Aug 15, 2022Liked by Noah Smith

This is exactly right. Only one point to add - solar panels are technically a semi-conductor and operate like computer chips in reverse - instead of converting energy into information, they convert information (photons) into energy. But they benefit from the equivalent of Moore’s law (Swanson’s law in solar speak; cost drops by 20% as shipments double). The 75% drop seen from 2009-2019 is consistent with solar’s history.

What makes the solar’s Moore’s law different is that is smashed past a key benchmark sometime during COVID - it at its most expensive became cheaper than fossil fuels at their cheapest. We have no alternative to computer chips, so as Moore’s law chugs along for them we just seem incremental benefits. But imagine that we had an alternative information generator than computers that our society was based around - and suddenly computers became faster and cheaper than that - we’d never stop talking about it. That’s essentially what has happened with solar. The price drop is same as it ever was, but now it has smashed past the floor fossil fuels must rest forever upon.

If we see more shipments than expected because of this, then the 75% price drop anticipated over the next 10 years represents a very conservative baseline. Costs so far appear to be pegged to shipments, and those will increase drastically if it is a cheaper energy source than all the alternatives.

Expand full comment
Aug 15, 2022Liked by Noah Smith

I just saw that Maryland is starting a Solar Canopy grant program in 2023 for parking structures


This looks like the a good direction. Nuclear has benefits in the short term to wean us off using coal. I an optimistic it will stick around somehow.

Expand full comment
Aug 15, 2022Liked by Noah Smith

Solar power adoption is now being driven by economic forces, but it took the Chinese government to subsidize the initial development and factory build out. Any country with a manufacturing base could have done the same thing.

There was a funny Business Insider article about this back in 2014, "China Laughed When It Saw How Cheap Solar Could Be". My favorite part:

I can imagine the conversation between the Chinese leadership and the engineers who were asking for funding.

Leadership: “We have a looming environmental problem due to wanting much more electricity.”

Leadership: “What are some possible solutions?”

Engineers: “Solar could one day be cheaper and solve both the cost and pollution problems.”

Leadership: “How much money do you need to find out?”

Engineers: “A lot, about $10 billion”

At this point the leadership fall on the floor laughing. China is a country where they build entire ghost cities with nobody in them. They build massive public transportation systems in 15 years because they can. Spending $10bn to find out if they can solve both energy and pollution was completely worth it to them.

Expand full comment
Aug 15, 2022Liked by Noah Smith

There is one good argument in favor of the modular approach to nuclear power. The US Navy has managed to build and maintain atomic powered submarines and air craft carriers. Construction Physics had a two part article on this. The Navy took it very seriously. They subsidized two shipyards so they would have redundant manufacturers. They built full scale models to make sure their designs could be built, a surprising problem until you recognize that many reactor builders were pouring concrete before they had finished designing. They solved a particular problem, powering a large ship for an extended period of time. It's an interesting article.

Will modular reactors be in our future? It's hard to say. It will probably cost more than $10B to find out, but it might be worth $50B to know.

Expand full comment
Aug 15, 2022·edited Aug 15, 2022

I am disappointed with this post. The reason people are skeptical about solar is the following. (1) The cost and technical feasibility of storage. Even if solar panels were free and self-installing being able to bridge the gap between night and day would require vast amount of battery storage. The cost based on current prices would be much higher than nuclear. Batteries will get cheaper not whether they get cheap enough is not clear. There are other potential solutions, like hydrogen but the technical feasibility and affordability of this has not been proven. Basically we have no remotely affordable solution to the storage problem. We may get one eventually. But will it be soon enough.

(2) There will be pushback when people realise how many solar panels and batteries are needed, how much toxic waste that produces, and how much mining and other material are required. You seem to assume that people will be ‘reasonable’ about this. Well they are not being remotely reasonable about nuclear power. It is the safest reliable form of energy generation and they still fear it much more than fossil fuels.

By all means pursue solar plus storage. It might work. But it is reckless to give up on nuclear power. This is more likely to happen if people are overoptimistic about 100% renewables. The responsible option is to pursue renewables, nuclear and carbon-capture and storage. We know that at least one of those options (nuclear) can get us to zero emissions at an affordable cost. People may not accept it and prefer very high electricity prices, or to continue to burn fossil fuels.

Expand full comment
Aug 15, 2022·edited Aug 15, 2022Liked by Noah Smith

Completely agree on your assessments about Solar and renewables being a transformation that gets us to abundance. For what its worth since as you say, nuclear is pretty much moot, I disagree about the safety and any long term viability of Nuclear. Besides all the other problems that nuclear proponents keep wishing away (waste, proliferation, cost, insurance, etc), Nuclear plants are sitting targets in a war: Here's just how close the war in Ukraine has come to Europe's largest nuclear plant https://www.npr.org/2022/08/10/1116461260/ukraine-zaporizhzhia-nuclear-plant-russia-war-satellite-images

Expand full comment

This piece glosses over the reality that solar and wind are intermittent and unevenly distributed. You can acknowledge that seriously while still making the case for solar. If you focus on just the US - yes it makes a lot of sense for renewables it's the developed country the closest to the equator on the globe. You also have great wind potential in the great plains and in Texas. All of that aside there's a big gap here from generation potential to actually storing and providing baseload for things like the industrial base that past articles have (rightfully) pushed for. Germany has spent >1T building out renewals capacity that - on paper- can generate 2x their peak load, but in practice generates <20% of their energy needs. The positions here would be more credible if they acknowledged that - the case is still strong for the US to continue building that direction. And lastly China which is expanding coal, looking to Nuclear, and continuing to import 30% of the world's exported oil.

Expand full comment

It's worth reading Michael Shellenberger on this; he is an axe-grinding polemicist and often badly overstates his case, but he is also a well-informed critic of solar and steelmanning his criticisms is good for understanding what the real challenges in decarbonization will be. One point he makes is that precisely because China has gone so hard for solar, the worldwide supply chain for new solar installation is heavily dependent on Chinese manufacturing-- it wouldn't be nearly so cheap, at least in the short-medium term, if we had to decouple from them. And beyond the ethical issues with Chinese manufacturing practices, there's also just the geopolitical risk that conflict with China could abruptly change the cost picture for expanding now-cheap renewables.

The baseload problem also remains unsolved and I think both pro- and anti-nuclear folks could benefit from remaining more open-minded about what the solution mix will look like. Clearly there will be some nuclear in that mix, and also quite a bit of storage of various types (batteries, green hydrogen, pumped hydro, thermal etc), and improvements to smart-grid demand shifting coordination tech will be important too. A wildcard I was surprised not to see you mention is geothermal; there are a bunch of efforts to make it economical to scale that up dramatically, e.g. by making it easier to drill deep enough holes to get to hot enough rock in more places. Maybe that'll work out and maybe it won't. But I'd expect to see a pro-Bidenomics technocrat like you call out baseload as an area where we need to invest in trying everything in parallel, so as to maximize the probability that *something* will get us that last mile to 100% decarbonized.

Expand full comment

Can obstacles to solar farms caused by the California Environmental Quality Act be overruled at the federal level: for example, by the EPA exercising its statutory authority?

Expand full comment

There five are externalities of solar not usually included in their price:

(1) the cost of storage and backup generation to overcome the intermittency and variability of solar.

(2) the cost of disposing of the solar panels at the end of their lifetime.

(3) loss of amenity (and property?) value in landscape blighted with solar panels

(4) extra grid costs faced by people who cannot install panels.

(5) Issues around buying Chinese panels made in Xinjiang

The first is never faced by advocates because they believe that a technology yet to be invented will solve the intermittency problem. As the technology is yet to be invented it is not possible to calculate its cost which can therefore be ignored. Neat. Presently it seems that (3) is the main obstacle. It was/is in the UK where it has effectively killed onshore wind.

Expand full comment

I hope you are right on the continued trend part, but the storage aspect is a much bigger deal than your article implies, especially as you get further north.

My big concern with the attempts to walk away from nuclear is that we already have a seasonal (and largely daily) storage solution for solar, and it is open cycle natural gas. And a 80% decarbonised, gas backed grid is not good enough to drive decarbonisation of everything else that is needed.

Daily cycle battery storage is plausible, but without NG in the mix it is more like 15-20kwh of battry for each kW average output. That drips to more like 10-12 for a wind heavy mix.

For more northern areas (Canada, Northern Europe, Northern Japan, Korea, etc). Winter capacity can be 5% or less. This needs more like a 20x overbuild (nameplate vs. Average demand).

Since seasonal storage gets cycled at best 1/yr, we really need storage costs on the order of $1/kWh to make it work. Hydrogen may have a chance, but the cheap storage options are limited to salt domes.

The biggest risk in a storage heavy approach is what happens if you don't have enough stored? The Texas blackout had generation 30% shirt of demand. A worst case Northern winter day if storage is depleted could have generation 90% short of demand.

There are many applications that can be built that depend more on cheap kWh, without caring exactly when they are produced, these are great to use solar (and wind) to drive. And it would be great if my fears prove pessimistic, but if we don't address the risks we have a much to high chance of failing to decarbonise our economies and to have unreliable power.

Expand full comment

Not sure this point was stressed anywhere else here, but another drawback of traditional nuclear is that it's water dependent for cooling, and water in many regions is drying up or becoming too hot for cooling. That's a big problem for GW-size power plants.

Expand full comment

Guess I was out of the loop for too long. Figured that anything that required so many subsidies must not be the best deal available. That solar is now cheap, is great news. Thank you

Now, I would really like to see an article explaining which factors and production methods have fallen in price and why. Tried to search for the answers and did not have a lot of luck. Everyone says solar is getting cheaper faster. No one cites any specific reasons. If we are going to make plans based on cheap solar, we really should know if it is really cheap and there are no impediments to it becoming cheaper.

Almost all of the largest producers of solar panels are located in China. It is a mistake to assume that they are selling what they make above cost. Shipping containers made in China in the late 90's were much less expensive than those made else where. The Chinese wanted to dominate shipping and the price decrease was part of their industrial policy. When their policy changed, the price of containers went up, not down.

Now we have a law that favors buying locally produced products, at market or above-market wages. Are those the wages currently being paid by the producers of solar panels? Is a wage differential masquerading as a learning curve? That would happen if the percentage of panels produced in a high labor cost region fell while the percentage in a less expensive region increased.

Sometimes, factors increase in price due to demand and that can result in items that use those factors increasing in price despite a learning curve. By some estimates, the worldwide supply of reactor grade uranium will run out in 30 years. Mining more may result in learning curve effects and lower prices in the short run. In the long run, we will have to pull it out of harder to mine places. And if we to expand conventional nuclear power, there will come a time when demand for uranium exceeds supply and we will have to re-start the learning curve for plutonium or thorium reactors. Are any materials needed for solar in short supply in the West?

We should not predict the direction of the price of a good without an understanding of everything that factors into its production. Hopefully, solar is falling in price and will continue to fall in price exactly as you say it is. I just need more information to reach the same conclusion.

Expand full comment

Solar is said to be cheaper but do you include in its cost the battery or hydrogen backup systems. We only need these backups for solar and other unreliable renewable sources. Having lived in Africa for many years solar and other renewable energy reliability is not as much of a given as people think. Just ask Michael Moore.

Rolls Royce are currently developing small nuclear power stations. Basically a fraction of cost and time to build compared to large nuclear. Location of them can be in remote places almost off grid really.

Expand full comment

Very fair assessment. I'm also pro-nuclear, but as part of a broader strategy of climate change mitigation, as opposed to "nuclear and nothing else". Solar, as you rightly note, does have the intermittency problem, along with relatively poor power density, relative to fossil fuels. That means you need a lot more land and you run into the problem of NIMBYism. That is a major political problem.

There is also the issue of solar panel waste, which is becoming a major problem in places like California. The LA Times has a piece on that today.

Expand full comment
Aug 15, 2022·edited Aug 15, 2022

I see a lot of comments about solar really being too expensive for various excuses. The truth is that renewables are so cheap they have ALREADY essentially killed everything else. New construction in 2020 was 75% renewable, and the remainder is gas peaker plants - and those are falling fast. The market has spoken. Nonrenewable energy, of all forms, is basically already uneconomic and dead or dying. In a few years wholesale electricity is going to be almost free when the sun is shining and that will be the end of the traditional power industry.


Expand full comment