You´d be hard put to find a better illustration of the old chestnut about the EMH economist whose friend tells him there´s a banknote lying in the road:
Can't be. If there was a bill on the ground, somebody would have already picked it up.
Where to begin? Most normal people would say: that´s another nail in the already well-sealed coffin of the EMH. But faced with indisputable facts about solar market prices and installation quantities, Cowen´s response is: where´s the solar boom or fossil bust in asset prices? He can´t see one, so the facts must be wrong, or more politely epiphenomenal noise. Note that the objection is not based on any falsifiable hypothesis about solar PV, such as: Germany will have to cancel its solar PV feed-in tariff as unaffordable, silicon feedstock supply will hit a new bottleneck like the one that kept prices from falling in 2004-2008, solar PV will turn out to cause cancer, impotence and obesity or at least will be thought to do so. (Now there´s a hot tip to the oil industry PR men: work up some scares.) For the record, while Germany did reduce its feed-in tariff, China has announced one.
You know, even after two years at Chicago, where like every professor tells you that same joke at least three times every semester, it never gets old, does it?
It's of course perfectly possible that markets are simply not recognizing the danger to fossil fuel stocks, and we are in for a very exciting disruption in the next ten years. (In which case, I am wrong about a carbon tax and other emissions controls; we should just wait eight years.)
On the other hand, it's also possible that people who trade those stocks for a living--some of whom may even be as smart as James Wimberly, have considered this possibility, and don't find it very likely. What might those reasons be?
1) Mindless trend extrapolation is hours of fun for the entire family, but it is incorrect at least as often as it is correct, and possibly more often.
Wimberly uses this graph:
And very possibly prices will keep falling, the way that microchips have. On the other hand, maybe they'll plateau. Wimberly points out that solar panels are fundamentally a manfuacturing business, not a resource business, which is certainly promising . . . but the prices of other manufactured goods that experienced steep declines did not necessarily keep plummeting to zero.
2) Solar panel costs are not the only cost of a solar installation. According to the Energy Bible (which comports roughly with other figures I've seen online), about half the cost, or a little more, of putting in solar panels comes from the cells. The rest comes from the other stuff you need: batteries, transformers, wiring, and labor. As far as I know, the cost of these things is not falling as fast as the cost of solar panels.
Assume that these costs have held relatively steady, with the labor component being the most unstable. Ten years ago, most of the cost of an installation would have been the solar panels. But as those prices decline, the installed cost (without tax incentives) will be increasingly dominated by labor and other materials. Assuming that that graph says what I think it does, that implies that even if cells become free, we'd plateau slightly north of the average electricity price.
3) There's a storage problem. Yes, intriguing things are being done with hot salt and so forth. But how attractive are the costs compared to home installations? What percentage of their total generation costs represent solar cells, versus labor and other things whose prices aren't falling so fast?
Putting the pieces together, our national battery occupies a volume of 4.4 billion cubic meters, equivalent to a cube 1.6 km (one mile) on a side. The size in itself is not a problem: we'd naturally break up the battery and distribute it around the country. This battery would demand 5 trillion kg (5 billion tons) of lead.
A USGS report from 2011 reports 80 million tons (Mt) of lead in known reserves worldwide, with 7 Mt in the U.S. A note in the report indicates that the recent demonstration of lead associated with zinc, silver, and copper deposits places the estimated (undiscovered) lead resources of the world at 1.5 billion tons. That's still not enough to build the battery for the U.S. alone. We could chose to be optimistic and assume that more lead will be identified over time. But let's not ignore completely the fact that at this moment in time time, no one can point to a map of the world and tell you where even 2% of the necessary lead would come from to build a lead-acid battery big enough for the U.S. And even the undiscovered, but suspected lead falls short.
What about cost? At today's price for lead, $2.50/kg, the national battery would cost $13 trillion in lead alone, and perhaps double this to fashion the raw materials into a battery (today's deep cycle batteries retail for four times the cost of the lead within them). But I guarantee that if we really want to use more lead than we presently estimate to exist in deposits, we're not dealing with today's prices. Leaving this caveat aside, the naïve $25 trillion price tag is more than the annual U.S. GDP. Recall that lead-acid is currently the cheapest battery technology. Even if we sacrificed 5% of our GDP to build this battery (would be viewed as a huge sacrifice; nearly a trillion bucks a year), the project would take decades to complete.
But even then, we aren't done: batteries are good for only so many cycles (roughly 1000, depending on depth of discharge), so the national battery would require a rotating service schedule to recycle each part once every 5 years or so. This servicing would be a massive, expensive, and never-ending undertaking.
Moreover, while some sort of battery-replacement would help deal with the base-load problem (solar and wind are more variable than conventional sources, which means they have limited applications), they don't fix the transportation problem. Batteries are heavy and expensive, and as I understand it, absent some fairly radical breakthrough, they won't work at all in aviation; the energy density isn't high enough to permit the plane to take off. They're better for autos, but people don't want the limited range those vehicles currently offer.
4) To really take the market by storm, solar (plus storage) doesn't need to beat the average cost of electricity; it needs to beat the individual cost of each fuel type. DOE seems to think that by 2016 solar is still going to be a lot more expensive per kilowatt hour than other sources:
It's a pretty long haul before they overtake new coal--much less already-existing coal plants, or advanced natural gas.
The most obvious use for solar is as a replacement for expensive peak-load natural gas power (as I understand it, air conditioning causes most of the demand for these plants, so solar would be a nice complement.) But unless it gets massive subsidies, solar (including any storage mechanism you come up with) is going to have to individually defeat each type of electricity plant on price and/or availability, not "the average retail price of electricity"--which already includes some expensive solar and wind power.
Maybe that's possible--though that would still leave transportation to worry about. But that graph doesn't show it.
I'd close by restating Tyler's question in a slightly different way: if the price of solar is really likely to keep falling until it's cheaper than coal, why don't we see this revealed in the behavior of global warming activists? Where are Greens saying "We've decided to move on to more pressing issues, because clearly, the carbon emissions problem is just about solved."
If solar panels really become cheap enough to replace most electric generation, that will be extraordinarily disruptive, in ways that will be both good and bad for the environment. But I'm not seeing a shift away from climate change in order to focus more on, say, sustainable water-use or species conservation. Everyone seems just as worried about climate change as they've ever been, even though such cheap solar panels would render the issue mostly moot.
Revealed preference and market prices certainly can't tell you everything about the future. But they can tell you a lot about what people believe about the future.
“A typical person is more than five times as likely to die in an extinction event as in a car crash,” says a new report.
Nuclear war. Climate change. Pandemics that kill tens of millions.
These are the most viable threats to globally organized civilization. They’re the stuff of nightmares and blockbusters—but unlike sea monsters or zombie viruses, they’re real, part of the calculus that political leaders consider everyday. And according to a new report from the U.K.-based Global Challenges Foundation, they’re much more likely than we might think.
In its annual report on “global catastrophic risk,” the nonprofit debuted a startling statistic: Across the span of their lives, the average American is more than five times likelier to die during a human-extinction event than in a car crash.
Partly that’s because the average person will probably not die in an automobile accident. Every year, one in 9,395 people die in a crash; that translates to about a 0.01 percent chance per year. But that chance compounds over the course of a lifetime. At life-long scales, one in 120 Americans die in an accident.
It’s a paradox: Shouldn’t the most accomplished be well equipped to make choices that maximize life satisfaction?
There are three things, once one’s basic needs are satisfied, that academic literature points to as the ingredients for happiness: having meaningful social relationships, being good at whatever it is one spends one’s days doing, and having the freedom to make life decisions independently.
But research into happiness has also yielded something a little less obvious: Being better educated, richer, or more accomplished doesn’t do much to predict whether someone will be happy. In fact, it might mean someone is less likely to be satisfied with life.
That second finding is the puzzle that Raj Raghunathan, a professor of marketing at The University of Texas at Austin’s McCombs School of Business, tries to make sense of in his recent book, If You’re So Smart, Why Aren’t You Happy?Raghunathan’s writing does fall under the category of self-help (with all of the pep talks and progress worksheets that that entails), but his commitment to scientific research serves as ballast for the genre’s more glib tendencies.
A professor of cognitive science argues that the world is nothing like the one we experience through our senses.
As we go about our daily lives, we tend to assume that our perceptions—sights, sounds, textures, tastes—are an accurate portrayal of the real world. Sure, when we stop and think about it—or when we find ourselves fooled by a perceptual illusion—we realize with a jolt that what we perceive is never the world directly, but rather our brain’s best guess at what that world is like, a kind of internal simulation of an external reality. Still, we bank on the fact that our simulation is a reasonably decent one. If it wasn’t, wouldn’t evolution have weeded us out by now? The true reality might be forever beyond our reach, but surely our senses give us at least an inkling of what it’s really like.
Nearly half of Americans would have trouble finding $400 to pay for an emergency. I’m one of them.
Since 2013,the Federal Reserve Board has conducted a survey to “monitor the financial and economic status of American consumers.” Most of the data in the latest survey, frankly, are less than earth-shattering: 49 percent of part-time workers would prefer to work more hours at their current wage; 29 percent of Americans expect to earn a higher income in the coming year; 43 percent of homeowners who have owned their home for at least a year believe its value has increased. But the answer to one question was astonishing. The Fed asked respondents how they would pay for a $400 emergency. The answer: 47 percent of respondents said that either they would cover the expense by borrowing or selling something, or they would not be able to come up with the $400 at all. Four hundred dollars! Who knew?
That's not a harsh assessment. It's just a fair description.
Millennial politics is simple, really. Young people support big government, unless it costs any more money. They're for smaller government, unless budget cuts scratch a program they've heard of. They'd like Washington to fix everything, just so long as it doesn't run anything.
That's all from a new Reason Foundation poll surveying 2,000 young adults between the ages of 18 and 29. Millennials' political views are, at best, in a stage of constant metamorphosis and, at worst, "totally incoherent," as Dylan Matthews puts it.
It's not just the Reason Foundation. In March, Pew came out with a similar survey of Millennial attitudes that offered another smorgasbord of paradoxes:
Millennials hate the political parties more than everyone else, but they have the highest opinion of Congress.
Young people are the most likely to be single parents and the least likely to approve of single parenthood.
Young people voted overwhelmingly for Obama when he promised universal health care, but they oppose his universal health care law as much as the rest of the country ... even though they still pledge high support for universal health care. (Like other groups, but more so: They seem allergic to the term Obamacare.)
The U.S. president talks through his hardest decisions about America’s role in the world.
Friday, August 30, 2013, the day the feckless Barack Obama brought to a premature end America’s reign as the world’s sole indispensable superpower—or, alternatively, the day the sagacious Barack Obama peered into the Middle Eastern abyss and stepped back from the consuming void—began with a thundering speech given on Obama’s behalf by his secretary of state, John Kerry, in Washington, D.C. The subject of Kerry’s uncharacteristically Churchillian remarks, delivered in the Treaty Room at the State Department, was the gassing of civilians by the president of Syria, Bashar al-Assad.
Borrowing from other cultures isn’t just inevitable, it’s potentially positive.
Sometime during the early 2000s, big, gold, “door-knocker” hoop earrings started to appeal to me, after I’d admired them on girls at school. It didn’t faze me that most of the girls who wore these earrings at my high school in St. Louis were black, unlike me. And while it certainly may have occurred to me that I—a semi-preppy dresser—couldn’t pull them off, it never occurred to me that I shouldn’t.
In Trump’s aftermath, his enemies on the right will have to take stock and propose a meaningful alternative vision for the GOP’s future.
Donald Trump’s big victories in the Mid-Atlantic primaries don’t represent quite the end of the ballgame—but they come damn close.
And now Donald Trump’s many and fierce opponents in the Republican Party and the conservative movement face the hour of decision. Trump looks ever more certain to be the party nominee. Yet not perhaps since George McGovern in 1972 has a presumptive nominee so signally failed to carry the most committed members of his party with him.
So what happens now to those who regard themselves as party thought-leaders? Do they submit? Or do they continue to resist?
Resistance now means something more—and more dangerous—than tapping out #NeverTrump on Twitter. It means working to defeat Trump even knowing that the almost certain beneficiary will be Hillary Clinton.