“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.

Toyota vs. Tesla – Can Hydrogen Fuel-Cell Vehicles Compete with Electric Vehicles?

The world has been abuzz about the recent Toyota (NYSE: TM) announcement that the company opened up licensing of its 5,680 HFCV patents (although only until 2020.) By taking a page from the Tesla playbook, Toyota  is hoping to encourage an ecosystem of fuel cell suppliers and hydrogen fueling stations.

Tesla Factory - Freemont California

Is this the last hurrah of a dead-end technology? Or will it re-invigorate the HFCV market which has gone nowhere for decades? Does the Hydrogen Fuel-Cell Vehicle (HFCV) Matter anymore?

Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla (NASDAQ: TSLA) has called the HFCV ‘bullshit’. “Hydrogen is suitable for rockets but not for cars,” said Mr Musk. (Video, starting min 29:20.)

But Jim Lentz, CEO of Toyota North America says that his company is betting big on hydrogen fuel cell cars. Does the Hydrogen Fuel-Cell Vehicle (HFCV) have a chance against the Electric Vehicle (EV)?

I don’t even mention Hydrogen Fuel Cell Vehicles in my book “Clean Disruption of Energy and Transportation”! There are multiple reasons for that. Let’s look at the facts, starting with the basics.

1) Hydrogen is not an energy source.

Many industry insiders talk about hydrogen as if it were an energy source. For instance, they might compare it with, say, petroleum products like gasoline and diesel, and say that H2 produces no emissions. Hydrogen is not an energy source. It’s an energy carrier. It’s a form of storage. You need primary energy sources like the sun, coal, natural gas, or uranium to generate the power needed to extract Hydrogen from a source material like natural gas or water.

2) Electric Vehicles are at least three times more energy efficient than Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles.

Assuming that at some point fuel-cells will be cheap and Hydrogen production will reach critical mass, it will still be at least three times more expensive to power an HFCV car than an EV. This figure from fuel cell expert Ulf Bossel explains how wasteful an HFCV is compared to electric vehicles. (Source:


Hydrogen Fuel Cell Vehicle vs Electric Vehicle - Energy Efficiency

Hydrogen Fuel Cell Vehicle vs Electric Vehicle – Energy Efficiency

But not all hydrogen vehicles are made alike. You can use compressed or liquefied hydrogen. You can also use either internal combustion engine of fuel cells to power the car. The following chart shows that whatever choice of type of hydrogen and engine results in the electric vehicle going three to six times more miles for the same energy when compared to hydrogen-powered cars. (Source: BetterPlace)

Hydrogen Cars vs Electric Vehicles - Better Place

Hydrogen Cars vs Electric Vehicles – Better Place


3) You need to build a multi-trillion dollar hydrogen delivery infrastructure.

To build a so-called “Hydrogen Economy” you need to build a multi-trillion dollar infrastructure with large factories/refineries, pipelines, trucks, storage facilities, compressors, hydrogen gas stations, and so on. If you haven’t noticed, this mirrors the existing oil & gas infrastructure. (Source:

Department of Energy - Hydrogen Delivery Infrastructure

Department of Energy – Hydrogen Delivery Infrastructure

Electric vehicles, on the other hand, have a ready infrastructure: the power grid. Everyone who lives and works in advanced economies has access to electricity. Yes, our grid is aging and we need to upgrade it, but it works today. Some readers may remember that the Internet started with the plain old telephone system. It wasn’t fast but it worked. Then we upgraded it to get the fast pipes that we have today. We also built a brand new wireless infrastructure that required no pipes at all.

Distributed Solar PV and EV Charging Station. Copyright @2014 by Tony Seba

Distributed Solar PV and EV Charging Station. Copyright @2014 by Tony Seba

The electric vehicle equivalent of the wireless power infrastructure is distributed solar.

The multi-trillion dollar hydrogen infrastructure would have to be built from scratch.


4) Hydrogen is Not Clean.

About 95% of hydrogen in the US is made from natural gas in large central plants, according to the Department of Energy. It’s a method called natural gas reforming.

Hydrogen Methane Steam Reforming Process - Source HYFleet:CUTE - Global-Hydrogen-Bus-Platform

Hydrogen Methane Steam Reforming Process – Source HYFleet:CUTE – Global-Hydrogen-Bus-Platform


As I wrote in Clean Disruption of Energy and Transportation:
Methane (the main component of natural gas) is 72 times worse than CO2 as a greenhouse gas (when measured over twenty years). Natural gas leaks throughout the supply chain. It leaks when it is lifted from the ground, when it is stored, and when it is transported in hundreds of thousands of miles of pipelines. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, three trillion cubic feet of methane leak annually. That figure represents about 3.2 percent of global production. This methane leakage is the global warming equivalent of half the coal plants in the United States.

Today, hydrogen is basically a repackaged fossil fuel – a fossil product line extension, if you will. If you like natural gas and fracking you should love hydrogen.


5) Hydrogen is not ‘Renewable’!

Hydrogen is classified as ‘renewable’ when it’s extracted from water by means of hydrolysis. This method involves applying high voltage electricity to split water into Oxygen and Hydrogen. When you apply conventional electricity to do the hydrolysis you still have to burn coal, natural gas, nuclear, petroleum, and so on, so you still have dirty hydrogen.

We need to pause to consider the water-energy-food nexus. Conventional energy is thirsty. In my books Clean Disruption and Solar Trillions I write at length about the obscene amounts of freshwater that coal, natural gas and biofuels consume. By adding Hydrogen to that list we would have yet another way for energy to dry up our planet.

A well-to-wheels analysis by University of Texas Professors Carey W. King and Michael E. Weber found that a HFCV would need to withdraw 13 gallons of water per mile driven. The same study concludes that a gasoline car would need withdrawals of needs 0.63 gal H2O/mile and a diesel car would need 0.46 gal H2O/mile. That is, gasoline petroleum-based transportation is 20 to 28 times more water efficient than hydrogen.

If we use solar or wind power as the source of the electricity for hydrolysis then you could have ‘clean’ and technically ‘renewable’ Hydrogen. I say ‘technically’ because the world is already pumping water at non-sustainable, non-renewable rates and the massive amounts of water you’d need for hydrogen would just contribute to the world’s water crisis. A 2015 World Economic Forum report ranks water crises as top global risk, up from number three the previous year.

Powering EVs using solar and wind would use no water, according to Prof King and Weber. Plus EVs are at least three times more energy efficient than Hydrogen Fuel Cell Vehicles.


6) Hydrogen Fuel Cell Vehicles can’t compete with Electric Vehicles.

It makes sense for the fossil fuel industry to lobby for the hydrogen car because hydrogen is essentially a product line extension for them. In other words, the “Hydrogen Economy” is the “Fossil Fuel Economy” with a green sheen.

The HFCV is a substitute technology. If successful, hydrogen would just substitute the fossil fuel infrastructure with a mirror hydrogen infrastructure.

Former DOE Secretary Steven Chu said: “We asked ourselves, ‘Is it likely in the next 10, 15, or 20 years that we will convert to a hydrogen car economy?’ The answer was no,”

It’s obvious why I don’t even mention HFCV in my book “Clean Disruption of Energy and Transportation”! Hydrogen Fuel Cell Vehicles are neither clean nor disruptive. At best, a hydrogen economy would still be a massively wasteful economy that would at best use three to six times more energy than an electric vehicle and solar/wind infrastructure and many times more water than even gasoline uses. There are many good reasons why hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles are stuck in reverse while electric vehicles are on hyper-drive.

By 2030, 100% of cars will be electric and they will be 100% powered by solar and wind. (Watch my AltCars keynote here)


It’s time to move on from hydrogen fuel cell vehicles.

Keynote at AltCar Expo: 100% Electric Transportation and 100% Solar by 2030

The video of my recent keynote at the 9th annual AltCar expo and conference in Santa Monica, CA, is now available online in its entirety.

The keynote was titled “Clean Disruption: Why the U.S. will be using 100% electric transportation and 100% solar power by 2030”. It’s essentially a distillation of my book “Clean Disruption of Energy and Transportation”.
• All new mass-market vehicles will be electric.
• All of these vehicles will be autonomous (self-driving).
• Up to 80 per cent of parking spaces and highways will be redundant.
• Taxis as we know them will be obsolete.
• The concept of car ownership will be obsolete.
• Oil will be obsolete
• All new energy will be provided by solar and wind

Here’s the video. Enjoy!


SolarPVTV Visionary Discussion Panel at Solar Power Int’l Las Vegas

Last week I was part of a Visionary Panel discussion at the Solar Power International conference in Las Vegas. Moderated by Jigar Shah (Founder of SunEdison,  1st CEO of Carbon War Room, and author of “Creating Climate Wealth”), the panel kicked off the campaign.

I was joined by an all-star group of panelists, which made for an interesting (but too short!) conversation about the future of solar energy:

  • Chip Comins, Chairman and CEO at The American Renewable Energy Institute (AREI, Inc.)
  • Dean Solon, President & CEO, Shoals Technologies
  • Arturo Herrero, CSO & Head of Emerging Markets, JinkoSolar
  • Alex Levran, Senior VP and General Manager, Power Conversion, Global Product Group Solar, ABB
  • Robert Benedict, VP America RECOM, Author of the History of Solar on

Here’s the 26m video.

The Future of Energy in Japan – NEW Solar Trillions in Japanese

Foreword to the Japanese edition of “Solar Trillions”

On a clear afternoon on May 25th, 2012, solar in Germany generated 22GW, which represented a third of the whole country’s power needs [1]. This broke the world record. The following afternoon, solar generated 50% of Germany’s power, again breaking the previous world record. At the same time, solar drove German wholesale electricity costs DOWN by more than 40% in 2012 compared with 2008.[2] This represented more than €5 billion ($6.7 billion) in cost savings – assuming that the utilities passed the savings on to consumers.[3]

These facts have shattered myths and misinformation that utilities persist in telling you: that solar is expensive, that the grid cannot sustain more than a small percent of clean energy, and that solar is not ready to scale.

Much has happened in the energy world since “Solar Trillions” was initially published in the United States three years ago. The most important event for my Japanese readers is certainly the ongoing disaster at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant. This nuclear disaster makes reading this book even more vital. That is why we decided to offer the eBook version for FREE. After you read this book please tell all your friends about it. Feel free to email them an electronic copy or point them to where they can download it. Download it from Google Books here: or from the Apple iTunes iBookstore soon.

Solar Keeps Growing Exponentially

The solar installed base continues to grow at exponential rates of more than 50% per year globally. In the United States solar wattage has doubled every year over the last three years.

Germany continues to be the world’s leading adopter of solar. As of October, 2012, there were 31 GW of solar connected to the grid.[4] This is the peak power equivalent of 31 nuclear power plants. The country’s maximum monthly power production from conventional sources in 2012 ranged from 50 GW to 65 GW [5]. In July, 2012, it became fairly common for solar to generate between 20% and 35% of the country’s total power needs.[6]

Europe continues its commitment to clean energy. In 2011 fully 69% of all the new power plant capacity in Europe was either solar or wind: 48% solar and 21% wind.[7] Spain built the world’s first baseload (24/7) solar power plant in July 2011. This 17MW solar plant has 15 hours of molten salt energy storage that generates electricity at anytime during the day or night – at 11pm, 1am, or 3am. I was there soon after it opened. Read about it on my blog here: [8].

The United States is building a massive solar infrastructure of both concentrating solar power (CSP) and Photovoltaics. The US has more than 4,200 MW of projects under construction and more than 23,000 MW under development. [9] That is just for plants greater than 1 MW and does not include residential or commercial sizes. New Silicon Valley solar companies such as SolarCity, SunRun, and Sungevity are building hundreds of thousands of home and commercial solar. SolarCity recently went public at a valuation of more than $1 billion – and has gone up since.

In 2013 we should see the opening of the world’s largest baseload solar power plant (110MW) in Nevada (which will power Las Vegas into the evening hours) and the world’s largest solar plant (392MW) in California. MidAmerican Energy, a subsidiary of Berkshire Hathaway acquired what will be the world’s largest solar power plant (579 MW) when it opens in 2015. Since this company is run by Warren Buffet, probably America’s most successful investor, it may signal the mainstream acceptance of solar.

In the meantime, solar costs continue to drop, sometimes dramatically. In 2011 alone solar PV panels costs went down by 50% followed by more than 20% in 2012. Solar is already cheaper than what electricity consumers pay their utilities in dozens of markets around the world. The market price of solar panels is below 70 ¢/W. Some think (or hope) that this cost will ‘stabilize’ or even go up. I have seen business plans for solar panels at less than 50 ¢/W next year. The total capital cost of building a utility scale solar power plant has dropped below $2. Gerlicher Solar announced that they will build a 250 MW solar plant in Spain without any subsidies.[10] Solar is already cheaper than the grid in much of Spain so this company feels comfortable that solar can compete with conventional sources of energy without financial help from the government.

Saudi Arabia has announced that they will deploy 41,000 MW of solar (the peak equivalent of 41 nuclear power plants) – at a cost of $109 billion.[11] Why? They’re burning oil to produce electricity for things like water desalination. Instead of burning oil that they can sell for $100 per barrel (or more) in the open market they will use solar which produces electricity at a small fraction of the cost – equivalent to less than $20 per barrel.

By 2015 it is expected that unsubsidized solar will be cheaper than the grid for more than two thirds of American consumers. This means that more than 40 million homes will have to make a decision of whether they pay less for clean solar or more for dirty gas, coal, and nuclear that they buy from the utilities. The decision will not be about being green but about saving green (dollars). This residential market alone may be worth a trillion dollars (Solar Trillions.) The US commercial solar market may be larger. Similar trillion dollar market opportunities await around the world.

The Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Disaster

Needless to say, Japan has lived through the tragic Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear disaster. While there is very little positive that can be said about this type of tragedy, it has proved that nuclear is dangerous, expensive, and dirty – and that the country can live without nuclear.

Japanese citizens are not just paying for this disaster with their lives and their health but also with their wallets. The cleanup has already officially cost Japanese taxpayers more than $100 billion dollars [12] and will likely end up costing many times that over the next few decades.

Japanese taxpayers have learned that they are personally insuring the nuclear industry. This is because nuclear is uninsurable. Private insurance companies insure buildings like the new Freedom Tower in New York City (which was built on the site of the former World Trade Center towers.) Private insurance companies insure against the risk of hurricanes and airplane accidents – but they will not insure nuclear. Why? After more than six decades of data on nuclear power plants they know the risks. Not a single insurance company has stepped forward to cover the full costs of a nuclear accident. Not in Japan, not in the US, not in Germany. They know nuclear is too dangerous too insure. So taxpayers bear the costs.

A study commissioned by the German government reports that if a private insurance company were to insure a nuclear plant, the premium would amout to 0.139 €/kWh (19.9 ¢/kWh) to 2.36 €/kWh ($3.39 ¢/kWh).[13] That is, it would cost even more to insure nuclear than to generate nuclear. The report also concluded that
1. It would cost up to €19.6 billion ($25.1 billion) to insure a single 1 GW nuclear plant, and
2. The expected damage value of a nuclear disaster (in Germany) is 5,756 billion Euro ($8.27 Trillion).

Compare that with Germany’s Gross National Product (GDP) which was about $3.57 trillion in 2011. This means that a nuclear disaster would cost Germans more than the value of their whole economy for two years. In order words, a nuclear disaster could bankrupt one of the largest economies in the world.

Faced with such daunting data Germans decided to shut down eight nuclear reactors after the Fukushima disaster and their whole nuclear industry by 2022. Most countries in Europe have accelerated the nuclear phase-out process that they started after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986. Italy held a referendum in 2011 where 94% of voters rejected nuclear.[14]

Nuclear is uninsurable. But insurance aside, isn’t nuclear supposed to be cheap? Not quite. When the utilties say that nuclear is ‘cheap’ and generates power at 6 ¢/kWh or 9 ¢/kWh, or whatever magic accounting number they come up with, they are talking about power plants that were built in the 1970s or 1980s and have been paid for. (Fukushima Dai-ichi was commissioned in 1971.) Nuclear costs have escalated consistently over the last thirty to forty years. It is up to ten times more expensive to build a nuclear power plant today than it was back then. A new nuclear power plant will produce power at somewhere between 25 ¢/kWh and 30 ¢/kWh.[15] According to FirsSolar CEO James Hughes, a new solar power plant (without government subsidies) can produce power at about 10 ¢/kWh to 14 ¢/kWh depending on size, technology, solar radiation and interest rates. [16] Also, you can put up solar on your rooftop in hours or days. It takes at least ten years to build a new nuclear power plant.

This means four things:
1. New nuclear power generation is almost twice as expensive as the total costs of generating solar (or wind.) That doesn’t include nuclear insurance (which taxpayers subsidize separately).
2. It would be more expensive just to insure nuclear than the total cost of generating solar (or wind.)
3. If you add the cost of generation and private insurance, nuclear would be up to ten times more expensive than solar.
4. Nuclear is getting more expensive while solar is getting cheaper.

Politicians or energy executives who say to you that ‘nuclear is cheap’ or ‘solar is expensive’ probably have their hands in your pockets – or will soon.

The time for solar is now

In Germany solar is already cheaper than utility power (“grid parity). Japan is sunnier on average than Germany, so the cost of solar electricity should be lower in Japan than in Germany. Solar in Japan will be cheaper than what consumers pay the utilities (“grid parity”) by 2015, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance.[17] That’s only two years away!

Speaking in my clean energy class at Stanford last year, Danny Kennedy, the President of Silicon Valley solar installer Sungevity, said that 78% of his customers start saving money on day one. Since then the cost of solar panels has gone down more than 30%.

Located next door to Stanford University where I teach, the city of Palo Alto recently signed a 25-year deal to buy solar power for about 7.7 ¢/kWh.[18] Compare this number to what your utility is telling you that solar will cost. Also, look at your power bill and see how much you’re paying. They’ll tell you that solar is too expensive and that Japan is not a sunny county. Consider this: the solar Feed-In-Tariff in Germany is between 11.28 Eurocents/kWh (14 Yen/kWh) for large solar plants and 16.28 Eurocents/kWh (20.3 ¥/kWh) for installations smaller than 10 kW (homes or small businesses).[19] That is, solar in Germany is already cheaper than what homes in Japan are paying for dirty nuclear and fossil power. Germany is less sunny than Japan. Ask your utility why you’re paying more for dirty power than what Germans are paying for clean solar power.

The time to go solar is now. Learn more in this book and spread the word. Solar is not just the future of energy. It’s the present.

For more information, videos, and the latest news, check out my blog (, YouTube channel (, join the Solar Trillions facebook page (, or follow me on twitter (tonyseba).

Again, that is why we decided to offer the Japanese eBook version of Solar Trillions for FREE. After you read this book please tell all your friends about it. Feel free to email them an electronic copy or point them to where they can download it. Download it from Google Books here: or from the Apple iTunes iBookstore soon. You can also purchase the print version ( or Kindle version on


[3] Renewable Analytics: “Effects of PV Electricity Generation on Wholesale Power Prices – Analysis March – July 2012”
[6] Renewable Analytics – “German Case Study Grid Adaptation to Intermittent Power Sources”, presentation at Solar Exchange West, August 2012
[7] “Wind in Power”, “2011 European Statistics”, Feb 2012, European Wind Energy Association,
[13] Report URL:

Energy Facts Label: COAL - Copyright © Tony Seba

What’s in Your Electricity? Energy Consumers need Energy Facts

Do you know how much pollution electric utilities are causing in your name?

Energy Facts Label: COAL - Copyright © Tony Seba

Energy Facts Label: COAL – What’s in your electricity?
Copyright ©Tony Seba

Do you know how much mercury, sludge, and volatile organic compounds you are responsible for? What about Carbon Dioxide, Nitrogen Oxide, and Methane? How much thorium and uranium get dumped in our air, water, and land to generate the kWh that you use every year?

The Smart Grid will be all about providing better data so all participants in the energy supply chain can make better and quicker decisions. Engaged consumers will want detailed and instant facts about their energy consumption (not just kWh and cost.)

So I took a page from the food industry and today I’m introducing the “Energy Fact Label” that I think utilities may want to deliver to power consumers. This is a start. Some important variables are missing. I would want more information about how much water was used to generate that energy. Others may want to know what percent of the natural gas was produced by fracking techniques.

Food Labels have shown that consumer engagement starts with open, honest information. As the Smart Grid reaches its potential and gets to be truly interactive, utilities would provide an iPhone-like platform and application developers would offer visualization and decision-making tools so that consumers can purchase power according to their own needs and wants.

Let me know what you think!

Portable Solar PV - San Francisco (Copyright @2010 by Tony Seba)

India Needs to Leapfrog to Solar and Electricity 2.0

In 1991 India had 5 million phones. In May 2012 the country had 960 million phones and the country was adding 8 million new phones per month! (1)

I thought of this policy success story right after India’s power grid collapsed last week leaving more than a billion people without access to grid power. Six hundred million were affected by the blackout plus more than half a billion who have never had access to the grid. (2)

Portable Solar PV - San Francisco (Copyright @2010 by Tony Seba)

Portable Solar PV – San Francisco (Copyright @2010 by Tony Seba)

What India’s leadership did in 1991 was to pass new legislation to break up the old monolithic, centralized, and inefficient telecom industry with the aim to provide telecommunications for all. In less than two decades India’s phone usage has gone from about 0.05% to 80% of the population, a stunning 19,100% growth, turning India into the second largest telecom market in the world.

In 2012 India’s leadership has the opportunity to end the country’s power crisis and provide electricity for all.

Centralized Architecture of Energy

The centralized electricity model consisting of large coal or hydro power plants ‘out there’ delivering one-way power to passive consumers is already obsolete. This grid infrastructure is similar to the old landline telephone model: centralized, monolithic, inefficient and undemocratic. The only way for India to provide communications access to every citizen was to leapfrog the landline model and go straight into a grid-independent mobile phone infrastructure. Now India has a historic opportunity to leapfrog to a reliable, secure, and democratic energy future.

The solution to India’s power crisis is simple: the country needs a distributed power infrastructure based on grid-independent as well as grid-tied solar technologies.

Here are some of the main elements of India’s solar electricity 2.0:

1) Residential and Commercial Solar Power

Like mobile telephones, solar power is the only technology that can provide grid-independent power. Solar can generate power at any scale: residential, commercial, industrial, island, village, and utility scale. At the smaller scales solar photovoltaic technologies can provide families and businesses with ready power while decreasing usage of the existing grid. Germany already has one million grid-connected solar installations. While this constitutes just 3% of the country’s capacity it has generated up to one half of the country’s power on sunny afternoons. And Germany is planning to triple solar capacity by 2020. Thus it just eight years this northern country with half the solar radiation of India will generate 100% of its power from the sun on clear afternoons.

Businesses can’t afford to be without power even for a few hours. Walmart, for instance, has recently announced that 75% of their stores in California will go solar.(3)

It takes hours to days to install a residential or commercial power plant. A solar distributed power infrastructure can be built quickly and painlessly to give a large number of individuals and businesses better access to electricity while relieving grid congestion.

2) Industrial Solar Power

Most industrial energy is used in process heat. In Europe, for instance, two thirds of all energy used in industry is used in process heat.(2) Concentrating solar power can be a great way to generate hot water for industrial heat applications. In my book ‘Solar Trillions’ I give several examples including data centers, pharmaceuticals and potato chip production. FritoLay™ uses solar energy to make its SunChips™ product line in Modesto, California. Industrial process heat from solar is generated onsite (using parking lots, brown-fields, or even rooftops) – thus decreasing the strain on the grid from industrial energy use.

Data centers can also benefit from point-of-use solar energy generation. Apple Computers has announced that their new massive data center in North Carolina will draw sixty percent of its power from onsite generation including a 20 MW solar photovoltaic power plant.(4)

3) Utility Scale Solar

Onsite generation can take huge loads off the grid. However, the country will still need to provide baseload and intermediate electricity later in the afternoon and in the evening. At larger scales, concentrating solar power already generates baseload and intermediate electricity. Last year I went to Spain to cover the world’s first baseload (24/7) solar power plant, which is based on power tower technology. The United States is also developing a fleet of large power towers in California and Nevada with intermediate and baseload capabilities.

4) Distributed Grid Architecture

Distributed architectures are inherently more reliable than centralized networks. The evolution of the computing infrastructure provides a case in point. In the old days (three decades ago) computing power was mainly provided by centralized mainframes – while consumers waited patiently for information. Now computing power is provided by cell phones, tablets, personal computers, servers, and large data centers – all connected by the ultimate decentralized network: the Internet.

A centralized network has one or many points of failure. The United States is no immune to this inherent architectural weakness. In 2003 a tree fell on a transmission tower in Ohio which caused a ripple effect that left 50 million people without power. This blackout affected the entire Eastern seaboard of the United States from Boston to New York to Florida.(5)

A well-designed distributed network has no single point of failure. Even if the whole state of Ohio were without Internet (which is not likely since it’s a distributed architecture), the rest of us would still be able to use email and access the web.

5) Water is Energy

Water is energy and energy is water. We need water to generate energy and we need energy to transport, clean, and pump water. Ignoring the water issue in the energy conversation is an invitation to failed energy policies. India is going through a multi-year drought, which has pushed the country into a vicious water-energy crisis. Coal, which provides more than half of India’s power is a major consumer of water. The long-term drought has prompted Indians to dig deeper into the depleting aquifers, thus increasing water pump power consumption, which requires more coal power, which consumes vast amounts of water, which exacerbates this vicious cycle of drought.

Gemasolar Solar Power Tower uses only Rainwater to generate Baseload Electricity

Solar PV power plants need no water to generate electricity (and negligible amounts for washing the panels.) Because they use steam to run a turbine CSP plants do need water to generate electricity but with dry cooling they can decrease water usage by about 90 percent. Furthermore, power plants can be built with water stewardship in mind. Gemasolar, the world’s first baseload (24/7) solar power plant draws no water from aquifers or the municipal water system. This solar power tower plant was designed to store its own rainwater in two large pools for later usage.

6) Off-Grid solar home systems

There are half a billion people who live in half million villages in India who have no access to the power.(2) This population relies on diesel, kerosene, or firewood for their energy needs. They pay up to $2 per kWh for this energy – which is more than ten times the cost of unsubsidized solar. Not having access to reliable and inexpensive power can also keep whole populations in a never-ending poverty cycle.

The good news is that just like this population leapt into mobile telephony without having to go through the landline model they can leap to solar and electricity 2.0 without having to go through the century-old centralized landline electricity model.

There are two ways to quickly provide power to the off-grid population. The first one is by providing solar home systems. Grameen Shakti has brought power to more than five hundred thousand homes in Bangladesh thus proving that the poorest of the poor will pay for access to solar electricity when it is provided with the right financing mechanism.

The other way to provide off-grid villages with power is by building island-scale or village-scale micro-grids.

7) Microgrids.

Villages and islands can build microgrids consisting of solar energy, energy storage, and smart grid technology to manage power generation, load balancing, and payments. The island nation of Tokelau is an example of what this architecture can do. Consisting of 3 atolls in the South Pacific, Tokelau is getting ready to announce that they are the world’s first nation powered 100% by solar energy. Tokelau went from all diesel to all solar in just 1 year. They now have reliable, secure, and clean energy at a much lower cost than the old dirty diesel infrastructure.(6)

There are many other important technologies that India could use today and develop for the future: solar water desalination, solar air conditioning, solar water heating, power electronics, power trading, payments, and many other smart grid infrastructure technologies. India’s entrepreneurs stand to create trillions of dollars in wealth for the country while helping to take its energy infrastructure to the next level.

The Future of Energy in India

In 1991 India decided to leapfrog the obsolete landline telephone model in order to provide telecommunications for all. Because of this policy choice nearly one billion Indians enjoy access to state of the art telephones today. Once again, India has an historic opportunity to leapfrog an obsolete energy architecture and build a reliable, democratic, secure, and clean energy future.

What will India choose?



(1) “Communications in India”, Wikipedia,

(2) Tony Seba, “Solar Trillions. – 7 Market and Investement Opportunities in the Emerging Clean-Energy Economy”,

(3) “Walmart and SolarCity today announce plan to install solar panels on up to 60 additional stores in California”, SolarCity press release,

(4) “Apple and the Environment – Data Centers and Renewable Energy”, Apple website:

(5) “The 2003 Northeast Blackout–Five Years Later”, Scientific American, August 13, 2008,

(6) “Tokelau Will Be World’s First 100% Solar Powered Nation by September“, August 1, 2012,

Tony Seba at Gemasolar - the world's first baseload (24/7) solar power plant in the world.

Will Germany Achieve 100% Solar Power by 2020?

On a clear Friday in May 2012 Germany generated more than 22 GW of solar power. This represented about a third of the country’s power that afternoon and was equivalent to the output of about 20 nuclear power plants.(1) The following afternoon solar generated fully half the power in the country.

Tony Seba at Gemasolar - the world's first baseload (24/7) solar power plant in the world.

Tony Seba at Gemasolar, the world’s first baseload (24/7) solar power plant in the world.

Solar penetration numbers that seemed far-fetched just a few years ago are already becoming commonplace in Germany. This abundance of solar has pushed peak power prices down as much as 40% thus saving electricity consumers substantial money.(2)

But Germany is not stopping there. The country’s leadership has announced that they will triple their solar infrastructure to 60-70 GW by 2020. Which means that on a clear afternoon in August 2020 Germany will generate 100% of its peak power with solar electricity.

Peak power, total power

Peak power does not mean total power. While 60-70 GW of solar capacity will be impressive, it will represent only about 10% of the country’s total generation capacity. This means that Germany will get 100 percent solar only for a couple of hours per day during sunny afternoons. Furthermore Germany’s solar (or wind) infrastructure today does not have the ability to time-shift power generation for later consumption (think Tivo for electricity). In order for solar (and wind) to make a bigger impact in the overall power generation picture Germany will need to build an energy storage infrastructure.

Spain already has baseload and intermediate solar power plants that allow them to meet power demand in the evening. I wrote about the world’s first baseload (24/7) solar power plant last year.(3) These are, however, concentrating solar power (CSP) plants with molten salt thermal energy storage. Molten salt storage technology is fairly cheap ($50 to $100 per kWh) which makes it financially viable today. The U.S. is currently building a fleet of solar CSP with storage in California, Nevada, and Arizona.(4)

CSP works in places with high, desert-like solar radiation such as the U.S. SouthWest, Southern Spain, the Middle East and North Africa. Germany doesn’t use molten salt storage because it doesn’t have enough solar radiation to make this technology viable.

Solar Photovoltaic (PV) technology generates electricity under any type of sunshine but it needs electric (not thermal) energy storage. There are several technologies that can be used for this purpose, from century-old workhorses like lead acid batteries to newer contenders such as Zinc-Vanadium Redox, Lithium-Ion batteries and super-capacitors. They all have different capabilities (power density, energy density, efficiency) but most are still not financially viable for mainstream applications.

Solar panels have dropped in cost by an order of magnitude over the last decade or so because of an increase in investment, installed capacity, R&D, and competition. Wind turbines went down a similar experience curve a decade or so before solar. The challenge (and opportunity) for battery manufacturers is to match solar and wind and drop their cost by an order of magnitude over the next decade.

The Ultimate Job Generation Machine

The business opportunities in enabling Germany, California and other clean energy economies to achieve higher solar and wind penetrations are substantial. For instance, the demand for grid storage solutions will grow more than fifty-fold in just five years, from $3 billion in 2012 to $160 billion in 2017, according to PriceWaterhouseCooper’s Brian Carey.(5)

Germany’s clean energy job generation engine has turned into the country’s ultimate driving machine. Today there are 380,000 clean energy jobs in the country up from 30,000 in 2000, according to Hans-Josef Fell, a Member of the German Parliament. Mr Fell and I spoke at the recent Intersolar North America show in San Francisco. The equivalent number in the United States would be roughly 1.4 million clean energy jobs, since the U.S. population is nearly four times Germany’s.

Germany is poised to be the world’s first large economy to be 100% solar-powered at a given time. The country will face technical challenges but if the recent past is any indication Germany’s clean energy policies will attract hundreds of billions in investments and create hundreds of thousands of jobs to develop and deploy the clean energy generation, energy storage and smart-grid technologies to make it happen.

(1) “Germany breaks world record for solar power generation with 22GW”,
PV-Tech, May 28, 2012, at
(2) “Solar PV Reducing Price of Electricity in Germany”, Feb 9, 2012, Cleantechnica
(3) “The World’s First Baseload (24/7) Solar Power Plant in the World”, June 21, 2011,
(4) “Baseload (24/7) Solar: A Brief History and Bright Future of a Game-Changing Innovation”, July 5, 2011,
(5) “Energy Storage Outlook: Promising Technologies, Applications, and Business Models for the Future”, July 9, 2012, presentation at Intersolar North America.

Solar PV is cheaper than gas; solar is below grid parity

Five Reasons Why California Cities Will Build One Million Solar Roofs and 12 Distributed GW by 2020

At the end of 2011 there were approximately 100,000 installations and 1GW of solar PV in California (1). The state has dual goals of one million solar roofs by 2018 and 12 GW of distributed generation by 2020. Can California cities scale their clean energy infrastructure by an order of magnitude over the next six to eight years while attracting investments and generating local jobs?

The math says yes and the answer to the future of clean distributed energy in California may be found in Sonoma County.

Sonoma County and the Future of Energy

Here’s the math: the city of Sonoma had 507 solar watts per resident and 4.5 solar installation per 100 residents at the end of 2011, according to Environment California’s “California Solar Cities 2012”. (1) This does not sound like much. However, if you extrapolate these numbers

Solar PV San Francisco - Copyright Tony Seba

Solar PV panels in San Francisco, CA

to California’s 38 million residents, the state would have 19 GW and 1.7 million installations of solar. This would mean that the Golden State would surpass its 2020 distributed generation goal by 45% and the number of solar installations by 70%.

Sonoma achieved these numbers in less than three years, in the midst of a national financial crisis, and despite opposition from Federal Housing Finance Agency.

Is it a stretch to think that California cities and counties can achieve over the next eight years under friendlier economic conditions and ever-decreasing solar costs what Sonoma has done in less than three years?

What is the Sonoma County Energy Independence Program?

The centerpiece of Sonoma’s clean energy program is the Sonoma County Energy Independence Program. SCEIP is a PACE (Property Assessed Clean Energy) program established March 2009 with the goal of “improving performance in 80% of Sonoma County homes and commercial spaces to highest cost-effective efficiency levels.”

PACE is a local municipality finance program that enables municipal governments to tap private capital markets to finance energy efficiency and clean energy projects for homes and commercial properties through an assessment on their property taxes.

Sonoma County’s PACE program for instance has the following characteristics:
• The financing takes the form of an assessment, not a loan. Unlike a loan, an assessment is attached to the property rather than the individual.
• The assessment takes the form of a lien, so the payback responsibility automatically transfers to subsequent owners if the property is sold before the assessment is fully paid off.
• Financing must be 10 or 20 years and is paid through an assessment on the owner’s annual property taxes.
• Improvements must be permanently fixed to the property.
• Project size must be less than 10 percent of the value of the property.

PACE financing was originally designed to get around the fact that energy efficiency and clean energy investments have longer-term payoffs while the capital costs generally need to be borne up front. The concept of PACE was created in 2005 in California and soon spread to 23 states around the nation. (2) and (3)

Boulder County, Colorado, for instance, quickly became an early adopter of PACE Financing with its Climate Smart Loan Program (CSLP).

Boulder County’s CSLP was a $9.8 million PACE program that financed 598 projects and was completed in 2009. According to a study carried out by the Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Labs, spending in Boulder County alone contributed to $14 million in economic activity, $5 million in earnings and 85 short-term jobs within the county as well as $6 million in additional economic activity, $2 million in additional earnings and 45 jobs outside of Boulder County. (4)

Sonoma County’s Energy Independence Program was created with $60 million in funding: $45 million from the County Treasury and $15 million from the County’s Water Agency. SCEIP has funded $58.5 million worth of projects that have resulted in 2,855 residential and 87 commercial energy retrofit projects. They estimate that 79% of the 682 jobs generated by this program have been local jobs.

While I only highlight solar, SCEIP has funded more than a thousand non-solar projects, including more than 500 windows and door, 200 HVAC, and 200 sealing and insulation projects.

Since SCEIP originally raised $60 million and has already funded $58.5 million worth of projects, I wondered whether they planned to raise another round of funding. I talked on the phone with Diane Lesko, the Sonoma County Energy Independence Program Program Manager, who told me that $11 million has already been paid back so they may have another year of runway before they need to go back and issue new bonds.

Is Solar a Better Risk than Mortgages?

The one major hiccup in Sonoma County’s path to energy independence happened in July 2010 when the Federal Housing Finance Agency released a “Statement on Certain Energy Retrofit Loan Programs”.(5) The FHFA, which oversees Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, and Federal Home Loan Banks, argued that “first liens established by PACE loans … pose unusual and difficult risk management challenges for lenders, servicers and mortgage securities investors.” This basically brought the quick adoption of PACE programs around the nation to an abrupt halt.

I asked Ms Lesko about the FHFA assertion that PACE-funded energy retrofits might be high risk investments. She said that the default rate on the Sonoma County PACE program is 1.1% whereas the mortgage default rate is around 10%.

This begs the question of whether it’s the Federal Housing Finance Agency who should be learning about risk management from Sonoma County rather than the other way around!

The FHFA ruling brought uncertainty into the PACE world and SCEIP was temporarily halted – but only for one week, according to Ms Lesko. The Sonoma County leadership decided to reopen it with increased vigor. Leadership is clearly one of the key ingredients in making a clean energy economy happen. This reminded me of John F. Kennedy’s Rice University speech: “we choose to go to the moon not because it’s easy but because it’s hard.”

Sonoma County’s Energy Independence Program has shown what can be done when local governments take charge of their own energy destinies. What about California’s hundreds of cities and dozens of counties? Can they match Sonoma’s success?

There are five reasons why cities and towns across California can match and surpass Sonoma’s solar buildout:
1) They have a working template and the benefit of Sonoma County’s learning experience.
2) The cost of solar is far lower today than when Sonoma County started this program three years ago. Photovoltaic panels dropped by 50% in 2011 alone and have dropped further this year.
3) We have a better economy than we had when Sonoma County started its program in early 2009.
4) Cities have eight years to do what Sonoma did in just three.
5) Municipalities now know that PACE can work without the support of the FHFA. Still, the FHFA may yet see the light and make rules based on the evidence from Sonoma County and other PACE programs that the right PACE energy retrofit program can bring lower default rates than Fannie or Freddie mortgages.

So there you have it: five reasons why California’s dual goals of one million solar roofs and 12 GW distributed clean energy generation are more than achievable by 2020 – just by using PACE financing.

We can add yet another reason: PACE is but one of several mechanisms that cities and counties have at their disposal to create a thriving clean energy economy. I’ll be discussing some of them in future posts.

What if the whole country emulated Sonoma County?

I mentioned that PACE had enabling legislation in 23 states and was being considered in 20 more states around the nation.(3)

Sonoma and Boulder County’s success in attracting investments, creating jobs, and building a clean energy economy has spurred other municipalities around the country to adopt PACE programs. Miami-Dade County, FL, for instance, has announced a $550 million commercial PACE program led by Ygrene Energy, a Santa Rosa (Sonoma County)-based financial services company.(7) Ygrene is also targeting a $100 million PACE fund for Sacramento, CA. These two PACE programs together will generate 17,000 jobs and $2.3 billion in economic activity, while using private capital only, according to the PACE Commercial Consortium.(8)

If the whole US achieved Sonoma’s 507 solar watts per resident and 4.5 solar installation per 100 residents by 2020 we would have 159 GW of solar and 14 million solar installations. This wattage would be six times larger than what Germany, the world’s solar market leader, has achieved so far and it would represent about 15% of America’s peak power needs. Sonoma did its part in just three years.

I asked Sonoma County Energy Indepence Program’s Diane Lesko what were the most important ingredient in building it into a winning program. “Political will,” she said without missing a beat. “You need leadership coming together to achieve our common goals.”

(1) “California Solar Cities 2012”, Environment California Research & Policy Center , January 24, 2012
(2) PACE Financing, Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia,
(3) “What is PACE?”,
(4) “Economic Impacts from the Boulder County, Colorado, ClimateSmart Loan Program: Using Property-Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) Financing”, National Renewable Energy Labs, July 2011
(5) Federal Housing Finance Agency, “FHFA Statement on Certain Energy Retrofit Loan Programs”,
(6) “FHFA, The comments have been submitted, but what happens next?”,
(7) North Bay Business Journal, “Santa Rosa-based Ygrene leads $650 million green-retrofit effort”, Sept 23, 2011,
(8) “PACE Commercial Consortium” Briefing,

Video: Can Bio Energy (bioethanol, biodiesel) Scale? Are Biofuels Sustainable?

Biofuels like bioethanol and biodiesel, and biomass like wood pellets, have been supported by governments around the world as a form of ‘renewable’ energy and as a way to achieve ‘energy independence’ by substituting bio energy for imported oil. But is bio energy clean? And can it scale? Is bio energy sustainable? Can it be financially viable?

Watch this excerpt from a recent keynote on the Future of Energy where I talk about biofuels and biodiesel, starting with the fact that green plants are solar plants.

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