Obama's Solar Dreaming: Power at 7x the Cost

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nellis solar

During a Democratic Party fundraising swing out West, President Barack Obama dropped by Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada for a photo op with a 140 acre array of 72,000 solar photovoltaic panels. The president praised the installation, declaring it

"a shining example of what's possible when we harness the power of clean, renewable energy to build a new firmer foundation for economic growth."

The Nellis solar facility cost $100 million and can produce 15 megawatts of electricity when the sun shines. So how does this compare with conventional sources of power? The Electric Power Research Institute recently released a report which found that a 1,000 megawatt conventional coal-fired plant would cost about $2.8 billion to build.

A rough scaling up the Nellis solar facility to a 1,000 megawatts at $100 million per 15 megwatts would mean that a comparable solar plant would cost $6.6 billion to build. But wait, there's more. Coal-fired plants operate at about 90 percent capacity, so a truly fair comparison would take into account that a solar plant generally operates at 30 percent of its rated capacity. That would mean that a solar photovoltaic plant using the technologies available at Nellis would actually cost nearly $20 billion to build in order to produce the same amount of power that a conventional coal-fired plant would.

Of course, new breakthroughs in renewable energy technologies may make those costs go way down in the future, but using the current Nellis-type technologies (even with production economies of scale) do not seem to be a way "to build a firmer foundation for economic growth."

But doesn't this fulfill President Obama's much touted promise of creating "five million new green jobs that pay well, can't be outsourced, and help end our dependence on foreign oil"? Well, the solar panels at Nellis were manufactured in the Philippines and assembled in China. Don't get me wrong, if American taxpayers and ratepayers are going to be forced to use solar power, by all means, let's buy the panels from the cheapest sources possible. Even if it increases our dependence on foreign solar. 

See also President Obama's praise for a similarly costly facility in Denver here. That array of panels reportedly has a pay back time of 110 years.

NEXT: Tucker: The Man and His Dream

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  1. You could probably produce more energy burning $20 billion in cash.

  2. Heh, foreign solar. Seems to me that would be like Chavez building a solar roof over the slums, forever obscuring them in darkness, resulting in them devolving into Slow Mutants of the Dark Tower series. Then he could sell his energy to Mexico.

  3. So if the political obstacles could be overcome and we were to pass a carbon tax, what would the calculation look like?

  4. Sandy: The idea behind a carbon tax is that politicians and policymakers frankly admit that they are increasing the price of carbon-based energy. Then innovators and the market figure out what is the best way to produce low carbon energy. Pols and bureaucrats do not pick any particular technology in advance as a “winner.” And, oh yes, the carbon tax is completely recycled to taxpayers by reducing other taxes. e.g., income and payroll, instead of handing out free cap-and-trade emissions permits to favored political clients, uh, I mean, industries.

  5. So if the political obstacles could be overcome and we were to pass a carbon tax, what would the calculation look like?

    The macro economic calculation would be roughly unchanged – an unnecessary and artificial increase in the cost of energy would be a major drag on the economy.

  6. Ron, your comparison is far too simplistic.

    First, you seem to be only concerned with construction costs, which ignores on-going fuel and operation costs. Solar wins on this front.

    You also ignore externalities, which are massive in the case of coal. Typical estimates of the health and environmental impacts of coal point to at least a doubling of its costs when these externalities are included. Solar externalities are minimal.

    You also ignore the time that the energy is delivered. Coal may have three times the uptime as solar, but solar’s uptime corresponds very closely with demand. Much of the excess energy produced by coal occurs in off-peak hours where the value of the electricity is low.

    The installed cost of industrial solar in the southwest is around 20c/kwh, which is similar to the cost of grid electricity during the hours that solar is producing. Coal runs around 4c/kwh but is probably closer to 10c/kwh when the true cost is calculated. Wind is cheaper than coal in many places. Solar prices are falling, coal prices are rising. The change is inevitable in the long run, and we should do much to hasten it.

  7. They’re politicians, not scientists or engineers. It’s not fair to expect them to understand cost-benefit analysis, scaling calculations, or anything to do with numbers and reality. They’re saving the planet dammit!

    Someone once told me the less you know about something the easier it is. Green energy is easy, easy stuff for the political class.

  8. R C Dean | May 28, 2009, 10:43am | #

    The macro economic calculation would be roughly unchanged – an unnecessary and artificial increase in the cost of energy would be a major drag on the economy.

    I pay a whopping $5 extra per month to buy 100% renewable electricity from my local electric company. “Major drag on the economy” my @$$.

  9. Shut the fuck up, Chad

  10. Oh, we are so doomed

  11. The change is inevitable in the long run, and we should do much to hasten it.

    Why exactly should we build an enormous example of inferior solar technology if better solar technology is inevitably coming? Chad, you seem to be arguing for more solar research, but not necessarily huge solar power plants based on not-quite-there technology.

  12. Chad’s just shilling for Big Sol. What happens when we run out of sun, Chad, huh? Huh?

    For $100 million, i’ll put solar panels all over my house. Shit, i’ll do it for a fraction of that. Say, $2 million. Think Obama will go for it?

  13. I pay a whopping $5 extra per month to buy 100% renewable electricity from my local electric company. “Major drag on the economy” my @$$.

    Are you near Seattle, or another location with hydroelectric? It’s difficult to find those relatively cheap for 100% renewable offers elsewhere.

    In any case Chad, merely because it’s possible and worth it to achieve a certain amount of renewable energy production for cheap does not mean that it’s possible or worth it to massive increase production into inefficient renewables at an expensive price. Not everything scales perfectly.

    To put it another way, you’re able to buy renewable power at the current level of subsidy. Any renewable power that does not exist at the current level, but would be produced with a much higher level of subsidy would be by definition heavily subsidized, more so than the renewable power you currently use. By definition it would be a higher drag on the economy than the power you use, Chad.

  14. the solar panels at Nellis were manufactured in the Philippines and assembled in China.

    Chiiiiineeeeeeese craaaaaaaaaaaaaappp!!11!1!!

    Noooooooooo!

  15. Chad,

    that we need to progress and diversify our energy production is a given. Solar and wind are great for decentralizing production and enhancing power availability. However, we are no where even close to the point where solar or wind installations can approach the scale of energy we need today, let alone 10 years from now.

    if coal fire plants were to suddenly vanish, I assure you, we would be facing certain doom. covering the entire southwest with solar panels is not a viable strategy to serve this nation’s energy needs.

  16. “a solar photovoltaic plant using the technologies available at Nellis would actually cost nearly $20 billion to build in order to produce the same amount of power that a conventional coal-fired plant would.”

    Yeah, but it LOOKS so damn cool! Grow up, Ron. I mean, grow up. Totally. I mean, the one who dies with the most toys wins. Isn’t that what this Administration is all about? I mean, Bush was into anti-missle technology, Obama is into solar photovoltaic technology. They’re both shiny. That’s what counts!

  17. My Maybach costs twelve cents per mile to operate.

    (Not counting pesky stuff like the actual purchase price.)

  18. First, you seem to be only concerned with construction costs, which ignores on-going fuel and operation costs. Solar wins on this front.

    Does it? I’ll give you fuel, but I wonder about useful life and maintenance costs for solar. What we really need are the lifetime costs for solar v. coal.

    And let’s not forget “dust-to-dust”. My recollection is that solar panels still require some heavy metals, which are environmentally unfriendly to mine and dispose of. I’m sure they’re more environmentally friendly than coal, but maybe not by as much as people think.

  19. John Thacker | May 28, 2009, 10:48am | #

    The change is inevitable in the long run, and we should do much to hasten it.
    Why exactly should we build an enormous example of inferior solar technology if better solar technology is inevitably coming? Chad, you seem to be arguing for more solar research, but not necessarily huge solar power plants based on not-quite-there technology.

    No, we are past the point of only needed research. We need development and scaling as well, and that is only going to happen if the stuff is bought. A general rule of thumb for a product at this point it its life cycle is that by doubling volume, costs drop roughly 20%. This implies that for solar to catch the cost of unsubsidized coal, volume will need to scale 10-20 fold from where it is now. For solar to catch subsidized coal, volumes would have to increase several orders of magnitude, which just isn’t going to happen. That is why it is critical that we drop all subsidies and make polluters pay. This is Econ101 and something any true libertarian should support.

    The elimination of the free public garbage dump subsidies that are offered to fossil fuels will put renewables within shooting distance of the new, higher fossil energy prices.

  20. You guys just don’t get it. It’s more satisfying to scale the outside of the building than it is to just take the elevator.

  21. Did anyone catch the Nancy Pelosi pic on Drudge right now? Hysterical.

    At some point in the next 15 or 20 years, they will develop solar technology that actually is competetive and this will be nothing but a hunk of junk in the desert. Also, has anyone considered the amount of toxic waste that is going to be created once we have to dispose of these things? Solar panels if I am not mistaken have some nasty stuff in them. We are better off with the coal, even from an environmental prospective.

  22. Yeah, but if we just make other sources of energy more expensive, then solar is cheaper!

  23. phalkor | May 28, 2009, 10:53am | #

    Chad,

    that we need to progress and diversify our energy production is a given. Solar and wind are great for decentralizing production and enhancing power availability. However, we are no where even close to the point where solar or wind installations can approach the scale of energy we need today, let alone 10 years from now.

    Here is a fun question for you. Look up how many airplanes the US built in 1934. Then look to see how many we built in 1944.

    There is nothing stopping us from switching to pure renewables but ourselves. We could easily implement a law that demanded that all new capacity be renewable and that phased out all coal plants on a defined schedule. This is essentially what we should do. I do not consider (conventional) natural gas and oil the problem. Coal, tar sands, and oil shale are what we need to get away from.

  24. “That is why it is critical that we drop all subsidies and make polluters pay. This is Econ101 and something any true libertarian should support.”

    Getting rid of cheap available and reliable sources of energy and replacing it with more expensive, less reliable forms of energy. That is just Econ 101 and something everyone should get behind. Let’s all get poorer so we can feel better about ourselves.

  25. Marc | May 28, 2009, 11:03am | #

    Yeah, but if we just make other sources of energy more expensive, then solar is cheaper!

    It is not a matter of “making it more expensive”, but rather “including all the costs in your bill rather than dumping them on the public”. Why would any libertarian object to that?

  26. A rough scaling up the Nellis solar facility to a 1,000 megawatts at $100 million per 15 megwatts would mean that a comparable solar plant would cost $6.6 billion to build. But wait, there’s more. Coal-fired plants operate at about 90 percent capacity, so a truly fair comparison would take into account that a solar plant generally operates at 30 percent of its rated capacity. That would mean that a solar photovoltaic plant using the technologies available at Nellis would actually cost nearly $20 billion to build in order to produce the same amount of power that a conventional coal-fired plant would.

    Hey now, at least they bring didn’t these panels in using hybrid cars towed by SUVs. That would just be stupid.

  27. “I pay a whopping $5 extra per month to buy 100% renewable electricity from my local electric company. “Major drag on the economy” my @$$.”

    How much do the taxpayers pay to subsidize that?

  28. John | May 28, 2009, 11:02am | #

    Also, has anyone considered the amount of toxic waste that is going to be created once we have to dispose of these things?

    Many people have. It is not a big deal, even in the worst-case technology of First Solar’s CdTe materials. Remember, solar panels’ active materials are solids, which are then encased in plastic for protection from the elements. Very little gets in or out.

  29. Chad: Interestingly, the EPRI analysis estimates that a 1,000 megawatt coal-fired plant using carbon capture and sequestration would cost $3.9 billion to build which is still 5x cheaper than Nellis-type solar.

    I’m curious: where did you get the 20c/kwh for industrial solar figure? The best objective numbers I could find came in at between 33 and 39 cents for current photovoltaic and 24 and 31 cents for current thin-film solar. Solar thermal is estimated at 18 cents–is that what you mean by “industrial”?

    BTW, I agree wind power is much cheaper than solar, but it’s even more variable. A good estimate for the cost of a 1,000 megawatts of wind (comparable to conventional coal) is $5.6 billion per facility. The best objective estimate I found was that wind is currently at 9 cents per kwh and might fall to 7 cents by 2025.

  30. bookworm | May 28, 2009, 11:06am | #

    How much do the taxpayers pay to subsidize that?

    No more than they subsidize the coal plants that power my neighbor’s house.

  31. It is not a matter of “making it more expensive”, but rather “including all the costs in your bill rather than dumping them on the public”. Why would any libertarian object to that?

    And making everything else you do more expensive too, including the energy you use, since we’ll be simultaneously forked over to the “expensive and inefficient” energy lobby.

    I don’t even think you have to be a libertarian to object to that. Any half-wit would see that as a non-starter.

  32. Chad: I forgot to add, the estimate of plantgate cost of electricity generating by coal-fired carbon capture and sequestration would be between 8.5 and 10 cents by 2025. That would make wind a better deal, but still have to find some cheap way to even out wind’s variable energy supply. In any case, we will all pay more for energy.

    Finally, what do you think is wrong with a carbon tax?

  33. “You also ignore externalities, which are massive in the case of coal. ”

    Another in the long list of Chad’s claimes that he can’t prove a single word of – just like the existence of man-made global warming.

  34. Ron, I normally check prices at http://www.solarbuzz.com.

    Your 33/39 cent figures seem to be in line with their commercial rooftop and home prices.

    NeTL puts the cost of IGCC+CO2 capture at 10.8c/kwh

    http://www.netl.doe.gov/technologies/carbon_seq/core_rd/co2capture.html

    Note that this doesn’t completely eliminate the free-garbage-dump issue, as coal results in many other forms of pollution, not all of which have a price attached to them. Indeed, carbon capture often makes these worse, as carbon capture equipment requires energy to run and thereby decreases the efficiency of the plant and causing more coal to be burned.

    I have no particular objection to carbon capture, other than that because the coal industry has received trillions of dollars in subsidies over the decades, it is darned well time they can try to figure it out on their own.

    I think from a libertarian perspective, there should be nothing wrong with putting a price on pollution. This would be great and eventually get the job done, but not quickly enough. Personally, I feel that we should go much beyond this, simply because we have subsidized the fossil industry so heavily for so long, than any potential competitors deserve a boost in order to get within shooting distance.

  35. Ron: I realize the goal of carbon taxation is not to directly subsidize alternative energy projects, but given the cost estimates versus the likely increase in the raw materials cost with a carbon tax, I’m just curious how the available numbers for projects like this would play out. i.e., would solar become competitive (at current construction/operation costs)?

  36. My point is that it is unreasonable to expect solar or wind plants to approach the power generation of coal and nuclear. I’m for phasing out coal, diversely located renewable energy, and renewed construction of nuclear power plants. I’m just worried that we will shoot ourselves in the foot with dumb legislation. Legislation that increases the cost of everything and stymies private development.

  37. Finally, what do you think is wrong with a carbon tax?

    I know this is directed not at me, but I’ll give my answer: because it will never be instituted with a corresponding cut in other taxes. Even if it seemingly is, it will be a dishonest implementation which will sunset the offsetting cuts or engage in other sleight of Congressional hand.

  38. Ron Bailey | May 28, 2009, 11:11am | #

    Finally, what do you think is wrong with a carbon tax?

    A carbon tax is the correct policy. So is a mercury tax, a particulate tax, a NOx tax, a blighted landscape tax, etc. Coal will be out of business the day it has to pay for all its externalities.

    However, as I said in my previous post, coal has received such enormous subsidies that any valid competing technology deserves the same. Or for fun, how about we start making the fossil fuel industry pay back its subsidies with interest? They would be bankrupt immediately.

  39. is directed =isn’t directed

  40. I think from a libertarian perspective, there should be nothing wrong with putting a price on pollution.

    First, you need to define pollution.

    Then, you need to identify who is being harmed by the pollution, and to what extent.

    Finally, you need to make sure that the price put on pollution is paid to those harmed.

    As far as CO2 goes, we haven’t even started down the road of a viable libertarianish approach to this.

  41. coal has received such enormous subsidies

    [citation needed]

    But, to save you time on a rebuttal, assuming what you wrote is true: we should end ALL subsidies.

  42. we have subsidized the fossil industry so heavily for so long, than any potential competitors deserve a boost in order to get within shooting distance.

    The “fossil fuel industry” has successfully outcompeted alternatives because those fossil fuels are an extremely efficient store of energy.

  43. “The “fossil fuel industry” has successfully outcompeted alternatives because those fossil fuels are an extremely efficient store of energy.”

    And they don’t ruin your car’s engine – unlike ethanol.

  44. All: So if one includes fuel costs, how do coal, nuclear, wind and solar stack up. I provide below some interesting numbers from the executive summary of an International Energy Agency report. According to this analysis, considering fuel costs coal is much cheaper than wind and solar and more expensive than nuclear.

    CONVENTIONAL COAL: At 5% discount rate, levelised generation costs range between 25 and 50 USD/MWh for most coal-fired power plants. Generally, investment costs represent slightly more than a third of the total, while O&M costs account for some 20% and fuel for some 45%.

    At 10% discount rate, the levelised generation costs of nearly all coal-fired power plants range between 35 and 60 USD/MWh. Investment costs represent around 50% in most cases. O&M cost account for some 15% or the total and fuel costs for some 35%.

    NUCLEAR: At a 5% discount rate, the levelised costs of nuclear electricity generation ranges between 21 and 31 USD/MWh except in two cases. Investment costs represent the largest share of total levelised costs, around 50% on average, while O&M costs represent around 30% and fuel cycle costs around 20%.

    At a 10% discount rate, the levelised costs of nuclear electricity generation are in the range between 30 and 50 USD/MWh except in two cases. The share of investment in total levelised generation cost is around 70% while the other cost elements, O&M and fuel cycle, represent in average 20% and 10% respectively.

    WIND: At a 5% discount rate, levelised costs for wind power plants considered in the study range between 35 and 95 USD/MWh, but for a large number of plants the costs are below 60 USD/MWh. The share of O&M in total costs ranges between 13% and nearly 40% in one case.

    At a 10% discount rate, the levelised costs of wind generated electricity range between 45 and more than 140 USD/MWh.

    SOLAR: At a 5% discount rate, levelised costs for wind power plants considered in the study range between 35 and 95 USD/MWh, but for a large number of plants the costs are below 60 USD/MWh. The share of O&M in total costs ranges between 13% and nearly 40% in one case.
    At a 10% discount rate, the levelised costs of wind generated electricity range between 45 and more than 140 USD/MWh.

  45. Ron,

    what do you think is wrong with a carbon tax?

    Coase >>>>>> Pigou

    Next?

  46. With regard to Federal energy subsidies, I reported in my article “It’s Alive” in the current issue:

    Since 1961 the federal government has spent nearly $187 billion (in current dollars) for the development of advanced energy technologies and basic energy science research. About a quarter of the funds were spent during the oil crisis of the 1970s. According to an October 2008 report by the Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, $66 billion of that $187 billion has been spent researching nuclear energy, $65 billion on basic energy science, $28 billion on fossil fuel research and development, and $28 billion on renewables and conservation.

    A comprehensive September 2008 report by the economic research firm Management Information Services, commissioned by the pro-atomic power Nuclear Energy Institute, slices the government’s energy-spending pie into slightly different portions. In addition to direct research and development spending, the report documents how the feds have used tax incentives, mandates, and regulations to steer energy production since 1950. During those six decades, the paper’s authors found, the oil industry received federal incentives worth $352 billion in current dollars, mostly in the form of tax breaks and regulatory relief (e.g., exemptions from price controls). Natural gas got about $105 billion, coal $99 billion, hydroelectric $84 billion, nuclear $68 billion (minus $15 billion assessed for nuclear waste storage), and renewables $47 billion.

    A finer grained analysis of federal RD&D subsidies since 1976 estimated in 2009 dollars:

    All coal including pollution abatement: $27 billion

    Gas fired electricity: $6.5 billion

    Nuclear including defunct fast breeder reactor: $27 billion

    Wind: $1.7 billion

    Biomass including ethanol: $3 billion

    Solar thermal: $2.5 billion

    Solar photovoltaic: $3.6 billion

    Thin-film solar: $3.6 billion

  47. robc: Coase will always beat Pigou when pols aren’t involved. Just how Coasean do you think the new House cap-and-trade proposal is? ๐Ÿ˜‰

  48. First, you seem to be only concerned with construction costs, which ignores on-going fuel and operation costs. Solar wins on this front.

    Until the first sandstorm. Ron also didn’t calculate the area required, about 10,000 acres. Not a problem in the desert, but figuring out where to install a solar field close enough to serve D.C. will be interesting.

    Look up how many airplanes the US built in 1934. Then look to see how many we built in 1944.

    Well, yeah, during WW II. Now if you can figure out how scaling up solar will win WW III…

    Finally, you need to make sure that the price put on pollution is paid to those harmed.

    Prediction: Any proceeds of any carbon tax passed by the U.S. Congress will end up in general revenue, and they won’t cut other taxes to offset it.

  49. Ron,

    Just how Coasean do you think the new House cap-and-trade proposal is?

    None at all.

    I dont choose lesser of two evils. Yes, carbon tax is better than cap-and-trade, but so fucking what?

  50. robc: Then I must respectfully disagree – minimizing evil is a good goal, so when forced, I will generally choose the lesser of two evils.

  51. LarryA: I know it’s not you, but see my 11:35 am post where I offer some fuel and construction cost estimates from the International Energy Agency.

  52. Technology is advancing, but we still need a few more breakthroughs in materials science.

    Any large-scale projects started before we have those breakthroughs are a waste of money and stupid; two things the Obama administration is known for.

  53. JB: You’re right.

  54. Ron,

    so when forced

    Who is forcing you to not lobby for a more Coasian solution?

    Why spend your time and effort pushing for a pigovian tax instead of an even better option?


  55. Well, yeah, during WW II. Now if you can figure out how scaling up solar will win WW III…

    My point was that if we treat this seriously, there is no physical impediment to scaling up renewables in ten years by the two orders of magnitude that would be required for them to essentially provide all our electricity needs.

    And actually, if we DID get into a real WWIII, I would much rather be powered by wind and solar than a few hundred major “Please bomb me” coal and nuclear plants. There are major tactical advantages to renewables, which is why the military is at the forefront of buying these technologies.

  56. Because it seems especially appropriate for this thread:

    Sometimes, tilting at windmills is the right thing to do.

  57. robc: I would push for a more Coasean solution if I thought there was any practical way to do so. Speaking of tilting at windmills, supporting a pigouvian carbon tax over the cap-and-trade horror that Congress is concocting might qualify.

  58. Chad:

    You write: no physical impediment to scaling up renewables in ten years by the two orders of magnitude

    This claim really calls for evidence in the energy production field, not analogies with other techs. BTW, airplanes have gotten no faster for the past 40 years.

  59. I would much rather be powered by wind and solar than a few hundred major “Please bomb me” coal and nuclear plants. There are major tactical advantages to renewables, which is why the military is at the forefront of buying these technologies.

    Umm. You think those shiny arrays of solar panels aren’t vulnerable? Interesting. Unless you’re arguing for distributed power generation, which is a different discussion altogether.

    The military is interested in renewable energy for logistical reasons for field use. Using solar cells to charge batteries is a lot easier and simpler than hauling generators halfway around the world. Like you say, tactical reasons.

    However, the manufacturing plant that makes the expensive equipment? The military could give a shit how it’s powered. That’s a strategic choice they have no interest in. You may have noticed a decided lack of military input into how, where, and what kind of power plants get built in this country.

  60. “You could probably produce more energy burning $20 billion in cash.”

    I suspect you are right.

  61. no physical impediment to scaling up renewables in ten years by the two orders of magnitude

    Literally true. There is no physical impediment to multiplying renewable energy output by 1,000 (Chad, you do know what orders of magnitude are, yes?) in ten years, in the sense that it would not violate the laws of physics. It would, however, be ruinously expensive.

  62. Arrgh. Joe’z Memorial Law violation. That should be “multiplying renewable energy output by 100.”

  63. “During those six decades, the paper’s authors found, the oil industry received federal incentives worth $352 billion in current dollars, mostly in the form of tax breaks and regulatory relief (e.g., exemptions from price controls).”

    The abscence of government price controls on a commodity counts as a “subsidy” to that industry?

    That is total bullshit.

  64. RC,

    100, not 1000.

  65. Ron,

    I would push for a more Coasean solution if I thought there was any practical way to do so.

    Write articles pushing it instead of the carbon tax? I mean, really, it seems like a drop in replacement. Search and replace in your text editor would probably work. ๐Ÿ™‚

  66. “coal prices are rising”

    No, they are not.

  67. Gilbert Martin: Yes, of course you’re right. But you’re not looking at from the competitors’ points of view. It is a way for government to favor certain preferred clients, uh, I mean industries, over others.

  68. “I pay a whopping $5 extra per month to buy 100% renewable electricity from my local electric company. “Major drag on the economy” my @$$.”

    First, I don’t believe you.

    Second, you ignore the money that you are taxed in order to provide the renewable energy tax credits to your utility company needs in order to make renewables profitable.

  69. robc: “Practical” in this case means “politically possible.” OK, maybe a carbon tax qualifies as impractical too, but it’s a smidgen more likely than a full on Coasean property rights allocation solution (transactions costs are too high).

  70. “Why exactly should we build an enormous example of inferior solar technology if better solar technology is inevitably coming?”

    Thread winner.

  71. Enough About Palin | May 28, 2009, 12:33pm | #

    “Why exactly should we build an enormous example of inferior solar technology if better solar technology is inevitably coming?”

    Thread winner.

    Because the better technologies and manufacturing process efficiency are dependant on the purchase of large amounts of earlier generation products.

  72. I’m waiting for the first large scale photovoltaic electrical generating facility to be proposed by this administration with gleeful anticipation. The green fratricide that will undoubtably ensue will be funny as hell.

    The Obama dream of bring CO2 free electricity to America will be fought tooth and nail by the extremists in the environmental movement. They have plenty of experience in stifling power generation proposals and will not stop just because The Chosen One administration initiates the proposals.

    Hopefully the irrational math challenged wing of the environmental movement will finally be exposed as the dumbass luddites that they really are. Lawsuits by the trainload and years of delay will occur in the meantime.

    Legislation will have to be rewritten and turf wars between the various regulatory agencies will have to be fought before any significant renewable energy sources are brought online.

    Like I said, it is going to be funny as hell if you have a dark sense of humor.

  73. Enough About Palin | May 28, 2009, 12:32pm | #

    First, I don’t believe you.

    1.6c/kwh premium. That’s $5/month for me.

    http://www.consumersenergy.com/welcome.htm?/ocompany/index-nomargin.asp?ASID=672

    Second, you ignore the money that you are taxed in order to provide the renewable energy tax credits to your utility company needs in order to make renewables profitable.

    My neighbors use coal power, which is subsidized even more than the 2-3c/kwh tax credits renewables receive. Why am I not surprised that you ignored this fact?

  74. The growth of the solar power industry is poisoning land in China, according to the Washington Post.

    Polysilicon, which is widely used to make solar panels, is in short supply. In the rush to make it cheaply, a Chinese company reportedly is dumping toxic waste into the ground, killing wildlife and endangering human health.

    The newspaper describes green fields in the nation’s eastern central Henan Province that have turned snow white from the powdery waste of silicon tetrachloride, four tons of which result from every ton of polysilicon created. Toxic hydrogen chloride gas and acids waft from the waste.

    The waste is allegedly coming from Chinese polysilicon maker Luoyang Zhonggui High-Technology, a supplier of rising solar power star Suntech Power, according to the Washington Post.

    More at:

    http://news.cnet.com/8301-11128_3-9889848-54.html

  75. Enough About Palin | May 28, 2009, 12:28pm | #

    “coal prices are rising”

    No, they are not.

    Your short-term thinking is amazing. Want to take bets on inflation-adjusted coal prices in 2015? 2020? I guarantee sunshine and wind will still be free.

  76. it’s a smidgen more likely than a full on Coasean property rights allocation solution (transactions costs are too high).

    The Coasean solution **might** be allowing the pollution and everyone pays for the cleanup as they see fit (low transaction cost for that one).

    Arguing for the status quo doesnt seem that impractical. ๐Ÿ™‚

  77. ‘There is nothing stopping us from switching to pure renewables but ourselves. We could easily implement a law that demanded that all new capacity be renewable and that phased out all coal plants on a defined schedule.”

    So how many trillions of dollars do you think it will cost us to bail-out every (all) electric utilitiy in America in order to keep them from filing for bankruptcy?

    Your ideas are as stupid as the Obamanator’s “let’s force GM to make cars no one will buy” idea.

  78. Warning!

    Chad is a compulsive liar.

  79. I guarantee sunshine and wind will still be free.

    And the technology to capture them? Will that be free?

    Coal is “free” if you don’t count the cost of getting it into the furnace.

  80. Enough About Palin | May 28, 2009, 12:39pm | #

    The newspaper describes green fields in the nation’s eastern central Henan Province that have turned snow white from the powdery waste of silicon tetrachloride, four tons of which result from every ton of polysilicon created. Toxic hydrogen chloride gas and acids waft from the waste.

    And guess what? All that HCl gas and acid are recycled in a closed loop, at least in any civilized country. Compared to the environmental tragedies caused by coal and oil, the little SiCl4 spill you noted in China was not even a fraction of a drop in a really big bucket. The “white powder” that remains is highly pure silica…in other words…very pure sand. Oh, isn’t that scary? In the short term, there was obviously a lot of HCl (which is formed when SiCl4 or HSiCl3 react with water), but HCl contamination is easily solved by simple dilution/neutralization to background levels. There are no serious medium or long-term consequences to this spill.

    And btw, polysilicon is no longer in short supply. Prices are falling rapidly, which within a short time should start pushing down panel prices.

  81. How much land would that conventional plant require? I’ve never understood why the same nuts who whine about “sprawl” can stomach energy sources like wind and solar that waste huge amounts of land.

  82. I’ve never understood why the same nuts who whine about “sprawl” can stomach energy sources like wind and solar that waste huge amounts of land.

    That’s what imminent domain is for. Your ownership of a house is clearly so much less important than feel-good technologies prized for their inefficiency.

    You would be so much happier if you’d just shut up and do as you’re told.

  83. There is nothing stopping us from switching to pure renewables but ourselves. We could easily implement a law that demanded that all new capacity be renewable and that phased out all coal plants on a defined schedule.

    Tthe economic magic of laws! Of course! Why didn’t I think of that?

  84. How much land would that conventional plant require? I’ve never understood why the same nuts who whine about “sprawl” can stomach energy sources like wind and solar that waste huge amounts of land.

    Mark my words, they won’t. Let the endangered species act, clean water act, clean air act, etc. lawsuits begin. Some Obama spokesperson is going to come before the cameras and complain about their allies obstucting their vision for America’s green energy future. The irrational wing of the environmental movement cut it’s teeth on the fission industry, they know how to throw sand into the machinery. They will not stop just because a black democrat hope and change kind of guy is in charge.

    I will sardonically laugh.

  85. Most of the subsidy of coal goes to the end-user: regulated rates generally make sure the price is lower than the coal-burning electricity providers want to charge.

    The current subsidies are a double-edged sword: by reducing revenue for the utility they discourage the utility from looking at non-coal supplements at any speed other than foot-shuffling.

    The real stupidity of a carbon tax is that the subsidies won’t end. It increases the size of the government for no good reason. Why create a hugely involved tax scheme to undo the damage done by a moronic subsidy scheme?

    I realize we’re talking about the United States of Scamerica here, so I know the reason a carbon tax is supported.

  86. “My point was that if we treat this seriously, there is no physical impediment to scaling up renewables in ten years by the two orders of magnitude that would be required for them to essentially provide all our electricity needs.”

    He’s making this shit up, people.

  87. “And actually, if we DID get into a real WWIII, I would much rather be powered by wind and solar than a few hundred major “Please bomb me” coal and nuclear plants. There are major tactical advantages to renewables, which is why the military is at the forefront of buying these technologies.”

    ???

  88. “Because the better technologies and manufacturing process efficiency are dependant on the purchase of large amounts of earlier generation products.”

    [citation needed]

  89. “Your short-term thinking is amazing. Want to take bets on inflation-adjusted coal prices in 2015? 2020? I guarantee sunshine and wind will still be free.”

    So just like everything else, they are rising at the rate of inflation? Imagine that!

  90. How much land would that conventional plant require?

    Take a poster-sized map of the US. Stick your pinky finger on northwest Nevada. That’s about the amount of wasteland necessary to power the entire United States.

    I’ve never understood why the same nuts who whine about “sprawl” can stomach energy sources like wind and solar that waste huge amounts of land.

    Wind doesn’t use much land at all, and solar will tend to use either rooftops or low-value wastelands. This is entirely different than urban sprawl, which vastly increases energy and resource use while destroying community values and turning us all into lard-asses.

  91. “And guess what? All that HCl gas and acid are recycled in a closed loop, at least in any civilized country.”

    Would that be a civilized country like the US that buys it’s solar panels from China?

    Why do you hate the Chinese, Chad. To call them uncivilized is racist.

  92. Enough About Palin | May 28, 2009, 1:31pm | #

    “Because the better technologies and manufacturing process efficiency are dependant on the purchase of large amounts of earlier generation products.”

    [citation needed]

    Ever heard of “economies of scale”? Apparently not. As I said earlier, for products early in the production curve, a rough figure of a 20% cost reduction for each doubling of scale is typical. There are diminishing returns to this, but it gets you in the right ballpark. Solar done at mass scale with today’s technology would probably cost around half of what we are currently paying, making it fairly competitive in certain areas.

    The “just do more research” line of argument betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of how things actually work in R&D.

  93. “I think the government should coerce *you people* into becoming ‘early adopters’ of technological prototypes.”

    What about hydroelectricity? Dam, baby, dam!

    Dam, dam, dam. It’s clean, it’s proven. C’mon Chad, Love Your Mother!

  94. “There are major tactical advantages to renewables, which is why the military is at the forefront of buying these technologies.”

    Interesting point. The military is better at planning for contingencies, but generally ends up spending lavishly on such projects. The cost of a similar project wouldn’t appeal to a private company, but the military’s job is to protect us, not turn a profit. Can you imagine Delta Airlines flying people around in C-5s?

  95. “Want to take bets on inflation-adjusted coal prices in 2015?”

    I recall there actually was a widely publicized bet made on rising commodity prices by some chicken-little type whose name I can’t recall at the moment.

    He lost.

  96. “My point was that if we treat this seriously, there is no physical impediment to scaling up renewables in ten years by the two orders of magnitude that would be required for them to essentially provide all our electricity needs.”

    In 2006, Simmons & Company International, an investment banking firm, estimated that even if solar power capacity grew at a rate of 25% per year from now until 2020, it would still be able to provide only about 1% of global electricity demand by that time.

    A fourfold increase of the use of wind energy over 2004 in 2030 will still only supply a little over 1% of America’s electricity needs by then according to the Energy Information Administration.

  97. You mean commodity prices won’t rise as demand increases and supply decreases? Well blow me down!

  98. “I recall there actually was a widely publicized bet made on rising commodity prices by some chicken-little type whose name I can’t recall at the moment.”

    “He lost.”

    I believe that was Paul Erlich.

  99. He lost.

    He was early.

    The inevitable is inevitable.

  100. “In 2006, Simmons & Company International, an investment banking firm, estimated that even if solar power capacity grew at a rate of 25% per year from now until 2020, it would still be able to provide only about 1% of global electricity demand by that time.”

    Its the same with computers. In fact, I don’t think the use of computers has grown 25% since the 1960s. Christ. Why don’t these “models” ever take into account the fact that when price goes down, demand increases? Apparently, technology can only spread a flat 25% a year.

  101. “Want to take bets on inflation-adjusted coal prices in 2015?”

    The Royal Academy found that even if CO2 emissions were taxed at a rate of 30 British pounds (about 60 US dollars) per ton, wind power would still be more expensive than electricity generated by natural gas, nuclear, or coal.

  102. “In 2006, Simmons & Company International, an investment banking firm, estimated that even if solar power capacity grew at a rate of 25% per year from now until 2020, it would still be able to provide only about 1% of global electricity demand by that time.”

    Thank you, bookworm.

  103. You mean commodity prices won’t rise as demand increases and supply decreases? Well blow me down!

    Who said anything about supply decreasing?

    The inevitable is inevitable.

    In the long run, we’re all dead.

  104. bookworm | May 28, 2009, 2:10pm | #

    In 2006, Simmons & Company International, an investment banking firm, estimated that even if solar power capacity grew at a rate of 25% per year from now until 2020, it would still be able to provide only about 1% of global electricity demand by that time.

    It would obviously have to grow faster than 25% per year then, wouldn’t it?

    What happens at 50% CAGR? 100%? Actually, using your numbers, we would need about a 90% growth rate through 2020 to get 100% from solar. Of course, we don’t need 100% from this source. If we could maintain the historic 40% growth rate in solar, it would be almost 5% of the total in 2020.

    We will need a lot more than a four-fold increase in wind. More like 100-fold. There is nothing stopping this either. The entire additional cost for such a transition (on top of “normal” replacement and maintanence) would be similar to the cost of the Iraq war – annoying but hardly the apocalypse.

  105. “Christ. Why don’t these “models” ever take into account the fact that when price goes down, demand increases?”

    There is no real demand for PV solar. It’s entirely artificial.

  106. Why do we get these BS stories with a flat 25% increase in tech use, despite huge drops in costs; and why do we get people who know better doing a “rough scale” which includes costs that they know wouldn’t be required if a project were theoretically expanded?

    If it takes $50 to research a tech, and $50 to build a version of it, it does not cost $200 to build a double sized version of it.

  107. “There is no real demand for PV solar. It’s entirely artificial.”

    I was talking about energy. Perhaps you’ve heard of it?

  108. “We will need a lot more than a four-fold increase in wind. More like 100-fold. There is nothing stopping this either.”

    More bullshit. If the government dropped the tax credits, the wind industry would implode. I know this because I am a member of the American Wind Energy Association and let me tell you, when it looked like the tax credits were going to be allowed to sunset, the entire industry freaked and started lobbying the shit out of Congress, because we knew that without the tax credits, wind would be unprofitable.

  109. “We will need a lot more than a four-fold increase in wind. More like 100-fold. There is nothing stopping this either. The entire additional cost for such a transition (on top of “normal” replacement and maintanence) would be similar to the cost of the Iraq war – annoying but hardly the apocalypse.”

    Tell us, Chad, how much does a 100MW windfarm cost to build? Next, tell us how much wind capacity is currently in operation in the US today. Then tell us how many 100MW wind farms would need to be built in order to increase the current US wind capacity 100-fold.

  110. I’ve seen a lot of comedy over the government subsidizing solar projects that have a 50 year pay-off but only a 25 year lifespan. I found some more comedy in the pdf on the Denver museum. The roof had top be replaced prior to the solar panel installation. The reason the roof needed replacement was because it was 20 years old….opps.

    You could argue that a better roof could be designed. Then again, you could argue workers traipsing about on the roof to install and maintain solar panels requires that a better roof be installed. And then there is the weight and wind load. Better does not necessarily mean more environmentally friendly. Fortunately, there is no environmental impact (yeah, I used the word impact just to annoy the easily annoyed) to installing more structural components to roofs and hiring a team of workers to install solar cells the first time, or to uninstall and reinstall them again for building maintenance. Remember, it just cost money, and cost is in no way linked to pollution generated and energy required for the manufacture and installation of a product. There might be some sarcasm there.

    When standard low-cost cells get to be double their current efficiency, solar will be more viable. At that time I will be thanking everybody who bought them (with their own money, not mine) early on, just as today we can thank the early adopters of CD/DVD/Blue Ray players and LCDa nd plasma TVs for bringing us better products for less money. (Emphasis on the “better” part)

  111. “I was talking about energy. Perhaps you’ve heard of it?”

    All solar is heavily subsidized. Without those subsidies, there would be no market for solar.

  112. bigbigslacker

    PV solar, the 8-track tapes of energy generation.

  113. “More bullshit. If the government dropped the tax credits, the wind industry would implode.”

    Not true. As an exercise, try to think of one way that wind could survive if tax credits were yanked. Give it a real, objective shot.

  114. “All solar is heavily subsidized. Without those subsidies, there would be no market for solar.”

    Our government spends a lot of money to make ALL our energy sources cheaper.

  115. Chad, why are you so focused on solar/wind?

    Ron Bailey already outlined above why nuclear is actually cheaper than solar, wind, and coal over the lifetime costs of the plant, O&M and waste disposal.

    You’ve said elsewhere that you don’t have anything against nuclear. But I don’t see you out there agitating to build a shitload of nuclear plants.

    And lets face it, we can bring down our carbon emissions MUCH faster with nuclear than with wind and solar. The technology is a known quantity which doesn’t require any new development. And it will maintain the low energy costs needed to keep the economy growing and maintain our current living standards.

    The only real barrier to nuclear is your own buddies and allies on the left who have an irrational aversion to it. People that you actually have some influence over. Instead of fighting the coal industry, that isn’t going to listen to a wacked out environmentalist anyway, try convincing someone on your own side that nuclear isn’t the boogey man they like to think is it.

    Or are you afraid you’ll be ostracized for dissenting from the groupthink?

  116. “Not true. As an exercise, try to think of one way that wind could survive if tax credits were yanked. Give it a real, objective shot.”

    Why not just tell us?

  117. “The only real barrier to nuclear is your own buddies and allies on the left who have an irrational aversion to it.”

    Know New Nukes

  118. “Why not just tell us?”

    I want to see if you know what you’re talking about. I want to see the extent of your knowledge of energy and state and national regulatory issues. Hint: I’m not talking about the non-tax related incentives in the Energy Policy Act of 2005.

  119. Lamar

    Put up or shut up.

  120. I’m pro-nuclear, and I think the only reason Dems aren’t moreso is because of the public’s irrational fear of it. Ask yourself who is responsible for stoking that fear.

  121. “If the government dropped the tax credits, the wind industry would implode”

    The same can be said for solar and ethanol as well.

  122. “The same can be said for solar and ethanol as well.”

    I agree. But I guess Lamar knows something we don’t about wind. I’m all tingles.

  123. Ask yourself who is responsible for stoking that fear.

    The fifty foot tall woman?

  124. “Tell us, Chad, how much does a 100MW windfarm cost to build? Next, tell us how much wind capacity is currently in operation in the US today. Then tell us how many 100MW wind farms would need to be built in order to increase the current US wind capacity 100-fold.”

    There goes Chad’s argument that windmills don’t take up much space.

  125. “But I guess Lamar knows something we don’t about wind. I’m all tingles.”

    It isn’t something I know about wind, it’s something that I know about government. In fact, part of what I’m talking about is contained on the AWEA website under “legislative priorities”. I presume the AWEA has similar entities pursuing similar goals at the state level (but maybe not).

    I’ve been in the utility regulation business for awhile. So I will grant that perhaps by “tax breaks” you meant any form of government intervention.

  126. “I’m pro-nuclear, and I think the only reason Dems aren’t moreso is because of the public’s irrational fear of it. Ask yourself who is responsible for stoking that fear.”

    The Democrat Harry Truman?

  127. tax credits are not tax breaks

  128. “In 2006, Simmons & Company International, an investment banking firm, estimated that even if solar power capacity grew at a rate of 25% per year from now until 2020, it would still be able to provide only about 1% of global electricity demand by that time.”

    “It would obviously have to grow faster than 25% per year then, wouldn’t it?”

    True, but look at what a drain it would be on the economy to increase solar and wind to supply 100% of our electricity needs and why do we need solar and wind when as Hazel said, nuclear can supply all our electricity need at a cheap price and do it in an environmentally clean way?

  129. “So I will grant that perhaps by “tax breaks” you meant any form of government intervention.”

    I meant this:

    http://www.stoel.com/showalert.aspx?Show=3207

    “I’ve been in the utility regulation business for awhile”

    What facet? PUC? Regulatory law? Etc.?

  130. More here:

    AWEA executive director Randall Swisher recently told ClimateWire, “Over the next month, if Congress doesn’t act, [the companies] may have to abandon projects for 2009.” “We’re talking about them walking away,” Swisher added. “It’s a disastrous scenario that’s just unbelievable in light of all the progress the industry has made.”

    http://www.wri.org/stories/2008/09/sun-is-setting-on-critical-renewable-energy-tax-credits

    Great little chart right above Swisher’s quote.

  131. “But I guess Lamar knows something we don’t about wind.”

    I doubt it.

    Just blowing smoke – like the Chad.

  132. PUC/PSC (state level) planning with energy companies, water utilities, and some other industries that are no longer regulated to the extent they used to be (telecom, trash, etc.). Naturally, I interface with national regulatory people, but my focus is more on the states. The total “benefits” to renewables companies can be quite large, even if we rule out tax breaks. A renewables mandate would be disastrous for ratepayers, but a boon to wind and solar companies. Then there are the free rents on state and federal lands, limitations on liability, preferential purchasing, grants to universities and research labs, payments for “feel good projects” (like giving $250m between 2006-2010 to “establish a photovoltaic energy commercialization program – I don’t even know that that means except ka-ching!).

    If you think tax breaks are the only solution for renewables, you haven’t seen government really, really do its thing. Government is the power structure, it can rain down benefits, money, perks, incentives, anything it wants. You need customers? They’ll mandate customers! I’ve seen companies saved by the stroke of a pen.

  133. “If you think tax breaks are the only solution for renewables, you haven’t seen government really, really do its thing.”

    Well I guess I need to get up off my ass, leave the Business Development area and walk ten feet to visit with the folks in Regulatory more.

    But on point, I disagree with you if for no other reason than what Swisher had to say in the quote in my earlier post. To repeat it:

    AWEA executive director Randall Swisher recently told ClimateWire, “Over the next month, if Congress doesn’t act, [the companies] may have to abandon projects for 2009.” “We’re talking about them walking away,” Swisher added. “It’s a disastrous scenario that’s just unbelievable in light of all the progress the industry has made.”

    BTW Randy retired at the end of last year. The Board (my boss is a board member) gave him a lovely Bicycle New England Trip package. Randy is a swell guy.

  134. Interesting fact about wind.

    Here in Texas, all of the top-tier wind energy sites have been developed. All of them. I know this because my county has second and third tier locations that have moved to the top of the list for development.

    So, when people babble on about how we can increase wind energy by 100 times, you can be sure that they are full of shit and have no idea what the realities of wind energy really are.

  135. I’m pro-nuclear, and I think the only reason Dems aren’t moreso is because of the public’s irrational fear of it. Ask yourself who is responsible for stoking that fear.

    Um, Greenpeace? Hello?

  136. Nellis solar facility is a good example.I hope more and more big solar projects will be launched soon.

  137. Solar-concentration (CSP) is a better, more cost-effective approach right now, which also has the advantage of allowing operation after the Sun goes down (if molten-salt thermal storeage is used), as well as allowing for alternative fuel, in the event that adequate sunshine isn’t available for too long a time. This is because the actual power generation is done via steam turbine, the water for which can be boiled by any convenient source of heat.

    Instead of Nellis, look to Nevada Solar One. Where Nellis occupies 140 acres to produce 14MW peak power, NSO uses a total of 400 acres (300 acres of collectors) to generate 75MW peak power (64MW nominal). It is estimated that a 100mile-square patch of southwestern desert, filled with CSP plants such as Nevada Solar One, could generate all the power needed by the US (at present). If that were the goal, it might prove more feasible to create 400 5mi-by-5mi plants scattered across West Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, California, and Nevada, not only for geographic reasons, but also so that the additional power could avoid overtaxing the grid, by entering the system at many points throughout the West.

  138. I’d just like to add that a quick, back-o-th-napkin calculation indicates to me that only 200 of those 5×5 mile CSP installations would be enough to power 200M electric vehicles — roughly the current personal transportation fleet in the US — assuming the following conditions:

    1. Vehicles travel 4 miles per Kilowatt-hour
    2. Vehicles travel, on average, 20,000 miles per year
    3. CSP solar plants produce at nominal rating for only six hours per day on average, per year.

    Actually, under those assumptions, which are deliberately conservative, the raw numbers say that only 178 facilities are necessary, so I rounded up to 200 to provide some cushion for maintenance downtime, stretches of unusually bad weather, and transmission losses.

    The benefit of those 200 facilities would be like taking 200M vehicles “off the road,” eliminating their pollutant emissions completely. We would no longer be dependent on oil, foreign or domestic, for most personal transportation purposes, and would have an arbitrarily scalable source of renewable energy for our transportation fleet. If we went to build the other 200 facilities, we would cover a big chunk — as much as 50% — of our current domestic electricity consumption.

    Even if we never find the reason to construct all 400 (or even 200) of the “5×5” CSP facilities, establishing any significant number of them (50, 100, 150?) would handle a significant portion of our energy needs. The more we built, the easier, more reliable, and cheaper they would become. And realistically, the pace of construction could be set to match the pace of EV adoption, or the legally-imposed rate of carbon reduction. That is to say, we don’t need (and probably don’t want, and would benefit from not having) “overnight” construction of these facilities. This is a project that we can just start pursuing and keep at it for as long as necessary or desired.

  139. Yeah, but how do you get the liberal slack jaws to understand that?

  140. I just came across this news item, in which the London Times reported that a Nobel Prize winning physicist has shared with fellow prizewinners at the Royal Society much the same good news about CSP as I shared above with everyone here. That makes two of us! Anyone else with us?

    http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/environment/article6368156.ece

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