By Gareth Renowden 17/09/2017 32

This will be the best hour you’ll spend in front of a screen this week, I promise.



Tony Seba explains how the plunging costs of battery storage and solar power generation, coupled with the rise of electric vehicles and autonomous driving technologies are going to first disrupt and then transform both the transport and power industries worldwide, and very, very soon. Watch this, and then ask yourself why this isn’t being reflected in the policy discussion in this NZ election. Why are we not encouraging rooftop solar? Why are we still building motorways? Drilling for oil? The timeline on this stuff falls within the lifetime of the next parliament!

Shamelessly lifted from Peter at Climate Crocks. Thanks for the lead, Peter, you just delayed my Sunday work programme by an hour!

32 Responses to “Cheaper solar power and electric vehicles are going to change our world over the next 5 years”

  • If solar is going to get so much cheaper, then it makes sense not to install it now, but to wait X number of years until when it is cheaper. Or is that logic beyond the promoters?

    • On that basis, you’d never buy a computer or a phone.

      The inflection point, explained in the talk, is when solar + batteries is cheaper than other generation – particularly “peaking” or back-up generation. It already is.

  • No it isn’t cheaper Gareth. It may be apparently so for a domestic user because their unreliability is subsidised by the rest of the users. However, when you get to a point that there are too many freeloaders, you have major grid issues and the price becomes very high. That is what has happened in South Australia. It is also why they have a lot of brownouts.
    Our heaviest usage is on winter’s evenings. How much power will solar provide then?

    • You didn’t watch the video, did you? You are making counter-factual assertions. If you want to comment on these matters, perhaps you should do some reading?

  • Really Gareth? I am an engineer at a power station who regularly lectures university students on O&M which means I almost certainly know more about the NZ power system than a serial Silicon Valley entrepreneur. I also read the AEMO reports on Australian system and the EPRI ones.

  • It could be because I actually know about it a lot more than your talking head. And watching his talk was a hour of my life I will never get back. He doesn’t do details – “a big picture” man. Well, it is the details that trip you up and make the bright idea sink as totally impractical.
    To give a simple example – in batteries one of the major components in Cobalt. The is actually more cobalt in a lithium ion battery than lithium. Over 40% of the world’s current cobalt production goes into batteries. The price of cobalt has been skyrocketing – its only real source is out of the Congo as a byproduct of copper and nickel smelting. Those big mines have been sold to the Chinese who are cornering that market like what they did with the rare earths. Congo is politically unstable and the mining is done by children working in appalling conditions – something to think about for all those social justice warriors who virtue signal by buying electric cars. Even when it was only $20k a tonne, 60% of battery costs was the raw materials. Now its $60k per tonne. Tesla have got big issues trying to source alternatives And no one has ramped up production because of the high prices.
    Once you get your head around that, maybe you will want to look at electrical system operations.

    • Moving the goalposts? If cobalt is such a rate determiner, please explain why so many huge Lithium chemistry battery plants are under construction. And why Tesla is building a grid scale battery in SA to cover for the failure of the gas peaking plants to cover demand. Why not build more gas? Because it is no longer the cheapest… Once you get you head round that, maybe we can have a conversation.

  • That battery bank in SA is to smooth the output off just one of their many wind farms. It was authorised by a failing premier who had to be seen to be doing something. Not only did they have the blackout, but there have been rolling blackouts in Adelaide, because of the renewables. In contrast to the state government’s actions, the AEMO have put rules in place to constrain wind farms off because the HAVE to keep thermal plant running to stabilize the grid.
    The power situation in South Australia has now stabilized, mainly because several big industrial users (and employers) have shut down as power was too expensive and unreliable.
    If you want a conversation, you need to stop namecalling to those who don’t agree with your vision, And learning the real details about power engineering would help.

  • With regards Tesla, their factory was commissioned and built when the Cobalt price was low. They may have stockpiles , forward orders or hedging on the metal. No-one knows. Their accounts are opaque. No-one actually knows even how many batteries they are currently producing. What is known is the company hasn’t made a profit and has had billions of dollars in corporate welfare. It is also desperately seeking more finance, with its bond issue given junk bond rating.

  • Namecalling? Just responding in kind.

    Being polite: your views on the subjects discussed in the video do not appear to match those of credible experts in the field. Or investors and governments. You might not like that – but you have no monopoly on wisdom.

  • You might want to read this about how California has to constrain off solar because it is uncontrollable.
    Similar problem to Adelaide. Here is AEMO are dealing with it
    The system operators actually know what they are talking about as they have to live with the consequences of it going wrong. That is why they are so counterfactual.

    • That California link is interesting: it outlines what they have to do to manage the grid and generation resources. California has these targets (from the doc):

      • 50 percent of retail electricity from renewable power by 2030;
      • greenhouse gas emissions reduction goal to 1990 levels;
      • regulations in the next 4-9 years requiring power plants that use coastal water for cooling to either repower, retro t or retire;
      • policies to increase distributed generation; and
      • an executive order for 1.5 million zero emission vehicles by 2025.

      All worthy aims, and nothing in the doc you link to suggests that it’s unachievable. Nothing counterfactual. It also doesn’t cover the impact of battery developments on peaking supplies: a key point of the video above.

      All you appear to have demonstrated is that grids can cope with high penetrations of renewable energy, provided they are managed properly. And with the install cost of solar pv continuing to fall, large scale battery deployment (China leading the way – see chart), and the growth of EVs, this is going to become essential.

      Of course, you might want to argue with Seba’s central thesis – that autonomous vehicles are going to disrupt the car market – and I am as sceptical of that as the next driver, but on continuing large-scale deployment of renewables, he’s on the money.

      • California “manages” because they sponge off everyone else. They import power from as far away as British Columbia when needed and dump excess power onto their neighbours at other times (sometimes at negative pricing). That is not an option open to NZ. California has also had a large reduction in its load over the past 10-15 years as major industries leave the state for cheaper power. It retail power price is about 50-100% higher than the price of Nevada, Oregon and Washington. The reason for the high prices is the renewable energy policy.
        Neither of those grids (Western USA or Australia ) can cope with high input from non-synchronous plant. That is what caused the blackout in SA. It is also why they have put in place very strict rules about keeping thermal plant on. Grids need inertia and neither solar nor wing can provide that.
        China is building supercritical coal fired power stations and some nukes to meet its energy needs. The output of just one of the coal generator units would run the South Island. They are shutting the old little CHP plants as the new plants are commissioned. They dwarf any battery or wind production

  • Good debate chaps. What is plainly evident that sitting on hands won’t help NZ for the future as all these issues are ironed out. NZ’s recent record as a fast follower in tech has meant we never get the true understanding of where the opportunities are. As a nation of renewable energy it makes sense to replace fossil with more renewables like solar and wind. Battery technology is advancing everyday and Lithium has alternatives already making waves. Nanotech and Solid State Drives are going to change storage capacity and efficiency dramatically.
    Therefore bickering about what might or might not happen is redundant. It WILL happen and where will NZ be?

  • Unfortunately Anon, NZ is not well suited to relying on solar and wind, as our peak electricity demand is on still, frosty winter nights. They are useful during the daytime for keeping the storage lakes more full than they would otherwise be so that the storage is available for use at night(although NZ is really too far south to make solar a viable proposition in winter), but there also needs to be peaking generation capacity to cope with those winter nights, and it’s hard to see how this won’t be met by hydrocarbons (mainly gas) for a long time into the future. That is particularly true during dry years in the South Island (like this year) – six weeks ago during that very cold snap, NZ would have had rolling blackouts if Huntly had been closed by now as planned – it was going flat out burning coal, and even Whirinaki’s diesels were fired up for the first time in many years, to keep the lights on in the South Island because of the low lake levels down there this year. 100% renewable by 2030 (Green policy) is completely unrealistic – unless dams can be consented again of course (no big hydro dam has been consented since the RMA came into effect). It’s ironic that the Greens laud our 80% renewable electricity sector while ignoring the fact that none of the big dams which enable that figure to be reached would have been built if today’s environmental protection legislation had been in effect back then.

    • Thanks for your comment. A couple of points. My understanding is that NZ’s large hydro generation makes the power system well suited to support large amounts of wind and solar. They can act as the “batteries” for the grid, as you suggest. NZ’s wind resource is one of the best in the world. Our solar potential isn’t as bad as you suggest, either. In terms of distance from the equator (and therefore insolation potential) Northland is roughly equivalent to Morocco and Southern Spain, and Invercargill about the same as Paris. Since utility scale solar installs are happening without subsidies in the UK, even further from the equator than Stewart Island, it seems odd to assert that solar in NZ isn’t viable.

      There are structural difficulties, however. NZ has so many different companies generating and distributing power – who have an interest in selling as much power as possible ( running down the hydro batteries, in other words) – that it may take some significant reorganisation to allow the best use of renewables.

      Personally, I hope any incoming government looks closely at either providing feed in tariffs for small solar installs, or enforcing net metering at reasonable (not wholesale) prices. That would give a huge boost to rooftop solar, and unlock a lot of private, rather than corporate or government investment.

  • No Gareth. You still do not understand how the electricity system works or What Michael wrote. In NZ currently over the winter, the demand at about 3am in the morning is 3000MW. By 8am it is around 5500MW, it drops back to about 4500MW during the day, then rises to about 6000MW at 8pm window before dropping back to the low. The generation has to follow that load unless you want power cuts.
    In general terms, geothermal is about 1000MW at the bottom of the demand curve graph. To this can be added about another 1000MW of must run plant, like hydros with minimum flow restrictions and thermal plant on minimum load. The generation to follow the two-shifting load is typically about 1000MW on the Waikato, 1500MW on the Waitaki/ Clyde and the rest on thermals. The 400MW of wind is just nuisance stuff. To get the generation out of the hydros, they need to stage the water. You can’t generate out of say Maraetai unless you release water out of Taupo 2 days earlier. That means a lot of planning has to go into load and weather predictions. A cold front can add 5GWh a day to the demand. Even when full, the hydros only have about a month’s storage.
    Michael is right about RMA. Operating regimes of hydros have been made a lot more restrictive since RMA, meaning more gas is burnt running it inefficiently at part load.
    Today, generation was paid about $40/MWh average. That is below cost for thermal plant and not economic for ANY new plant to be built. I note even at those prices, we are generating more on coal than wind provides.
    Solar is of no grid value over the winter months, even in Northland, because of the time of generation vrs load, lack of sun hours and light inclination. And where in Britain is the economically viable solar that doesn’t have CfDs? The one just opened in Cambridgeshire is paid GBP85.02/MWh, about three times the grid price.

    • There’s a lot of consented wind that hasn’t been built because there’s no need at the moment. Add in to the mix the possibility (or probability, depending on who you listen to) that Manapouri’s output might become available to the grid. And the certainty that as solar PV and batteries combine to provide power below the cost at which it is delivered to homes, then consumers will move in that direction. The future is interesting: pretending that it’s not going to happen isn’t exactly helpful. The world, not just NZ, needs to be zero carbon as soon as possible, and – as Tony Seba demonstrates – the tech is rapidly becoming available.

  • Has anyone quantified the amount of additional generating capacity that will be required, say, per 25% tranche of the vehicle fleet (including cares, buses and and trucks) to go electric, or to electrify the train network? And how would the additional power be generated and distributed, and at at what cost?

    • That site is not a credible source. If you choose to get your “facts” from that sort of place, it’s not surprising you get them wrong. Do you share their view that CO2 is not a greenhouse gas?

    • Since the article is behind the FT’s paywall, it’s difficult to judge.

      And you didn’t answer my question…

  • You can read the article by googling Clayhill Solar Farm opening and looking for the FT article.
    The proof that it is uneconomic comes in the paragraph further down where the proponents want subsidies to remain.
    “Supporters of renewable energy and the government welcomed the Clayhill project, although the Solar Trade Association (STA), an industry group, suggested such “pathfinder” projects were likely to be an exception. Government subsidies would still be required to support the majority of solar projects in future if the ministers want to take advantage of the technology to help meet the UK’s carbon reduction targets, a spokeswoman for the STA said.”
    If it is so good, why do they need subsidies? Don’t they listen to Mr Seba?

    Someone elsewhere did a bit of analysis on the battery subsidy.
    “Most grid batteries are in fact competing in the enhanced frequency response market, which helps to smooth supply/demand imbalances in the grid on very short time scales measured from seconds to minutes (which is why they don’t need more than an hour or so of capacity relative to output). The most recent tender for EFR cleared at £7 to £12/MW/h of service provided. Assuming a full year of 8760 hours, this would be more remunerative at 7 to 12x6x8760 or £367,920 – £630,720p.a., less penalties for underperformance and net power purchase cost, which would be of the order of 0.5% of capacity, or about 263 MWh at say £40/MWh.”
    So about $1M a year income to fix a problem caused by solar and windfarms having unreliable power with no inertia or droop.
    Another thing worth knowing is that solar plants consume more resources than they generate for places like NZ with the 2000 hours of sunshine a year.
    That makes it neither sustainable or renewable.

    • And yet they keep building them… Funny that. And vast amounts of wind, too…

      EROI is a complicated can of worms, and not one I particularly want to get into, but I will comment that you seem to choose an outlier for your reference. A literature survey last year suggested that for southern europe, the return was probably over 10. That equates to most of the North Island, in insolation potential.

      In any event, as I said above, what’s likely to happen in NZ is a significant increase in domestic solar rooftop installs, backed with batteries as they become more affordable. The critical factor is price to the end user, and as the video notes, that’s coming down fast. There are also battery technology improvements coming down the line.

  • Of course they keep building them. Almost all the plant gets massive subsidies – many earn more from the subsidies than they do from their generation. It is a no lose money tree for the developers. The price the consumer pays goes up to pay for the subsidies. That is why fuel poverty is a very real problem.

  • Here it shows that it is the renewable surcharge that has caused the rise in German power prices
    This is despite it is coal that provides most of Germany’s electricity.
    And there is a very good correlation between renewables penetration and domestic power price
    So the price to the end user is rising with more wind and solar. But then, what is data to someone with vision?

  • Your first reference doesn’t seem to support your reading of it.

    Power pricing is complex, it makes clear. And politics plays as big a part as technology. Meanwhile, the cost of solar pv continues to fall.

  • How do you interpret Figure 2? Or the note that the renewable energy levy makes up 23.6% of the price? Or even the embedded fact sheet?

    You can keep on repeating your talking points until you are blue in the face when confronted with things that don’t fit in your bubble, but sooner or later, you will hit reality. Even in Hawaii, they are there
    Note the comment from a solar proponent:
    “There are limits to what today’s grids can accommodate, and no amount of wishful thinking or dreaming of disruptive smart grid technologies or spin and hype from battery peddlers can change that in the short term.”

  • Bubble? Please stop arguing with straw men. Nobody is claiming that we can run everything on solar alone. You appear to believe that renewables have limited utility. The rest of the world appears to disagree with you. Better get used to it.

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