In 1980 the generation of solar power using a state-of-art photovoltaic (solar) cell cost about $30 per watt. Today, we can generate the same one watt of power for about 75 cents. These costs are expected to decline further and together with the obvious advantages of solar power will likely make it the method of power generation of choice before the decade is out.
Jobs in the current solar industry are now beginning to increase at a good rate, and investment is beginning to climb steadily as well. Total solar capacity is beginning to increase as well, as the cost and efficiency of solar power generation moves toward parity with or begins to exceed all other forms of energy generation. Government subsidies should soon not be required to make solar power generation the method of choice.
Today — or almost any day — the amount of solar energy hitting the United States in a single day contains more than two times the total amount of energy the nation consumes in a whole year. Fortunately, we don’t need to capture all of that sunlight to power our needs today or any day. We need only capture about 1/700th the amount of energy hitting the U.S. on the day we need it.
In a paper in Scientific American about five years ago it was suggested that a complete solar system for the nation could be obtained with about ten percent of the available government land in the American Southwest. The authors also suggested that might be accomplished within about 20 years for an acceptable cost. The reason it would take a while is because it was assumed we would need to improve efficiency, learn how to store the power gathered from the sun more efficiently as we went along and also build a completely new energy transmission and storage system across the U.S. to get the power fairly distributed throughout the entire country.
Now, five years later, we seem to be well underway. We may not achieve the system envisioned above, but we should achieve a mostly solar system by about 2030. Most likely this will be a combination of centrallized large output solar fields in the Southwest with considerable single residence and business solar systems created across the land and coordinated within the new power grid directly. We’ll certainly have some power generation using geothermal, wind and other clean or reasonably clean methods as well.
In the next 15-20 years we will likely decommission at least a third of our existing coal plants or more and and also reduce the mining of new coal, except for coals that are even modestly enriched in rare earth metals. After those coals are burned in power plants, the ash derived from the burning will be enriched in those metals. They will be extracted and purified as some of them will be useful in generating high efficiency solar photovoltaic panels. Workers displaced from coal mining will be able to work in some area of the solar industry. Of course, we will have to burn some coal to generate the rare-earth-metal-concentrated ash. The level of concentration of the metals in coal ash makes it comparable or better than trying to find acceptably concentrated rare-earth ore veins, of which there seem to be very few in the U.S. In any event, it seems as though the coal industry will not completely disappear, but it should down-size considerably. That will also give us time to clean up the coal ash pits dotting the American landscape as well as the remaining pollution caused by burning coal in this country over the last two centuries.
We will certainly decontaminate and decommission many old nuclear reactors over the next 15-20 years as well. We still have the problem of radioactive waste to consider as well. One serious issue is that here as well as in other countries there are a number of reactors built near the sea coast or on unstable ground. It would be wise to decontaminate and decommission these first. It’s unlikely we will build many additional reactors unless we are above to tame nuclear fusion and build nonpolluting reactors based on that process.
For oil and gas, we should also begin to burn less and less over time. However, some oil and gas will be needed for heating homes and businesses and for driving old cars and trucks. Even so, by 2030 heat generation by solar means may become more efficient than it is presently. Also, the shift to, electric and/or hydrogen run autos and trucks may be quicker than I suspect it will be.