Travis Bradford: Everything They Tell You About Solar Is Wrong

August 15, 2008

It's not really more expensive, it's not really a niche application and it's not really that far off.
  • The truth about solar economics
  • A distributed energy architecture
  • A diversified approach to solar investing



Travis Bradford thinks that the solar energy industry is going to change the world ... and soon. The founder and president of the Prometheus Institute, a nonprofit dedicated to accelerating the deployment of sustainable technology, Bradford is author of Solar Revolution: The Economic Transformation of the Global Energy Industry, which confidently predicts solar energy will become a dominate energy source over the next 10 years.

He spoke recently with the editors of (HAI): You say in your book that solar energy is going to change the way the energy industry works, and that it will become a dominant player in the field. It's such a niche player right now. What's going to change that?

Travis Bradford, founder and president, Prometheus Institute (Bradford): The thing that determines the energy choices we make are both the cost of generation and the cost of getting electricity from where it's made and to where it's needed. Solar is going to end up being cheaper in both regards.

By putting energy nearer to the point of use, solar is going to change the electricity network from a very centralized network - almost like a mainframe computer - to a very distributed network; more like wireless laptops, where a lot of the processing power is at the end of the network instead of in the middle. It has the ... ability to change the way the electricity architecture functions.

The economic and the system repercussions of that change are going to allow solar to become a dominant player in the energy architecture. In fact, it's the only technology that can do these things. Everything else is limited by the way the networks are built today.

HAI: Not wind?

Bradford: The amount of wind you can use, or the amount of or way of tidal energy you can use, are limited by the costs and source availability in the first place, and also by the network that's needed to take that energy from where it's generated to where it's needed. Solar is the only thing that can solve the limitations that the current network creates.

HAI: But solar's nowhere near cost-competitive? What do you say to the people who say it's just too expensive?

Bradford: Well, just that it's not true. Just because people say it, that doesn't mean it's true. [Right now] it's cost-effective for lots and lots of applications, and the industry is growing at 40%-50% per year.

But regardless of how expensive it is today, I'm talking about an evolution over the next decade or decades. Ten years from now, solar will be half the cost or less of what it is today, and grid prices will be at least the cost they are today or substantially higher. What is today marginally economic will become wildly economic over the next 10 years.

That's not to say that we have to wait 10 years from now until the industry takes off. Every day, more and more applications are becoming cost-effective.

HAI: But the numbers people cite on a per-kilowatt/hour basis are far higher than for other types of energy.

Bradford: When people say solar is too expensive, they make two fundamental errors. The first is that they compare the cost of generating solar to the cost of generating other forms of energy. The difference is that solar can be generated where it is used, while the other forms have costs that have to be sent back to the user. It's not an apple-to-apple comparison.

Anytime someone uses the cost of generating electricity to talk about solar, they're already using the wrong model. What matters is the cost of delivered electricity.

The second error people make is that they compare solar to the wrong thing. They compare solar generation to the average cost of displaced electricity. But solar doesn't displace average electricity - it displaces middle-of-the-day electricity, which is the most expensive electricity of all.

When you make the correct calculations with the correct assumptions, solar is not really as expensive as people might lead you to assume.

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