We could argue that last year was the worst year in human history in terms of climate change. Earth has experienced its hottest day on record again and again. Surface air temperature anomalies set a record in September. Ocean heat also set a record. The number of wildfires in Canada? Another record.
But you don’t have to squint too hard to see the good news. US and European carbon emissions have declined this century. The global deforestation rate is decreasing. And investment in clean energy technology – especially solar and batteries – is breaking records and changing the world.
These glimmers of hope come from an epic annual report by Nat Bullard, a Singapore-based independent climate researcher who spent several years on the Bloomberg. In today’s episode, Nat and I discuss the two pillars of the global clean energy revolution (solar and storage), how these two technologies have consistently outperformed expert predictions, how they are reshaping power generation around the world, and what is on the path to a clean energy future based on sunlight and batteries.
If you have questions, observations or ideas for future episodes, please email PlainEnglish@Spotify.com.
In the following excerpt, Nat Bullard and Derek investigate why solar energy has taken off so much faster than other energy sources and why even recent projections have underestimated solar energy.
Derek Thompson: You guys published this 200-slide report on the state of the global clean energy revolution, and I feel like it’s really important for us to understand what’s happening in two categories in particular, which are solar and storage.
I want to make sure all listeners are on the same page before we dive into the numbers here. I want to start with solar energy. Can you start us off with a thesis statement? How would you characterize the speed and strength of solar energy growth? How does it compare, for example, with other energy revolutions, such as the growth of nuclear energy in the second half of the 20th century or liquid natural gas in recent decades?
Nathan Bullard: I think it’s important, if I’m going to start a thesis statement, [to define] The challenge in thinking about this to begin with is that this is a uniquely distributed technology in a world of electron generation that has historically been very concentrated. So typically this has been done and gained momentum over time by building small numbers of increasingly larger units of something: larger power plants that are more efficient, larger infrastructures that have lower unit costs over time. time.
Solar, on the other hand, is inherently distributed. It works in units as small as the charging capacity of a calculator up to gigawatt- or eventually terawatt-scale deployment. So a lot of watts, let’s say, of power, mimicking what the rest of the grid consumes. But it is manufactured. Instead of being something custom-built, built with heavy equipment, it’s manufactured along a very similar line, in many ways, to the way chips are made or the way displays are made. And so it follows this kind of production economy, on the one hand, in terms of what is built, and then it has a kind of abundance behind it, in terms of production, which tends to reach the fields more quickly than people wait.
I like your question about comparing this to how new energy vectors have evolved over the last 50 years, the last half century. There’s a comparison I made at the beginning of my slides, and I’m borrowing a framework, to be clear, very clearly from Shell, the big oil company, which is comparing solar versus wind, versus nuclear, and versus LNG. . And what’s crazy about this, if you’re a long-term energy analyst, you think that big, established, centralized nuclear LNG is the main way to transport energy, but solar and wind are both more faster than nuclear or LNG ever were. they achieved their takeoff in energy transport. And solar energy is moving at twice the speed of wind, for example.
So right now, solar is generating almost as much energy seven years after it reached its initial start as wind was generating in about 12 years or nuclear in about 13 years. Basically, it’s moving twice as fast. And if you look at the graph, you’ll see these other sources that have this kind of shape where they reach a liftoff and then level off, whereas solar has the beginning of a curve that’s just steepening in a very familiar way. exponential fashion further up. It’s not just moving, but it’s moving at a rapid pace.
The trick with all of these things, of course, is that it all starts with a small base. So it’s hard to see this early on industrially, if you don’t pay attention, in capital flows, if you don’t pay attention, and definitely in the network, where these are nominal additions of new power. But it is quickly making its way to not being that, to being the majority of the new energy that will be added to the grid, definitely the majority of what is being built on capacity anywhere and definitely globally. And starting to reach what I would call a sense of “the end of the beginning”. Like in a position where you’re starting to see this come to a head start that has a significant and measurable impact on how the global energy system acts in response.
Thompson: Global solar installations have increased 1,000-fold over the past two decades. That’s something to be proud of if you’re interested in building clean energy that can help us power the world abundantly and not spit carbon into the atmosphere. It’s not just a point of pride either. For me, it’s a mystery. Global meteorologists like the IEA, the International Energy Agency, have consistently and famously, perhaps even infamously, criticized projections of global solar energy deployment.
I think I read a solar revolution statistic that says we are 90 years ahead of the IEA projections from just 2015. Just nine years ago, we sniffed out energy deployment by the factor of a century. What is your answer to the question of how this happened? And don’t give me a tautological answer, like: “We build more by building more.” What do you think is the root cause of the answer to the question of how the growth of solar energy has surpassed estimates in a century?
Bull: Institutional failure of imagination on the part of generally linear-minded planners and forecasters of the future. Therefore, the future is expected to look like, relatively speaking, some incremental growth relative to the past. That’s how most things grow, especially when you’re talking about big things, things that you expect to reach some kind of asymptotic limit on how fast they can grow or how big they can get or both.
And especially when you start thinking about things that have these kind of inherent limits in terms of space and time and building materials and places to put your equipment and whatnot, it makes sense. But if you think about something that has a manufacturing logic, where the ability to build something [and] Increasing capacity 5x in a year really isn’t something that’s out of bounds, so it confuses people’s thinking in ways that aren’t particularly helpful, I think.
Another thing is that the mission of all these forecasters was to describe what appears to be a defensible view of the near future, as opposed to some sort of guess about a more distant period of time. There is a kind of confusion between the projection forecast, which refers to just a few years, and the scenario, which points to the future. And to be fair, many institutions do both. …So the back-test would say that you probably should have just taken a logistical curveball and let things play out, and you would have gotten a better description of the present day and near future than if you had tried to sort of impose restrictions.
My former colleagues at BloombergNEF, where I worked for 15 years and was a solar analyst for a long, long time, always had this challenge of even seeing that “I know intimately what this market is like right now. I know your restrictions. I know the things that make it happen or not happen at this point. And therefore, I will gradually adjust them in the future.” Whereas the best way to do this would be, “Wait a minute, there is no capacity limit here. Even with solar growing 1,000-fold in two decades, we could easily do three times as much as we did this year, based on what we already know is in the pipeline in terms of production capacity.”
And you have to ask yourself. … Suspending disbelief would be another thing. Not just a failure of imagination, but you want to suspend your disbelief that it’s not going to happen and maybe lean more heavily on the side of, “Well, the capability is there; manufacturers have this interest.” You have to start thinking that maybe we shouldn’t impose limits and impose a sense of growth. Impose a statement that says, “Well, we can grow at this rate. If we continue, what will it be like?” Instead of saying, “Well, surely this will stop at some point.” People always want to impose a law of large numbers. They want to impose a limit and it’s probably best not to do that.
This excerpt has been edited for clarity. Listen to the rest of the episode here and follow along Simple English to feed on Spotify.
Presenter: Derek Thompson
Guest: Nathaniel Bullard
Producer: Devon Baroldi