Solar can now start shaping the energy landscape of the future

Heads of state agreed to save the world in Paris, and solar is seen as central to the solution. This is good news, but now it needs to be translated into action.

Events at COP21 would have been easier and moved more quickly if world leaders had simply issued a one-sentence statement: “We will phase out the use of coal ASAP and replace it.”

Perhaps that’s one for later this year in Marrakesh, but that statement would have been the bedrock of a concrete agreement to deliver two goals: getting rid of the dirtiest, most inflexible technology in the energy sector; and promoting growth for sustainable energy — which means renewables.

And don’t anyone dare mention nuclear as an alternative. I refuse to discuss nuclear: it’s potentially dangerous, unbearably expensive, and its waste will be toxic for millions of years. Anyway, it is no match for wind and solar, due to its inflexibility.

So we need to open our minds and start thinking outside the box, because energy consumption and production will look different in future.

With growing shares of wind and solar in the system, we cannot continue business as usual.

In current energy markets, the highest generation price determines the overall price. That’s an outdated system that does not make sense in the 21st century. In such a mechanism, wind and solar, which can generate large quantities of power at low or even no marginal cost, are driving down wholesale prices to zero — or below.

So we need to stop “integrating” these modern, clean and sustainable sources into an ageing, outdated system that was made for dirty coal and expensive, rigid nuclear. We need to fundamentally reform the system, rewarding solar and wind, and giving flexibility a price.

The future will not be about the old baseload technologies. Instead, the basis of our supply will be when the wind blows and the sun shines. On top of this, we can add flexible sources from a wide range of technologies, including storage, adaptable hydropower and, for a quite a while to come, natural gas. Energy markets will be more diversified, with more players on different levels of the value chain. It will look more complicated, but it will be infinitely cleaner, more sustainable and customer-friendly.

We must seize this opportunity to embrace change. As Henry Ford said: “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” But it’s not only new products and new technologies, it’s infrastructure as well. If governments had listened to wagon owners 100 years ago, we might have cars driving today on surfaces made for the horse and cart. Sensibly, we agreed to modify the system and create something more valid for the new technologies and for consumers.

We should also not underestimate the power of trust in such a changing system. Young potential customers are familiar with Google, Apple, Facebook and others, which are rapidly becoming important players in the energy sector. They won’t necessarily generate, but they will offer services — complete solutions to people who trust them and who have never heard of a former monopolistic utility.

These new players will come with a new offer: to take care of all your energy needs. The toaster will work when you need it; the electric vehicle will be charged wirelessly at a red traffic light, calculated by an app; heating systems, managed by another app, will be charged when the sun is shining or the wind is blowing.

This will be quite a change from a system with large centralised production and semi-monopolistic structures. It will be more variable, with more players and more choices. It will, in a word, be modern.

Now, in the afterglow of COP21, is the time to make a fundamental change and forge a system for the future instead of trying to protect the past. We need a new market design, we need to think and act differently.

The solar industry and renewables generally have gone through quite some changes in the past 15 years, so we should be fit to manage the changes to come that will make this a truly renewable world.

Oliver Schäfer is president of SolarPower Europe