The Nobel Prize-winning physicist Steven Chu is stepping down as Energy Secretary. For four years, he was the guru of keeping America's lights on, keeping the factories chugging, and deciding how we should do both well into the future. And he wanted more solar power.
With the rest of Washington perennially obsessed with fossil fuels, Chu was concerned above all else with securing the nation an affordable, sustainable, and abundant supply of clean energy. As a scientist, Chu recognized the threats posed by climate change, and understood the urgency with which they should be addressed.
So he launched the SunShot initiative in 2011, which “drives research, manufacturing, and market solutions to make the abundant solar energy resources in the United States more affordable and accessible for Americans.” Modeled after the ethos of JFK’s Moon Shot, Chu hoped to inspire a race towards clean, affordable solar technology. And he managed to make some serious headway.
As sort of a farewell gesture to the clean energy wonks that were so thrilled to see him take office in the first place, Chu participated in a small Google Hangout last Friday. He discussed the impact of his SunShot initiative, and, to some extent, his legacy as energy chief. And he made it clear that he's convinced that solar has a most promising future.
“We’re following a learning curve, we see at least a decade of continuous improvement,” he said, noting that we’re seeing the price of solar in Power Purchase Agreements, or the contracts between energy producers and buyers, plummeting. “Now its 14-15 cents per kilowatt hour, going on 11-12. It’s a very exciting downward trend.”
Chu discussed how major technological advances in solar power have increased the efficiency of solar panels, and how much more energy they are now able to convert into electricity.
“In 2004, the cost of utility scale solar power was $8 a watt,” he said. “Now it is below $3, maybe even $2.50. The SunShot goal is $1.00 per watt. That’s everything—the installation, the panels.”
This is the result of the manufacturing and deployment processes for solar scaling up and getting streamlined over the last ten years or so—panels are cheaper, the regulatory frameworks are easier to navigate, and there’s greater investor confidence in solar projects. “Large solar projects have become what we call ‘bankable’,” Chu said.
As a result, Chu portends a very near future where solar is indeed just as cheap as any other power source.
“This is not something that’s going to happen 20-30 years from today,” he said. “This is going to happen 10 years from today. Maybe sooner.”
Chu also advocated finding “new ways of thinking” about the way we get our electricity altogether. He suggested we move towards distributed generation, as opposed to the monolithic central power plant system that runs most of the U.S., and that utilities should consider installing solar panels on consumer’s rooftops and batteries in their homes. Consumers would benefit from being largely off the grid and “blackout immune” he said, and utilities could diversify their power supply.
Chu’s confidence in solar is refreshing—at a moment when the lion’s share of energy investment is pouring into fracking and natural gas, he remains confident that solar technology will pull even. We can do it faster with better policy, he notes. The bottom line is that, according to Chu, solar power is already a completely viable mass energy source: it’s technologically mature and just about cheap enough to give dirty coal and gas a run for its money.
“We’re going further than reaching for the moon,” Chu said, “we’re going for the sun.”