Solar Power Too Cheap to Meter?

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Earlier this week, the Telegraph reported:

Within five years, solar power will be cheap enough to compete with carbon-generated electricity, even in Britain, Scandinavia or upper Siberia. In a decade, the cost may have fallen so dramatically that solar cells could undercut oil, gas, coal and nuclear power by up to half. Technology is leaping ahead of a stale political debate about fossil fuels.

Anil Sethi, the chief executive of the Swiss start-up company Flisom, says he looks forward to the day—not so far off—when entire cities in America and Europe generate their heating, lighting and air-conditioning needs from solar films on buildings with enough left over to feed a surplus back into the grid.

The secret? Mr Sethi lovingly cradles a piece of dark polymer foil, as thin a sheet of paper. It is 200 times lighter than the normal glass-based solar materials, which require expensive substrates and roof support. Indeed, it is so light it can be stuck to the sides of buildings.

Rather than being manufactured laboriously piece by piece, it can be mass-produced in cheap rolls like packaging—in any colour.

The "tipping point" will arrive when the capital cost of solar power falls below $1 (51p) per watt, roughly the cost of carbon power. We are not there yet. The best options today vary from $3 to $4 per watt—down from $100 in the late 1970s.

Mr Sethi believes his product will cut the cost to 80 cents per watt within five years, and 50 cents in a decade.

Best line?

"We don't need subsidies, we just need governments to get out of the way and do no harm. They've spent $170bn subsidising nuclear power over the last thirty years," he said.

Whole Telegraph article here.

Hat tip to Joe Majsterski.
 

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  1. Here’s hoping!

    Wonder how he plans on compensating for cloudy days? Backup coal generators?

  2. “Mr Sethi believes his product will cut the cost to 80 cents per watt within five years, and 50 cents in a decade.”

    And then someone will start to complain about the environmental damage caused by all those solar panels.

  3. General question about solar power for anyone who knows much about it: if we’re able to effectively capture solar energy, what happens to whatever is absorbing that energy now?

  4. But…but….you just don’t get it! We have to stop our consumerist lifestyles. We need to SACRIFICE. You can’t just go on living the way you have! We need a government comittee, headed by my friends and I, which will decide if you really need that energy. And you’re going to have to stop all this selfish “property” business. The only way we will stop manbearpig is if all property is held communaly. History has shown that is the best way to manage resources.
    Private industry CAN’T be the answer. It isn’t fair!!!

  5. if we’re able to effectively capture solar energy, what happens to whatever is absorbing that energy now?

    Your roof stays cool.

  6. Which might mean that you actually end up using less energy because you don’t need to run the AC as hard to compensate.

  7. it’s entirely possible that capturing solar energy and converting it to electricity could help reduce global warming (whether anthropogenic or not). as for cloudy days – batteries, charged by the solar collectors? or still use fossil fuels as a backup. or wind generated electricity. or biofuels. or…

  8. We don’t need subsidies, we just need governments to get out of the way and do no harm.

    And you know what that kind of liberty, known as capitalism, leads to? Prosperity!

  9. Jeez. When life imitates “The Man with the Golden Gun”!

    The non-industrialized world’s response should be interesting. The article notes that some parts of India could immediately jump into the solar age.

    Then the battle between public utilities and the potential for private solar panels will also be interesting. The political wars (aka, bribery) will probably undercut how freakin’ cool this development is!

    Then the zoning laws when people complain that the solar panels are “ugly”. And the NIMBY ones!

    🙂

    This citizen, for one, welcomes power from the Son. Sun. (which Star Trek was that again?)

    cheers!

  10. Dave,

    You oew me a Starbucks Venti Mocha and possibly a new keyboard. I cleaned the monitor myself 🙂

  11. Dave,
    Not to worry. Just wait to see how ape-shit the Greens go when power becomes cheaper and more portable than it already is.

    House’s and cars will all get bigger. That single-entry-bookkeeping propaganda number “environmental footprint” will explode. And the ultimate pollution problem will ensue, i.e. waste heat.

  12. Actually, I think that article is just a recycling of that Popular Science article from 1950 about life in the year 2000.

  13. VM,

    Copernicus sort of worshipped the sun. 😉

  14. I don’t quite understand what is meant by $1 per watt. So, if I buy 1000 watts of this stuff, have I purchased enough material to produce 1kW per hour for the lifetime of the material, or does it cost $1 to produce every kWh (not a good deal)?

    I’m at a fuel cell conference right now. The state of the art for FC is $100/kWh with DOE funded project goal of $35/kWh by the year end. It looks like folks will make $10/kWh, which is still ~two orders of magnitude greater than what I pay at home for coal power.

  15. Dan, what an excellent question!

    I suppose it depends on what is being covered.

    Generally, when radiation hits a surface, the energy is either reflected, scattered or absorbed and converted to heat.

    The electricity generated by the solar cell will come from tapping and diverting energy from one of the three fates above. If the energy was being mostly absorbed and converted to heat, the surface will be cooler. If it was being reflected, then less energy is reflected out, etc.

    Now the interesting bit. Most electrical energy ends up being ultimately converted to waste heat. So, it is possible that we will make the Earth slightly less reflective and thus hotter a a result (please note that there is alot of surface area on the Earth, and this stuff will probably cover a miniscule fraction of it).

    I guess the rule of thumb is, cover a dark surface, no effect. cover a brightly surface (one that is more reflective), and you will see an increase in heating absorption of sunlight.

  16. We don’t need subsidies, we just need governments to get out of the way and do no harm.

    This sounds like the sort of thing somebody says right before they hit the government up for a research grant.

  17. Dan T,

    “General question about solar power for anyone who knows much about it: if we’re able to effectively capture solar energy, what happens to whatever is absorbing that energy now?”

    It’s in the shade, and doesn’t get heated. For example, the roof of a building covered with solar panels (or sheets) will not be heated up as much. This would also lower the cost of cooling the building. Pretty neat, huh?

  18. Dan, what an excellent question!

    I suppose it depends on what is being covered.

    Generally, when radiation hits a surface, the energy is either reflected, scattered or absorbed and converted to heat.

    The electricity generated by the solar cell will come from tapping and diverting energy from one of the three fates above. If the energy was being mostly absorbed and converted to heat, the surface will be cooler. If it was being reflected, then less energy is reflected out, etc.

    Now the interesting bit. Most electrical energy ends up being ultimately converted to waste heat. So, it is possible that we will make the Earth slightly less reflective and thus hotter a a result (please note that there is alot of surface area on the Earth, and this stuff will probably cover a miniscule fraction of it).

    I guess the rule of thumb is, cover a dark surface, no effect. cover a brightly surface (one that is more reflective), and you will see an increase in heating absorption of sunlight.

    Thanks. That makes sense.

    Solar energy sounds good…almost a little too good, so I do wonder what the side effects will be of harnessing it. Maybe none, but that seems unlikely.

  19. This citizen, for one, welcomes power from the Son. Sun. (which Star Trek was that again?)

    Moose,

    It was the Bread and Circuses episode.

  20. Mmmmm Starbucks

  21. Dave & Warren: I get your point, but I wonder why an American company didn’t come up with this tech?

  22. Dan T,

    I think my biggest concern would be how does the stuff weather? If it breaks down within 5 years and releases PCB’s (pulling a negative out of my ass), then I don’t think I’d buy any. 🙂

  23. So, it is possible that we will make the Earth slightly less reflective and thus hotter a a result

    Except that, if we don’t make the energy from solar power, we’ll make it from something else. So we’ll get the same waste heat plus the insolation that is neither captured by solar panels nor reflected back to space.

    Using energy from the sun provides far and away the best balance of heat to the planet. But if solar power becomes so much cheaper that we consume a much greater quantity of energy, then, yes, we might change the albedo of the planet enough to make a the total added heat greater than it would be with more expensive energy alternatives. What a wonderful problem to have!

  24. General question about solar power for anyone who knows much about it: if we’re able to effectively capture solar energy, what happens to whatever is absorbing that energy now?

    It doesn’t fade as fast. Or melt. I remember leaving my “spirograph” toy in the car as I spent the day at York’s Wild Animal Kingdom as a kid. When I came back it had been warped by the sun. Had that car been covered with this new solar material I would not have suffered that deep psychological trauma.

  25. As one who plans on living off the grid in about 18 mos and using solar for 100% of my electricity (I live in NM so it’s not difficult to do) I view all the latest advancements with glee… Hopefully when I am ready to install my system it will be cheaper than today — but I doubt it. The rush to solar is creating shortages in component materials, especially the silicon used to make most photovoltaic cells…..

    BTW my understanding is that state of the art systems have only 15% efficiency (from something like 7% a couple of decades ago). Improvements in technology over the coming years will most likely lead to much much greater efficiency.

  26. Of course, the weakness of solar is that it is susceptible to getting dirty. The chimney sweep of old may be replaced by the ‘panel wiper’ of tomorrow.

    My guess is they won’t want to be called ‘panel wipers’, though.

  27. Guy: you called it. If he’s right, wonderful, but solar power has been “just around the corner” for my whole lifetime. Among other problems? The sun doesn’t shine at night, but people still need electricity. That leaves us with two options: a large energy storage facility (filling a canyon with water in daytime and letting it out overnight is one common proposal) or a completely redundant network of conventional power plants whose capital cost per kWh would be approximately doubled because they would only be run half the time.

    What about cloudy days? What about wintertime? Would a worldwide power grid help? Not necessarily, because most of the land area is in the northern hemisphere. Don’t count on deserts: thin films won’t last long in the windstorm that pitted the paint on my new car in Wyoming over Christmas.

    When the hype is over, solar will be what it is now: a local solution for offgrid use and a partial solution to midday surge requirements.

  28. The whole cloudy day / night issue thing can be easily overcome. Just follow the lead of this pioneering community.

    All we need are a few satellites to bounce the sun’s rays where we need them, solar death ray style.:D

  29. If I had a nickel for every start-up CEO that made amazing promises for his new technology in 5 years…. The guy may be a believer, but he is making money by selling partial ownership in his company.

  30. pigwiggle:

    Photovoltaic panels are priced in dollars per watt produced in bright sun. Currently that price is about $4.88 and has been going up for the last few years. You can track it here:

    http://www.solarbuzz.com/Moduleprices.htm

    PV is great if you have sun and (silicon crystal) PV works better in the cold. But if you live in an area where highly reflective fluffy stuff falls out of the sky when it’s cold be sure that your new roofing and siding is shovel, rake, and broom-proof.

  31. I don’t think the concerns about cloudy days are that important since sunlight will get here in some amount no matter how cloudy it gets. It is just a question of using enough solar material to get by on a cloudy day.

    Further, I suppose less power is used at night, since most businesses aren’t operating and less AC will be on.

    Unlike cars, it isn’t important that the energy source for electricity is all pretty much the same, I should think. Actually it’s better that it isn’t.

  32. If I had a nickel for every start-up CEO that made amazing promises for his new technology in 5 years…. The guy may be a believer, but he is making money by selling partial ownership in his company.

    Yes, but this guy said something about the government getting out of the way, so of course we can believe his big promises!

    🙂

  33. > I wonder why an American company didn’t come up with this tech?

    See Nanosolar.com. They are based in Northern California.

    Governments really are getting in the way right now. Japan and Germany, for example, are subsidizing solar power installations. This has created world-wide shortages of photovoltaic materials. The long slow decrease in the price of solar panels has been interrupted. Prices are now steady or have actually risen in some cases.

  34. Every year for many decades, either Popular Science ar Popular Mechanics, or both, have featured an article entitled ‘Return of the Airships?’ or something to that effect, and featureing a cover graphic showing a giant Airship or two hovering over a big city.
    Somehow they never seem to arive, like cheep solar power, I’ll believe it when I see it.

  35. Everyone knows Ron is in the pocket of Big Sol.

  36. There are many reasons solar is unsuitable as our sole source of power. But that’s besides the point. Even if it only pays on sunny days, that would still rock the energy markets. Affordable solar power will result in cheaper power from all sources. Which will of course result in people using much more power.

  37. And of course, if these magic solar cells never materialize, it’ll be because the government didn’t want it to happen.

  38. What price per watt leaves out is the price of installation as well as all the other electrical equipment and devices you need to make it work. (A good inverter is several thousand dollars.)So even if it gets to the price he is talking about, it will still be expensive.

    I priced going solar with my house as it stands today and it would cost nearly $100,000 before installation. (It’s a gi-normous 1800 Sq. Ft. house in the DFW, Tx. area.)

  39. Nighttime energy genration is a problem. However, if one keeps and uses an “old” power source such as coal or nuclear or hydro for perhaps half of local daytime usage, then this is actually not necessarily a problem. All power plants have hugely reduced power loads at night when people are sleeping and office buildings and other businesses are virtually empty. As a result of that idle capacity, one could add solar to the grid during the day and still not need to expense the captial costs of redundant power sources like coal etc.

    As far as cloudy days are concerned, this is a problem in general, but the article mentioned: “It’ll even work on a cold, grey, cloudy day in England, which still produces 25pc to 30pc of the optimal light level. That is enough, if you cover half the roof,” he said. This may fall under the category of too good to be true, but who knows?

    Sometimes you need to rtfa.

    So, until someone comes up with an efficient energy storage system, solar would only be a partial solution, but one needn’t also have to expense capital costs for redundant systems anyway, at least not if one doesn’t feel the need for a solution that is 99 44/100% pure.

  40. featureing a cover graphic showing a giant Airship or two hovering over a big city.
    Somehow they never seem to arive, like cheep solar power, I’ll believe it when I see it.

    [1] “Newly cheap solar power now useless due to quantity of airships obscuring the sun,” Scientific American, May 2023, 342:5, pp. 14-16.

  41. Ron,

    How long will you continue to be a mouthpiece for Big Solar?!?!?

    Seriously though, I think you all are missing out on the big picture here. If these type of solar panels are enough to supply your electricy plus put a little bit into the grid, you don’t have to worry about cloudy days. On those days, it will be sunny somewhere else, and those places will be adding power to the grid.

    Of course, you’ll never escape the need for big generators completely. Industrial (machine manufacturing, aluminum smelting)and power-hungry commercial sites (refridgerated stores, hospital) will need much more power than an array of solars cells could supply.

    Your area’s ISO (Independent System Operator) probably has the figures on the total power use your regions grid. (Here’s the link to New Englands ISO: http://www.iso-ne.com/ ). Residential and small-business probably falls into the minority of power consumption.

  42. [1] “Newly cheap solar power now useless due to quantity of airships obscuring the sun,” Scientific American, May 2023, 342:5, pp. 14-16.

    “Crashing Airships Damage Solar Panels, Plunge NYC Into Blackout. Women, Minorities, the Poor Hardest Hit.”
    –NY Times, June 2, 2023, page A1.

  43. Nighttime energy generation is a problem.

    Besides, Congress solved all of those problems by changing DST. Just a wave of the magical legislative wand…and presto!

  44. Thanks, David!

    Gro: nice! Suffice to say that Icarus doesn’t do that, anymore

  45. Official Flisom website.

    I find it ironic that they tout the fact that they’ve won a “Red Herring Award.”

  46. FWIW, having known both engineers and reporters, any time I see a story in the press about something science-related, I’ve taken to bringing along a cannister of Morton’s.

    I hope that Flisom turns out to be all they promise, but until I see a writeup in a dweeby technical publication, I’ll have my reservations.

  47. I hope this stuff actually works as advertised. On the other hand, cheap fusion power has been just around the corner for going on 40 years now …

  48. Has anyone checked on the waste stream from solar cell manufacture? pretty nasty stuff, lots of heavy metals and clorinated hydrocarbons…mmm, mmm good

  49. At some point, it isn’t the cost per unit energy produced that is going to matter. The problem with solar has always been that it is inefficient per unit area and we don’t have good batteries / capacitors that actually work.

    If I can power my house with a wrapping, that is great. If I need to wrap my house and ten neighbor houses to power my house, things begin to get awkward.

    I’m interested but not optimistic.

  50. I thought I’d add, however, that while of the problems with large-scale load-balancing and nighttime capacity can be overcome by currently available technology, the problem is getting the infrastructure to take advantage of that into place. Producing and slapping the solar foil onto things is only one small part of the overhaul that will have to be done to every nation’s power generation infrastructure to take advantage of it.

  51. if we want power from the sun, we’ll just have to go at night

  52. Mike P-

    Awesome headline.

    On a more serious note, who wants to wager that 45 years from now we could be hearing about how all that conversion of sunlight is causing the earth to get dangerously cold (after which every heavy snowstorm will be proof that the ice age is coming)? And even the panacea of hydrogen power will one day be treated as an evil pollutant, I’m sure. Here in Phoenix, we have a smog problem due to air trapped between the mountains. Imagine that instead of smog, all of those cars are putting out water vapor. What does that do to our desert? Perhaps we could trap the stuff and drink it.

    Long term, I think the easy solution to “What happens at night” is a superconducting global power grid. It’s always day somewhere.
    I’d imagine Chad wouldn’t mind setting up some solar panels out in the infinite Saharan wasteland to sell their juice to Seattle. Electrical resistance currently makes such long distance transmission impractical, but advances in materials science may change that soon. The world’s energy supply will now be out of the hands of the oil sheiks and relocated to the sunniest places on earth. What, that’s still the Middle East? FUCK!

  53. Like Dadio said, we’ll have fusion power ten years from forty years ago. I’m about as optomistic on solar power.

  54. Let me be the first here to say that Mr. Sethi is completely full of shit. We will see fusion before we get cost effective solar power.

  55. JasonL sparked an idea. The article says you can put them on the sides of your house too, and there are choices of colors.

    No paint needed every few years!!! This changes the expense of the product, as well as the upstream pollution from production.

    Of course college kids (and others) will lose a great source of income during summer break. Perhaps at the margin solar cells will increase crime and prostitution. 😮

  56. Just for the record, let me say that CEOs of startup photo-voltaic companies are even less truthful than politicans.

  57. Don’t count on deserts: thin films won’t last long in the windstorm that pitted the paint on my new car in Wyoming over Christmas.

    This problem is solvable. Some possible solutions:
    1. Surround solar farm with walls or retractable roof
    2. Retractable protectors for individual solar cells

    Smarter engineers will come up with better solutions I’m sure. The harder problem is nighttime and cloudy day energy generation as some others have stated.

    The problem with solar has always been that it is inefficient per unit area

    True, but that’s changing. We are at 40% efficiency already.

    Solar cell breakthrough: 40% efficiency achieved

  58. On a more serious note, who wants to wager that 45 years from now we could be hearing about how all that conversion of sunlight is causing the earth to get dangerously cold

    As was mentioned above, all energy created and consumed by humanity essentially ends up as heat anyway. So the solar solution is cooler only by the energy not created from other means. (Note that, for this sort of calculation, hydro, wind, and wave power are all “solar” power. Geothermal and tide power are nonsolar and nonrenewable. Fossil fuels, of course, are long-stored solar power.)

    That said, it should be noted that, from a geoengineering perspective, it is a lot easier to cool the planet than it is to warm it. A century hence people may look back on our societies as idiots for turning our backs on carbon burning and the control it offers for atmospheric warming.

    And even the panacea of hydrogen power will one day be treated as an evil pollutant, I’m sure.

    Hundreds of millions of cars and thousands of miles of pipeline all leaking hydrogen could indeed pose problems with the upper atmosphere. But my biggest concern is that hydrogen’s mean velocity is greater than escape velocity. Leaked hydrogen will simply be lost to the planet: a truly nonrenewable resource.

    That might not be a real problem because (a) there is so much hydrogen it won’t be missed or (b) the hydrogen is replenished by the solar wind. But anyone who thinks that a hydrogen economy won’t leak the stuff like a sieve is crazy.

  59. That said, it should be noted that, from a geoengineering perspective, it is a lot easier to cool the planet than it is to warm it. A century hence people may look back on our societies as idiots for turning our backs on carbon burning and the control it offers for atmospheric warming.

    admittedly, this is outside my area of expertise, but this statement doesn’t ring true to me. can you elaborate? I would think that heating the planet is easier because of unavoidable inefficiency in converting and transferring energy.

  60. > the easy solution to “What happens at night” is a superconducting global power grid. It’s always day somewhere.

    We don’t need to wait for superconductors. Direct current power lines such as the Pacific Intertie (which delivers power from the Columbia River in Oregon to Los Angeles) have low losses over very long distances. Losses on an intercontinental direct current power grid would be significant, but by no means unacceptable.

  61. Of course, stuartl is correct that talk is cheap. Then again, if I had a nickel for everyone who ever said “if I had a nickel,” well,… you know. Sooner or later — let’s hope sooner — someone will figure both the solar and the fusion technology out and there will be plenty of cheap energy for everyone, no doubt resulting in new problems to fret over.

    Speaking of the tendency to limit one’s expectations of future technology based on current realities, every time I hear something along the lines of “we’ll always need X because Y will never be able to do Z” I remember a smart and scientifically educated friend of mine who once declared categorically that a CD (by which he meant that particular size coated plastic disk) would never be able to hold enough information to store, say, a movie. Maybe there are real limits to solar energy, limits imposed by the physics of the universe and not merely by our highly limited technology, but I remain a skeptic about such claims.

    Which is not to say I am a starry eyed optimist about Tomorrowland like, say, a certain Reason editor who shall remain nameless. I do, however, share with him the belief that (unless the end really is nigh, which I doubt) the vast majority of the things certain Luddite elements spend an inordinate amount of time and energy fretting about will sort themselves out just fine as our ability to deal with them continues to improve.

  62. Hmm, echoing an earlier comment, what does $1 per watt mean? Does it mean that $1 of capital investment is required for every watt of generating capability?

    The article states:

    The “tipping point” will arrive when the capital cost of solar power falls below $1 (51p) per watt, roughly the cost of carbon power.

    This would support the above conclusion.

    The industry (and academic) standard figure for evaluating power generation cost is the price that would need to be charged to generate a 10% IRR over the life span of the product. IIRC, 8 cents, or there abouts, is the standard retail price figure (which may well be lower on the whole sale market – I have not looked at US industry figures for some time, but 4 or 5 cents may be reasonable) for evaluting a technology. I suspect that modern combined cycle gas plants (where gas is readily available) produce particularly cheap electricity.

    If the only costs are the initial per watt capital investment and ~10% of this per annum for running costs (btw, this running cost figure I just made up), then, assuming 12 hrs of sunlight per day, for a 5 year life span, the price is about 8.5 cents, about 6 cents for a 10 year lifespan, and 5 cents for a 20 year lifespan.

  63. Mike P.

    Good summary, except for the fact that solar power would probably have the effect of decreasing the Earth’s albedo, although the area of solar panels required to power our civilization would likely represent a miniscule fraction of the Earth’s surface.

    DADIODADDY’s 1:42 PM comment is valid and significant, although the technology to manage both those problems is already available.

    However, as many have pointed out already, this assumes that Mr. Sethi isn’t blowing photons.

  64. OTOH, if Mr. Sethi is right, it might be a good time to short some electric utility stocks…

  65. Somewhat off topic, but referring back to Dan T.’s original post.

    I’ve got a similar question about wind power.

    If wind powered electric generators use some of the wind’s energy, what happens to the places that are downwind from these diminished breezes? Whatever effect the wind had on these places, it seems that it would be reduced.

    Although I’m an engineer by training, I don’t have a high concentration of coursework in Heat and Mass Transfer, so I’ll guess: Wind generally exists to to correct spatial imbalances in temperature. Therefore, it would seem that hot places downwind will stay hotter, and cool places will stay cooler. Is this side effect good, bad, or of no consequence? Can anyone shed some light on this?

    Thanks,

    Crackerbarrel

  66. MIT produced a study on the future of nuclear power in which they estimated the future costs of various power sources, including all operating cost and taxes (which I neglected above; 12 hours per day was probably way too optimistic as well, not to mention the problems with inconsistant power output), and came up with the following numbers (power sources listed, then prices):

    Nuclear (LWR)
    + Reduce construction cost 25%
    + Reduce construction time 5 to 4 years
    + Further reduce O&M to 13 mills/kWe-hr
    + Reduce cost of capital to gas/coal
    Pulverized Coal
    CCGTa (low gas prices, $3.77/MCF)
    CCGT (moderate gas prices, $4.42/MCF)
    CCGT (high gas prices, $6.72/MCF)

    6.7
    5.5
    5.3
    5.1
    4.2
    4.2
    3.8
    4.1
    5.6

    Study available here:

    http://web.mit.edu/nuclearpower/

  67. I would think that heating the planet is easier because of unavoidable inefficiency in converting and transferring energy.

    It’s outside my expertise, too. But it appears to me to be easier to (a) create more clouds than less, (b) put more particulates in the atmosphere than fewer, (c) seed the oceans to make them shinier rather than duller, (d) block the sun using space shields rather than reflect it using space mirrors, etc.

    Taking a look at some geoengineering solutions to global warming discussed in Reason they simply look cheaper than, frankly, burning coal. Also consider that when environmental economists such as William Nordhaus compare costs and benefits concerning global warming, the cost they assign to geoengineering solutions is zero: The cost of such remedies are utterly dwarfed by the economic considerations of CO2 emission.

    The earth is constantly cooling itself through black-body radiation, an effect that only increases as it gets warmer. In order to warm the earth, you must figure out how to (a) increase insolation and absorption or (b) trap that heat, such as by increasing GHGs. To cool the earth, you just need to keep the sunlight from hitting the ground.

  68. josephdietrich wrote:

    “Producing and slapping the solar foil onto things is only one small part of the overhaul that will have to be done to every nation’s power generation infrastructure to take advantage of it.”

    I agree. It’s one thing to have a solar generator that can generate direct current (DC) power that’s equivalent to what you consume from the grid now. Is that the only item in the capital cost per watt figures above?

    But unless you’re willing to convert your whole house to DC (expensive and inconvenient), you’ve got to have an inverter. It has to be good enough to produce alternating current (AC) that looks about as good as what you get from the grid, or your appliances will complain. And for those marginal days (or at night) where your solar generator need to be supplemented (or replaced) by the grid, or if you’re going to sell your excess back to the grid at any time, you need equipment to make sure that the frequency and phase of your inverter exactly match those of the grid, or the grid won’t buy it.

    All this being said, the best way to proceed is with as little “help” from the government as possible. Coal, wind, tide, hydro, let markets figure out what’s best.

    Crackerbarrel

  69. We’ve already got cars that run on solar energy. Lightweight, uncomfortable racing cars.

    We’re not going to be able to use solar on standard cars directly (do a mass vs. energy needed to move said mass at N mph and realize you will NOT get that off your car even if it’s covered with solar cells that could do 100% efficiency. So no go.

    What you however can do is use solar to charge an electric car, with said car having some extra cells on it to assist the battery. Massachusetts already has that somewhere at one of their train stations: covered the roof with solar cells, commuters drive to the station, plug in, take the train to Boston, return back, and the car is fully recharged.

    And I notice a lot of the above commentators have no idea how solar cells work….

  70. Of course, the weakness of solar is that it is susceptible to getting dirty.

    The maintenance routine for a photovoltaic system is pretty simple: squirt the panels off with a garden hose a couple times a year, and replace the inverter box every ten years or so.

  71. But unless you’re willing to convert your whole house to DC (expensive and inconvenient), you’ve got to have an inverter.

    It would be the best of both worlds to have a photovoltaic system that has both AC output from an inverter, and DC output to power LED lighting circuits, etc.

  72. Dave & Warren: I get your point, but I wonder why an American company didn’t come up with this tech?

    Because the first contest in presidential politics is the Iowa caucus, so we’ve plowed billions into the ethanol boondoggle instead.

  73. I’ve seen articles within the last year that have wondered whether the era of AC power is coming to an end. There are very few devices that still require AC power, and most of the new electronic devices use DC power anyway. IIRC, there’s also been advances in transmission of DC power, such that AC loses the advantage it held. Plus with so much distributed generation (if people were using solar at home, say), the transmission aspect shrinks in importance.

  74. For the nighttime problem, why not use excess energy to crack water in a fuel cell during the day/summer and then use the H2 and O2 and create electricity at night. Seems more effective than an array of batteries. For safety reasons you could bury the H2 sorage unit with safety vents.

  75. For the nighttime problem, why not use excess energy to crack water in a fuel cell during the day/summer and then use the H2 and O2 and create electricity at night. Seems more effective than an array of batteries. For safety reasons you could bury the H2 sorage unit with safety vents.

    They are working on systems for this for windmills in Denmark (saw a couple of presentations on it in copenhagen region recently). Will require a fair bit of capital expenditure though.

  76. Geothermal and tide power are nonsolar and nonrenewable.

    well, by the same token, solar is nonrenewable.

  77. Mo,

    I think flywheels or capacitors might end up being easier than H2 production.

    You know, excess solar could also be used to drive CO2 cracking stations, creating easier-to-store propane or some such. Just crack water and CO2 to create some sort of hydrocarbon, a la Zubrin’s Mars-Direct fuel factories. Storage isn’t nearly the problem, but it’s still carbon neutral.

  78. “We don’t need subsidies, we just need governments to get out of the way and do no harm. They’ve spent $170bn subsidising nuclear power over the last thirty years,” he said.”

    Unless I’m reading this wrong, he’s criticizing a particular type of government interference. …the kind that subsidizes the competition.

    He seems to be criticizing the kind of wrong headed thinking that I suspect presents the biggest challenge to getting to a green world. …It’s hard enough for biodiesel or supercapacitors to compete with oil–why do we need to make it even harder for such potential solutions by subsidizing cornahol and hydrogen?

    It’s hard enough for solar to compete with coal, etc.–why should it have to compete with government subsidies too? Why should the ultimate solution have to close the gap with the cheapest alternative and come from $170 billion behind?

  79. well, by the same token, solar is nonrenewable.

    Heh.

    Okay. How about… Until we can control the sun, solar energy is either used, stored, or lost forever. Its renewability is irrelevant.

    I suppose the same can be said for geothermal energy, which comes from fission processes in the earth’s core. There’s only so much uranium in there, it depletes at a rate we don’t control, and when it’s gone all geothermal processes will stop.

    Tidal power, however, is indeed nonrenewable, with the renewability being very relevant. Once we have mined the tides to the point where a day equals a month, there’s no more to mine.

  80. Put the solar panels on the sun! That way night and cloudy days don’t matter.

  81. tidal power is lunar power

    solar power and geothermal power are really nuclear power

    no more nukes! ban the sun!

  82. tidal power is lunar power

    Heh heh.

    But that reminds me… Once we’ve mined the tides and exhausted all the lunar power, there is still tidal solar power. But once a day equals a year, that’s gone too.

  83. I suppose the same can be said for geothermal energy, which comes from fission processes in the earth’s core. There’s only so much uranium in there, it depletes at a rate we don’t control, and when it’s gone all geothermal processes will stop.

    Some of the earth’s heat energy comes from radiogenic decay, but a sizable portion is from the kinetic/gravitational energy of the coalescence of the earth out of the primordial nebula where the solar system formed. There was actually a tremendous amount of gravitational potential energy in the various components that made up the earth. All that energy had to go somewhere, and it was converted to heat. That heat melted the iron and nickel, which were so dense that they sank to the core, releasing still more gravitational energy in the form of heat.

    Also, the radiogenic elements are actually thought to be concentrated mostly in the crust. The nickel/iron of the core is relatively uranium free. So the radioactive crust is more like an electric blanket which slows the cooling of the core, rather than actually providing the initial warmth.

    So geothermal is partly nuclear, and partly – uhh, I have no idea what to call that source of energy.

  84. So geothermal is partly nuclear, and partly – uhh, I have no idea what to call that source of energy.

    Gravitational? Then again, that might imply an ongoing process of contraction. I guess just plain old thermal, since it comes from a reservoir of high temperature material?

    As far as objections to solar regarding area required: I have no illusion that solar panels will ever provide the majority of the world’s energy, but I do think we’re close to a point where it will be economically feasible to get a non-trivial portion of our energy from solar. This gives us some insurance against price shocks for other sources of energy, i.e. a more balanced energy portfolio.

    And, as others have pointed out, the effect of mass use of solar would be to reduce the albedo, i.e. absorb more energy. Then again, the effect of replacing fossil fuels with solar is to reduce the amount of greenhouse gases emitted. I have no idea what the net effect is.

    Ken-

    I hear what you’re saying. The “good” news is that I doubt that hydrogen will be in a position to compete with solar, even with subsidies. So we can be “glad” that the subsidies won’t have their intended effect.

  85. So geothermal is partly nuclear, and partly – uhh, I have no idea what to call that source of energy.

    You’re right. I suspected that might be the case, but didn’t bother to look it up. (Some planets have lost all their heat of formation and some haven’t. I didn’t know which group Earth fell into.) I also feared my placing the radioactive elements in the core was unfounded.

    Nonetheless, it only modestly changes the renewability characteristics. Perhaps three-quarters of geothermal heat is due to radioactive decay, which we can’t control. We also can’t control heat due to present-day raining of heavier elements into the core.

    But original heat of formation is depletable in the same way that tidal energy is: there’s only so much of it; it will dissipate at some rate absent our interference; and we will increase that rate by mining it.

  86. Total solar irradiance is about 1.4 kilowatts per square meter. About 70% of that makes it through the atmosphere, approximately 1 kW/m^2. The best case then is average 12 kWh/m^2/day at smaller lattitudes. I think it’s conservative estimate that overcast days will reduce this by 50%, and that 15-20% conversion efficiency is reasonable. We should therefore expect about 400 kWh/m^2 annually.

    Let’s take Con Edison’s 55 billion kWh annual service as an example. That’s fifty square miles of solar panel, twice the area of Manhattan or three-fourths of Brooklyn. The capital needed to build that, the expense of servicing it, protecting it, finding suitable sites and paying for easements–it’s hard to fathom.

    If the typical city household demands 3,600 kWh per year, that’s 9 m^2 or 100 square feet of panel per household. That might work if you have a single family house; what’s a 40 story residential tower going to do?

  87. Seems pretty cool to me. I think my HOA prevents me from installing solar panels, when it becomes cost effective to install them I will push my HOA’s board of directors to allow them, especially since I live in a sunny area of the country that doesn’t normally get much rain.

  88. If the typical city household demands 3,600 kWh per year, that’s 9 m^2 or 100 square feet of panel per household. That might work if you have a single family house; what’s a 40 story residential tower going to do?

    Easy – they can all be issued bicycle-generators and Lance Armstrong clones to keep in the basement.

  89. You are all way behind the times. Steorn is going to give us all totally free energy that they pull out of their ass by violating the 1st Law of Thermodynamics. Don’t you guys read the Economist? Duh.

  90. Uhh…my attempted hyperlink of 1st Law of Thermodynamics failed. Here’s the link:

    http://www.engadget.com/2007/02/19/steorn-orbo-the-thermodynamics-defying-energy-product-is-named/

  91. David said, “If the typical city household demands 3,600 kWh per year…”

    Where did you get that figure, David? I live in a city, in a townhouse-style apartment in moderate-climate California, with no air conditioning, and we’re pretty frugal about our energy usage. Nevertheless, we tend to use 7200+ kWh annually. Maybe a studio apartment in San Francisco might use significantly less energy than that, but it is hard to imagine that this is “typical” for cities. Or perhaps the assumption is that heating and cooling are handled by gas, and laundry is done in a laundrymat type of situation. Anyway, I’m willing to be convinced that the “typical” usage is 3,600 kWh hours/year, but not without understanding what the “typical” urban domicile and energy-lifestyle are supposed to be.

    Regarding the practicality of solar-powered homes, given the variability of sunshine, there seem to be two major approaches: 1) the solar power feeds the grid when it is available, and the home draws power from the grid whenever the local solar feed is insufficient (or always); 2) the solar power charges a battery (with any surplus going to the home’s immediate needs or feeding the grid), and at night, during low-light conditions, or when the grid is down, the home draws from the accumulator instead of (or before) drawing from the grid.

    In the second scenario, a battery needs to store at least couple of days of energy — at my rate of consumption, that would be between 40-50 kWh.

    For home accumulator usage, a battery should probably last at least 10 years and be reasonably inexpensive. Apollo Energy Systems (http://www.electricauto.com) boasts of a lead-cobalt “foam” battery that would cost around $3000-4000 for a 40-50 kWh pack. These guys have good reason for boasting, having made significant achievements in battery technology for EVs and even the NASA space program (hence the Apollo name).

    Advances are also being made in Lithium Ion technology batteries, to lower costs and extend life. By the time the cheap rolls of solar-cell material are commonplace, long-life, high-capacity, reasonably priced battery accumulators could also be available for home usage.

    Having a home electricity accumulator would create some interesting advantages and opportunities, even for those who didn’t use them in conjunction with local co-generation:

    1. For most people, power “outages” and “spikes” would become a thing of the past. Power from the grid might surge, ebb, or even fail, but the accumulator could carry the household with uninterrupted, well-conditioned power for hours or even days.

    2. Customers could fill their accumulators with energy from solar-cells, wind-turbines, mini-hydro, or energy delivered from the grid at lower cost at night, and then feed the grid during the day at times of high demand, perhaps clearing a net profit on the kWh provided.

  92. ‘”Crashing Airships Damage Solar Panels, Plunge NYC Into Blackout. Women, Minorities, the Poor Hardest Hit.”
    –NY Times, June 2, 2023, page A1.’

    “Boston Man Injured in Out-of-State Mishap”

    —Boston Globe, June 3, 2023, Page E17

  93. I just wanted to say that it’s kickass I found an article that got almost 100 comments. I had a feeling it would stir things up.

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