The Sunny Side of Solar: The Solar Dominance Hypothesis

As the planet continues to grapple with climate change, infectious diseases, and a host of other environmental issues, it is nice to have good news every once in a while. And the Solar Dominance Hypothesis offers exactly that—an optimistic vision of the expanding role of solar power by 2030. It has become clear that any long-term resolution to the climate crisis will require a significant shift in global energy production. However, the pace of this transition from fossil fuels to more eco-friendly renewables, is a matter of contentious speculation among economists. A host of factors contribute to this uncertainty.

In the United States, major fossil fuel companies continue to hold onto century-old subsidies (despite becoming independently profitable industries many decades ago), even as subsidies for renewables are expanding; technological breakthroughs in materials science are constantly improving the efficiency of solar panels while simultaneously displacing outdated models; and oil prices, as seen as in recent weeks, have been caught in a massive geopolitical struggle for dominance between the United States, Russia, and Saudi Arabia.

Further complicating matters is the fact that no one truly knows how much oil, gas, or coal actually remains. For example, fracking, an innovation which led to the recent boom of cheap natural gas extraction in the United States, has dramatically expanded the U.S. reserves and undercut much of the economic incentive for a rapid shift to renewables.

However, despite these hurdles there is increasing optimism about the economic viability of solar power in the next decade. In fact, one increasingly popular theory, dubbed the Solar Dominance Hypothesis contends that at least 50% of global power will come from solar power and associated battery storage by 2030.

This ambitious claim was put forth in a paper, published in October, 2019 by Dr. Eban Goodstein, Director of Bard Center for Environmental Policy, and Hunter Lovins, Professor of Sustainable Management, at Bard College. In their paper, the professors discuss projections for the future of distributed solar power in the 2020s.

Dr. Goodstein and Professor Lovins point to the fact that solar capacity has doubled every couple of years since 2000, whereas the cost of both distributed and utility based solar has declined by about 10% annually. The implications of these statistics are profound, as the professors explain, “if you simply run these growth trends out for another decade, the math gets you to Solar Dominance—50% of global power from solar and storage—by about 2030.” They argue that solar is an inherently disruptive not incremental technology, meaning it is likely to displace rather than augment current methods of electricity production. They predict that the “real disruption” will begin a few years from now as “unsubsidized, distributed (residential, commercial, industrial, and community) solar plus batteries start to beat grid prices in an increasing number of markets.”

Already industry leaders are starting to recognize the inevitability of this shift. General Electric, a major utilities company which was previously associated with the fossil fuels industry, has partnered with the investment company, Blackrock, to establish a distributed solar business. As the undeniable future of solar becomes apparent, more companies will be forced to change their practices if they intend to remain competitive.

According to Goodstein, solar utilities (meaning solar farms) are already “crushing” fossil fuels in terms of price competitiveness and distributed “rooftop” solar is soon to follow. He predicts that soon, residents in California will be able to get power from distributed solar at a mere 2.5 cents per kilowatt-hour! Compare that to the national average of 13-14 cents per kilowatt-hour and it’s no wonder why distributed solar is anticipated as a game-changer.

Of course, even with historical trends to analyze, the fate of this solar revolution is still far from certain. How will utility companies—at risk of becoming obsolete—react? Will the government focus on accelerating/easing this transition or attempt to delay it? How receptive will people be to going solar?

Although the timeframe for the future dominance of solar technology remains to be seen, it is safe to say that solar is here to stay. The Solar Dominance Hypothesis demonstrates the awesome potential of solar power not only in providing the world with cheap, clean electricity but in reshaping the fabric of the energy sector itself. In order to create an eco-friendly and equitable world for all, major change is needed across all industries. From agriculture and factory farming to electricity production and resource extraction there is plenty of work still to be done. So while we can take heart that progress toward renewables is happening, it is up to us to ensure forward momentum.

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