Free Markets, Free People

Pimping solar power

There’s no question that alternative and renewable fuels and energy sources are the way to go – if they’re feasible.  Solar, wind, geo-thermal and others all promise clean and renewable energy for our future.  But one of the more irritating things concerning some of those energy sources are the claims that they’re technologically ready for prime time.  Geo-thermal being the exception (but a very minor source), wind and solar aren’t at all where they need to be to provide for the energy needs of the world.  That doesn’t stop the usual suspects from implying they are.

One of the recent stories that helped blunt those sorts of assertions was that of Spain’s attempt to go green.  The result was a loss of jobs and heavy subsidies for the solar power industry.  Well apparently it is time to resurrect Spain and the solar industry and the New York Times obliges:

Although Spain’s long-term goal had been to produce 400 megawatts of electricity from solar panels by 2010, it reached that milestone by the end of 2007.

In 2008 the nation connected 2.5 gigawatts of solar power into its grid, more than quintupling its previous capacity and making it second to Germany, the world leader. But many of the hastily opened plants offered no hope of being cost-competitive with conventional power, being poorly designed or located where sunshine was inadequate, for example.

That’s wonderful, but in 2009, Spain’s power demand declined by 4.3% to 251,305 GWh.  So while solar is a least contributing, it’s not contributing much. And there are still serious and obvious problems with solar power. The example used comes from Florida:

Across 500 acres north of West Palm Beach, the FPL Group utility is assembling a life-size Erector Set of 190,000 shimmering mirrors and thousands of steel pylons that stretch as far as the eye can see. When it is completed by the end of the year, this vast project will be the world’s second-largest solar plant.

But that is not its real novelty. The solar array is being grafted onto the back of the nation’s largest fossil-fuel power plant, fired by natural gas. It is an experiment in whether conventional power generation can be married with renewable power in a way that lowers costs and spares the environment.

The fact that they’re experimenting with solar is a good thing. It needs a lot of that. However the fact that this covers 500 acres of land is notable. 500 acres. It is the world’s 2nd largest solar array. And its contribution? At its peak, it will produce 75 megawatts of power. That’s about enough to power 11,000 homes.

Sitting right next too it is a natural gas fired power plant. In fact, that’s the plant on which these panels are grafted. It covers far fewer acres than does the solar array and it produces 3,800 MW of power – enough to power 557,333 homes.

The difference couldn’t be more obvious. Solar is much too inefficient in terms of power provided/land use to be practical as a stand alone source. To produce the same power the gas fired plant does would require an array that covers over 25,000 acres.

And there are other drawbacks as well.

This project is among a handful of innovative hybrid designs meant to use the sun’s power as an adjunct to coal or gas in producing electricity. While other solar projects already use small gas-fired turbines to provide backup power for cloudy days or at night, this is the first time that a conventional plant is being retrofitted with the latest solar technology on such an industrial scale.

The project’s advantages are obvious: electricity generated from the sun will allow FPL to cut natural gas use and reduce carbon dioxide emissions. It will provide extra power when it is most needed: when the summer sun is shining, Floridians are cranking up their air-conditioning and electricity demand is at its highest.

The plant also serves as a real-life test on how to reduce the cost of solar power, which remains much more expensive than most other forms of electrical generation. FPL Group, the parent company of Florida Power and Light, expects to cut costs by about 20 percent compared with a stand-alone solar facility, since it does not have to build a new steam turbine or new high-power transmission lines.

“We’d love to tell you that solar power is as economic as fossil fuels, but the reality is that it is not,” Lewis Hay III, FPL’s chairman and chief executive, said on a recent tour of the plant. “We have got to figure out ways to get costs down. As we saw with wind power, a lot has to do with scale.”

In other words, solar has a place as an add on, an adjunct, a gap filler for peak times (if it is sunny), but as a stand alone, the technology is not ready for prime time. As noted most stand-alone solar arrays have small gas-fired turbines to provide backup for cloudy days an night. And those backups are used – a lot.

It also requires heavy government subsidy since the cost of producing solar power is so high (inefficiency due to technology and its limitations on cloudy days and obviously, at night).

The whole point of this is to get real about the alternatives and understand that while everyone would love to see them come into their own as dependable sources of energy that can replace dirtier sources, the technology doesn’t yet exist. Until it does, I’m not at all ready to trade the eye-pollution of acres and acres of solar panels for a few megawatts of power – not when we’re the largest producer of natural gas (the cleanest burning fossil fuel we have) in the world.

When solar is ready (and that means dependable and steady power on the minimum of land) I’m ready to see it deployed. But until then, if it’s going to be pimped, it would be nice if those pimping it would include the good, the bad and the ugly when they talk about it. Of course if they did that, it wouldn’t be pimping, would it?



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31 Responses to Pimping solar power

  • As a pioneering pimp for solar energy, I can tell you that this is history repeating itself, as farce.

    Ninety-nine percent of what you hear and see about the subject is straight off the shelf from the 1970s. There’s much about it that is lovely and elegant — the photovoltaic cell, for instance — but it’s all unnecessary and inconvenient. Lovely, elegant, unnecessary and inconvenient. Got a cabin in the mountains and an extra $20,000 to burn AND some decent southern exposure AND a reasonably sunny climate, go for that roof-top solar cell array and you’ll have all the electricity you need for half the time you need it.

    Yes, you can feed your homemade electricity into the power grid and “run the meter backwards.” At the end of the day you’ll have a little something and a lot of bupkis. Watch for the phrase: “Life-cycle costing.”

    • Didn’t I see a citation that “it will be useful when the photovoltaics are as cheap as paint to apply per unit area”

  • The limitations of wind and ground based solar are primarily physical. Technology is not going to change things very much – ever.

    • Right. A square meter of land is only going to see so much energy from sunlight per year. Same for wind, but with even more eratic results.

      Since I grew up as a Western foothills “leave me alone” type of libertarian / conservative, I like the idea of going off grid and using something like solar, wind, or whatever to power my survivalist cabin. But it is stupid as an energy source for large numbers of people. Political correctness run amuck.

      And with our current budget problems, such expensive politically correct efforts must fall to the wayside. We should ask those rioting students if they want us to pump money into solar/wind or into universities.

  • Let’s get back to first principles: why are we doing this in the first place?  The answer is obvious: because of “global warming”, a theory that – to be charitable – is unproven, and truthfully has been exposed as a sham, a hoax, and a global con job.  This is not to say that it isn’t in our interests to use as little oil and coal as we can, both for national security and environmental reasons (hey, I like clean air as much as the next guy!), but I don’t see the sense in spending huge sums for so little return.

    And there’s no question that the return IS quite small.  Quite aside from the “grunt engineer numbers” cited by McQ, there is also the issue of how much damage will be done to our economy by wasting money on green technology.  We know that Spain, despite the propaganda from the greenies, lost jobs* from its determined attempt to go green.  We also know that our government has been in cahoots* with the green industry to hide these problems.^

    Finally, I believe in the market: when people want something and think that they can get it at a good price, they will buy it without incentives, directives, mandates, or any other government interference.  That people, individually and collectively as towns, cities, and states, are NOT flocking to solar without getting money from Uncle Sugar tells me that this technology is neither ready nor desired.

    Building solar plants now, especially on the taxpayer’s dime, is not dissimilar to building Grand Central Station and the transcontinental railroad while James Watt was still tinkering with his steam engine: it’s money wasted as the technology simply isn’t mature enough to warrant that sort of investment.


    (*) H/T Powerline

    (^) And isn’t interesting that the left, which was so vocal when it appeared that Bush and Cheney were favoring Halliburton and the oil industry, is now so silent when their side is obviously conniving with the very big businesses and eeeevil corporations that they claim to despise?

  • Doc: “Let’s get back to first principles: why are we doing this in the first place?  The answer is obvious: because of “global warming””

    The original 1970s impetus for the development and subsidization of solar energy technologies was a response to the oil shock of that decade.

    It was quite an earnest response, and I met and knew a lot of the people who were at the forefront of alternative energy technologies. Unfortunately, the whole deal got heavily mixed in with the federal government and “solar” bureaucracies sprung up even faster than solar businesses and it wasn’t before long that the latter were at the multiple teats of the former.

    But the real problem was that the market for it didn’t happen. In the end, Americans are just too busy to give much attention or much cash investment to something that needs a lot of both.

    It was all great, self-reliant, thoroughly American stuff, but it was the stuff of a different century. It was oversized and cumbersome in an age of miniaturization. Oil burners were becoming little boxes in the basement; electricity was piped in from places never seen; but solar wanted a lot of your space and time. America was too busy for it, and that’s part of the market problem for any product.

    There are still great architects out there who will design you a gorgeous passive solar house that will be as great a thing as you could imagine, but it’s still off the beaten path, and it faces a lot of site-related and local climate-related issues. Not so easy as having a small oil- or gas-burning box in the basement.

    • My wife and I are planning our first house, and we’ve run into exactly those issues that you list.  Further, my wife is rather more traditional than I am and isn’t very interested in having the aesthetics of her Victorian / country dream house ruined by solar cells, solar water heaters, and the like.  Finally, rather than spending thousands (perhaps tens of thousands) of dollars on green technology, she’d opt for a bigger down payment and / or more square footage and / or more crown mouldings, hardwoods, custom cabinets, bigger bathroom, etc.

      And you’ve got another good point: life cycle costs.  It doesn’t make a lot of sense to install gee-whiz technology that will never return the investment costs.

      • You’re actually making a point that solar design for houses ran into in the 1970s. People have their own idea about what makes a house a home, and often have very specific dreams, if you will, that they want to bring into reality. For some, it’s often something that is affordable and theirs. They can’t afford extras, but when they can, solar et al. isn’t necessarily going to be high on the list.

        Homebuilders know this and were always the hardest sell when it came to getting solar stuff on the market. They knew their customers.

  • ” Geo-thermal being the exception”

    Not that much of an exception. Geo-thermal has a few problems of its own. Handling fairly large quantities of very hot steam laden with a mixture of often toxic and corrosive chemicals is not easy. Nobody wants a hydrogen sulfide source in their neighborhood. Sometimes the wells stop producing and new ones have to be drilled.  Then there are the transmission lines, a necessary but mostly overlooked cost of power generation.

    “…or located where sunshine was inadequate…”

    Now I am really curious about this. Is Spain really so large that there is a great variation in sunlight? Are Spanish engineers that stupid? Did they build a solar power plant in the woods? Maybe they installed the panels upside down?

  • Oh good god. Solar is a great way of powering a travel calculator or welder’s helmet. Maybe it would be good for powering a remote repeater for HAM radio or a remote roadside light or phone.
    And a mix of wind, solar, and batteries would be great for a cabin that’s off the grid, assuming you can fund the initial cost.
    As real power, this stuff sucks. Let’s push for breader reactors, let’s drill ANWAR and the shelfs, let’s search for oil and develop improved shale oil extraction techniques.
    Solar and wind are energy for the margins. If I’m wrong the market will let us know.

  • Devil’s Advocate (sort of): You need to fund some of these projects to learn about how they work, could be improved, or how they DON’T work. Ideally, this would be done by capitalists, but as utilities are sort of quasi-government in reality, the taxpayer/utility customer are often one in the same.

    Does solar make sense to take some of the peak-load in summer due to air conditioning for example?

    • I think capitalism already does a fine job pushing solar in areas where it makes sense. It is just that those are limited areas.

      Let’s build some reprocessing nuke power plants and not worry about it. Peak power summer / winter will be taken care of. Waste will be minimal and will in fact help us replenish our nuke bomb supply (win-win). The greens will be pissed (win again). The acres and acres of land saved from the evil solar plant could become an off road vehicle park or shooting range, again pissing off the greens (more win-win).

    • There have been demonstration and experimental solar plants built for over thirty years that I know of. The results are the same as they were thirty years ago; “With just a leetle more time and a leeetle more government money we can bring the price of solar down enough to compete with oil and coal”. 
      Reminds me of Little Orphan Annie;
      “The sun’ll come out
          Bet your bottom dollar
          That tomorrow
          There’ll be sun!”

      “Manana Manana
      Manana is soon enough for me…”
                                            Dean Martin

  • So where is that fusion power that was “so cheap we wouldn’t need to meter it” ?

  • Non Devil’s Advocate: Why do they pass laws or make goals of X% to be using Y technology by Z time? Its very command and control. The utilities may very well know that its uneconomic, but they have to invest in it due to this mandate.
    I think Don had a great point on the practical uses of solar, and these in and of themselves make it useful in many circumstances…thinking about solar powered streetlights (in sunny locales) – those would be awesome if there was a natural disaster that cut power, but you would still have street lights. I assume there are many more examples like that. You might even be willing to pay more for that feature, too, without subsidy.

    • Already got em. My wife also likes to buy little solar powered lights for the yard. They suck. There just isn’t enough power density or reliability in sunlight to make it useful for  real power generation.  Blame God, he invented the laws of physics. There are niche markets for solar, but that’s it.

      • Sorry to hear that. I had considered the little solar lights that Harbor Freight sells real cheap. I was gonna buy ’em for my mom, who still lives on the ranch (where I’d prefer to live, if I wasn’t upside down in an expensive house in a gated community with a really good school district).

  • @Neo: Halliburton has the technology but Cheney won’t let them deploy it.

  • Doesn’t this all reflect back to the “South Park” episode about the “SMUG” outbreak.

    A new study shows that people are more likely to cheat and steal after buying green products.

    This is all about doing it for the wrong reasons.

  • What a coincidence: even DCNN is starting to figure out that “green” is a boondoggle:

    Lots of people, especially those trying to battle high utility bills, believe in energy-efficient homebuilding.
    But there’s something holding green technology back: It simply costs more to include it than it adds to resale value.

    So, if one plans to own / live in a house for a long time, green might make sense in that it can save on utility bills and eventually pay for itself (assuming the green devices have a long enough lifespan).  But if one thinks that he might own the house for only a few years and then have to sell it because he gets a job in another city or has kids and needs more room, then it makes MUCH more financial sense to put that money into granite countertops and hardwoods instead of geothermal heating and solar panels.

  • I am docjim505’s wife.  He is right in that I have a problem with spending an exorbitant amount of money on equipment that is going to clutter my roof and yard to the point that my neighbors complain.  I believe I speak for many people with a traditional view on housing.  The technology needs to be improved to the point that it is more or less not noticed.  In addition, we do not live in an area where “Green Building” is popular.  With markets being down, homeowners, at least in our area, will not see a return on their investments for 10 to 20 years.  To many it’s not worth it to have to wait out the return.

    • I agree, in fact, zoning restrictions and residential commitees would stop a lot of the unsightly crap that currently exists.

  • Solar PV end-user installations help trim the peaks during heavy usage, typically sunny summer days, at least in CA. Large scale PV installations, not so sensible. Clouds move over, power plummets, clouds move away, power soars. It take heavy equipment to handle such swings. Two methods come to mind. Use PV to pump water into a reservoir, then hydro it out at a controlled rate. Or very, very large flywheels. In either case, I think it’s stupid to think of solar for baseline power. Baseline should be nuclear and coal. Quit worrying about storing nuclear waste for tens of thousands of years. Have some faith in our descendants and store it safely for a few hundred and assume that they will have figured out how to handle it by then. Build lots of smaller fission plants closer to where power is needed instead of huge, cost-overrun plants with many miles of power-losing cable towers. And with fast-breeder reactors to reprocess, there is very little waste anyway. I have 5.2Kw PV on my roof (in a spot that is barely visible and then only from a certain place on the property) combined with a TOU meter. Just when my TOU tariff goes ballistic from 12:00-18:00, my PV starts generating the most power. With power rates continuing to rise, it’s a 7-8 year payback.

  • It’s going to be interesting the next time a hurricane rams through that solar panel array.

  • I hope those rooftop solar installations work better than skylights. All the people I know with skylights, including me, end up with leaks.

  • Space based solar should be explored.  That’s a mission for NASA, and private enterprise.
    Otherwise, go NUKES!!!

  • Another hidden subsidy of the alt-energy industry was quietly passes by FERC, and is hard to understand by anyone who is not used to power consumption.  They passed a rule stating that wind-power farms do NOT need to supply reactive power to the grid.  This must be made up by the base-load plants.  Along with the direct subsidy for the power they produce (1.5 cent/kW-hr), this is an indirect subsidy which throws one of their costs onto the other utilities producing power.

  • if you want to talk about max output per square foot then nukes are your best choice