A few years ago solar panels were clunky, expensive and not very efficient. Just like that ancient Macintosh computer stored in the garage. Over the past few years the cost of solar has dropped at an incredible rate – partly through improvements in technology and manufacturing and partly because when you make more (especially in China) it gets cheaper over time. In fact solar technology costs have fallen by 90% since 2008! World solar generating capacity is growing at 42% every year, doubling every 2.5 years.
Every other source of energy - oil, coal, nuclear and natural gas - has increased in price by 6 to 16 times since 1970. The output per dollar for solar panels (the amount of electricity generated per dollar of cost) has improved over 3000 times compared to oil, 2600 times relative to nuclear and nearly 3000 times relative to natural gas – and it’s getting cheaper every year. You see where this is going?
What’s the tipping point? It’s when the cost of solar power gets cheaper for the utilities – this is called “grid parity” and we are getting really close. In many parts of the U.S. the cost of solar for residential customers is the same as it costs to buy power from the utility. Within a few years it will be cheaper for utilities to buy solar power wholesale compared to other sources.
Energy storage is the next step. We need batteries to store power when the sun isn’t shining or to buy power when it’s cheap and use it when it’s more costly. Lithium Ion battery costs are declining by 16% per year - and will get cheaper when the Tesla GigaFactory in Nevada comes online in 2020 capable of producing batteries for 500,000 cars per year. When you buy a new home, by 2020 it will cost an average of $6,000 to have enough battery storage to power your home for 48 hours. If you just add that to the mortgage with the cost of solar panels, the financing cost will be just $1.20 a day on average – and no more electric bills!
Electric cars are coming too. Tesla’s Model 3 was announced with a $35,000 starting price for 2017 shipment and range over 200 miles. 40% of the cost of the electric vehicle is the batteries, which are declining 16% per year. By 2030 you should be able to buy Tesla Model S performance for $15-20,000. But since electric cars are basically iPads on wheels, you might buy a car from Apple, or Xiaomi in China, or FoxConn (who assembles the iPhones).
All of these cars will have self-driving capabilities. People will still choose to drive because they enjoy it, and traditional cars aren’t going away anytime soon, but we will have the choice to drive or be driven automatically. Already companies like Uber, Google, Tesla and Apple are leading the charge (and the traditional automakers are adapting) so that there will be fleets of self-driving cars that people can share – use them when you need, and pay for only what you use.
Get ready for changes to come fast. It took only 13 years for the gasoline powered automobile to completely replace horses between 1913 and 1926. We’ve got changes of similar scope ahead – and we will all be living in a cleaner, smarter world.
Ed Maguire has worked as an equity analyst covering the technology sector since 1999 for a variety of firms including CLSA Americas, Merrill Lynch and CIBC. Previously he led sales for independent music distributor Twinbrook Music while working as professional musician performing on bass, violin and keyboards, composing, arranging and producing a variety of styles of music. Ed holds a B.A. in Music from Columbia and an M.B.A. from Rutgers in Finance and Management Information Systems. He lives in Millburn, NJ with his wife Lily, their two kids and the dog Spock.
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