While Google nailed the switch from R&D to deployment, it arguably still bet big on scaling up the wrong technology. In the early 2010s, the solar race looked like a tight competition between solar photovoltaic (PV) and utility-scale concentrated solar power (CSP), which uses sun-heated fluids to drive power turbines. Google quickly invested more than $1 billion in a slew of renewables companies and utilities, including big investments in CSP outfits BrightSource Energy and eSolar. A decade later, such choices aren’t looking promising, as CSP, too, has been losing out to PV’s continuing rapid cost declines.
Google is not alone in repeatedly misjudging the dropping price of solar cells over the last few decades and its impact on how we think about clean energy. Solar PV costs fell roughly by a factor of 10 in the past decade, on top of already impressive cost declines up to that point, for a total decline of around a factor of a hundred since US President Jimmy Carter unveiled solar panels on the White House in 1979. (Ronald Reagan took them down in 1986, during his second term as president.)
To put it in perspective, if gasoline had similarly dropped in price from 1979 levels, it would cost pennies a gallon today. Gasoline, of course, is a commodity, with prices fluctuating for a number of technological, economic, and political reasons. Solar PV prices are also driven by all these factors, but over the years, technology has clearly dominated. (This year, prices for solar PV modules have increased by around 18% because of a temporary crunch in the silicon supply chain.)
In its latest annual World Energy Outlook, the International Energy Agency declared solar PV to be “the cheapest source of electricity in history” for sunny locales with a low cost of financing. These two qualifications are important. Sun is obvious—solar is always going to be cheaper in Phoenix, Arizona, than in New York City—but the report concluded that solar is now cheaper than coal and natural gas in many places.
Financing is key to why this is true. Solar PV and other renewables such as wind have low or close-to-zero operating expenses—upfront costs have always been the big hurdle, and financing has been a big reason why. Thanks in part to various government policies, solar investment has become much less risky over the last decade or so, freeing up cheap money.
As a result, solar PV deployment has increased rapidly; it’s now the fastest-growing source of electricity globally, and figures to be for some time to come. It’s starting from a low base of installed capacity, however, far behind coal, gas, hydro, nuclear—even wind, which has been cheap for longer. And therein lies one of the biggest problems for solar PV. It might be the cheapest form of electricity for many, but that on its own doesn’t make the clean-energy transition nearly quick enough.
We need ever further technological advances. Why stop at grid parity, the point where it’s as cheap to build and operate solar PV as to supply electricity via fossil energy sources? Why not 10% cheaper? Why not strive to slash costs by another factor of 10 within a decade? Such drops are needed because the hallowed grid-parity goal is misleading—the real question is at what point utilities will actually abandon existing coal plants and switch to solar, rather than merely avoid adding new coal capacity. Solar needs to be so cheap it makes financial sense to build new solar capacity and shutter working coal and gas plants still making money for their owners.
All that calls for policy to both push existing solar technology and support R&D in new technologies. The entire package includes technology research, development, demonstration, deployment, and diffusion. Every step along this chain deserves direct government support, keeping in mind that it also gets increasingly more expensive the further down the chain one moves.
How to get cheaper
To better optimize investments to get to even cheaper solar, it’s worthwhile to understand what factors have driven down the cost of renewable power over the last few decades.
MIT energy systems scientist Jessika Trancik and her group find that the dramatic cost declines in solar cells over the course of three decades can largely be attributed to three factors: R&D leading directly to improvements in module efficiency (how much of the sunlight is converted into electricity) and other fundamental technological advances; economies of scale attributed to the size of solar-cell manufacturing plants and the increasing volume of inputs such as silicon; and improvements achieved through learning by doing.
None of that is too surprising, but what is less obvious is that the relative contribution of each varies greatly over time. From 1980 to 2000, R&D accounted for around 60% of cost declines, with economies of scale coming in at 20%, and learning by doing a distant third at around 5%; other largely unattributable factors account for the balance. That makes sense; it was a period of impressive advances in the efficiencies of solar cells but not a time of significant manufacturing and deployment. Since then, the pendulum has swung from R&D and fundamental technological improvements toward economies of scale in manufacturing, now accounting for over 40% of cost declines. It’s worth noting, however, that research advances still account for some 40% of declines.
The lesson for future investments that aim to make solar even cheaper: there should be direct support for all three, skewed toward economies-of-scale factors. Trancik’s findings only consider the solar PV module itself. That still leaves installation, connection to the grid, and other factors that make up total system costs. These are areas that will likely be improved as technicians and companies become more experienced. While the results of subsidies for increasing solar PV installations appear to be mixed at best, policies such as feed-in tariffs, which offer favorable long-term contracts to solar PV producers, and renewable portfolio or clean energy standards, which set quantity targets for renewables, show clear results in driving overall deployment.
No free lunch
Despite the dropping price of solar, the transition to renewables will still be costly. The big question, of course, is how expensive compared with what—climate change, too, comes with costs. Cheap solar gets even more financially attractive to developers if the social and environmental costs of carbon emissions from fossil fuels are considered.
A lot here hinges on the social cost of carbon (SCC), a tally of the financial damage each metric ton of carbon dioxide emitted today causes to the economy, society, and the environment—and, by extension, how much each ton of CO2 emitted should cost. It’s a number that says a lot about the true cost of coal and other fossil fuels—and about the appropriate support for solar PV and other renewables.
Yann LeCun has a bold new vision for the future of AI
Melanie Mitchell, an AI researcher at the Santa Fe Institute, is also excited to see a whole new approach. “We really haven’t seen this coming out of the deep-learning community so much,” she says. She also agrees with LeCun that large language models cannot be the whole story. “They lack memory and internal models of the world that are actually really important,” she says.
Natasha Jaques, a researcher at Google Brain, thinks that language models should still play a role, however. It’s odd for language to be entirely missing from LeCun’s proposals, she says: “We know that large language models are super effective and bake in a bunch of human knowledge.”
Jaques, who works on ways to get AIs to share information and abilities with each other, points out that humans don’t have to have direct experience of something to learn about it. We can change our behavior simply by being told something, such as not to touch a hot pan. “How do I update this world model that Yann is proposing if I don’t have language?” she asks.
There’s another issue, too. If they were to work, LeCun’s ideas would create a powerful technology that could be as transformative as the internet. And yet his proposal doesn’t discuss how his model’s behavior and motivations would be controlled, or who would control them. This is a weird omission, says Abhishek Gupta, the founder of the Montreal AI Ethics Institute and a responsible-AI expert at Boston Consulting Group.
“We should think more about what it takes for AI to function well in a society, and that requires thinking about ethical behavior, amongst other things,” says Gupta.
Yet Jaques notes that LeCun’s proposals are still very much ideas rather than practical applications. Mitchell says the same: “There’s certainly little risk of this becoming a human-level intelligence anytime soon.”
LeCun would agree. His aim is to sow the seeds of a new approach in the hope that others build on it. “This is something that is going to take a lot of effort from a lot of people,” he says. “I’m putting this out there because I think ultimately this is the way to go.” If nothing else, he wants to convince people that large language models and reinforcement learning are not the only ways forward.
“I hate to see people wasting their time,” he says.
The Download: Yann LeCun’s AI vision, and smart cities’ unfulfilled promises
“We’re addicted to being on Facebook.”
—Jordi Berbera, who runs a pizza stand in Mexico City, tells Rest of World why he has turned to selling his wares through the social network instead of through more conventional food delivery apps.
The big story
“Am I going crazy or am I being stalked?” Inside the disturbing online world of gangstalking
Jenny’s story is not linear, the way that we like stories to be. She was born in Baltimore in 1975 and had a happy, healthy childhood—her younger brother Danny fondly recalls the treasure hunts she would orchestrate. In her late teens, she developed anorexia and depression and was hospitalized for a month. Despite her struggles, she graduated high school and was accepted into a prestigious liberal arts college.
There, things went downhill again. Among other issues, chronic fatigue led her to drop out. When she was 25 she flipped that car on Florida’s Sunshine Skyway Bridge in an apparent suicide attempt. At 30, after experiencing delusions that she was pregnant, she was diagnosed with schizophrenia. She was hospitalized for half a year and began treatment, regularly receiving shots of an antipsychotic drug. “It was like having my older sister back again,” Danny says.
On July 17, 2017, Jenny jumped from the tenth floor of a parking garage at Tampa International Airport. After her death, her family searched her hotel room and her apartment, but the 42-year-old didn’t leave a note. “We wanted to find a reason for why she did this,” Danny says. And so, a week after his sister’s death, Danny—a certified ethical hacker—decided to look for answers on Jenny’s computer. He found she had subscribed to hundreds of gangstalking groups across Facebook, Twitter, and Reddit; online communities where self-described “targeted individuals” say they are being monitored, harassed, and stalked 24/7 by governments and other organizations—and the internet legitimizes them. Read the full story.
The US Supreme Court has overturned Roe v. Wade. What does that mean?
Access to legal abortion is now subject to state laws, allowing each state to decide whether to ban, restrict or allow abortion. Some parts of the country are much stricter than others—Arkansas, Oklahoma and Kentucky are among the 13 states with trigger laws that immediately made abortion illegal in the aftermath of the ruling. In total, around half of states are likely to either ban or limit access to the procedure, with many of them refusing to make exceptions, even in pregnancies involving rape, incest and fetuses with genetic abnormalities. Many specialized abortion clinics may be forced to close their doors in the next few days and weeks.
While overturning Roe v Wade will not spell an end to abortion in the US, it’s likely to lower its rates, and force those seeking them to obtain them using different methods. People living in states that ban or heavily restrict abortions may consider travelling to other areas that will continue to allow them, although crossing state lines can be time-consuming and prohibitively expensive for many people facing financial hardship.
The likelihood that anti-abortion activists will use surveillance and data collection to track and identify people seeking abortions is also higher following the decision. This information could be used to criminalize them, making it particularly dangerous for those leaving home to cross state lines.
Vigilante volunteers already stake out abortion clinics in states including Mississippi, Florida and North Carolina, filming people’s arrival on cameras and recording details about them and their cars. While they deny the data is used to harass or contact people seeking abortions, experts are concerned that footage filmed of clients arriving and leaving clinics could be exploited to target and harm them, particularly if law enforcement agencies or private groups were to use facial recognition to identify them.
Another option is to order so-called abortion pills to discreetly end a pregnancy at home. The pills, which are safe and widely prescribed by doctors, are significantly less expensive than surgical procedures, and already account for the majority of abortions in the US.