40 years on and the economics of solar power now make sense

Simon O'Leary

Simon O’Leary CEng FEI, Research Centre Director at Regent’s University London

EI Council Member Simon O’Leary CEng FEI looks back to his student days and reflects on the growing importance of renewable power for the EI and the global energy system.

Just over 40 years ago, the Institute of Fuel signalled the broadening landscape of the energy scene through its change of name to the Institute of Energy (and subsequently to the Energy Institute as we know it today). In 1980, its then student member Simon O’Leary presented his winning McAndrew Award essay on ‘The Sun and Solar Energy – Pie in the Sky?’ to a joint meeting of the Institute of Energy and the International Solar Energy Society (Energy World, 1980) as outlined in Figure 1.

SO image 1

Figure 1. McAndrew Award presentation in 1980

At that time, interest in solar energy was growing, but its use to produce electricity was expensive and limited to specialist applications, such as in remote locations or on spacecraft. Its use was so bespoke that it would not even appear on historical charts depicting the major global sources of electrical power. However, by the year 2000, it was beginning to register as illustrated in Figure 2.

SO image 2

Figure 2. Energy mix for global power supply to 2050 (McKinsey, 2019)

By 2020, the science, engineering, technology and infrastructure for producing solar power has developed to such an extent that the relative price of photovoltaics has fallen dramatically (Belton, 2020; Ozalp, Sattler, Klausner and Miller, 2015) while, at the same time, the demand for such renewable non-carbon sources has become ever more apparent because of climate change. The net result is that the economics of solar energy to produce electrical power globally is now making sense, just as it does for wind power. Solar and wind power are projected to become the major players in the takeover of global power production by renewables by 2035 as noted in Figure 2.

It’s no surprise then to see an increasing focus on renewables in today’s Energy Institute, now the home of health and safety in onshore and offshore wind as much as it has been for decades for conventional fuels, and with its two new conferences Renewables Health, Safety and Sustainability and Powering Net Zero set to shine a light on solar and other clean energy sources this autumn.

A further clear signal for this was given at the Energy Institute’s international conference, IP Week 2020, and its focus on a low carbon future (IP Week, 2020) with presentations by leaders and commentators from inside and outside energy sectors. Along with many other prominent contributors, this included keynote speeches by the Energy Institute President, Steve Holliday, and the Group Chief Executive of BP, Bernard Looney. Like the Institute itself expanding its energy base all those years ago, oil and gas majors may now be well positioned to extend their expertise across the energy field more broadly (Accenture, 2020).

Figure 3. IP Week 2020 review

Over the last 40 years, there has been a ‘C of change’ worldwide; consider the changes in Computing, China, Communications, Climate and now Covid-19 to name just cinque. So, in 2020, and while it has taken the author four decades to answer the question, it is clear that solar energy as a widespread source of electrical power is no longer something that could happen but is unlikely; it is no longer pie in the sky!


Accenture (2020). From Oil Producers to Power Players: A Smart Move?

Belton, P. (2020). A breakthrough approaches for solar power. BBC News: Business; May 1.

Energy Institute (2020). Energy insight: A very brief history of the Energy Institute.

Energy World (1980). Institute of Energy March meetings. February: Number 67; page 1.

IP Week (2020). A review of IP Week 2020. Energy Institute.

McKinsey (2019). Global Energy Perspective 2019: Reference Case; Summary.

Ozalp, N. Sattler, C., Klausner, J. and Miller, J. (2015). Fossil Fuels have a Number of Industrial Uses Beyond Energy Generation: Is it Possible for Solar Power to Replace them All? Mechanical Engineering, Vol.137, No.1, pp.46-51.

Profile: Professor Simon O’Leary is a Research Centre Director at Regent’s University London, following over two decades in industry, including international roles in the scientific and commercial arms of oil, gas and petrochemicals in the UK and Norway. He is a Fellow and Council Member of the Energy Institute. Email: olearys@regents.ac.uk

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