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The Switch is an engaging and easy-to-follow book that invites you to look into the future of energy through the lens of past and current developments. So how exactly does its author, energy technology expert Chris Goodall, envision the future? Well, by the end of the book, readers will be convinced that there is an energy revolution in motion as the world prepares to switch to solar power by as early as 2030.
Goodall writes for a wide audience – essentially, anyone who is interested in the future of energy, particularly advances in solar power. It is an accessible read, with most technical terms clearly explained and a range of graphs and examples that paint a picture for the reader. The structure of the book in particular is logical, making clear the steps that are needed for solar power to succeed.
The success of solar power stems from the sheer amount of sunlight that hits the earth’s surface per year – 90,000 terawatts. The total running energy demand in the world today is around 15-17 terawatts, meaning that a mere 90 minutes of sunlight per year is enough to fulfil the world’s energy demand. Goodall claims that this 15-17 terawatt demand is decreasing in developed countries, but even if it doubled to 30 terawatts worldwide, the sun provides us with an enormous surplus of power. What is fundamental, and the focus of this book, is capturing this sunlight and transmitting its energy as cheaply as possible.
The Switch demonstrates with ease how solar will soon become the most cost-effective energy option. Goodall attributes this phenomenon to the ‘experience curve’, which asserts that as production increases, costs are pushed down. Indeed, solar energy is doubling in size, whilst falling by 20% in price, every two years. The rate of growth of solar, and the resultant rapid decrease in costs, is on a scale and speed that no one had predicted; goals set for 2030 were reached in 2015. By 2020, solar installations could be cheaper than current fossil fuel power plants.
Solar is also becoming more efficient, maximising the amount of power we can get per unit of light, which again reduces the energy costs. Goodall explores new solar advances and gives the reader an insight into the up-and-coming technologies which make this such an exciting industry today. These include the work of Oxford Photovoltaics, who are working on perovskites (a light-absorbing material with higher efficiencies than current silicon solar panels), and German company Heliatek, who are working on easy-to-install organic cells. The technologies discussed in this book show us how the world will soon be able to effectively harness the power of the sun.
However, Goodall claims that the most obstinate problem in Northern Europe, and one that leads many to doubt whether we can actually rely on a solar energy system, is the nature of its daylight hours (i.e., short and variable). Other renewables, such as wind energy, are too unreliable to fulfil the energy demand during autumn and winter in these northern regions. Despite this, he remains a true optimist, and the solution he puts forward seems obvious. Large amounts of energy must be available through storage—whether that be in the form of batteries, gas, or liquid fuel—for use when the sun does not shine.
The book extensively covers recent progress in energy storage. Just as in solar, batteries have experienced a fall in price owing to the experience curve. Uunderstandably, Goodall dedicates a whole chapter to them. He discusses developments in lithium-ion batteries, newer technologies such as lithium sulfur and systems that work with solar panels to store energy when there is surplus sunlight. The Switch predicts that in the future, solar power and energy storage will work hand-in-hand.
However, a question that may be on many readers’ minds is this: when will the experience curve plateau? And what will happen when it does? It’s possible that Goodall assumes ‘the switch’ will have happened by then, but he makes no real attempt to clarify this. Since ‘the switch’ is predicted to happen relatively soon—within 20 years or so—the reader may be left wondering about the longer term, and what the eventual decline in the growth of solar will mean in the long run. Unfortunately, these issues are not in the scope of this book.
The Switch is a stimulating and convincing read about the future of energy. Goodall is clearly positive about the potential of a worldwide switch to solar, and his claims are well backed up by prominent figures from the energy industry and the promising trends we have already seen (such as declining costs and increasing efficiencies). The book is well-researched, exploring a wide variety of the upcoming technologies that will support ‘the switch’ – from light-absorbing materials, to new kinds of batteries. This book is highly recommended for anyone who is interested in the future of renewable energy and the steps that need to be taken towards a future where cheap power can be available to all.
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