The Switch: good news on renewable energy by Chris Goodall

The full title of this book is The Switch: how solar, storage and new tech means cheap power for all. Not catchy, but encouraging. It’s a new book by Chris Goodall, and significantly he is an economist, not a technologist or a green activist.

His first key point of good news is that the cost of solar electricity is falling much faster than anyone predicted: it is now approaching cost parity with fossil fuels, and should become cheaper before long. Evidence supporting his view comes from the recent Ren21 global status report, which reports that worldwide clean energy investment in 2015, at £217bn was more than double the investment in fossil fuels at £99bn.

The most common dampener on the prospects for clean energy is the storage issue: what happens when the sun doesn’t shine and the wind doesn’t blow? Goodall reports on a major project which shows great promise at overcoming this issue, for both wind and solar.

Instead of trying to store the electricity itself in giant batteries, the idea is that surplus electricity, and also direct sunlight could be used to create liquid hydrocarbons which could then be used as fuel generally, and to create methane which could drive gas-fired power stations when direct output from wind and solar is low.

There is a major project exploring this, launched as the Global Apollo Program in 2015, and supported by 20 major governments at the Paris climate conference in December 2015: its aim is to produce liquid fuels and methane directly from carbon dioxide, by using sunlight, in effect a man-made version of photosynthesis.

Another exciting feature of this storage approach is that it offers a way of storing renewable energy for many months, so that the summer harvest can be used in the winter. Even Goodall accepts that it may take quite a few years before this new technology becomes widespread, but there seems to be general belief that it is viable, and will transform the renewable energy sector.