Better Batteries Will Make Solar Power a Real Threat to Fossil Fuels

If powering the world with the sun still sounds like science fiction, you're living in the past.

Presidencia de la República Mexicana / Flickr

Solar power is changing the world, and it’s happening faster than you think.

Naysayers will say that solar power is still barely a blip — accounting for just one percent of global electricity supply. They’ll insist that the world will never rely on a power source that doesn’t work when it’s cloudy.

As solar tech advances, so too does how we store that energy for later use (like when it’s cloudy). Together, batteries and solar panels are going to send fossil fuels back to the land of the dinosaurs.

The U.S. Department of Energy has recognized this and this week awarded $18 million toward six projects that will build networks of battery-backed solar energy in American communities.

What does the solar-powered future look like? The historic neighborhood of Bronzeville in Chicago might offer some clues. Electricity provider Commonwealth Edison Company has selected the area as a demonstration project for a whole bunch of smart power technologies, and was awarded $4 million from the Department of Energy purse toward that goal.

Solar panels will suck up energy from the sun, and batteries will store that power. Smart power inverters will move the energy efficiently between the solar panels, batteries, homes, and the main power grid.

Power in the neighborhood will be cheaper, since it can pull energy from the grid at off-peak times and store it locally. It will also be more reliable, since solar panels and stored power can be used in the event of a disruption to the main grid.

Consumers will see other cool technological advances, too, like streetlights that turn on only when pedestrians are present, and parking spot reservations that you can access from your phone.

For more than 20 years, global solar power capacity has been increasing at an exponential rate, doubling about every two years.

Consider how dramatically computer capacity and power has increased in your lifetime — solar technology has followed a similar trajectory. Oil becomes more expensive to discover, extract, and refine as the most accessible sources become exhausted. Solar, on the other hand, has seen plummeting costs in step with technological gains. In some parts of the world solar energy already costs less per unit of energy compared with fossil fuels.

Just as solar power has been dismissed as too expensive to be a real player in the electricity game, so have batteries as a means for energy storage. But batteries, like solar panels, are rapidly becoming cheaper and more powerful.

Tesla’s Powerwall is just one in a growing list of competing products for energy storage at a household scale.

The cool thing about batteries is that they make all kinds of power generation more efficient. If you have a hydroelectric dam, there’s no need to spill excess water beyond demand if you can capture and store the energy for later use. If you’re building diesel power plants, you can build smaller, since demand spikes can be softened thanks to readily available back up-power.

But it’s solar that is the battery’s true soulmate. If solar energy’s exponential growth rate continues apace with advancements in battery technology, the pair could meet the planet’s electricity needs in less than 20 years.

The future is sunny.

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