Solar Must Fight Straw Men As Well As Fossil Fuels

As an unabashed supporter of solar power, I cringe a bit when I see other enthusiasts make overly broad claims of what we can expect from solar in the near term. Longer term, most seem to feel that solar will make a huge contribution. But between now and 2075, when most policies will be implemented to combat global warming, expectations of solar need to be tempered.

It doesn’t help when opponents of solar power (they’re not really opponents of solar power–they just object to it being accorded subsidy and privilege, sometimes at the expense of fossil fuels) try to show how solar cannot deliver on extravagant claims that… nobody is making.

A case in point is a post up at my friend Anthony Watts’ website, Watts Up With That. A post titled ‘The Green Mirage‘ repeats and helps perpetuate misconceptions about what can be reasonably expected of solar, its impact and even its footprint.

The post, which is actually a review of a piece in Forbes that draws heavily on this piece from fusion4freedom, tries to make the following points:

· 29.3 billion 1square meter panels would cover 29,333 km2 which equals 7.2 million acres, or almost all of Maryland and Delaware.

Here they describe the theoretical footprint of enough solar panels to power the United States–to provide all its energy needs. This is in response to a prediction by Ray Kurzweil that this would happen in 20 years.

But Kurzweil is pretty much alone in his prediction. Almost every forecast has been based on all renewables (not just solar) providing 30% of our electricity needs (not all power). I have the utmost respect for Kurzweil and hope that much of what he writes concerning the Singularity comes to pass. But providing 100% of our power through solar is not what is being asked of the industry. To provide 30% of our electricity needs, putting wind and wood pellets out of business, would require something on the order of 5 billion panels, not counting those that have already been put up.

As for the footprint issue–sigh… Most solar is placed on rooftops. It doesn’t take any additional space. If very large solar arrays are required, they will take up more space. But most of that space will be in desert that is otherwise not fit for human habitation or industry. I don’t understand why this is even an issue. It’s a strawman.

· If 1 square meter PV panels were manufactured at the rate of 1 per second, it would take 929 years to manufacture 29.3 billion panels

Panels can be built in different sizes. They don’t all need to be ready tomorrow, or indeed in 20 years. There were about 370 high volume solar panel manufacturers last time I looked and they would cheerfully ramp up production if asked. There are idle plants waiting for customer orders all over the world. This is a strawman.

· The cost of a solar only approach exceeds $15.27 trillion

Assuming costs freeze today, building 29.3 billion solar panels might indeed cost $15 trillion, give or take. But costs of solar have declined precipitously and can be expected to continue to decline.

Emanuel Sachs MIT

Extending the timeline through 2075 and lowering the number of panels to provide its expected contribution to 30% of electricity needs both lowers the total cost and the annual expenditure. It would cost somewhere near $2.5 trillion. Spread out over 60 years it would amount to about $41 billion a year. For perspective, U.S. subsidies for renewable energy were about $23 billion a couple of years ago.

· Moore’s Law is not applicable to the production or deployment of solar panels

This is true, but irrelevant. The quest for efficiencies and cost reductions in solar panels don’t have to advance logarithymically forever. The steep decline that we have seen in the prices of solar modules looks similar to Moore’s Law. And efficiencies can still be obtained. But the cost of solar modules doesn’t have to drop to zero. The overall cost of solar (including balance of systems, installation, permitting and light maintenance) only has to drop below the cost of the cheapest competing power source in a given area.

This is already the case in some areas of the U.S. and it’s getting close in others. Another generation or two of module manufacturing should get us there. We don’t need 50 years of continuous advancement. This is a strawman.

· Unsubsidized Solar has applicability in rural areas and developing countries with low population density

This is true. If you draw a bubble map of where solar is applicable strictly from a cost point of view, there are many bubbles of different size. The point is that there are more bubbles than two years ago and the bubbles are larger.

· Google’s Green Energy Project RE<C was canceled; “Renewable energy technologies simply won’t work; we need a fundamentally different approach; Suggest “A disruptive fusion technology…”

Google has abandoned so many projects in the past 10 years that it is clear that they have a limited attention span and that spending 1 day a week on your pet project is probably not going to power the company to greater glories. Solar power and other renewables may in fact fail to live up to our hopes. But Google predicting that doesn’t mean a thing. They give up too quickly.

Solar power can, if cultivated properly and used intelligently, provide 30% of the electricity requirements of the United States. It can do so without costing much more than we are spending now. It can do so without ruining landscapes.

That is what was asked of the technology. Complaining that it won’t wash your car or feed your baby as well is a little unfair.


17 responses to “Solar Must Fight Straw Men As Well As Fossil Fuels

  1. Once solar energy penetration reaches a certain fraction, the cost ought to include energy storage, to account for the fact that solar panels don’t work very well when it’s dark, raining, etc.

    I’ve read that Chinese manufacturers overbuilt capacity, and are trying to sell at very low prices they can’t sustain. I’ve also read these cheap Chinese panels have a failure rate higher than suspected by innocent buyers.

    I also noticed many solar advocates forget the cost includes keeping the panels clean, because dust reduces efficiency.

    The cost trends projected for the future seem to be grabbed out of the air, I see too much propaganda and irrational numbers.

    If indeed solar is that good and will be much cheaper by 2020 then the obvious answer is to invest sometime in 2019 in companies which install and service solar panels.

    As for me, I’m not planning to buy one. I live in a very sunny area, but when I did the cost analysis solar power turned out to be a huge loser. It seems to be aimed at upper middle class rich folk who want to feel green. I also understand in some jurisdictions those who install solar panels are given the ability to freeload and function as social parasites, selling solar energy they generate at the retail price. If that’s not social parasitism, then what do we call it?

    • I used to see on my Christmas presents ‘Batteries not included.’ I think it would still serve…

      • Love the quote!

        At the moment PG&E has a solicitation out for a 4 MU battery pack to be installed about 20 miles from my house in an area that is seeing a lot of residential PV installed. The hope of the county supervisors is that a fair amount of new construction will also happens in this area- serviced by the substation that services the area that is. At the moment it appears that PG&E’s cost for the batteries are going to be loaded up under the “distribution” part on one’s bill, vs say the generation cost allocation line item. I would rather see a separate energy storage line item on my bill, but I don’t think this is going to happen.

        It appear that PG&E has thought through how to pay for the mismatch of residential PV generation hitting their distribution grid compared to the demand for power. The new rate structure in CA for the residential market will allow covering the higher costs of natural gas peaker plants, that are getting squeezed out of the loading order, by having the time of use time periods change from the existing e-6 rate schedule with peak times falling between 1 and 7 PM to a peak time period of 4 to 9 pm. The exact time that PV output is going down and then zero with the arrival of nighttime, when the load is still fairly high at CASIO and the generation of wind power is usually rather low (in the state at least). It’s all a tad confusing to say the least. The change to the TOU net metering program are discussed here-

        I am not sure it makes that much sense to be evaluating the wholesale costs for power, at the different CASIO nodes, when these prices don’t cover what PG&E actually pays for the power via their long term contracts. The folks at CASIO talked a bit about how the “market(s)” works (and the problems we are going to be facing with essentially to much of a good thing- PV that is):

        I am beginning to see why Germany is sticking with using biomass as the fuel source for some generation facilities. If we had more of truly control knobbed biomass facilities in the state we could fill the gap in PV output (and the lack of being able to count on variable wind output in the state) compared to the system wide demand with some fossil fuel free biomass generation. In any case it looks like we have a bit of a broken system at the moment and we need a few more choices to become commercially viable soon. Let’s hope the batteries we are building into the system hold up over time and the IT infrastructure details get worked out before the retail costs for a kWh get to be so high that new development, with its associated demand, will not materialize.

  2. The solar vision is attractive and intrigues many.
    The bottom line is solar has only grown as anindustry when pushed forward by government subsidies at every level.

    • As opposed to those industries that didn’t grow when subsidized…

      • This is not the first solar “boom”. The last one went away when the subsidies were wisely ended.
        Coal, oil, gas- they do not require operating subsidies.
        Nuclear requires it only because of the lucrative anti-nuclear industry.

  3. If you draw a bubble map of where solar is applicable strictly from a cost point of view, there are many bubbles of different size. The point is that there are more bubbles than two years ago and the bubbles are larger.

    Now there is an interesting statement. It says more about the industry than any other. I would be curious what percentage of solar panels are sold as garden lighting.

    At least in my humble opinion, the big breakthrough in solar will come when the panels are integrated into roofing material, ie, when we slap solar panels directly onto the roof decking instead of shingles. At that point, the cost of standard roofing and labor will be deducted from the cost of solar panels.

    Of course, there are solar shingles.

    • Getting solar into construction has been harder than it should have been. I’m waiting for BIPV, where we get solar onto the walls as well as the rooftops. How about those driveways outside suburban homes? If the Dutch can have solar bikepaths and even stretches of road, why not a driveway?

  4. Doug Johnston

    The United States Commerce Department imposes steep tariffs (anti-dumping duties) of 26.71 percent to 78.42 percent on imports of most high quality solar panels made in China.
    These tariffs effectively double the cost of roof-mounted (PV) solar panels to American consumers, and are a direct subsidy to (higher cost) American manufacturers. They are also an indirect subsidy to other electricity producers (like hydro and coal), because it keeps the prices that they can charge higher.
    These protectionist duties will eventually be overturned by free trade agreements, like the Trans Pacific Trade Agreement being negotiated now, and the price of solar panels in the US will drop precipitously. American consumers will buy these cheap solar panels because (once they’ve paid for the panels) the electricity they produce is essentially free, which of course is much less expensive than buying electricity from the Utility company. Other producers will not be able to compete on price alone.

    • Solar power doesn’t compete with fossil fuels to an appreciable extent, therefore the argument that tariffs on solar panel dumpers are a subsidy is fairly extreme. The Chinese dumping practices take jobs from American workers, therefore those duties won’t come off until the dumping ends. Furthermore, solar lacks from extremely low efficiency (easy to understand when the sun isn’t on half the time). Solar has a niche. But to get more real market without subsidies it needs to get much better. I’m going to wait and see what happens to raw panel prices coming to Europe. I already bought three tiny ones to check on their performance, and if they do work, by 2020 I’ll buy myself a set and connect it to a small off grid air conditioner.

      • If the Chinese want to subsidize American take-up of solar power, I think we should let them. Most solar jobs are in installation, not manufacture.

        Being in Taiwan, I just bought an Oriental fan. It works at night!

  5. The subsidies and mandates serve to lock in a higher price rather than incentivize innovation.

    I suspect that if solar became cheaper than fossil fuels the religious environmentalists would want to ban that as well.

    • I dunno, Mike. The period of highest subsidies for solar matches the period of highest reductions in the cost of solar modules.

      The problem with subsidies is the additional bureaucracy to get projects approved, adding as much as 20% to the cost.


  6. Hi Tom…

    A little while back on Judith Curry’s Blog I linked to several studies of exponential growth of technology, including a very interesting study of the specific reasons for the exponential growth of install base/decline in cost for solar PV through about 2004-2005.

    I’m still trying to work out how to (mentally) model and express my ideas about this, but IMO the whole “Moore’s Law”/”Swanson’s Law” thing is way too simplistic. Somewhere between “learning curve”, “economies of scale”, and most importantly R&D, solar power has been seeing an exponential decline in cost from 1975 through today.

    Carrying the curve a decade beyond the study linked above, and strongly suggesting it’ll continue.

    Virtually all US power from solar within 20 years seems highly plausible to me. My best guess is that daily balancing will be provided by deep-sea pumped hydro, at least at first. With power→gas/liquid fuel growing very fast at 20 years, and most coal generation gone.

    I disagree with you about the footprint thing, though. Most solar PV will (IMO) be utility-grade, and the extent will be comparable to (probably 1/3-1/4) the amount of land given over to agriculture. I don’t see anything wrong with that, it’s a matter of perspective.

    • Hiya AK, by deep sea pumpted hydro do you mean OTEC?

      I actually think community level solar will be the compromise between rooftop and utility solar. Check out the company Mosaic. You can have garden arrays, telephone poles, rooftops and a bunch of other configurations–bike paths, roads, driveways. Bring ’em in together and sell the combined output.

      • Hiya AK, by deep sea pumpted hydro do you mean OTEC?

        Not really Tom. I’m talking about something like this: Energy Storage On The Bottom Of The Ocean — New Pumped Hydroelectric Power Storage Design, also described here: MIT researchers propose subsea version of pumped hydro for renewable energy storage.

        Putting it simply, pumped hydro, not including the reservoirs is pretty cheap, and as solar PV continues its exponential ;price decline, a combination will reach parity with coal/gas very soon, if not already. The key is the reservoirs, and with deep-sea pumped hydro, the only one that’s likely to be expensive is the lower. (Using sea water, you don’t need an upper reservoir, if you want to use purified water, you just need some sort of bellows arrangement right beside the pump-house. Which would be cheep, since it just needs to separate, not hold significant pressure.)

        The lower reservoir proposal that Slocum et al. came up with may not be the answer, but by isolating this as the only significant engineering challenge to fully scalable pumped hydro storage, we can see how engineering ingenuity can be applied to solving it.

        Many alternative solutions propose themselves, IMO.

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