Watt’s Happening: Renewable Uptake

Don Pettit


If you’ve been reading my column from time to time, (and of course you have) it’s probably sinking in that the world energy scene is changing rapidly. Renewables are coming on strong, and for many good, solid economic reasons.

For this column I have chosen a few strong examples of the global renewable uptake: solar electricity is reaching “grid parity” around the world; investment in renewables is exceeding fossil investment across the board; and auto manufacturers are scrambling to catch up with the all-electric Tesla, now rated best car in world.


Grid parity means that the cost of solar electric power is equal to or less than the regular price of electricity bought from the grid. In other words, if you put a solar array on your roof and feed power into the grid for credit or cash, over the life of the system you will pay the same or less for power than if you just bought if off the grid. Grid parity has now been reached in China, California, Chile, Australia, Turkey, Israel, Germany, Japan, Italy, Spain, Greece and Mexico. This list will quickly become longer as the price of solar continues to decrease while the cost of conventional power continues to increase.

In 1976, solar panel power cost about $75 per watt; by 2002 it had dropped to $4 per watt, and today it hovers around $1 per watt. These dramatic price drops have been driven by huge increases in solar panel production to meet what appears to be a rapidly growing and almost limitless global demand.

Even big petrodollar countries are betting on solar. The Saudis are investing more than $100 billion in 41 GW of solar (41 billion watts, or 41,000 megawatts, roughly the equivalent of 41 Site C dams), and most of the other Gulf States also have big solar plans. Worldwide, investment in solar and wind power has now outstripped investment in new fossil fuel sources and nuclear plants combined. As Bloomberg New Energy Finance head Michael Liebreich puts it, “What we’re seeing is clean energy competitive with what I call alternative energy – fossil fuel energy.”


Consumer Report has declared the Tesla Model S its car of the year, scoring the vehicle at 99 out of 100, higher than any of the other 259 vehicles tested. Inventor and Tesla CEO Elon Musk not only produces the best EV (electric vehicle) the editors said, he makes the best car you can buy, period.

Tesla has also liberated all of its patents to the public domain. “It is impossible for Tesla to build electric cars fast enough to address the carbon crisis,” said Musk. Replacing the world’s existing stock of billions of fossil cars with electrics as quickly as possible will require a massive effort, one the other car manufacturers are not serious about, he says. “We believe that Tesla, other companies making electric cars, and the world would all benefit from a common, rapidly evolving technology platform.” Wow, this should be interesting!

For its part, GM will invest some $450 million to streamline a plant in Michigan where it assembles Chevrolet Volt and Cadillac EL electric vehicles, in addition to a factory that builds lithium batteries for the cars. Tesla’s stock is now trading around $237; GM’s is at $36.

Other manufacturers are also scrambling to catch up. BMW, citing brisk sales of its i3 EV, is ramping up production to 100,000 units per year by 2020. Tesla is targeting 500,000 per year by the same date.

Electric bicycles and scooters have long held a strong market share, but now Harley Davidson has launched a tour that will invite customers to test drive 22 new prototype electric motorcycles in 30 cities across the U.S. For power and acceleration, electric bikes will leave fossil bikes in the dust, (electric motors go from zero to full power in a split second) but public acceptance of this “quiet bike revolution” has yet to be proven.

Meanwhile, the all-electric Drayston B12 race car has set a world record in the U.K. What does an electric race car sound like at 200 MPH? Whoooooooooosssssshhhhh!

Think of that as the sound of renewables sweeping onto the energy scene. Clean, quiet and powerful. Whooooossshhh!