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?