When I was a little fella, summer meant beach, barbecues, sport and sunburn. Each morn, shortly after sun-up, my mother would turn me outdoors stipulating that I was not to be seen again until dinner - although brief interludes for intakes of sandwiches and milk were permitted.
Nary a thought was given to sunscreen, and my northern skin peeled off in freckled flakes the size of crisps. The damage was permanent. Last week, at a complimentary spa treatment, Francis the Facialist tut-tutted in dismay before diving desperately for his cabinet of corrective chemicals. It was hopeless. I left the poor man stretched out exhausted, muttering incoherently, self-medicating with herbal infusions via intravenous drip.
Even in the seventies, climate change was an issue. I learned in grade four that CO2 trapped heat. But what was an eight-year-old to do about it? The lights I used to thwart the night-monsters lurking in our hallways had to draw power from somewhere, and in Australia they drew it from coal. But I wondered why, when the sun was capable of withering an entire nation prune-like, it couldn’t come from there.
Of all renewable energy sources, solar has the greatest potential. To paraphrase a beardy-weirdy from the US DOE, “The theoretical potential of solar power is the integral of the average flux (342.5 W/m2 · (1-0.49) = 174.7 W/m2) over the earth’s surface area = 89,300 TW.”
Exactly what that means, I do not know. Clearly it’s code comprehensible only to beardies. But I’m told it represents more energy in one and a half hours than the total consumed globally per year from all sources combined.
In practice it means the world’s power needs could be met from a carpet of solar panels the size of Venezuela. I know some Venezuelans, and they’d be pretty happy to carpet the country over at the moment. The US’s power needs require only an area the size of either of the Dakotas, and no-one’s going to miss one of those.
In other words, it’s doable. And, believe it or not, it’s happening. More capacity for renewable power is being added each year than coal, natural gas and oil combined.
And that’s great news, but for one glaring problem. If my children went to thwart the monsters in our hallway tonight, solar power couldn’t be of any help, as the sun don’t shine after dark. Seems obvious. To be practical, solar requires storage, and the power industry has never found a cost-effective way to store large volumes of energy for later distribution.
Fortunately, Tesla has. In early May, the electric-car company released a product called Powerwall. Billed merely as a storage solution for the home, in fact the technology heralds a sea-change in the economics of utility-scale power.
Just as the cost of solar is plummeting, so too is the cost of lithium-ion batteries. Tesla is gambling that their battery “gigafactory”, now under construction, will drive the price through the floor, bringing into being cost-effective storage solutions on the scale of utilities.
It works like this: by storing energy during the day and releasing it at night, peak demand is shifted and reduced, bringing down energy bills for industrial consumers.
The math is simple. If the cost of installing, maintaining and using Tesla’s solar-based systems comes to less than the cost of power from traditional hydrocarbon-fired systems, Walmart goes for it and we all win.
The key to averting the climate catastrophe is turning in the lock. Sooner rather than later, the captains of carbon will be shown the door.
It’s not personal. Just good business.