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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.

What’s at Stake for Solar in the Desert?

solar developmentSenator Feinstein has expressed what a lot of people feel by making an effort to introduce a bill to protect a large area of the US Southwest from solar development. There is also some indication that she is being sensitive to the need for solar development by indicating support for solar installations elsewhere, including in pre-arranged solar energy zones. It is quite possible that this represents a balanced, even productive approach to solar in the US Southwest. After all, we are talking about a major paradigm shift in how energy is made, so it’s not surprising that new laws are needed.

It’s important to be clear about why solar needs the desert lands. After all, one viewpoint is that there are plenty of roofs and otherwise disturbed land, so why bother with the desert?

For one kind of solar, based on using concentrated sunlight to boil water to make electricity, the desert is the only place cloudless enough for it to work. This is the kind of technology represented by BrightSource and the like.

We Are Replacing Current Infrastructure and Incurring Added Costs, Because That Is the Only Way We Can Rapidly Turn Down Fossil Fuels

climate changeWhat has mostly been understated or otherwise ignored is that we are not going to solve climate change simply by adding low/no carbon sources as power plants and cars get old – we are forcibly turning down existing power plants and removing gasoline-powered cars while we add a much larger amount of low/no carbon sources. We are not simply evolving towards a new equilibrium by slowly transitioning the energy fleet as it ages. Instead, we are replacing it while it is still running.

This is so different from how we usually think that we are often at odds over simple issues because we are starting from different sides of this question. For example, we are not “adding new electricity capacity with wind and solar,” as most engineers familiar with the power system might think. We are subtracting carbon electricity, and replacing it with low/no carbon electricity.

We want to reduce the burning of fossil fuels, preferably coal. We can replace coal with intermittent sources like wind and solar and still retain reliability for when the wind and solar are not available by keeping the coal plants for when they are needed. In utility terminology, we are retaining capacity (through coal plants) while reducing carbon (by turning them down and replacing the lost energy with solar and 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.

What’s a sensible US strategy for climate change and peak oil?

climate changeIt does not have to be mysterious anymore what the US, and by implication, the world can do about climate change and peak oil. It is to deploy the appropriate amount of wind, solar, and electric transportation. With this strategy, we have the knobs for all the results we want: less and less carbon dioxide, and reduced need for oil. What more do we want?

Naturally, we must answer two key questions:

  1. How much would it cost?
  2. How do we deal with wind and solar intermittency?

It used to be that wind cost too much and solar cost way too much. Those days are gone. Now wind costs about the same as new coal plants (which is to say, as little as anything to make electricity), and solar costs (depending on local sunlight) only about half again more. (Of course, in less sunny places, solar prices go up significantly. This is why you hear so many different economic numbers quoted for solar. Small systems are also significantly more expensive than large ones, although most of this is the cost of middle-men and not hardware.)

EPA’s New Mandatory GHG Reporting Rule and Solar Energy

Smoke StacksIndividuals interested in solar energy and climate policy are likely aware that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) published its final Mandatory Greenhouse Gas Reporting Rule in the Federal Register on October 30, 2009. (74 Fed. Reg. 56260) This regulation represents the first U.S. effort to require public reporting of certain greenhouse gas (GHG). However, few of these observers may be aware that the final rule will not require the tracking of progress by electricity consumers in reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by substituting on-site solar energy for purchased fossil fuel-fired electricity.

Nonetheless, a close reading of the final EPA rule indicates that solar energy supporters should not pack their bags and go home. Although the final rule is focused on direct emissions from electric generation sources, the Agency signaled its interest in conducting a future rulemaking to address the treatment of electricity purchases. According to the preamble to the final rule, EPA stated as follows:

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).

Solar PV Getting Cheaper, But Press Doesn’t Have a Clue about the Real Story

Solar PVRead this article by the AP and you would think the reason solar is cheaper is subsidies.

Well, good sources tell us that Chinese crystalline silicon modules are available at $1.4/W; and big systems can be installed with trackers at $3/W (which means $2.5/W without them). These prices put solar in the 10 c/kWh range right now in good sunlight!

The mainstream press probably doesn’t know what these numbers mean. For comparison, modules used to sell for $2-$4/W, so $1.40/W is a huge drop. And big systems went in for $4/W or more, and little ones on rooftops for the outrageously high number of $8/W quoted by the article and out-of-date reports.

PV Fast Facts

It’s relatively easy to estimate the amount of annual output from a solar photovoltaic (PV) system, its comparative price with other solar systems, and its economics in terms of cents per kilowatt-hour (c/kWh).

Local Sunlight

Local sunlight is an important factor in the output and economics of a solar PV system. Electric output is essentially proportional to the amount of local sunlight, and cost is inversely proportional to output.

US Sunlight on a module at latitude tilt

US Sunlight on a module at latitude tilt (kWh/m2-day)

Solar maps are a good source of local sunlight. Here is one from NREL for the US, showing sunlight available for a fixed array pointing south at a tilt equal to its latitude, about optimal for such designs. You need a different map for one- and two-axis trackers for flat plates; and another one for concentrating trackers, which use only a portion of the light. But most installations are simply fixed tilt; or, in a few cases, large systems use single-axis trackers.

Our Excellent Renewables Adventure

renewablesPut simply, society doesn’t know much about renewables. It’s a vast vacuum of information, which shouldn’t be surprising, because renewables are a total paradigm shift.

The New York Times added some to the confusion with a recent article that baldly states that renewables are universally burdened with serious water issues. The truth is that some renewables are burdened with serious water use issues. But others are not. And one must add that conventional coal, natural gas, and nuclear plants are all burdened by serious water issues, to the point of drawing as much water as irrigation in the US (about one third of all water use, each). We know that water issues for electricity production are endemic.

But the point here is not to throw stones at the NYT, which is doing a good job with renewables and is part of the solution to our serious knowledge gap. And it isn’t to make renewables just a little less black than conventional electricity on water use, but to explain that we have only begun our journey towards a correct understanding of renewables, and there are some great renewable options that essentially do away with water issues. These select renewables technologies not only meet our climate and energy security needs, they do it while freeing up water for other uses. Water use will be a strength of our renewables future (hardly what the Times implies, I am sad to say).