Solar revolution

Published November 5, 2015
The writer is a member of staff.
The writer is a member of staff.

Once again, the prevailing atmosphere of pessimism and constant criticism of everything is getting irritating and one feels like hearing something a little different. So here’s a thought that brightens the future up a little: electricity will soon become a free commodity. Allow me to explain.

If you haven’t been following the developments taking place in solar thus far, you’re missing out. It wasn’t very long ago that we used to think of solar electricity as something that will come in the distant future. The key to the spread of the technology was the cost. Once a single unit of electricity generated from solar power, including the cost of installation, becomes equal to the cost of the same unit purchased from the grid, we have a situation that industry insiders call ‘grid parity’.

The objective of getting grid parity for solar was developed a little earlier than 2010, and received a major boost from the presidency of Barack Obama, who had made it one of his principal campaign pledges in 2008. Three years ago, in 2012, research conducted by the Institute for Local Self Reliance (ILSR) predicted that by 2015, 22 million Americans and two large metropolitan areas would have grid parity.


In a few years, we’ll know a lot more people who use solar power, and it will be a bit of a status symbol.


Things moved a lot faster than that in reality. Today, six metropolitan areas and close to 30 million people in America are living in grid parity, as per figures compiled by ILSR itself, and the adoption of solar is accelerating.

To get an idea of what the revolution will look like, think about what has just happened in communications. Remember the old days when getting a landline telephone was such a huge hassle? Remember booking an international call, and hurrying through it because of the exorbitant charges? Remember the early days of mobile communications, when we all knew one person who had a mobile phone?

Now recall how quickly all that changed. In the early ’90s, mobile phones were rare and communications was limited and expensive. By the late ’90s, more and more people possessed mobile phones but they were still a status symbol. Something happened in the early 2000s, and very quickly before our very eyes, mobile phones became ubiquitous and we joked about seeing a rickshaw driver carrying a mobile phone.

Today, communications is basically a free commodity in the era of WhatsApp and Facebook messenger and Skype. Today, we can not only speak with anybody in the world whenever we wish, we can share photographs and videos and make video calls pretty much for free, except for the initial cost of a smartphone and the monthly cost of a high-speed connection, whether 4G- or DSL-based. And this revolution happened very fast, so fast in fact that we could see and feel its impact on our lives in real time.

The technology to make this revolution happen was around for a very long time, but what made the revolution possible was a steep drop in its cost. Once the cost of satellite uplinks dropped, private TV channels became possible. Once the cost of mobile phone towers dropped, and the cost of batteries, which were the main expense item in a mobile handset in any case, came down, connectivity and handsets could become commercially viable on a mass scale.

And when that happened, the lack of landline infrastructure became a source of latent demand. Just think about how much your own world has changed because of these technologies. I remember the first time I received an email from home, when I was in college, and how exciting it seemed at the time, when we were accustomed to communicating with family through letters that took weeks to arrive, or through expensive phone calls which were a rarity.

Something similar is about to happen in the power sector. Today you might know a few people who are using solar to power their homes, either partially or in full. In a few years, you’ll know a lot more and it will be a bit of a status symbol. Then a day will come when they will be so cheap, and their use will spread so fast, that everyone will have one, and the lack of grid electricity will become a source of latent demand, spurring on the adoption of the technology at an accelerating rate.

Once you digest the implications of what free power means, you’ll realise the world is set to change in ways even more fundamental than how the spread of communications changed it. Ever since the early days of the industrial revolution, one of the biggest constraints to the growth of technology has been energy, and the search for cheaper and abundant sources of energy has fuelled much of modern history. With the advent of solar, that history is about to change as we learn to tap the infinite energy that the sun bathes our planet in every day.

What is needed at the moment is to create a policy space that helps spur this revolution on. Bringing down the price of solar is one thing. Encouraging its spread will also involve raising awareness about its benefits, and creating regimes like feed-in tariffs for homes to sell their surplus electricity into the grid. The cost of batteries that can store up to 10KWh of electricity, equal to a generator that can run two air conditioners in addition to powering the entire house, is already dropping at a faster rate than what was imagined earlier this year.

We are at the very start of this revolution now. It might take a decade, or perhaps longer still, before its full transformative impact sweeps over us, but it’s coming for sure and I for one cannot wait to see what kind of a world it will create.

The writer is a member of staff.

khurram.husain@gmail.com

Twitter: @khurramhusain

Published in Dawn, November 5th, 2015

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