Storage, wind, superpower: Part 3


Tony Seba was among the first to recognize the disruptive potential of solar PV with the publication of his book “Solar Trillions” in 2010. His think tank, RethinkX, recently published a report titled “Rethinking Energy 2020-2030 – 100% Solar, Wind and Batteries is Just the Beginning.”

In early December, pv magazine publisher, Eckhart Gouras, interviewed Seba and Adam Dorr, the two authors of this report. As Seba and Dorr make clear in the interview, a 100% solar-wind-battery system is not only possible, but the cheapest way to build an electricity system in the U.S. by 2030. (Read Part 1 and Part 2.)

In the initial interview, they introduce the concept of the “Clean Energy U-curve,” which shows that the cheapest system is actually one that involves a lot more solar PV and wind power capacity than the peak power demand profile.

They go one step further by introducing the concept of “SuperPower”: by investing in even more solar PV and wind power than the lowest-cost system defined by the “Clean Energy U-curve,” the gain in additional energy, or “superpower,” is exponential to the money invested.

The conversation continues below.

pv magazine: Your report highlights the fact that conventional analyses and forecasts of the electricity sector and energy transition start from the peak electricity demand profile and then build the generation to fit this profile. Instead, your analysis starts with the supply side and comes to the radical conclusion that the supply of clean energy (primarily solar PV) needs to be over-dimensioned by a significant factor to provide the lowest-cost clean energy system. To what extent is this radical idea gaining traction in the power sector and state and federal regulatory authorities?

Adam Dorr (AD): We agree this is still a new idea. It’s still quite radical. It’s only been recognized at all in the scientific community for at most about two years. And the full implications of this were not recognized before.

Adam Dorr. This is going to be the mainstream idea a couple of years from now.”


Seeing the implications of the clean energy U curve and superpower make the full impacts of this idea clear. But what we are seeing, and what’s very encouraging … [is that] there is now a small but quickly growing group of researchers worldwide who are converging with different methods on the same conclusion. So we are not alone.

If you think beyond the existing system to what a new system would look like, and you’re not constrained to just a one-to-one replacement, that new system will have a very different structure, and it will have much more generating capacity. This reduces the energy storage requirement in a non-linear way, and you find that the optimal combination is much more affordable than you realize.

This is going to be the mainstream idea a couple of years from now. Quite soon we will see the research community begin to coalesce into a shared voice.

Tony Seba (TS): We’ve already been contacted by policy makers in several countries. It’s a new lens, a new formula. Once you have a new lens, there’s shock, they attack you, and then you’re right. It’s a classic paradigm shift in the way we see the world.

pv magazine: Oversizing the solar PV deployment yields the “superpower” that you reference, which seems to be another radical concept tied to your focus on the supply side of the electricity sector. But if grid capacity is already a bottleneck in states like Hawaii with a relatively high PV penetration, how can this overbuild be accomplished with the old grid infrastructure that’s in place?

TS: If you look at most disruptions, they make the existing value chain obsolete. When we were building the new Internet [in the 1990s] we did not look at how to bolt the Internet on to this 100-year-old landline telecom infrastructure. That made no sense. And now the ICE (internal combustion engine) vehicle value chain is being obsoleted by the electrification of transportation, by EVs and so on. It happens every single time that the existing value chain basically becomes obsolete.

Tony Seba. “When we were building the new Internet we did not look at how to bolt the Internet on to this 100-year-old landline telecom infrastructure. That made no sense.”

Image: @tonyseba

When we studied this, we did not start with the idea of how can we bolt on solar, wind and batteries to the existing grid. What we wanted to study is first, is it possible? And that’s the only way you can find all of these interesting insights that we found such as the clean energy U curve and superpower.

And there’s more … if you had, for instance, the idea that there is a non-linear trade-off between generation and storage, that there’s also a trade-off between transmission and storage? The more storage you have, the less transmission you need and the better you can utilize the transmission. If you put that together, you have a three-dimensional decision making process, which would have made the report more complex. We constrained the system on purpose to see what the new generation and storage looks like, then we would go on to design the right grid for that new system.

AD: Keep in mind that it is only an assumption from the incumbent perspective that these changes will require a new additional, very costly infrastructure investments for transmission and distribution. This is an assumption, and it’s not clear if that’s going to be true everywhere.

I’ll give you one example: recent research into the costs by the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization, CSIRO (Australia’s national science agency), showed that for very high penetration of solar, wind and storage systems the cost of transmission and distribution is a small percentage of that, less than 10%. Even with a very high percentage, there is already research showing that the actual costs of the transmission and distribution infrastructure are not going to be extremely onerous and too difficult to achieve and are not going to be a deterrent.

pv magazine: Your report focuses on the U.S. and in particular California, Texas and New England. Here in Europe we are keen to transition to a decarbonized energy sector, and your report mentions the parallels between a region like New England and northern Europe. For a 100% solar-wind-battery (SWB) system in northern Europe, the time period December and January is the most challenging, given that these months include many days with weak solar and wind resources. The onus would be on the B part in the SWB system. Would the 89 average demand hours (or 1,232 GWh of battery storage) be sufficient to keep the lights on over here?

AD: That’s a great question. We don’t have the specific numbers for Europe as a whole or for any countries in Europe yet. However, our methodology allows us to produce at least preliminary numbers for an individual country, as long as we’re able to get high quality data.

We don’t see any reason to expect that there will be large differences or major problems for a region like Europe that we did not already encounter and cover in our analysis with New England.

Contrails over Frankfurt, Germany. “New England’s solar resources and wind resources are really quite comparable to northern Europe – not southern Europe, which is much more like California and Texas.”

Image: David Wagman

New England’s solar resources and wind resources are really quite comparable to northern Europe – not southern Europe, which is much more like California and Texas. Now, without running the numbers we can’t say for sure, but we have no reason to believe that Europe will be somehow twice as difficult…five times as difficult…anything like that.

We chose those regions of the United States precisely because they represent other geographies and we can draw conclusions from that. California is very sunny, but not much wind. Texas has lots of sun and lots of wind. New England has not much sun and not much wind.

pv magazine: I just mentioned the drive to decarbonize the entire energy sector in Europe, so not only electricity. Can we expect RethinkX to also look at the overall energy system, and to what extent can this even bigger beast be decarbonized in the next 10, 20 or 30 years?

AD: The most important thing to keep in mind is that we can do all of this at once. We are not looking at a sequence, one step and then another step and another step. We don’t have to do electric power first and then transportation and then industry, and then residential and commercial heating. We’re going to do it all at once.

That’s why the disruption is going to affect all energy all at once. And the thrilling part about superpower: even if you don’t make the additional investment, even at the lowest cost–the very optimal part of the U curve–you still get some superpower: In California, for example, as much superpower as all of the normal electricity generation. That’s a huge amount of energy compared to what is used in California in transportation, and in residential and commercial heating. Even in the very lowest-cost system, you still are going to have a situation where you can begin to electrify, and therefore decarbonize, the rest of the economy at the same time.

AES Lawai Solar Project- Kauai. “If you make that additional investment, 10%, 20% more, and you 5X, 10X your superpower, it’s incredible what you can achieve in the rest of the economy in terms of decarbonization.”

Image: NREL/Dennis Schroeder

But wait, there’s more. If you make that additional investment, 10%, 20% more, and you 5X, 10X your superpower, it’s incredible what you can achieve in the rest of the economy in terms of decarbonization.

There is going to be competition as soon as one or two regions begin to show what is possible. The entire world is going to see this as a race to the top. And this is something that we see again and again, throughout the history of disruptions, we don’t have to wait and do things one at a time. It’s going to happen all at once.

TS: Countries will find that they cannot compete with energy that is vastly more expensive and that they’d have to import. So they’re going to have to do this for purely economic reasons. Once they figure it out (and with super-abundant, super-cheap superpower), you can decarbonize everything: transport, heat and so on.

AD: The incentives are going to be enormous to take advantage of ultra-low costs, perhaps, in some cases, free energy. If you are a smart region–we use the example of Texas in our report–and you say “we are going to attract manufacturing to boost the economy, we are going to make super energy from superpower available for free for some part of the day.”

If a region did that, there would be enormous incentive to go through the process of innovation and business model development to take advantage of that superpower. There’s going to be enormous incentive for industry to find ways to use superpower because it’s almost free. It’s so close to zero cost. This changes everything.

Editor’s note: This is the third part of a three-part series. Read Part 1 and Part 2.

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