Oil giant BP forecasts larger role for solar+storage in energy future

Oil company BP has this week published an 82-page Technology Outlook report that details the firm’s global energy projections over the next 35 years.

The report’s key and unsurprising theme is that the world has abundant reserves of oil and gas, and predicts that increasingly sophisticated extraction techniques will ensure that fossil fuels remain the dominant power source over the next couple of decades.

However, the report does acknowledge that the energy mix is changing due to a variety of pressures, not least political and cultural aversion to rising carbon emissions; a preference in the developing world to adopt ‘leapfrop’ technologies such as solar and wind; increasing efficiencies in solar PV technology particularly, and the growing prevalence of viable and reliable energy storage.

This transition will all be underpinned by falling component costs for renewable energy and battery technology, allied to climate action that will likely curb supply of fossil fuels.

Solar’s time in the sun

Utilizing analysis from BP’s energy experts gleaned over the past few years, and citing reports from bodies such as the International Energy Agency (IEA) and Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF), the Technology Outlook anticipates that the cost of solar will fall by around 24% each time global installation figures double, with the price of a solar module reaching as low as $0.21/W by 2040 . BP also forecasts solar panels to break through the 30% efficiency rate between 2030 and 2040, based on the current pace of innovation.

"Increases in future technical potential in solar PV are largely expected to come from multi-junction solar cells able to harvest a greater range of the light spectrum," said the report, which also attempted to address the intermittent nature of solar and other renewable energy sources, and technologies that can aid greater integration.

"Assuming current levels of system flexibility, some power systems may be able to accommodate 25-50% intermittent renewable electricity penetration," the report added. "Beyond this level, or if current levels of system flexibility are not maintained, the increased penetration of intermittent sources of electricity generation will create challenges for the continued operation of electricity networks."

Enter storage

The BP report cites BNEF figures that forecast the cost of residential stationary energy storage will fall from around $1,600/kWh currently to $260/kWh by 2040, thus making the solar+storage argument even more compelling with every passing year.

At larger scale, as more and more renewable power is built around the world, grids will begin to struggle with managing the intermittency of supply. A short-term solution proposed by the BP report is an increased adoption of gas-fired flexible generation systems, but admits that a longer-term solution will be smart grids and storage-backed demand response software.

"Stationary energy storage for electricity-grid services is disruptive in its capacity to support the integration of renewable energy sources with the electricity grid," said the report. BP also looks at the role e-mobility will play in driving the cost reduction of battery technology, with rechargeable lithium sulphur batteries in particular set to increase in energy capacity threefold by 2025, thus making electric vehicles a more affordable and high-performance option for motorists.

The report adds that the cost per kilometer for a standard electric car in the U.S. will fall from $0.26 to $014 by 2050. Over the same period, standard gasoline vehicles will become more expensive, rising from $0.11/km currently to $0.12/km by 2050.

Identifying the trend

Despite providing page after page and graph after graph of just how, where and when future gas and oil deposits can be extracted, and more cleanly than before, BP admits that public attitudes are turning, and will continue to turn, against carbon emissions.

With 4.8tr barrels of recoverable oil or oil-equivalent resources in the world, the global energy supply could be well-served by fossil fuels for decades to come. However, the report adds: "Governments, supported by many businesses and citizens, are increasingly seeking to limit carbon emissions by using less energy and shifting towards lower-carbon fuels. This is likely to have an impact on the proportion of these resources produced, relative to other forms of energy."

BP’s identification of changing attitudes chimes with a recent revelation reported by Bloomberg that U.S. oil giant Exxon predicted in the 1980s that solar power would become the affordable and commercially viable source of power it is today.

Written in 1989 by former Exxon employee Peter Eisenberger – who is now an environmental science professor at Columbia’s Earth Institute – the report projected that solar would be viable in around 2012-2013. The report suggested at the time that Exxon’s small solar assets should be sold, which the company duly did, focusing instead on oil exploration and extraction. Since then, various claims have been leveled at Exxon that the company knew about climate change but did nothing to tackle it.

Recently, however, Eisenberger spoke to Bloomberg of how he came about his findings, stating: "Technology really evolves in a very regular way, in a surprisingly regular way. With enough data on how investment and effort lead to progress, you can use it pretty accurately to forecast what might happen in the future."

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