Whorled View

January 24, 2008

70% Solar Energy by 2050: Scientific American

Probably one of the best layman articles on the subject from a contemporary perspective except for one major problem. Nevertheless it’s worth a good read. Check it out: http://www.sciam.com/article.cfm?id=a-solar-grand-plan

The problem: Once again it places more emphasis on Solar PV than Solar thermal. It pretends to justify this by throwing around some magical numbers that at this point are pure theory and highly unlikely. Compare that to Solar thermal where the numbers are even better and are proven.

Case in point: It says Cadmium Telluride (nanosolar film) will be able to produce electricity for $0.05/kWh by 2020. This is based on the theory that they can get efficiencies up to 14%. I’m sorry, but I’m quite convinced that in order to do that they’ll have to enable some technologies that will up the price of the manufacturing enough to blow that number out of the water. They think they can improve the efficiency by 40%, based on what? Silicon solar efficiencies have improved maybe 10% in the last 20 years? Sure Cadmium Telluride went from 8% to 9% in the last year, but they’re approaching a ceiling that will get extremely hard to raise. My guess is that it will top out at 12%, which leaves solar PV maxing out at $0.06/kWh assuming all other costs stay the same, which they won’t. Add to that $0.04 /kWh for storage and you get 0.10/kWh, AND YOU HAVE TO WAIT UNTIL 2020 TO SEE THAT RESULT.

Compare that to Ausra’s Solar thermal technology which by 2013 should produce electricity, including storage, at $0.07 /kWh.

HELLO!? Am I the only one running these numbers? Solar Thermal is so superior. Nothing, I repeat: NOTHING should go toward the development of something that will cost more near term and long term than Solar Thermal will.

Two more reasons Solar thermal is better:

TIME TO MARKET: Unlike any kind of Solar PV solar thermal uses no fancy technology. It uses no special materials that require special processing. The materials and the parts and pieces that make solar thermal plants are found all throughout existing industrial parks across America -and at bargain prices. All you need is the money to buy them (tons cheaper than what Solar PV factories cost), and people to build them (requires no special training or science). All these things are in stark contrast to the supply problems that have plagued the Solar PV industry. Solar PV, whether it’s thin film or otherwise, will never be able to scale up at the rate that the Scientific American author suggests. The materials and processing equipment demands are just too great even if the money was there … can’t be done.

LIFETIME: A solar thermal plant lasts almost forever if cared for correctly. Sure parts of the turbine needs replacing as with any turbine including the ones used by SolarPV to reconvert pressurized gas to electricity, but thats about it. No solar cells to replace. The mirrors last forever. The dewar tubes containing the molten salt or H2O (Ausra’s technology) should last a very long time if maintained right. Compare that to SolarPV where the life of the Solar Cells is 20-30 years at the most. Also you’ll have to replace the compressors as well as the turbines parts in the Solar PV plant (incidentally solar thermal needs no compressors – another bonys). Can you imagine that? With a Solar PV plant you’re replacing practically the whole plant every 20-30 years. Not so with Solar Thermal.

In short, media bias favoring Solar PV once again garners unworthy support, thereby siphoning off the funds from Solar Thermal, possibly in order to fatten the wallets of those who invest in Solar PV (Al Gore) or work for the industry. Solar PV, even in Cadmium Telluride thin films will forever be inferior, less efficient, and a more expensive technology than Solar thermal. Articles like this that have some fantastic information and promote the use of the Sun’s rays almost do more bad than good by obfuscating the issue and guaranteeing that our hard earned tax dollars will be taken away from Solar Thermal and reinvested in Solar PV assuming that Solar PV will someday meet the magic numbers that it was supposed to achieve 20-30 years ago, and neither will we solve our energy problems as quickly as we could if all the funds went to something like what Ausra does (www.ausra.com).

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9 Comments »

  1. Good points but with thin film I can implement the solution on my home.

    Comment by Bill Johnson — January 24, 2008 @ 1:10 pm

  2. True – and you should if you have the means, and that is exactly the market that thin film should target – not utilities.

    I’m actually all for Solar PV for distributed electricity generation for those who can afford it, however you’ll get a much bigger bang for your buck by replacing your HVAC system with a Geothermal HVAC system, than with adding solar panels to your rooftop. Here’s another case where Solar PV gets gov’t funding and subsidies and credits, and the competing technology which provides more bang/$ gets far less – in this case it gets nothing. It also gets almost no press. There are tons of articles to encourage people to lay out $30K to cut their electricity in half or more, but hardly nothing about how people can insulate their homes and use a geothermal HVAC system to get the same effect on electricity use, but for half the cost.

    Of course, for distributed energy those who can afford it should, but that’s really the point I’m making … 99% of the people out there can’t. Even in good times most families are house poor. What that means is that all these alternative energy scenarios should reward companies for having the biggest bang/$ per annum. In other words, your funding should be inversely proportional to the $/kWh your technology can currently enable, not the rosy projections that a bunch of shareholders and lobbyists say it can produce in 12 years.

    Then you’d see some real incentive to walk the walk, not just talk the talk, while simultaneously putting the money where it belongs: where it does the most good. Besides, these Solar PV companies have so much venture capital that they don’t need the gov’t funding. Why? Because they target the consumer, so the profit potential is high, but utility oriented technologies aren’t nearly as profitable, as they are regulated and so they don’t generate the venture capital needed to provide the most cost effective solution to our energy problems.

    Comment by lullabyman — January 24, 2008 @ 2:34 pm

  3. A distributed PV system makes more sense in terms of availability, cost, and security. This massive “solar plant” requires electricity be transmitted across vast distances to power cities, farms, and homes but even with the most advanced technology we can think of there will still be power lost in transmission. That’s why we build power plants as close to the end customers as possible today. Covering rooftops with PV materials means the power is *right there*, overhead, just a few feet from the consumer.

    SA’s plan calls for massive subsidies paid for by new taxes but the history of such projects is mixed at best. Subsidies distort the free market and direct resources to politically expedient projects – it’s why we launch rockets in Florida, build them on the West Coast, and run the program from Houston; politicians all across the country demanded a piece of the pie in exchange for their votes. In a project of this magnitude half the money would go for testimonial dinners and medals to the politicians voting on the funds. The Free market works differently, more quickly, and in the end more efficiently. People put PV on their own rooftops when they see the cost savings. They pick and choose from a variety of available technologies, allowing the best to emerge naturally. And they guard their investment religiously.

    Security is another concern. Imagine this giant solar farm in the Southwest targetted by a terrorist group. It’d be too large to destroy completely, but the switching network could certainly be sabatoged. Explsives planted on the transmission lines could shut off power to huge sections of the country. With a distributed network there wouldn’t be this concern – it’d be like trying to swat a million mosquitos in the forest; can’t be done by a small group of terrorists. If you want security, you go with a distributed network.

    Comment by Orion — January 24, 2008 @ 3:51 pm

  4. Do you know how big 18,000 miles^2 is? Cadmium Telluride is abundant enough to make maybe 1,000 miles^2 easily, but that pretty much will exhaust the easily accessible material. Approaching 5,000 miles^2 will become much more expensive. The remaining 13,000 miles^2 is totally out of reach without tremendous mining efforts. And then after 20 years you have to replace all those panels – will we just scrape it off and spray it back on? No – in fact Cadmium Telluride as a compound semiconductor is extremely difficult to separate – which is what you have to do to remanufacture the panels. Availability is the biggest argument against investing solely in Solar PV distributed power.

    Although Cadmium Telluride is supposed to be considerably cheaper per watt than Silicon PV, you can’t buy it right now for any less than Sharp’s Silcon based PV panels. It’s all theory – and the problem is manufacturing and material sourcing – extremely challenging problems that still aren’t fully worked out yet. Right now distributed Solar PV costs on average $40K per household. It only becomes financially justified for the rich only after state and federal kicks in nearly half the cost. Then it has to be replaced after 20-30 years. That’s another $40k per household.

    The cost of electric transmission argument for distributed electricity is completely bogus and here’s why: You have half the sun in NY that you have in NV, so SolarPV in NY is 50% less efficient. Using DC however you can pipe all that electricity from NV to NY with less than 5% power loss.

    The security challenge for a Utility level solution is solved by redundancy that already exists. Existing local coal plants could be fired up on a moments notice if necessary. Negligible cost would be required to maintain their functionality. That makes this as big of a non-issue as was the fabled Y2K glitch. Keep the existing plants serviceable and this issue is laughable at best.

    Don’t get me wrong … I’m not against distributed, I just don’t see how it can ever compete with utility, whether it’s coal, Solar, etc. It wish it could … but like I said, 99% Americans are house poor – how do you think they’re going to fork out $20K for a power system, and how will the US pay for the remaining $20K per person? Carbon credits would put to better use funding most cost effective solutions. Rich people who buy SolarPV don’t understand this concept.

    Comment by lullabyman — January 24, 2008 @ 4:43 pm

  5. I will agree that subsidies cause more problems than good. In fact, I’m confident that Solar PV would be a hiss and a byword if it wasn’t for subsidies. It’s still expensive because it can be. The gov’t will pick up nearly half the tab (in most cases) for private installations.

    The funds set aside for alternative energy sources should be offered, not as an incentive to develop alternative energy, but as an incentive to make it cheap. In otherwords, it should be rewarded as a prize. As I mentioned above, the distribution of those funds should be made on an annual basis, inversely based on the $/Watt saved. That spurs efforts to make it more affordable as well as rewarding those companies who are already making the best impact (although not necessarily the biggest impact). In time that will naturally enable a far bigger bang/$ for the future.

    You want the quickest way to independence from oil – use competition and free enterprise by offering prize money. The guys at X-Prize had it right. You don’t spread all your money out to every Tom Dick or Harry that says they have a winner. You keep it in your pocket, and then set up establish check-points (in terms of $/Watt on a Utility level and distributed level) where huge cash prizes go to those who first meet those checkpoints.

    Thats how it’s done. Unfortunately as it is most of our efforts and taxes in the Alt Energy sector are completely wasted.

    Comment by lullabyman — January 24, 2008 @ 4:57 pm

  6. Solar Thermal so much more attractive than Solar PV: http://www.planetark.org/dailynewsstory.cfm/newsid/45270/story.htm

    Comment by lullabyman — January 24, 2008 @ 5:29 pm

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