Letter from Shanghai: the Solar Disruption is Accelerating!

Huawei SolarThe solar disruption is accelerating. I spent last week in Shanghai, where I attended the SNEC PV Power Expo 2015 and had the opportunity to meet with a number of global solar executives in China. Here are a few highlights and thoughts from the show.

1- Solar PV costs going down fast.

Solar PV production costs are about 45 ¢/W, according to Arturo Herrero, Chief Strategy Officer at JinkoSolar, a tier 1 Chinese PV manufacturer. Market prices are as low as 55 ¢/W for larger projects (80+MW) in markets without significant tariffs or anti-dumping measures (like the US), according to Mr. Herrero.

Tier-2 manufacturers generally compete on price so they have to sell for even less. I heard from several sources that tier-2 manufacturers are shipping product for less than 50 ¢/W.


2- Information Technology merging with Solar.

One of the premises of my book “Clean Disruption of Energy and Transportation” is that solar is a technology and, as such, it’s governed by information economics and the increasing returns that characterize information products.

Huawei, the $46 billion (2014 revenues) telecommunications company has entered the solar market in a big way. At the SNEC PV show Huawei showed its “Smart PV Plant Management System”, a power plant monitoring solution that combines string inverters, smart loggers, wireless communication equipment, and a grid management center to monitor the power plants.

The marketing manager I spoke with at the show told me that Huawei had shipped 4 GW of smart PV plant product in 2014 and expected to ship 10 GW in 2015, which I found hard to believe. The company’s product collateral did say that the company had 5.5 GW in orders and 4GW in shipments for 2014.

Whatever the numbers are, Internet companies are finding out that the distributed technology nature of solar is very much in tune with the distributed nature of information technology.


3- China has achieved critical mass in solar PV manufacturing.

The SNEC solar expo was far larger than any solar expo I have been to. More than 150,000 attendees came to Shanghai to visit 1,500 companies covering 180,000 square meters of exhibition space. By comparison, Intersolar Europe 2014 had 42,300 attendees who came to visit 1,100 companies covering 88,000 m2 of exhibition space.

Most of the companies at the show were Chinese and they represented nearly every aspect of the solar PV manufacturing supply chain. China has probably achieved a critical mass in solar PV – which feeds the virtuous cycle of further gains in scale and innovation that lead to even lower production costs.


4- China is already the world’s largest PV market.

China installed more than 5 GW of new solar capacity the first quarter of this year. ([i]) This is just under the 5.6 GW that France has installed in its whole history. ([ii]) China is planning to install a total of 17.8 GW in 2015 which is just under the 18.3 GW that the United States had installed in history as of the end of 2014. ([iii])

By becoming both the world’s largest manufacturer and the world’s largest market, China can further increase innovation advantages that accrue when co-locating R&D, manufacturing and markets. This can push the PV learning curve even further – which leads to even lower cost of solar.

As PV costs keep going down, the solar disruption around the globe will accelerate even more.

SNEC Solar Expo 2015

SNEC Solar Expo 2015




5- Clean Disruption, Internet Disruption and Solar Disruption

Solar energy is pushing energy production, storage, and management to the edges (customer sites) from the center (centralized power plants). These distributed solar sites are getting smaller, smarter, more modular and connected.

The solar disruption has many of the same characteristics of the information technology disruption. Just like the Internet turned our information publishing world from centralized to distributed, we’re headed toward a distributed architecture of energy made possible not just by solar and storage, but also by software, sensors, artificial intelligence, mobile internet, big data, satellites, nanotechnology, artificial intelligence, and other exponentially improving technology.

Extraction-based economics (based on scarcity and increasing marginal costs) have no chance against solar and information-based economics (based on abundance and decreasing marginal costs.)

The solar disruption is accelerating!






“It’s a one-two Punch” PV Magazine 4-page interview with Tony Seba


PV Magazine Cover, January 2015 issue.

The solar industry is starting to believe. Solar is a disruptive technology and, when combined with other disruptive technologies such as electric vehicles and self-driving cars it will disrupt the energy infrastructure.

PV Magazine interviewed me about the Clean Disruption, the future of energy and the role that solar PV is playing in that disruption.

Here’s one of the questions that Edgar Meza asked me. The magazine has kindly allowed me to share the entire interview in PDF form here.

What characteristics of PV make it disruptive?

Here are several characteristics of PV that make it disruptive

1-  PV dematerializes energy. To understand this concept, think of how digital photography disrupted film photography. With digital imaging, photography went from atoms (film) to bits (digital), from something material that you had to manufacture for every single picture to something immaterial that is essentially free. Today energy is like film photography was in the 20th century. Every time you flip a switch you burn fossil fuels or uranium. Every time you hit the car pedal you burn petroleum. Solar PV dematerializes energy by turning the sunshine photons directly into electrons and bits. You don’t burn anything to charge your computer. The same thing happens if you charge your electric vehicle with solar energy.

2-  PV demonetizes energy. Again, think of digital cameras disrupting film photography. Each time you took a picture you burned film so Kodak made money. Then if you actually wanted to look at the picture you had to pay more money to Kodak for the paper and the chemicals that went into processing the film. With digital photography the cost of taking each additional picture, storing it, sharing it, and watching it is essentially zero. This is exactly what solar PV does to energy. Once you install a PV power plant the marginal cost of energy is essentially zero. Just like Kodak could not compete with a marginal cost of zero, there is no way on earth that energy companies can compete with solar marginal cost of zero.

3-  PV has increasing returns. PV is a technology whose costs have gone down by roughly 22% every two years for decades. Essentially the more PV is adopted the more everyone benefits from everyone else’s adoption of PV.

4-  PV is scale-free. The same technology works to power a 1W light bulb, a 1kW house, a 1MW business, a 10MW factory, a 100 MW town, a 1 GW city and a 100 GW country. This is much like information technology is scale free: our mobile phones, laptop computer and the most massive data centers work with similar modular technology building blocks.

5-  It flips the architecture of energy. PV essentially flips the architecture of energy the way that the web flipped the architecture of publishing. In the old days publishing used to be done by a few companies who owned large centralized printers. They decided what would be published and pushed it down to the users. Now everyone with a Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn account is a publisher. The same dynamics work for PV: everyone can generate energy as well as information.

When you combine these disruptive characteristics of PV with the complementary disruptive characteristics of electric vehicles, it’s a one-two punch that conventional energy companies will not be able to survive.

Please read the whole interview with PV Magazine Interview with Tony Seba Jan 2014.

Wellington, NZ, Parliament - Beehive

Anticipating and Leading Market Disruptions in New Zealand

After my trip to Korea, I came back to New Zealand to teach my 2-day “Anticipating and Leading Market Disruption” workshop, talk to policy-makers and attend a board meeting. Here’s a quick rundown:

1. Callaghan Innovation – “Anticipating and Leading Market Disruption” in Auckland

Back in September (2014) Callaghan Innovation brought me to New Zealand to teach a 1-day

Copyright Tony Seba 2014

Orams Marine Services Auckland

workshop titled Anticipating and Leading Market Disruption”. (Here’s the Sept seminar flyer.) The overwhelming feedback was: ‘we want more’. So this time I came back to Auckland to teach a full 2-day workshop. Here’s the flyer: Anticipating Leading Market Disruption Workshop Auckland 2-day Agenda Nov2014.

The difference between the 1-day workshop and the 2-day workshop is that the second day is mostly hands-on. In addition to the topics covered during the first day, I talk about the “Open Disruption” and participants get to build two separate businesses using the frameworks and tools that I tech in the workshop. The first business is based on ideas, technologies, or products that they were working on prior to coming to this course. Then they get to build a business from scratch using only open disruption tools and technologies.

This workshop is the 2-day version of the course by the same name I teach at Stanford University. This time we held the workshop Nov 25-26, 2014, at Oram’s Marina in Auckland.

2. Callaghan Innovation – “Anticipating and Leading Market Disruption” keynote and conversation in Wellington

I flew to Wellington, New Zealand, to talk about “Anticipating and Leading Market Disruption” to policy makers at the Ministry of Business, Innovation, and Employment on Thursday, Nov 27.

My presentation was similar to this “Anticipating and Leading Market Disruption” keynote expanded to touch on technologies like Synthetic Biology and Bioprinting. The next 10-15 years will be the most disruptive time in history. Dairy and meat products are by far New Zealand’s main export industries and it was important for me to show how synthetic biology and bioprinting could disrupt a third of the country’s export in the foreseeable future.

3. CloudM – “Anticipating and Leading Market Disruption” keynote and conversation in Wellington

I went back to Auckland to spend quality time with CloudM.  We had a board meeting in addition to strategy sessions, year-end review, and planning for 2015.

4. RadioLive  Interview

Andrew Patterson interviewed me for a RadioLive piece on disruption and entrepreneurship in the New Zealand context. What does the ‘Clean Disruption of Energy and Transportation’ mean for NZ? How might new technologies disrupt the milk industry? Is NZ prepared for the coming disruptions?  Here’s the RadioLive audio of the interview.

I’m looking forward to going back to New Zealand in 2015!

Tony Seba Speaking at the Global Leaders Forum, Seoul, Korea, Nov 19th, 2014

Speaking at the Global Leaders Forum 2014 in Seoul, Korea

I had the pleasure of participating in The Global Leaders Forum 2014 in Seoul, Korea as a speaker and moderator. The main keynote speaker on day 1 (Nov 19th) Technion Professor Dan Schechtman who won the Nobel Prize in 2011 for his discovery of ‘quasicrystals’.

Technology: Creative Thinking” with four world-class thinkers and entrepreneurs:

  • William Hallal, Founder of TechCast Global and Professor at George Washington University,
  • Patri Friedman, Founder and Chair of the Seasteading Institute,
  • Daryl Oster, CEO of ET3 (Evacuated Tube Transport Technologies) and
  • Alex Min, Cofounder of Terafugia.

All their talks were fascinating and I recommend you visit these websites.

I was then interviewed by Chosun Biz, which published a story here.


New Zealand and the Clean Disruption of Public and Private Transportation

I recently had the opportunity to give my “Clean Disruption of Public and Private Transportation” talk in Auckland, New Zealand.  A sold-out crowd of 500 people packed the beautiful new Viaduct Events Center in the city’s vibrant Wynyard Quarter.

The talk was widely covered in both the mainstream and trade media. The New Zealand Herald, the country’s largest newspaper, interviewed me and published an article with the following headline: “2030: No Drivers, No Traffic Jams”.

Energy News also interviewed me and wrote an article titled “EVs to Dominate Global Car Market by 2030” (subscription required.)

The full video of my talk is here.Clean Disruption of Public and Private Transportation – Auckland Conversations – July 15th, 2014


Tony Seba author of Clean Disruption of Energy and Transportation

How to Lose $40 Trillion

IEA: Invest in Conventional Energy

The International Energy Agency recently released a report calling for $40 trillion in new investments to meet the world’s energy needs until 2035 [1].

There are three main components in the IEA investment scenario:

  • Oil would get  $13.7 trillion
  • Gas would get $8.8 trillion, and
  • The Power Sector would get $16 trillion.

In other words, according to the IEA, the future of energy is basically like the past.

Their alternative “New Policies Scenario” offers a few minor adjustments for nuclear, carbon capture and storage (CCS), and ‘renewables’.  Even in this worst-case scenario, neither solar nor wind is large enough to get its own line item.  They’re both lumped together as just ‘renewables’.

Losing $40 trillion

But the future of energy will not be like the past.  Not even close.

If the IEA had made a 20-year projection of the phone market starting in 1995, they would have said that landline phones would dominate the market by 2015.  In this investment report, the mobile phone market would not have been large enough to deserve its own line item. Voice over IP would not even be mentioned.  Mobile and VOIP telephony would have been lumped together in the ‘other’ category. Disruption? What is that?

Overwhelming  evidence points in one clear direction:  the industrial age of energy and transportation will be over by 2030. Maybe before.  Exponentially improving technologies such as solar, electric vehicles, and autonomous (self-driving) cars will disrupt and sweep away the energy and transportation industries as we know it. This disruption is inevitable and it will be swift. This is the Clean Disruption of Energy and Transportation.

The same Silicon Valley ecosystem that has created bit-based technologies that have dematerialized and disrupted many atom-based industries (like book publishing and film photography) is now creating bit- and electron-based technologies that will dematerialize and disrupt atom-based energy industries (like oil, gas, coal, and nuclear).

Exponential growth usually goes undetected and disrespected by the mainstream market (and media) until it’s too late for incumbents to react.

The global market for solar panels has been growing at a compound rate of 43% since the year 2000. [2] Should solar continue on that growth path and it will essentially provide all of the world’s energy by 2030.  Solar costs keep going down while conventional energy costs keep going up. The cost of solar PV has dropped by a factor of 154 since 1970. At the same time every single form of energy has gone up in costs.  Solar costs have dropped by more than 5,300 times relative to oil and 1,500 times relative to nuclear since 1970. Even ‘cheap’ natural gas costs in the US have gone up by more than 2,200 times relative to solar.

Solar PV exponential cost improvement

Solar PV Cost Improvement vs Conventional Energy since 1970

From “Grid Parity” to “God Parity”

Unsubsidized solar is already cheaper than subsidized conventional energy in hundreds of markets around the world.  And solar PV will drop by another two thirds by 2020. “Grid Parity” is a done deal. You might even consider it old news.

I’m now looking forward to ‘God Parity’. By 2020, rooftop solar in sunny areas like the US Southwest will generate electricity onsite at less than the cost of transmission and distribution.  This bears repeating, a house, a business, or a Big Box store in Los Angeles, CA, or Phoenix, AZ, will generate solar for less than what their centralized generation utilities charge the ratepayer for transmission and distribution costs. This means that it won’t matter how much these conventional generation facilities cost.  The cost of generation plus the network (transmission and distribution) will be more expensive than onsite solar generation. How many utility executives are losing sleep over Walmart generating its own solar electricity, let alone getting into the electricity retail business?

Even if the utilities miraculously invented a new technology that used the ‘God Particle’ to generate electricity at a cost of zero  (remember the nuclear promises of ‘too cheap to meter’?) they will not be able to compete with solar self-generation. When the cost of the network (transmission and distribution) is higher than the cost of rooftop solar generation the market will hit “God Parity”. This will start happening around 2020. Watch this video for the logic behind these numbers. [2] Centralized generation utilities will not have a business model at that point. Most utility generation assets will be stranded. Coal power plants? Stranded assets. Nuclear power plants? Stranded assets. Bankruptcies and conventional energy assets will go hand in hand.

The only way utilities might even stay alive after that is to work through the regulatory system to maximize short-term cash flow at the expense of ratepayers.  Utilities may not like distributed solar, but they will sure try to make money from this exponentially growing market without investing a single dime. Solar taxes, anyone?

The Electric Vehicle and Autonomous (Self-Driving) Car Disruptions

The 185-page IEA report on the future of energy investments mentions the electric vehicle once: the EV gets a small slice of the ‘low-carbon technologies and energy efficiency’ scenario (plus a whole footnote!) The autonomous (self-driving) car is not mentioned at all. Not once. Do you want a comparison? If the IEA had been hired in 1995 to develop a 20-year projection of the future of information technology, it would have mentioned the Internet just once (with a footnote). The IEA report would not have mentioned the Web at all. Not once. The future would have been just like the past. The IEA also would have wanted you to invest in Kodak, Borders, and Ma Bell.

Electric Vehicle Charging Stations at SAP HQ in Palo Alto, CA.

Electric Vehicle Charging Stations at SAP HQ in Palo Alto, CA.

In Clean Disruption I write about the reasons why the electric vehicle and the autonomous car are disruptive and when the disruption will take place. It’s all based on exponentially improving technology cost trends. My conclusion based on that data is that by 2030 essentially all mass-market vehicles will be electric. Furthermore, all cars will be autonomous or semi-autonomous.

Internal combustion engine (ICE) car companies will get their Kodak moment sooner than they think.  Gasoline will be obsolete. Trillions of dollars in fossil fuel investments will be stranded.

The trillion-dollar Canadian Oil Sands? Stranded assets. The Keystone pipeline? Stranded assets.

Energy and the Stone Age

The Stone Age did not end because we ran out of rocks. It ended because a disruptive technology ushered in the Bronze Age.

The era of centralized, command-and-control, extraction-resource-based energy sources (oil, gas, coal and nuclear) will not end because we run out of petroleum, natural gas, coal, or uranium. It will end because these energy sources, the business models they employ, and the products that sustain them will be disrupted by superior technologies, new product architectures, and business models.

This is a technology-based disruption reminiscent of how the cell phone, Internet, and personal computer swept away industries such as landline telephony, publishing, and film photography. Just like those technology disruptions flipped the architecture of information and brought abundant, cheap and participatory information, the clean disruption will flip the architecture of energy and bring abundant, cheap and participatory energy. Just like those previous technology disruptions, the clean disruption is inevitable and it will be swift. It will be over by 2030. Maybe before.

Don’t believe in the Clean Disruption? The IEA wants you to invest $40 trillion in conventional energy (nuclear, oil, gas, coal) and conventional utilities.  It’s their Kodak moment. It’s your money.



[1] “World Energy Investment Outlook”, International Energy Agency, You can find the report here:

[2] Tony Seba, “Clean Disruption of Energy and Transportation: How Silicon Valley Will Make Oil, Nuclear, Natural Gas, Coal, Electric Utilities and Conventional Cars Obsolete by 2030″, June 2014,

My upcoming keynote on the Disruption of Public and Private Transportation

BYD Electric Bus – Stanford Caltrain shuttle
Copyright Tony Seba (@tonyseba)

Public and private transportation will undergo a transformation over the next fifteen years that will be larger in scope than it has in a century. The tools of the industrial revolution have run out of steam and will be rapidly replaced by the tools of the information technology revolution. History tells us that the cities that lead technology disruptions are wealthier than the ones that don’t.

It’s good to see that California is again on the forefront of this disruption. I’m getting ready to give a keynote to the California League of Cities Planning Commissioners on Friday, March 28th. The title of my talk is “The Future of Transportation: Technology Mega-Trends that will soon disrupt Public and Private Transportation”.

The most visible on-the-ground manifestations of the disruption of transportation will be the electric vehicle and the self-driving car. They will bring the era of the internal combustion engine automobile and the age of oil to a screeching halt. I have written about these technologies in my upcoming book “Clean Disruption of Energy and Transportation” which I expect to publish by the end of April.

But technologies on wheels are not the only innovations that I will be talking about. The combination of mobile Internet and cloud technologies is already disrupting the taxi business. Unmanned aerial vehicles (drones) and nano-satellites will change traffic management. Cars are becoming connected and with ever-cheaper and smarter sensors they are joining the Internet of Things. The huge amounts of data that vehicles generate will help create new industries and disrupt existing ones such as the car insurance business.

The clean disruption of energy and transportation is already happening. Stay tuned for more.

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