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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.