In a new interview with Deutsche Welle, the CEO of a Germany-based global solar developer made a good case for the potential for solar power to become cheaper than coal sooner rather than later. That would be Bernhard Beck, CEO of Belectric.
In the interview Beck had some interesting things to say about the direction of the global solar market and the potential for growth in large-scale solar power generating plants, and if anything, we think his forecast could come true even sooner than he thinks.
Solar power cheaper than coal
According to Beck, large scale solar power in Germany is already “approaching the costs” of conventional power, at 10 euro cents per kilowatt-hour (kWh).
Beck was reluctant to lay out a specific timetable, but he did predict that with additional technological improvements, the cost of solar power in Germany (and by extension, other relatively sun-poor countries), will ultimately fall below the cost of conventional energy.
He foresees a much shorter time span in ‘sun-rich’ countries, where the trend is rapidly moving in the direction of solar power for less than 10 euro cents per kWh. That could put solar power below the cost of wind power as well as coal or gas.
However, Beck indicates that these countries have some obstacles to overcome. By ‘sun-rich’ he means countries with a less developed transmission infrastructure, which puts large-scale power plants at a disadvantage in terms of operating costs. Also contributing to higher operating costs is the characteristic dust-heavy environment of the ‘sun-rich’ countries to which he refers, which translates into higher costs for cleaning and maintaining solar panels.
Cheaper solar power and the grid
Regardless of those obstacles, overall Beck is optimistic about the potential for future innovation to drive down costs. That optimism is partly based on his own company’s track record, which goes beyond advanced thin film solar cell technology to embrace the key area of grid integration.
The Templin solar array, which is currently billed as the largest thin film, ground-mounted solar plant in Europe, was designed as an “integrated intelligent power plant” that self-adjusts to ensure a stable operating voltage while compensating for grid fluctuations in real time.
The Templin plant also involves a couple of other cost-related factors that Beck does not mention in the interview, but which could become deciding factors when siting new power plants in densely developed regions.
First, the construction involved use of a previously developed brownfield for a construction site, rather than impinging on valuable farmland or open space. It occupies the site of a former Soviet military airport, which at one time was the largest in central Europe.
Along those lines, consider that the actual construction took only four months, and weigh that against the cost and the timeline for constructing a coal powered generating plant with advance pollution controls.
Another factor that could affect future cost parity is transportation. The shortest line between a solar power plant and its fuel supply is, literally, the shortest distance between two points. Compare that to coal, which is increasingly making a laborious international trek across oceans, into congested inland shipping routes.
Some of these factors are already coming into play in the US, where earlier this year the El Paso Electric Company and First Solar collaborated in a major deal to sell solar-generated electricity for less than coal (the First Solar price was reported as 5.8 cents per kWh and ‘new’ coal is currently in the 10-14 cent range).
More danger signs for fossil fuels
The cost of financing new power plants is also going to have a significant effect on parity between solar and fossil fuels, and the warning signs have already been floated where fossil fuels are concerned.
Earlier this spring we noted that Moody’s foresees dark skies ahead for conventional thermal power plants in Europe due to the strength of the renewables sector. Just about the only thing keeping the conventional sector afloat is the need to satisfy peak demand, but the rapid development of advanced energy storage solutions could make that a moot point sooner rather than later.
Aside from that, small-scale energy storage is also rapidly emerging as a big time player in the peak demand game. Aside from the potential for storing energy from rooftop solar arrays in the form of fuel cells, Navigant is one research company that foresees growth in the use of electric vehicle batteries to store energy for peak periods.
Here in the US you can see that EV/peak energy storage trend hard at work in Ford’s MyEnergi Lifestyle system, which recently upped the ante by partnering with the major US home builder KB Home’s ZeroHouse 2.0.
And since you regulars know that CleanTechnica is all over the US military’s adoption of advanced clean technology, let’s not fail to mention that the Department of Defense kicked off 2013 by announcing a $20 million EV leasing program that will involve 500 vehicles integrated with energy storage, smart grid and renewable energy generating systems.