Solar for “Everyman”

ECONOMYSometimes I am asked the number of jobs solar will produce, and people are often disappointed when I point out that solar PV can operate without on-site labor. It’s as if they equate adding extra useless jobs with being green. Of course, we are trying to minimize the jobs so we have economical solar electricity…BECAUSE THAT IS WHAT WILL HELP OUR ECONOMY, not the jobs watching solar panels in the desert.

Have people forgotten how painful it is to have a terrible balance of payments, with our money going to oil dictators who hate us? Now that’s what I call a loss of jobs. Solar is about not sending our jobs abroad. (Of course, I am assuming we have the sense to deploy electric cars to use solar to avoid imports.)

The Future of Solar: It’s a Lead Pipe Cinch

coalWe are not competing with coal to make electricity from solar. We are replacing coal. This is not a competition with coal in the marketplace on a cents per kWh basis – this is a replacement of a harmful infrastructure. Coal, like lead pipes, is a harmful infrastructure.

We get very confused about competing in the marketplace for the electricity customer. But that is not happening. Instead, we are telling the electricity customer, “You are being poisoned by your lead pipes. What are you going to do about it?”

We are not waiting until coal power plants retire. We are turning them down and turning them off.

Why Utilities Don’t Buy Solar Energy (and why they do)

cost-effectiveUtilities don’t buy solar energy to provide energy to their customers. It’s too expensive and too unreliable. They don’t even buy wind for their customers, even though in most cases it is very close to being cost-effective. Neither of these intermittent sources suits their needs, either in price or dependability.

But they do buy solar and wind. They are trying to reduce their carbon dioxide emissions, and to a lesser degree, diversify their sources of electricity in case of fuel price shocks.

They are required by state and Federal regulations to buy wind and solar.

It’s really a simple equation. If –

Federal and state requirements – Added cost of electricity – Intermittency and transmission penalty > 0,
then they buy solar and wind.

How Much Could We Save If We Harness Solar and Wind with Electric Vehicles to End Oil Dependence and Eliminate Carbon Dioxide as a Problem?

electricity3We might save money if we harnessed solar and wind to displace all our coal and all the gasoline used for light duty vehicles (cars, SUVs, pick-ups). Let’s see how this works.

The US uses about 4000 TWh of electricity, and about half of that comes from coal (about 2000 TWh/yr from about 23 Quads of primary energy).

Our light duty vehicles require 17 Quads of oil, but only 3.4 Quads of it actually gets to the vehicles and moves them (20% efficiency from oil to movement). At ~300 TWh per Quad, this is about 1000 TWh of energy. If we did it with electricity and assumed 25% losses (electricity to batteries to motors to movement), we would need about 1333 TWh to move our light duty vehicles without oil. The total to displace both oil for cars and coal would be 3333 TWh. Let say this takes 25 years, so let’s assume 33% more demand by then (perhaps not warranted, since we may be saving energy, but just to be conservative) – that would be 4444 TWh in 2035. (This should be rounded, but it’s such a charming number, we’ll use it as is.)

So how much would this cost? Let’s do half with solar, half with wind.

First Solar, Ordos, China, US

China, USHow can we be so profoundly behind in our awareness of solar PV? China signs an agreement with the world’s largest PV company (which just happens to be an American company) for the world’s largest PV system (equivalent to Hoover Dam in output) using the most advanced, lowest-cost technology, and we haven’t even heard about it? The company, the technology, the concept of big PV. All that is new. Our press and our government are in the dark. Why?

We hear about self-promoting Silicon Valley PV start-ups manipulating the press for coverage while they raise money (First Solar is from the Rustbelt). We hear about Chinese silicon PV companies using low-cost labor to take the market away from everyone, because that is a cliché of our psyche – the foreign threat.

Buying PV Without Getting Ripped Off

PV pricesThe second, and much improved, version of California’s experience with PV prices, Tracking the Sun II, has been released.

It is a huge step forward from the previous report, which seemed to treat CA as an island and ignored the much greater experience of the non-CA-dreaming world outside. This year there are special sections comparing CA with Europe. We are blessed!

However, the report is still out of date, since it ends in 2008 (with an unrevealing peek at 2009). As we know, prices for silicon modules have dropped like a stone, and very large quantities can be bought under $1.5/W.

Now what we can do from the CA report is actually estimate what we should be paying going forward without getting ripped off. The reason this is important is that most people will read the CA report without the knowledge of the staggering plunge in module prices and think we are still stuck at $8/W for residential systems (and similarly high prices for the commercial and big ground-mounted systems).

Fast Cloud Transients

One of the thorniest issues that seemed to be facing large, utility-scale PV systems was sudden changes in PV system output due to the movement of single clouds on an otherwise sunny day. Now it seems that this issue has been resolved favorably, in an economical manner.

Figure 1 shows a particularly excruciating example of solar variability.

Figure 1. Worst case example of incident sunlight caused by the movement of transient clouds on a clear day (After Hoff and Perez)

Figure 1. Worst case example of incident sunlight caused by the movement of transient clouds on a clear day (After Hoff and Perez)

This kind of sunlight graph put chills down the spine of utility engineers and caused a major setback for the deployment of large-scale PV systems. PV output responds instantaneously to such changes. Such variability also compares unfavorably to solar thermal electric (STE) systems, which have natural thermal inertia, which damps out the sudden changes. STE system installers gladly took note and publicized the PV problem to everyone making a choice between STE and PV.