which seems to hover in the sky near the celestial equator. It is for this reason that satellite receivers are often seen tilted to the south (in the northern hemisphere) to point at the perched platform.

Being so far from the Earth, the satellite rarely enters eclipse. When it does, the duration will be something like 70 minutes. But this only happens once per day during periods when the Sun is near the equatorial plane, within about ±22 days of the equinox, twice per year. In sum, we can expect shading about 0.7% of the time. Not too bad.

Power Transmission

Now here’s the tricky part. Getting the power back to the ground is non-trivial. We are accustomed to using copper wire for power transmission. For the space-Earth interconnect, we must resort to electromagnetic means. Most discussions of electromagnetic power transmission centers on lasers or microwaves. I’ll immediately dismiss lasers as impractical for this purpose, because clouds block transmission, because converting the power into electricity is not as direct/efficient as it can be for microwaves, and because generation of laser power tends to be inefficient (my laser pointer is about 2%, for instance, though one can do far better).

So let’s go microwave! For reasons that will become clear later, we want the highest frequency (shortest wavelength) we can get without losing too much in the atmosphere. Below is a plot generated from an interactive tool associated with the Caltech Submillimeter Observatory (where I had my first Mauna Kea observing experience). This plot corresponds to a dry sky with only 2.0 mm of precipitable water vapor. Even so, water takes its toll, absorbing/scattering the high-frequency radiation so that the fraction transmitted through the atmosphere is tiny. Only at frequencies of 100 GHz and below does the atmosphere become nearly transparent.

CSO-2mm chart

But if we have 25 mm of precipitable water (and thick clouds have far more than this), we get the following picture, which is already down to 75% transmission at 100 GHz. Our system is not entirely immune to clouds and weather.

CSO-25mm chart

But we will go with 100 GHz and see what this gets us. Note that even though microwave ovens use a much lower frequency of 2.45 GHz (λ = 122 mm), the same dielectric heating mechanism operates at 100 GHz (peaking around 10 GHz). In order to evade both water absorption and dielectric heating, we would have to drop the frequency to the radio regime.

At 100 GHz, the wavelength is about λ ˜ 3 mm. In order to transmit a microwave beam to the ground, one must contend with the diffractive nature of electromagnetic radiation. If we formed a perfectly collimated (parallel) beam of microwave energy from a dish in space with diameter Ds—where the ‘s’ subscript represents the space segment—we might naively anticipate the perfectly-formed beam to arrive at Earth still fitting in a tidy diameter Ds. But no. Diffraction imposes an angular spread of about λ/Ds radians, so that the beam spreads to a diameter at the ground, Dg ˜ /Ds, where r is the distance between transmitter and receiver (about 36,000 km in our case). We can rearrange this to say that the product of the diameters of the transmitter and receiver dishes must approximately equal the product of the propagation distance and the wavelength: DsDg ˜

So? Well, let’s first say that Ds and Dg are the same. In this case, we would require the diameter of each dish to be 330 m. These are gigantic, especially in space. Note also that really we need Dg = Ds + /Ds to account for the original extent of the beam before diffraction spreads it further. So really, the one on Earth would be 660 m across.

Launching a microwave dish this large should strike anyone as prohibitively difficult, so let’s scale back to a more imaginable Ds = 30 m (still quite impressive), in which case our ground-based receiver must be 3.6 km in diameter!

Now you can see why I wanted to keep the frequency high, rather than dipping into the radio, where dishes would need only get bigger in proportion to the wavelength.

Converting Back to Electrical Power

At microwave frequencies, it is straightforward to directly rectify the oscillating electric field into direct current at something like 85% efficiency. The generation of beamed microwave energy in space, the capture of the energy at the ground, then conversion to electrical current all take their toll, so that the end-to-end process may be expected to have something in the neighborhood of 50% efficiency.

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The real price of solar energy ?!

All across Europe feed-in tariffs and subsidies for solar power are being cut or even scrapped. In Portugal and Spain, these actions are justified with the debt crisis, even though they expand these states’ trade deficit. This month the Spanish government took a decisive move to scare investors away and expel most renewable energies from the electric grid, particularly solar.

Reuters
Exclusive: Foreign investors set to sue Spain over energy reform
14-02-2013

(Reuters) – Foreign investors in renewable energy projects in Spain have hired lawyers to prepare potential international legal action against the Spanish government over new rules they say break their contracts.

The Spanish Parliament approved a law on Thursday that cuts subsidies for alternative energy technologies, backtracking on its push for green power.

That measure, along with other recent laws including a tax on power generation that hit green energy investments especially hard, will virtually wipe out profits for photovoltaic, solar thermal and wind plants, sector lobbyists say.

Diving into the numbers what one finds behind this policy U-turn is something entirely different.

Investing on Solar Power

The upfront investment on a PV system has three main components:

    • panels of solar cells, that harvest the energy;
    • an inverter, that tames the raw current coming from the panels into a form digestible by the electrical grid;
    • and installation, that includes, labour, paperwork and whatever else needed to get the system up and running.

Panel size or capacity is described with the maximum amount of power they can harvest at optimal sunshine conditions; this is measured in Watts-peak (Wp). Panel prices are quoted in €/Wp and since both the inverter and installation costs scale closely with panel capacity, companies can provide a price for the ensemble on a convenient €/Wp basis.

There is an ecological fair every year in a Luxembourg city by October, better known by the Luxembourgish term: Oekofoire. I was there last year and took my time at the PV companies booths that usually litter the place. Back then the price asked by these companies for a solar system was at 1.6 €/Wp. This price comprised 0.6 €/Wp for the panels, 0.2 €/Wp for the inverter and the remainder 0.8 €/Wp for installation. The fact that the basic hardware is now only half the price of a PV system already indicates that reality may not be exactly matching the political discourse. By December I got the information that in Germany these prices were already down to 1.3 €/Wp, in places with good access and ease of installation. This reflects the relentless price decline of both solar cells and inverters, the former declining by 40% in 2012 alone.

Why are solar panels more expensive in some states?

The combined health, environmental, and climate benefits of a solar panel in New Jersey are fifteen times greater than those associated with one in Arizona, and a wind turbine in West Virginia displaces twice as much carbon dioxide as the same turbine would in California.

Those are among the surprising results of a new study by Carnegie Mellon University researchers published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Wind turbines perform best in the Great Plains states and Texas, where capacity factors can exceed 40 percent, but a wind turbine in Ohio or Indiana would primarily displace coal-fired power plants, which cause the greatest health and environmental damage. California already has a relatively clean power generation mix with just 8.2 percent of its total power generated by coal, according to State of California data, almost all of which is imported from other states. So the combined benefits of a wind turbine in Indiana or Ohio would amount to $100 per megawatt-hour, while the benefits of the same turbine in California would be just $13 per megawatt-hour.
Similarly, solar PV performs best in the sunny Southwest, and worst in New England. But by displacing coal, the combined benefits of a solar array in Ohio or New Jersey would be fifteen times greater than those that the same array would provide in Arizona, where clean-burning natural gas is the dominant “marginal” fuel that a solar array would displace.
“If you are interested in mitigating climate change and improving human health, you get significantly greater benefits from wind or solar in places like Pennsylvania, Indiana, or New Jersey,” explains co-author Kyle Siler-Evans.
The benefits vary not only by where wind and solar power is generated, but when. Wind production is generally best at night, so it tends to displace coal-fired “baseload” generators. Solar output peaks at midday, so it is more likely to offset on-demand natural gas generators. As a result, a megawatt-hour of wind energy can displace more emissions than a megawatt-hour of solar energy, depending on where it is installed. Wind delivers 30 percent more benefit than solar in Virginia and Maryland, but the difference is “negligible in much of the country.”
Assigning costs and benefits
To estimate the social and environmental benefits, the researchers assigned costs to the damage caused by each type of emissions from conventional power plants.
To carbon dioxide, they  assigned a somewhat arbitrary value of $20 per ton, slightly above the current cost of the broken European Union carbon trading market. (This reflects the difficulty of valuing carbon emissions; various groups have estimated damages at $0 to more than $100 per ton of CO2.)
Emissions of sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and coarse particulate matter (PM2.5) were taken from the Air Pollution Emission Experiments and Policy (APEEP) analysis model. The researchers used this data to assign average damages for each pollutant by county. Placing a price tag on those emissions largely relied on the $6 million value placed on a premature death from air pollution (the so-called “value of a statistical life”).
The costs were then calculated for each of twenty-two regions of the country, based on actual EPA hourly emissions data for 1,400 fossil-fueled power plants from 2009 through 2011. (Downloadable data used in the researchers’ calculations is available here.) Nuclear, hydroelectric, and some other generators were excluded from the analysis because they were not likely to be displaced by solar or wind. PM2.5 emissions data were taken from an annual data set from the 2005 National Emissions Inventory, and distributed proportionally by power output to arrive at hourly figures.
To determine the benefits of solar and wind generation, the researchers used wind data for more than 33,000 locations across the United States to calculate the potential generation of a Vestas 3-megawatt wind turbine in each location. Similarly, they used solar data for more than 900 locations to estimate the output of a hypothetical 13 percent efficient, 1-kilowatt solar panel facing south with a tilt equal to each site’s latitude.
With this data, the researchers were able to estimate the avoided damages for each wind turbine and solar panel according to the conventional power generation it would displace in any given hour in each region.
Policy implications
One of the policy implications of the research is that subsidies for wind are “a good value for taxpayers”: For every megawatt-hour generated from wind, the Production Tax Credit costs taxpayers $22 but delivers $35 in benefits, primarily by avoiding emissions of sulfur dioxide and carbon dioxide. If carbon dioxide were valued at $30 per ton instead of $20, those emissions alone would justify the cost of the tax credit for existing wind farms, the researchers say.
But perhaps those subsidies should be allocated to where they’ll do the most good. With a range of $10 to $100 per megawatt-hour, depending on location, it should be possible to tune incentives to get more benefits for the buck. “Remarkably, if the goal is to improve air quality and human health, Arizona and New Mexico are among the worst locations for solar,” the study observes.
Study co-author Inês Azevedo, a professor of engineering and public policy at CMU, elaborates: “Instead of valuing kilowatt-hours, [if] the policy mechanism…looked at metric tons of carbon dioxide avoided and health and environment damages avoided, we’d find that wind is oversubsidized in California and undersubsidized in Pennsylvania.”
Figure: Locations where wind and solar will do the most good, according to the researchers
Location is key, not only for the type of conventional power generation displaced by renewables, but for the number of people affected.
“Coal plants in the East are particularly harmful owing to their proximity to major population centers,” the study notes.
Siler-Evans explains: “These areas provide more benefits because they displace coal plants that are upwind of major population centers.”
Another implication is that carbon pricing, while a popular approach to mitigating climate change, really only addresses one part of the problem. Removing threats to human health should be at least as much a priority as halting global warming. So targeting incentives to displace the most coal power could deliver greater benefits by reducing sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, and PM2.5 emissions, not just carbon dioxide.
The findings also imply that wind and solar generation could be properly valued at nearly twice the price of conventional grid power, changing the notion of “grid parity” and casting renewable subsidies in an entirely different light. “We estimate in this paper that in certain regions that wind or solar provides about 10 cents a kilowatt-hour in social benefits, and so if you were to credit wind or solar with those benefits — give them money for the benefits that they provide — it would hugely change the economics,” Siler-Evans said.
But while these are all useful insights, one wonders how to actually translate them into policy in a country where the very existence of incentives is continually under attack. Optimizing them for the greatest health and environmental benefits would place another layer of complexity on an industry that is already horrendously complex and rife with challenges when it comes to integrating more renewable power.
Perhaps a “benefit index” should be derived from this research, assigning a number to each location in the U.S. Policymakers could use those numbers to identify where wind and solar will do the most good, and to generate support for it in their communities. Identifying specific populations whose health will benefit from replacing coal power plants would certainly have longer political legs than the seemingly vague and distant threat of climate change.
The study offers a useful starting point for properly valuing renewable power generation, particularly for policy purposes. But we would argue that the benefits are probably understated, because the efficiency of wind turbines and solar power is improving all the time.

Solar energy surpassing oil use in Africa

Solar energy surpassing oil use in Africa – with no subsidies
The charity that I have the privilege of chairing, SolarAid, has set up a wholly-owned social enterprise that is becoming a major retail brand, SunnyMoney. It has sold a million solar lights in Africa in the last four years, 650,000 in the last year alone. With this hockey-stick growth we have created the largest retailer of solar lanterns on a continent of 54 countries, operating out of just four of them. In doing so, we are wiping kerosene use out, creating a cascade of social good ranging from education (kids have a lot more time to study at night), through development (deferred kerosene costs create a staggering average increase in annual household income of some 20 per cent), to global warming abatement (a kerosene lantern emits an average of fully a tonne of greenhouse gas over its lifetime).
How many solar lights do we have to sell to rid Africa completely of oil use in lighting by 2020? The answer is about 250 million.
SolarAid couldn’t do that alone. There wouldn’t be a proper market if we did. But we do aim to play a lead role in this mission to eradicate the kerosene lantern from Africa in six years’ time. We reckon that leadership might amount to a 20 per cent market share: 50 million light sales, all profits recycled to the cause along the way. If so, that’s one step we have taken, and 49 to go.
If kerosene use for lighting is wiped out in Africa, so it can be right across the developing world. And that amounts to fully 3 per cent of all oil use globally, including transport.
What about all the many other uses of oil, gas and coal around the world?
Here’s the thing. The key factor in replacing kerosene lanterns with solar lights is economics. Solar is beating oil use on equal terms in lighting Africa, with no subsidies. And so it is in multiple markets for fossil fuel use today, with many more to come in the next few years. Analysts at McKinsey, AllianceBernstein and other such places say that the systemic cost reductions in manufacturing and installing solar amount to what they call a ‘terrordome’ for the business models of traditional energy utilities. These old-world companies are as a result in such trouble that they may even be in what analysts have started to call a ‘death spiral’. They say the solar cost-down trend will continue, increasingly being augmented by cost reductions in storage technology, to such an extent that that the business models of the oil and gas industry will soon begin to be undermined too.
Which brings us to the flip side of the story. Every step carbon fuel abolitionists take forward is likely to become easier in the future. This is because carbon fuels, on the whole, will become more expensive to extract over time, and the increasingly enormous amounts of cash needed to access them become ever harder to justify.
Fossil fuels: no longer a sound investment
Enter Carbon Tracker, another NGO that I have the privilege of chairing. They are a think tank of financial experts, analysts who have published a series of reports since 2011 arguing that significant elements of fossil fuel resources are at risk of being stranded, particularly if policy-making continues to focus on a 2º global warming danger ceiling, and that capital expenditure planned for developing these resources is in danger of becoming money wasted.

Sustainability for Sunlight

One of the constraints of solar power is that it is not always available: it is dependent on daylight hours and clear skies. In order to fill these gaps, a storage solution or a backup infrastructure of fossil fuel power plants is required — a factor that is often ignored when scientists investigate the sustainability of PV systems.

Whether or not to include storage is no longer just an academic question. Driven by better battery technology and the disincentivization of grid-connected solar panels, off-grid solar is about to make a comeback. How sustainable is a solar PV system if energy storage is taken into account?

Picture: Tesla’s lithium-ion home storage system.
In the previous article, we have seen that many life cycle analyses (LCAs) of solar PV systems have a positive bias. Most LCAs base their studies on the manufacturing of solar cells in Europe or the USA. However, most panels are now produced in China, where the electric grid is about twice as carbon-intensive and about 50% less energy efficient. [1] Likewise, most LCAs investigate solar PV systems in regions with a solar insolation typical of the Mediterranean region, while the majority of solar panels have been installed in places with only half as much sunshine.
As a consequence, the embodied greenhouse gas emissions of a kWh of electricity generated by solar PV is two to four times higher than most LCAs indicate. Instead of the oft-cited 30-50 grams of CO2-equivalents per kilowatt-hour of generated electricity (gCO2e/kWh), we calculated that the typical solar PV system installed between 2008 and 2014 produces close to 120 gCO2e/kWh. This makes solar PV only four times less carbon-intensive than conventional grid electricity in most western countries.
However, even this result is overly optimistic. In the previous article, we didn’t take into account “one of the potentially largest missing components” [2] of the usual life cycle analysis of PV systems: the embodied energy of the infrastructure that deals with the intermittency of solar power. Solar insolation varies throughout the day and throughout the season, and of course solar energy is not available after sunset.
Off-grid Solar Power is Back
Until the end of the 1990s, most solar installations were off-grid systems. Excess power during the day was stored in an on-site bank of lead-acid batteries for use during the night and on cloudy days. Today, almost all solar systems are grid-connected. These installations use the grid as if it was a battery, “storing” excess energy during the day for use at night and on cloudy days.

It’s time to get on solar power

It’s time to make the call – fossil fuels are finished. The rest is detail.

The detail is interesting and important, as I expand on below. But unless we recognise the central proposition: that the fossil fuel age is coming to an end, and within 15 to 30 years – not 50 to 100 – we risk making serious and damaging mistakes in climate and economic policy, in investment strategy and in geopolitics and defence.

I’ve written previously about 2015 being the year the “Dam of Denial” breaks, referring to the end of denial that climate change requires urgent, transformational economic change. While related, this is different. It is now becoming clear we’ve reached a tipping point where fossil fuels will enter terminal decline, independently of climate policy action.

Given climate policy action is also now accelerating, fossil fuels are double dead. To paraphrase Douglas Adams, “So long and thanks for all the energy”.

I understand this is a very big call, especially in regards to timing. There are many drivers that lead me to this conclusion but it’s their integrated impact that makes me so confident.

Thinking of energy like you think about an iPhone

The first and most important one is the argument I first made early in 2014 in a paper with Giles Parkinson from RenewEconomy.com.au. For over a hundred years, energy markets have been defined by physical resources, supplied in large volumes by large, slow moving companies developing long life assets in the context of slow moving shifts in markets.

The new emerging energy system of renewables and storage is a “technology” business, more akin to information and communications technology, where prices keep falling, quality keeps rising, change is rapid and market disruption is normal and constant. There is a familiar process that unfolds in markets with technology driven disruptions. I expand on that here in a 2012 piece I wrote in a contribution to Jorgen Randers book “2052 – A Global Forecast” (arguing the inevitability of the point we have now arrived at).

This shift to a “technology” has many implications for energy but the most profound one is very simple. As a technology, more demand for renewables means lower prices and higher quality constantly evolving for a long time to come. The resources they compete with – coal, oil and gas – follow a different pattern. If demand kept increasing, prices would go up because the newer reserves cost more to develop, such as deep sea oil. They may get cheaper through market shifts, as they have recently, but they can’t keep getting cheaper and they can never get any better.

In that context, consider this. Renewables are today on the verge of being price competitive with fossil fuels – and already are in many situations. So in 10 years, maybe just 5, it is a no-brainer that renewables will be significantly cheaper than fossil fuels in most places and will then just keep getting cheaper. And better.

Then we add in electric cars, which are now on the same path – converting a staid, slow moving industry (traditional auto companies like GM) into a disruptive technology driven one (innovators like Tesla). Electric cars will accelerate the end of fossil fuels by joining with renewables to create a system shift, both directly by using clean power to charge them and indirectly by driving battery costs down to create storage for distributed renewables.

This all then unleashes competition across sectors bringing new players to old industries. For example utilities facing the much discussed death spiral triggered by solar, will find the motor vehicle fuels market very appealing. This would then unleash a huge political and commercial driver for growth in electric cars with the utility sector providing infrastructure to use their product, locking in customers with long term supply deals backed by renewable power and lobbying for electric cars (to also protect the grid).

Within a decade, electric cars will be more reliable, cheaper to own and more fun to drive than oil driven cars. Then it will just be a matter of turning over the fleet. Oil companies will then have their Kodak moment. Coal will already be largely gone, replaced by renewables.

The incumbents won’t respond in time. They are steeped in their analysis that they are the underpinning foundation of the economy – which of course they have been. This is so deeply ingrained in their worldview they can’t see their error. Energy is the essential foundation of the economy but we now have a better, cheaper way of producing energy.

Fast beats slow

One of key competitive advantages the fossil fuel industry has had is the huge capital, complexity risk and high level engineering skills required to develop them. This has two impacts. Firstly it created huge barriers to entry in the market – a disruptive entrepreneur can’t build a coal power station, drill in the deep ocean, buy an oil tanker or develop a coalmine. They can play on the edges, like shale gas, oil trading or mineral exploration, but they can’t play the main game. Secondly the industry has had huge incumbency power – it’s very expensive and politically hard to consciously and deliberately close down such a powerful industry and replace it. Thus action on climate change has stalled for decades.

Both of these benefits are gone when you combine “energy as a technology” with most growth in energy demand being in developing economies. With renewables already competitive today without subsidy in some markets and the above trends playing out, it is inevitable that before long – maybe a decade – virtually all new electricity generation will be from renewables. Add in the need to be clean – not just for climate change reasons but for local air quality – and the choice developing countries will face will be between large, old, dirty, hard to finance infrastructure that requires heavy government support or small scale, easy to finance, more convenient, popular and clean energy and transport that will get even cheaper over time. Tough choice?

So the very thing that the fossil fuel industry had relied on for its growth – the rapidly expanding need for energy in the developing world – is the very thing that will drive the competition to wipe them out.