Tech & Science

Solar Energy is Revolutionizing Markets While Trump Tries to Prop Up a Dying Coal Industry

In the Magazine
A worker from Wuhan Guangsheng Photovoltaic Company works on a solar panel project on the roof of a 47-story building on May 15 in Wuhan, China. Harnessing sunshine is a high priority for China, which will pump $360 billion into advanced-energy technology over the next few years. Kevin Frayer/Getty

Protecting coal jobs today makes as much sense as protecting typing pool jobs around the time personal computers caught on in the 1980s.

Solar technology will destroy coal and oil as energy sources even if President Donald Trump stamps his feet, holds his breath and refuses to play with the rest of the world. Solar is on the same kind of Moore’s law–like path that has made computing power so cheap. Solar tech isn’t improving at computing’s breakneck pace, but it’s on a predictable, sustainable and impressive trajectory toward cheaper and better. By about 2030—13 years from now—solar will be able to produce electricity at half the cost of coal and lower than the cost of any carbon source.

In that sense, the Paris Agreement on climate change is almost meaningless, addressing something technology and economics will take care of anyway. The big questions then become: Which part of the globe will emerge as the advanced-energy Silicon Valley, and which companies will be that industry’s version of Intel and Microsoft? If Trump’s decision to exit the Paris accord does anything, it will help ensure that those superpower regions and companies are not in the U.S. We’ll just end up being really good at mining coal nobody wants.

Cheaper, Cleaner

The process of making solar panels shares traits with making microprocessors. In 1965, Intel’s Gordon Moore predicted that the number of transistors that could be crammed into the same-sized chip would double every 18 months. Essentially, it meant that manufacturers could relentlessly cram more capability into smaller spaces, so now the total amount of computing power that NASA relied on to get Neil Armstrong to the moon can fit in your Apple Watch. A similar dynamic makes solar panels better and cheaper: Technologists can constantly reduce the thickness of solar cells and use less silicon per watt, driving down manufacturing costs while increasing each cell’s efficiency.

Engineering organizations have plotted solar technology trends since 1980, and the curve of improvement, as with Moore’s law, has not wavered. The U.S. Department of Energy—at least before Trump installed an anti–climate-science regime—showed that the price per watt of solar modules dropped from $22 in 1980 to under $3 today. When a utility builds a massive farm of solar panels in the desert—like the Topaz Solar Farm in California, with its 9 million photovoltaic modules—the cost gets down to just over $1 per watt. In late 2016, the cost of producing electricity with solar in ideal environments for the first time became cheaper than producing electricity by burning coal, according to the World Economic Forum.

“Electricity cost is now coupled to the ever-decreasing price of technology,” notes scientist and author Ramez Naam. “This is profoundly deflationary. It’s profoundly disruptive to other electricity-generating technologies and businesses.”

Of course, solar is also clean. You’ll cheer that if you believe burning carbon is contributing to climate change. If you don’t believe in climate change, who cares? You’ll still want the cheapest energy. Insisting on carbon-based energy will become as dumb as buying your music on CDs.

Plus, solar won’t run out until the sun dies in about 5 billion years, and by then the species will be living on Planet Bezos in the Musk Solar System. About five days of sunshine provide as much energy as is contained in all proven reserves of oil, coal and natural gas. All we have to do is capture a smidgen of it, and we can power the world.

Solar power raises the question of reliability—like, what happens when it’s dark? This is where battery technology comes in. Supersized batteries have also been on a constant price-reduction curve. This is a big reason electric cars have become so viable that just about every automaker is now developing them. In January, Elon Musk’s Tesla installed industrial batteries in California to help keep power flowing when the local utility had to deal with a leak in a natural gas storage facility. The cost and capability of the battery power surprised the state. “I had relatively limited expectations for the battery industry in advance of 2020,” Michael Picker, president of the California Public Utilities Commission, told The New York Times. “I thought that it would not really accelerate and begin to penetrate the electric grid or the transportation world for a while to come. Once again, technology is clearly moving faster than we can regulate.”

Energy's Inevitable Future

Add it up, and technology and raw economics—not policy or treaties—will soon make carbon replaceable. The sun will shine, solar panels will convert it to electricity, and excess power will get stored in batteries for nights and cloudy weather. On some days, California already gets 80 percent of its power from clean energy. Solar-generated electricity will fill up the batteries of ever more electric cars, reducing demand for gasoline. Carbon barons like the Koch brothers will face a demise not unlike the mustachioed railroad tycoons in the jet age. All of this will happen as surely as your hair will grow back after a close shave.

So what’s the impact of Trump bailing out of the Paris thing? Probably that the advanced-energy Silicon Valley will be someplace where most people speak Mandarin. The Trump administration is betting on old energy. In January, China’s National Energy Administration said it would pump $360 billion through 2020 into advanced-energy technology. Already, the three biggest solar-makers are based in China. If advanced energy is where the money and jobs will flow, the U.S. already has some catching up to do—and our government just said we shouldn’t bother.

Yes, these are profoundly difficult times for people and regions that have long depended on coal. But unless you’re Kim Jong Un or the Huli wigmen of Papua New Guinea, progress can’t be wished away, especially when the rest of the world goes on without you. The best thing that could happen to coal country is for the government to invest in creating advanced-energy jobs in those regions, much as it put NASA’s rocket-making facility in Huntsville, Alabama, in the 1960s, forever transforming that city.

After Trump said the U.S. will get out of the Paris accord, Tyler White, the president of the Coal Association in Kentucky, commented, “This is a step to fulfilling some of the promises that he made." Maybe, but economic reality means Trump’s promise to coal country is like telling a kid that Santa Claus will keep showing up forever.

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