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12.5 Square Miles of Solar Panels:

Two massive solar power plants are planned for central California.

The plants will cover 12.5 square miles of central California with solar panels, and in the middle of a sunny day will generate about 800 megawatts of power, roughly equal to the size of a large coal-burning power plant or a small nuclear plant.

The power will be sold to Pacific Gas & Electric, which is under a state mandate to get 20 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2010. The utility said that it expected the new plants, which will use photovoltaic technology to turn sunlight directly into electricity, to be competitive with other renewable energy sources, including wind turbines and solar thermal plants, which use the sun's heat to boil water. . . .

Though the California installations will generate 800 megawatts at times when the sun is shining brightly, they will operate for fewer hours of the year than a coal or nuclear plant would and so will produce a third or less as much total electricity.

the plants are a big step for solar power, but they also highlight solar power's limitations: the need for over 35 square miles of solar panels to generate the same amount of power as a single coal plant, but without the same level of reliability.

FantasiaWHT:
Surely the habitat of some minor species of animal has been destroyed for this monstrosity! Or perhaps migratory birds will be blinded or land in the wiring and be electrocuted! We must put a stop to this madness!
8.15.2008 11:00am
Anone (mail):
Where does the 35 square miles come from? From the linked article it's not clear if each plant is 12.5 miles or if the combination are 12.5 miles, either way it'd be 25 or 12.5 not 35.
8.15.2008 11:04am
Bpbatista (mail):
The state mandated that 20% of electricity be generated by renewable sources -- did the state also mandate that the tide not come in?

And how much electricity will they produce on a cloudy day?
8.15.2008 11:09am
FantasiaWHT:
12.5 square miles creates only 1/3 of the power of a coal plant over the long run (considering low-sunlight days), according to the article. Thus, 12.5 * 3 = 37.5, which is greater than 36.
8.15.2008 11:12am
Dick King:
I actually think these are a good idea, although they are labeled a bit deceptively. It would take four or five of these installations to substitute for a small nuclear power plant. An nuclear power plant with a nameplate rating of 800 megawatts will generate about 800*24*365*0.90=6.3 million megawatt-hours per year. A solar plant with that rating would come closer to 800*24*365*0.20=1.4 million megawatt-hours per year.

The difference, the bolded figures, is the capacity factor.

Still, the land these power plants occupy isn't exactly blue-chip land, and the amount involved is really quite modest. Some solar power plants can store the energy overnight as heat and can therefore run at night, although of course the capacity has to be derated to accomplish that and no solar power plant can store enough heat to mitigate seasonal as opposed to daily variations in sunlight.

-dk
8.15.2008 11:12am
Brian Mac:

I actually think these are a good idea, although they are labeled a bit deceptively. It would take four or five of these installations to substitute for a small nuclear power plant.

Not to mention the horrible consequences should our solar panels fail!
8.15.2008 11:20am
Don Miller (mail) (www):
I am a much bigger fan of nuclear than I am solar, but I understand the attraction of "free" power.

The nice thing about solar is that it tends to be producing its peak power at the time of peak demand.

Although I recently heard a terrific idea. Put solar panels above all the parking lots in the US.

The person suggesting it kept yammering about efficient use of space or some nonsense like that. All I could think about how nice it would be to park my car in the shade during the summer.
8.15.2008 11:22am
Carrick:
The main problem is they are on the surface of the Earth. A space-based array would get 24-hour coverage, and an area that size is nothing in near space terms.

If we wanted to generate all of our electrical needs via space-based arrays, it could be done. And probably for not much more than the Iraq War cost us.... though I think nuclear plants would be a far cheaper solution.

But yes, if we really wanted to do it, we could afford it.
8.15.2008 11:24am
Mad Max:
I understand the attraction of "free" power.

Land is free in California now?
8.15.2008 11:24am
Curt Fischer:
Not sure how we are supposed to interpret the statement about solar's "level of reliability".

Yes, we can't predict the weather; some days will be cloudier than others. But over the long term, average insolation in a given area does not change much, and so over the long term we know how much power to expect.

Yes, large solar installations of this kind are new -- undoubtedly some unforseen technical challenges will arise during long-term operations.

But, once the panels are up, they're up. The sun will always be free--unlike coal or uranium its price cannot fluctuate, and unlike nuclear, there is no possibility of catastrophic failure. Since there are thousands and thousands of panels, it's unlikely that large swathes of them will ever fail simultaneously. In these two senses, the solar plants' "reliability" should be excellent.
8.15.2008 11:25am
Tom952 (mail):
Not mentioned is the cost of the panels and their expected productive life.
8.15.2008 11:25am
Don Miller (mail) (www):

I understand the attraction of "free" power.

Land is free in California now?


I will have to remember that response, my friends and relatives that are enamored about solar always jaw about how sunlight is free.
8.15.2008 11:28am
MarkField (mail):

Land is free in California now?


Thanks to the collapse of the housing bubble and some conveniently located deserts, essentially yes.
8.15.2008 11:33am
Crimso:
"unlike coal or uranium its price cannot fluctuate"

Neither can the prices of coal or uranium, at least for those who mine it (and you could note that they pay for the land upon which they mine, but so do the solar people). Similarly, the cost of sunlight for those who mine it won't fluctuate. What will fluctuate is the price everybody down the line pays.
8.15.2008 11:34am
cboldt (mail):
-- 12.5 square miles creates only 1/3 of the power of a coal plant over the long run --
.
Power is a measure of energy delivered per unit of time. 12.5 square miles of solar makes as much power as a coal plant, but the solar power is only available during bright sunshine.
.
In order to make as much ENERGY in 24 hours, a solar plant would have to be three times as powerful as the coal plant, because the coal plant, like the tortoise, is slow and steady, 24/7.
8.15.2008 11:38am
Curt Fischer:

If we wanted to generate all of our electrical needs via space-based arrays, it could be done. And probably for not much more than the Iraq War cost us....


Wouldn't you worry about the global warming problem created by piping in extra solar energy to the Earth system? The net effect of using solar energy from space would be indistinguishable from moving Earth's orbit to be closer to the sun, wouldn't it? Sounds like it'd get hotter.
8.15.2008 11:42am
cboldt (mail):
-- All I could think about how nice it would be to park my car in the shade during the summer. --
.
In these parts, it would also keep the snow off in the winter!
8.15.2008 11:43am
Oren:
Land is free in California now?
You've obviously never seen the California desert. There's a reason 70+% of CAians live packed like sardines up against the coast.

If you sum up all the absolutely useless desert land in CA, UT, NV, AZ and NM then you can build quite a bit of solar without incurring much cost in land. Now the plants themselves are rather pricey, but that's a different fish.
8.15.2008 11:44am
Dick King:
I ought to say that as I said in my previous post some solar plants can store heat overnight to make electricity by night as well as by day, but these new plants are photovoltaic plants, not thermal plants, and could never do that.

For a thermal plant overnight heat storage would be a relatively simple add-on that might become worthwhile as solar power's market share increases. For these plants it's not an option.

-dk
8.15.2008 11:46am
Oren:
Curt, the absorptivity of solar panels isn't that much higher than the rocky desert that would otherwise be underneath them.
8.15.2008 11:46am
cboldt (mail):
-- Not mentioned is the cost of the panels and their expected productive life. --
.
Supposedly, that's all rolled into the "competitive with other renewable energy sources" catch all. What's not stated is that with the exception of hydroelectric, renewable energy is either more expensive (wind, solar) or more polluting (biomass burning) than coal, oil, or nat gas fired electric power plants.
8.15.2008 11:47am
A.S.:
Destruction of 12.5 square miles of habitat. I'm so glad we're being so environmentally sound.
8.15.2008 11:47am
Displaced Avenger:
Dick King:

Some solar power plants can store the energy overnight as heat and can therefore run at night, although of course the capacity has to be derated to accomplish that and no solar power plant can store enough heat to mitigate seasonal as opposed to daily variations in sunlight.


Those are the solar thermal plants mentioned in the article (in fact, in the portion that Jonathan quoted); these new installations are straight photovoltaic, so they won't be working at night at all. (Well, I guess they could get some power out of moonlight, but...)
8.15.2008 11:48am
cboldt (mail):

-- the absorptivity of solar panels isn't that much higher than the rocky desert that would otherwise be underneath them. --
.
The comment you are reviewing was about space-based capture, not land based capture. Supposedly, space-based capture would involve transmitting energy to land via some means where the atmosphere is more transparent than it is to the solar spectrum, hence more net energy reaching the earth.
8.15.2008 11:50am
Houston Lawyer:
I'm sure that the solar panels are an eyesore. Doesn't Ted Kennedy have some land near there whose pristine desert view will be forever marred by ugly solar panels?
8.15.2008 11:53am
Hoosier:
"Wouldn't you worry about the global warming problem created by piping in extra solar energy to the Earth system?"

Not to mention the impact upon birds of all those orbit-to-Earth extension cords.
8.15.2008 11:54am
wb (mail):
While one can make reasonable estimates of efficiency, reliability and maintenance costs, there is no substitute for full scale demos to determin the local values of these quantities. In this sense the two plants will make a major contribution.

To be sure there is a huge amount of barren desert land in the west, especially in Nevada. But the power must be delivered to the cities. The long range transmission efficiency and operating costs over an average delivery distance must also be factored in. So yes, the sunlight arrives without cost. The electricity delivered does have costs that can fluctuate beyond amortization costs.
8.15.2008 11:54am
Mr Crabby (mail):

Destruction of 12.5 square miles of habitat. I'm so glad we're being so environmentally sound.

Phew, it's a good thing that coal plants have a much smaller environmental footprint. Pity we need to level entire moutains ranges in West Virginia to fuel them.
8.15.2008 11:56am
Curt Fischer:

Neither can the prices of coal or uranium, at least for those who mine it (and you could note that they pay for the land upon which they mine, but so do the solar people).


I have no idea what this is supposed to mean. Of course the price can fluctuate, even for the miners. To take one example, as a result of the recent uranium price rise, companies are looking at mining low-grade uranium ores which were once too expensive to extract. That ore costs them more to produce than other ore they have. Sounds like a fluctuation in their cost of production to me.

In another example, the cost of the labor required to mine coal has gone way down in the past decades as more advanced mining technologies have come online. This too has affected the price of coal -- that is, it has driven fluctuations.

Another uranium example: the energy intensity of mining. It turns out that manipulating huge volumes of rock and pumping huge volumes of water require (fossil) energy. So when the price of oil or natural gas goes up, it will cost the miners more to produce.

The cost of solar energy is almost purely capital, even more so than nuclear. Once the panels are up, the price of solar energy is unlikely to fluctuate very much: the land, the silicon, and the installation has all been paid for.

Care to elaborate on your mystifying comment?
8.15.2008 11:59am
Curt Fischer:
Oren, I was asking about space-based solar panels, not solar panels in general.
8.15.2008 12:00pm
Clayton E. Cramer (mail) (www):

And how much electricity will they produce on a cloudy day?
I've solved that problem. I'm busy trying to get a startup organized so that we can get the patent attorneys busy.
8.15.2008 12:02pm
SATA_Interface:
I loved playing Sim City where you could have the microwave power station that would catch the space-energy generation. And every now and then, the microwave beam would miss the dish and fry a city block or two.

Or you could have the skyhook concept with a tether connecting a LEO satellite with a floating derrick on the ocean, passing the power down the line.
8.15.2008 12:04pm
Clayton E. Cramer (mail) (www):

Land is free in California now?
Have you ever been to Barstow, California? It's not free, but much of the surrounding area is only suited to lizards.
8.15.2008 12:04pm
David M. Nieporent (www):
If you sum up all the absolutely useless desert land in CA, UT, NV, AZ and NM then you can build quite a bit of solar without incurring much cost in land. Now the plants themselves are rather pricey, but that's a different fish.
The problem is that lots of environmentalists will complain that the land isn't "absolutely useless."

I mean, look at how zealously they fight against drilling in ANWR -- and did so before global warming became an issue -- even though nobody lives within a zillion miles of the place or ever goes there.
8.15.2008 12:04pm
Oren:
Not to mention the impact upon birds of all those orbit-to-Earth extension cords.
Hoosier obviously never played Sim City. If he did, he would know that solar power is transmitted to earth by large microwave beams that occasionally malfunction and start random fires.

Curt, sorry for the misread.
8.15.2008 12:04pm
Oren:
To be sure there is a huge amount of barren desert land in the west, especially in Nevada. But the power must be delivered to the cities. The long range transmission efficiency and operating costs over an average delivery distance must also be factored in.
Considering that power for LA County is already piped in from the Columbia Hydroelectric plants on the OR-WA border, this isn't a major change of affairs.
8.15.2008 12:08pm
Hoosier:
"Sim City"?
8.15.2008 12:08pm
Oren:
Hoosier, it was a popular video game placing you in absolute administrative command of a city. Google it.
8.15.2008 12:11pm
Hoosier:
Oren: "Considering that power for LA County is already piped in from the Columbia Hydroelectric plants on the OR-WA border"

I didn't know that it was. You now have my attention. What would this mean for the proposed wind farms on the Great Plains? For energy needs in Chicago? Boston?

Very curious about this.
8.15.2008 12:12pm
Hoosier:
"Google"?
8.15.2008 12:15pm
Left Hander (mail):
The comments about space-based solar panels and the need for extension cords remind me of a poem from Shell Silverstein that I liked (and memorized) as a kid.

I've done it, I've done it!
Guess what I've done?
Invented a light that plugs into the Sun!
The Sun is bright enough.
The bulb is strong enough.
There's only one problem. . .
The cord is not long enough.
8.15.2008 12:17pm
calmom:
San Luis Obispo County where these solar panels will be built is not the desert, not Barstow. I am one of those who thinks that solar panels are unsightly. A neighbor put up four large panels on a hillside and they are as ugly as a metal junkyard. Better to conserve electricity and limit growth.
8.15.2008 12:28pm
Oren:
I didn't know that it was. You now have my attention. What would this mean for the proposed wind farms on the Great Plains? For energy needs in Chicago? Boston?

Very curious about this.
The US power grid is divided into 3 sections, West, Middle, East roughly at the two major mountain ranges. This makes for much greater efficiency because different zones have very different patterns of energy use. Wind power in the great plains would be useful in Chicago and as far south as Texas. For the eastern seaboard, the Adirondacks and Cape Wind (as soon as Ted Kennedy bites it -- we can shame Kerry into supporting it I hope) are much better bets.
8.15.2008 12:31pm
Jim at FSU (mail):
Can we build anything underneath the panels that doesn't like sunlight?
8.15.2008 12:33pm
Oren:
Jim, absent a new and amazing supply of water in the West (doubtful), I don't see anything useful growing there. Dunno what else that land is useful for . . .
8.15.2008 12:40pm
marvin (mail):
You know how many acres of trees you could plant in the same area that one of these solar plants takes up. A small nuke plant, even with its vast overlapping security barriers wouldn't come close to covering this much area.

The liberals want us to turn half our farmland into solar stations, and to take the food grown on the other half, and burn it as ethanol. I may be exaggerating a little, but no more then the global warming nuts do.
8.15.2008 12:45pm
SATA_Interface:
Jim, when I look at the large panels in Arizona, the underside is usually full of pipes or wiring and lots of support structure; not sure how high you'd need to build to have space on the ground. Maybe something underground? Aren't the Germans building panels on top of their new construction as a standard now?
8.15.2008 12:49pm
erics (mail):
Revealing to say that the need the need for 35 square miles for this project is a "limitation." California, Ariz, NM, Tex (four contiguous sunny states) total roughtly 660,000 square miles.
8.15.2008 12:52pm
Gregory Conen (mail):
Just some interesting comparisions.

Corn ethanol in the US yields about 350 gallons/acre/year.
One gallon of ethanol contains about 25 kWh of energy.
12.5 square miles is 8000 acres. One year is about 8750 hours.

Solar panel yield per acre: 875 MWh/year*capacity factor; ethanol yield per acre: 8.75 MWh/year.

So, even with a capacity factor of a measly .1, solar panels are 10 times more efficient than ethanol growing (for land use).
Now, this is before factoring the efficiency of the engine than burns the ethanol, so the comparative inefficiency of fuel use vs. electrical generation doesn't matter.
8.15.2008 12:54pm
Oren:

You know how many acres of trees you could plant in the same area that one of these solar plants takes up. A small nuke plant, even with its vast overlapping security barriers wouldn't come close to covering this much area.

There is no water left to grow trees there buddy. Unless you've engineering a magical tree that grows without water that is. If you have, congratulations on winning the Nobel Prize in Bullshit Biology.
8.15.2008 12:58pm
Gregory Conen (mail):
Postscript to my last post.
Sugarcane/beet ethanol is about twice as efficient (per acre) as corn. Oil palm for biodiesel is similar.

If we can figure out how to do cellulosic ethanol efficiently, switchgrass would probably be 3-4 times as efficient as corn.
8.15.2008 1:01pm
erics (mail):
moreover, I just read that there are approximately 600 coal fired power plants in this country generating 1/2 of our electricity.

So if it takes 35 square miles to get enough solar to run a power plant, we could replace coal fired plants by using 21,000 square miles of land. Even if you tripled that, which could potentially provide all electricity we currently use plus an additional load for a hypothetical fleet of electric cars, and you're at 63,000 square miles.

That's not a lot of land if you spread it out.
8.15.2008 1:02pm
sciguest:
Oren, I was asking about space-based solar panels, not solar panels in general.

Still not an issue - it's a drop in the bucket. Even if we replaced ALL of our energy sources by a space-based array (and assuming it ALL goes to heat) the energy "added" to the surface would be around one-millionth of the solar energy currently absorbed at the surface.
8.15.2008 1:08pm
Parenthetical:
The person suggesting it kept yammering about efficient use of space or some nonsense like that. All I could think about how nice it would be to park my car in the shade during the summer.

PG&E has done that in a number of it's own employee parking lots. That kind of installation highlights the ways in which photovoltaics can complement other forms of power generation:

1) In an urban/suburban parking lot, users appreciates the shaded parking spot.

2) The micro power plant is quiet and non-emitting (once installed), so the community tends not to object to locating power-generation facilities extremely close to the point of consumption (from which we get some efficiency).

3) The solar panels produce energy for only a small part of the day, but that period corresponds with peak demand.

The economics of these things are still a bit tentative, but getting better. Even in the present form, however, solar technology can be a useful addition to a power portfolio.
8.15.2008 1:08pm
trad and anon:
The liberals want us to turn half our farmland into solar stations, and to take the food grown on the other half, and burn it as ethanol. I may be exaggerating a little, but no more then the global warming nuts do.
I'm not a big environmentalist, but I'm pretty sure we liberals are no longer interested in ethanol. Support of that one comes from Big Corn.

Environmentalists are starting to come to grips with the fact that there is no power source with no environmentally harmful impacts. Wind and solar take up large amounts of space on which things live; wind is also bad for birds; hydro destroys river ecologies; nuclear creates radioactive waste that sticks around for thousands of years; oil and coal pump CO2 into the atmosphere. Not sure about tidal power but we can't base our economy on that.

The better path, from an environmental point of view, is to use balanced levels of each, so as to keep their harmful environmental impacts at a reasonable level.
8.15.2008 1:16pm
Curt Fischer:

Gregory Conen: So, even with a capacity factor of a measly .1, solar panels are 10 times more efficient than ethanol growing (for land use).


Thanks for the comparisons, Gregory. Very interesting. I'd just like to note the importance of your parenthetical: land use.

Alas, land use is but one factor among many to be weighed when deciding the relative merits of various energy production techniques. Water use is another, and solar is a big winner here as well. Capital cost is another, and here is where solar falters somewhat--it's hard to find financing for huge solar projects relative to the capital for say planting an equivalent acreage with corn. (Hopefully soon it will be cellulosics instead of corn, though.)

Another big factor is ease of storage. Although batteries and other storage techniques keep getting better, liquid-fueled cars will predominate for another 10 or 20 years or so, at least. As long as they are with us, it's a bit simplistic to compare solar power and ethanol on strict energy bases.

Don't get me wrong: I'm no defender of corn ethanol; I'm just the type of guy who likes to emphasize "it's complicated" in response to numbers like the ones you shared.
8.15.2008 1:25pm
James Gibson (mail):
I felt I needed to respond to anumber of different points of this discussion.

First, the proposed plants are just bulk solar cell sites. The idea is that by building these huge sites we can generate enough wattage and ampherage to match the power in the transmission lines. For years solar advocates have stated that you can see when your solar system was adding power to the main grid by watching your meter run backward. Unfortunately, the home systems never were able to match the current flow in the power lines and the generated energy never actually flowed into the main system.

Second, these sites have no tracking systems and the panels set at a fixed angle. Thus, the two facilities will only generate the total 800 MW equivalent at mid-day and only at certain times of the year. They did this to cut costs, but it means the system will be more a bumper station for summer then a big supplier during the winter.

Third, SCE and SDGE are also in contract to built two huge sterling engine sites. Both are from 800 MW to 900 MW in capacity. To use Sterling engines they have to have tracking geostats, which give them over three times the efficiency of the solar cell systems. But they will need 34 to 36,000 of these tracking dishes for each facility. No estimate on acreage for either project but the State estimates that at least 300,000 acres have been requested for development by the BLM for 34 solar facilities generating 24,000 MW equivalent at peak periods.

Fourth, the present environmentalist movement doesn't recognise hydro-electric as a renewable energy source. These green energy mandates are minus hydro (just wind, solar, and biofuel). Thus, no matter how much energy we already get from Hydro it is not taken into account in the mandated percentages. As a result, if we get the 20% by renewables it will be on top of that power generated by the two major nuclear plants (12.8% of california's power at 5,300 MW) and all the instate hydro sites (presently 14.5% of all electricity generation).
8.15.2008 1:31pm
FantasiaWHT:

The better path, from an environmental point of view, is to use balanced levels of each, so as to keep their harmful environmental impacts at a reasonable level.


Honestly, I think that's the best path from just about every point of view (except the lobbyists for each individual industry) - the more competitive the market, the more each source will strive to lower the cost and increase efficiency - the more diversified the sources, the less prone the market is to large fluctuations, and the more flexible we become in dealing with shortages or other problems.
8.15.2008 1:32pm
Curt Fischer:

Even if we replaced ALL of our energy sources by a space-based array (and assuming it ALL goes to heat) the energy "added" to the surface would be around one-millionth of the solar energy currently absorbed at the surface.


Well, it would obviously ALL go to heat; if it didn't we'd be wasting energy big time. Point taken regarding the relative magnitudes though.
8.15.2008 1:33pm
Fub:
Hoosier wrote at 8.15.2008 11:15am:
"Google"?
It's a neologism kids these days dreamed up. I think it's a transitive verb derived from "ogle", to leer; "goggle", the eye coverings; the biblical "Gog" (Ezekial 38:2, Revelation 20:7), as an evil and powerful ruler, nation, or national spirit; and the Goodge Street Tube Station.

I think these days they call these word formations "mashups".

"To Google" seems to mean looking intensively at something, or for something, with some magical powers involving tubes, conferred by a an evil nation or other organizational entity involved with a thing called the "internet".

This magical tube characterization probably derived from some descriptions of this "internet" thing which, according to one expert is a series of tubes.

I hope this clarifies your question. It's the best I can do this early in the morning.
8.15.2008 1:35pm
robert:
So how much sooner is the sun going to go out, once we start using more of its energy?
8.15.2008 1:41pm
Sam H (mail):
What is not mentioned is that solar power has to be backed by conventional power.Since you can't count on it being there when you need it, you have to spend the capital to build a coal or nuclear plant for those times. Any honest evaluation of solar power needs to take this into account.
8.15.2008 1:43pm
David M. Nieporent (www):
Can we build anything underneath the panels that doesn't like sunlight?
Vampires?
8.15.2008 1:48pm
arbitraryaardvark (mail) (www):
We don't know the price numbers for this project, but it's at least somewhat viable. The thin-film project, one of the two plants discussed, is 30 times larger than the largest current US photovoltaic project. It'll be cheaper for Optisolar to build the next plant like this, than it will have been to build the first one. We're not told how soon it comes online. I'm guessing about a year? Nukes, back in the old days, took 5 years to build. Maybe the permitting process will be streamlined if there's a next generation of nukes.
But my sense is that Optisolar can outcompete any proposed nuke, and that it won't be that long before existing coal plants can be replaced with cheap thin-film photovoltaics.
Of course, I've been overly optimistic about "wont be that long" for the past 30 years, and I was wrong about how long it took wind to become cost-competitive with coal, but wind is here and it looks like solar is soon to follow.
8.15.2008 1:49pm
Gregory Conen (mail):
@CurtFischer:
Indeed, the comparison is not apples to apples. The land best suited to solar is different from the land best suited to agriculture, etc.

But putting the comparison that way can help make some interesting points. For example, instead of sacrificing agricultural land for biofuels to displace gasoline (or petrodiesel), it appears that it would often be better (from a GHG perspective) to convert it to solar to displace coal/oil electricity.
8.15.2008 1:50pm
ForestGirl (mail):
Straw man alert: You can't compare the tiny footprint of a coal-powered plant to the 35 sq. miles of solar panels without factoring in, as Mr. Crabby said, the mountains in West Virginia that have to be leveled to provide the coal.
8.15.2008 1:56pm
David Warner:
"Have you ever been to Barstow, California? It's not free, but much of the surrounding area is only suited to lizards."

Yeah, but the direct-mail operation of those lizards is bitch.

Ultimately, I'm with the space array, but its nice to get some things built here on earth to learn by trial and error. One thing I hope we'll learn is some better ways of dealing with those modern-day televangelists in the EnvirNOmental movement.
8.15.2008 2:05pm
justaguy (mail):
What about the cost differential? About the same as other renewable doesn't mean anywhere near the same cost as coal, natural gas or nuclear. Are the consumers in California ready for their rates to go up many times what they are now- solely to have "clean" solar power. (clean because we ignore what it takes to make the solar panels)
8.15.2008 2:11pm
BillW:
Don Miller: The nice thing about solar is that it tends to be producing its peak power at the time of peak demand.

Not quite; peak demand is in the late afternoon, several hours after solar noon. Check out California's varying demand for electricity today.

Dick King: I ought to say that as I said in my previous post some solar plants can store heat overnight to make electricity by night as well as by day, but these new plants are photovoltaic plants, not thermal plants, and could never do that.

Even the thermal plants don't store energy overnight. They're being built with about six hours of storage — enough to shift their electricity generation into the 2--9PM peak rate period. It wouldn't make sense to produce solar electricity through the night unless it got a lot cheaper to produce.

Oren: The US power grid is divided into 3 sections, West, Middle, East roughly at the two major mountain ranges.

Not exactly; it's divided into Eastern, Western, and Texas.
8.15.2008 2:14pm
mad the swine (mail):
Have you ever been to West Virginia? There are mountains out there that are fit only for lizards. And inbreeding.
8.15.2008 2:20pm
FWB (mail):
Why do so many people get up in arms about a tiny speck of land needed for solar power? At this point in time, if we moved everyone in the US to Texas, each person would get 22000 sq ft of space and the rest of the country would be empty. In Alaska, we'd each get more than an acre.

For about $30K each, everyone here could put a self-sufficient grid on his/her home.
8.15.2008 2:30pm
Opher Banarie (mail) (www):
I understand the attraction of "free" power.

There have been other comments about the price of land and such, but solar power is NOT FREE! I worked for the company which originally built the entire Carrisa Plains project (ARCO Solar, Inc. at the time) and there is much more to consider.

For one, the primary cost of making crystalline PV cells is (drum roll) - electricity! The crystals are grown the same way that Intel makes silicon chips. Depending on how the accounting is done (those pesky statistics and all) the amount of electricity a PV panel produces during it's life is pretty much the same as what went into making it. Yes, it's a solar powered BATTERY!

Add in the issues of not producing anything at night, not being able to re-size the capacity easily and the whole environmental issues of using huge swaths of land and PV does not have a future for industrial-grade generating centers. It works great for off-grid applications, from ocean buoys and sailboats battery charging to freeway call boxes and mountain-top radio repeaters. But don't expect to run your city on PV power.
8.15.2008 2:36pm
Joe Kowalski (mail):

But don't expect to run your city on PV power.

Which is precisely why solar thermal makes for a better option than PV, not to mention the benefits of being able to store up the heat.
8.15.2008 2:43pm
SATA_Interface:
I also remember that the Star Wars capital world of Coruscant was powered by giant solar mirrors that would focus the solar energy and power the planet.
8.15.2008 2:43pm
Parenthetical:
Are the consumers in California ready for their rates to go up many times what they are now- solely to have "clean" solar power. (clean because we ignore what it takes to make the solar panels)

"Clean" is a relative term (should be "cleaner" is suppose). I'm no sure who's "ignoring" that.

The energy required to manufacture a photovoltaic (PV) panel is less than 10 percent of expected production in Southern California (thin-film panels are at the low end of energy consumption and monochrystaline panels at the upper end).

Put another way, for the first ~2 years production, the panels are simply replacing what they consumed. For the following ~20 years, they are essentially emission free.

It's hard to guesstimate the energy used in transportation without knowing where they were made. Of course, there are installation energy costs too.

Manufacturing PV panels also has some harmful byproducts (principally heavy metals). I haven't seen much work done on recycling spent PV panels. Can't be much worse than "disposing" of spent nuclear fuel.

That said, I'm skeptical that remotely located, large-scale PV arrays are really an economical choice. If you want a large solar plant, hybrid NG/solar thermal probably make more sense for the time being. Still, today's PV technologies are useful in other applications.

As for California's energy rates, they go up all the time. PV panels have little to do with that. Compared to buying energy for our peak demand from the open market, PV panels do have a very predictable operating cost.
8.15.2008 2:47pm
Opher Banarie (mail) (www):
BillW: Even the thermal plants don't store energy overnight

I did some work with a utilty in Washington State. They would pump water upstream to a large lake at night, when demand and costs were low, and then use the water during the day to run additional hydro-generating equipment. They were essentially 'storing' additional generating capacity for use during the day. This allowed them to defer building new dams and larger expansion projects.
8.15.2008 2:48pm
Andy Freeman (mail):
> Revealing to say that the need the need for 35 square miles for this project is a "limitation." California, Ariz, NM, Tex (four contiguous sunny states) total roughtly 660,000 square miles.

How does that compare to "it's too much" fraction of ANWAR for oil?
8.15.2008 3:08pm
kwo (mail):
Oren said...
If you sum up all the absolutely useless desert land in CA, UT, NV, AZ and NM then you can build quite a bit of solar without incurring much cost in land.

All the cheap land is far from the urban areas, requiring additional cost for power transmission. Would it still be cheaper than prime real estate? Probably. But it won't be "cheap". Tanstaafl.
8.15.2008 3:36pm
Opher Banarie (mail) (www):
Anyone interested in converting your roof into a solar energy producer might be interested in RoofRay. I don't know how accurate their calculations are, but it's probably in the ballpark for estimates and/or laughs.
8.15.2008 3:46pm
NickM (mail) (www):

Have you ever been to Barstow, California? It's not free, but much of the surrounding area is only suited to lizards.


And snakes and politicians. But I repeat myself.

Nick
8.15.2008 3:55pm
Brian Day (mail):
While the article doesn't say where in SLO County the planned plants will be, it could be as Opher Banarie mentioned, near the Carrizo Plains solar plant. Another location would be near California Valley [wikipedia].
I've driven California Highway 58 through that stretch many times. California Valley would be a good location from a land use point of view.
8.15.2008 4:20pm
KZOO (mail):
Solar Power will work in CA and other desert states, BUT here in SouthWest MI, IT WOULD NOT! When Lake Effect Snow hits, we don't see the sun for days! In '99 we did not see the Sun for 2 1/2 weeks; it came out for 3 hrs., then went in hiding for another 8 DAYS!!!! Where would we get power if MI demanded what CA does? Nuclear, thats how! D.C. Cook and Palisades Nuclear Power Plants are safe, renewable, + reliable sources of SW MI's needs!!!!
8.15.2008 4:21pm
Oren:

What is not mentioned is that solar power has to be backed by conventional power.Since you can't count on it being there when you need it, you have to spend the capital to build a coal or nuclear plant for those times. Any honest evaluation of solar power needs to take this into account.

Solar is unsuited to baseload power. We knew that. The point is that there is enough variability that justifies using it on the margins.


Not quite; peak demand is in the late afternoon, several hours after solar noon. Check out California's varying demand for electricity today.
The arrays can be tilted westwards to align the maximum power with maximum demand.


All the cheap land is far from the urban areas, requiring additional cost for power transmission. Would it still be cheaper than prime real estate? Probably. But it won't be "cheap". Tanstaafl.
Power for LA County already travels from the OR-WA border (see my post above). The deserts of CA/NV would be closer still.

Actually, the nice thing about the LA/PACNW link up is that during the summer, the power flows south while during the winter, the power flows north. Everyone gets to invest less capital meeting peak demand while being average-demand-neutral. Transmission costs are more than offset by this HUGE gain in efficiency.
8.15.2008 4:27pm
Oren:
KZOO, nobody here suggested solar for MI! Thanks for debunking it though, you never know!
8.15.2008 4:32pm
Piano_JAM (mail):
NOte that this deal is contingent on Congress extending the Income Tax credit for solar. As a SunPower shareholder, I am happy it is up 14 points today. But my tax money is going to help pay for this.
8.15.2008 4:38pm
Christian K:
@arbitraryaardvark

Price is a huge part of this move. I was watching Charlie Rose last month, he had guy on who worked for several of the oil companies (totally blanking on his name at the moment). One of his major points was that if you look at price per kW/h, solar has a much better ROI than either coal or nuclear. Also that the new cells they have in the lab show a vast improvement over what can be deployed today.

Also look at what companies like Next Energy, SolarCity and Sun Power are doing in San Francisco.
8.15.2008 4:54pm
GeorgeOregon (mail):
The comparison is missing a few bits. Lets compare to the reliability and cost of a coal plant the spews no noxious fumes into the air we breathe when is operating.
8.15.2008 4:58pm
trad and anon:
But my tax money is going to help pay for this.

No, the Chinese are going to pay for it. It's future taxpayers who are paying them back.
8.15.2008 5:23pm
Kazinski:
arbitraryaardvark;

But my sense is that Optisolar can outcompete any proposed nuke, and that it won't be that long before existing coal plants can be replaced with cheap thin-film photovoltaics.
...I was wrong about how long it took wind to become cost-competitive with coal, but wind is here and it looks like solar is soon to follow.

You're still wrong. Tax benefits aren't needed in order to justify building either nuclear or coal fired plants. The only thing they need is a rational permitting process. They wouldn't be building any large scale wind or solar farms right now if it weren't for massive tax breaks, other subsidies and mandates.
8.15.2008 5:42pm
Mike G in Corvallis (mail):
Land is free in California now?
Thanks to the collapse of the housing bubble and some conveniently located deserts, essentially yes.

In general, the less expensive (and less desirable for agriculture and housing) the land, the higher the installation costs of the solar array. You have to haul the stuff out to the desert, and you have to pay people to relocate to the desert while they're installing it.

Does anyone know how the startup costs of a solar array compare to coal-fired or nuclear plants of equivalent power capacity?

What costs as much as a solar panel array to build? I don't know ... how about a light rail system or a freeway? The average light-rail line under construction or in planning stages today costs $25 million per mile ($50 million per mile in both directions). An average lane-mile of freeway costs roughly $5 to $10 million. (Source.) Is this good or bad?
The companies said they were forbidden by contract terms to talk about price, and a spokeswoman for Pacific Gas &Electric said her company was trying to obtain the best possible deal for ratepayers by not telling other suppliers of renewable energy what it was willing to pay.

But all three companies said the costs would be much lower than photovoltaic installations of the past.

Alas, that ain't saying much -- photovoltaic installations of the past were expensive.
8.15.2008 5:50pm
Soronel Haetir (mail):
On the water issue, PV may not require water at the point of use, but it does require lots and lots of water during the manufacturing stage.
8.15.2008 6:11pm
BillW:
Brian Day: While the article doesn't say where in SLO County the planned plants will be, it could be as Opher Banarie mentioned, near the Carrizo Plains solar plant. Another location would be near California Valley.

Both plants in the same area; California Valley is in the Carrizo Plain.
8.15.2008 6:22pm
c.f.w. (mail):

"But, once the panels are up, they're up."

What about labor and water and soap (or solvent) to clean them - if not clean, not efficient?

Don't the cells get fried and lose efficiency in 2-3 years? If the claim is 20 years of useful life for a cell, what is the empirical basis? I would guess it needs to be "repainted" every 5 years or so. Still, worth exploring to see what can be done.
8.15.2008 7:12pm
PaddyL (mail):
What is the cost per KW of the solar plant's production compared to the per KW cost of coal, natural gas, and nuclear plants? This is the information the public needs to understand how badly they have been screwed in the name of green energy.
8.15.2008 7:14pm
J. F. Thomas (mail):
Tax benefits aren't needed in order to justify building either nuclear or coal fired plants.

Not tax benefits, just direct subsidies. Nuclear fuel production is subsidized by the government (it used to be produced directly by the government--now only parts of the fuel production are done by the government the rest is done by private companies who bought the production facilities for the government for practically nothing). Plants are indemnified by the government. And the costs of nuclear waste disposal are borne by the government.
8.15.2008 7:35pm
Parenthetical:
What is the cost per KW of the solar plant's production compared to the per KW cost of coal, natural gas, and nuclear plants?

Depends what you want to include in the cost model. If you ignore all those "extras" (e.g. pollution, EIRs, permitting, not-in-backyard-syndrome, etc.), the answer is easy: old-fashioned, coal-fired power is the cheapest technology on the market.

No need to look any further.
8.15.2008 7:41pm
James Gibson (mail):
C.F.W. asked how long they last. Efficiency begins dropping from day one and once you loose a cell in a series group you loose all the cells in that group.

Opher Banarie left a link to a company that lets you compute how much energy you might (key word might) generate from solar arrays on your home. I ran my parents, biggest roof- fewest stories, and concluded that if everything works to 91% efficiency they will only produce enough power to cover 2/3 of their normal daily consumption. And thats without the air conditioning on. So even if they totally cover their roof they will still need to tie into an outside energy producer.

To me the biggest question is what would be the production if we used Galium Arsenide cells which are three times as effective as the silicon cells everyone keeps pushing.
8.15.2008 7:53pm
MarkField (mail):

In general, the less expensive (and less desirable for agriculture and housing) the land, the higher the installation costs of the solar array. You have to haul the stuff out to the desert, and you have to pay people to relocate to the desert while they're installing it.


Obviously, whatever the cost may be, solar has to justify itself against other forms of energy production on a net cost basis (including externalities, which all energy sources have). The land cost is just one factor, but it's probably not significant in much of the southwest.
8.15.2008 8:59pm
Cornellian (mail):
And how much electricity will they produce on a cloudy day?

Not really a concern here in California, where cloudy days are a rare commodity in much of the state.
8.15.2008 9:18pm
Elliot123 (mail):
Will this facility be built on pristine wilderness? Keep in mind that 12.5 square miles if far more than all the gravel pads and roads being used for Alaskan North Slope production at Prudhoe Bay, and far more than is projected for ANWR production.
8.15.2008 9:19pm
BillW:
Elliot123: Will this facility be built on pristine wilderness?

See for yourself.
8.15.2008 9:58pm
Dick King:

I did some work with a utilty in Washington State. They would pump water upstream to a large lake at night, ...


An easy way to accomplish this in a state that also has hydroelectric power is to simply stop generating hydro when the solar plants come on lin e every day.


Plants are indemnified by the government. And the costs of nuclear waste disposal are borne by the government.


Actually, all operating power plants pay a tax for the government Price-Anderson reinsurance [above $540 million -- they have to insure that themselves] and they pay a nuclear waste disposal fee for which they have not received any service.

No money has ever been paid out under Price-Anderson. It's liability insurance only; the companies have to insure the plants themselves by themselves. Some of the waste disposal fee has been spent, but not much, and more importantly the nuclear companies have been paying this fee all along but still have to deal with the waste.

-dk
8.15.2008 10:31pm
Duncan Frissell (mail):
Because of the requirement to maintain many square miles of cell arrays, per megawatt hour the normal rate of industrial accidents and deaths will be much higher than at a Nuke.

And why rape 50 square miles of land to produce as much juice as a 1000 megawatt Nuke can produce on 100 acres?
8.15.2008 10:46pm
Bernie (mail):
Someone check my math please.

These plants would provide 800MW peak, less most of the day and none at night. The new AP1000 nuclear plant provides 1150MW all day and all night. If 12.5 square miles = 800MW * .2 (capacity factor) = 160MW/day. 1150 MW*.9 (capacity factor) = 1035Mw/day. To get as much power as a single nuclear plant solar would need 80 square miles.

1150 MW could supply 1,150,000 homes. There are 13,174,378 houses in California. That's 11 Nuclear power plants or 916 square miles of solar panels, and that's just the residential power needs. How much Arsenic, Chromium, Cadmium and other toxic chemicals will be in those solar cells and what happens at the end of their useful life? After 30 years how much deadly (long lived) nuclear waste is produced? After 30 years how much deadly (forever) chemical waste from disposing of all those solar cells is produced?

Solar is great for picking up the excess in peak demand periods in the south. Nuclear is needed for the heavy lifting
8.15.2008 10:59pm
Smokey:
Solar power sucks.

Land is free in California now?

MarkField responds: "Thanks to the collapse of the housing bubble and some conveniently located deserts, essentially yes."
Gimme some of that free land, MarkField.

But if it's not free, quit talking out your ass. I have an engineering background, and I know watermelon bullshit when I see it.

Without heavy taxpayer subsidies, there is no way in hell that wind power could possibly compete with natural gas, oil, coal, or nuclear. Rate payers are concerned about rates -- not about meaningless feel-good platitudes. If you don't think so, let's have a vote on the question... if the watermelon contingent has the balls for it. Which most assuredly they do not.
8.16.2008 12:40am
Eric Barrett:
erics:
Even if you tripled that, which could potentially provide all electricity we currently use plus an additional load for a hypothetical fleet of electric cars, and you're at 63,000 square miles.

That's not a lot of land if you spread it out.

Um, that's equivalent to a square 251 miles on each side. It's also about as much land as the entire state of Oklahoma. Quite a bit of land, even if you spread it out.
8.16.2008 3:36am
Ben Franklin (mail):
You guys thought the Kelo ruling was bad, just wait until they start seizing land for solar power plants.

Also, it would be hard to argue that solar plants are better for the environment when they destroy so much habitat. We can't even put a single oil well about 35 feet wide on each side in the desolate tidal plain that is ANWR but we can sure put 35 square miles under a permanent black-out in the lower 48 because it is good for the environment. Yeah right. Go ahead and pull the other one while you are at it.

I will say it again. Greens are too hysterical and scientifically illiterate to be given a say about our energy policy. It would be like putting a Marxist in charge of the economy or having a numerologist calculate the trajectory of your moon rocket.
8.16.2008 10:16am
BillW:
Bernie: Someone check my math please.

The PG&E press release says 1,650 GW-hr/year, implying a capacity factor of 0.24.
Meanwhile, the AP1000 would produce 1,150 MW * 0.9 * 8766 hr/yr = 9,073 GW-hr/yr, or 5.5 times as much.

The AP1000 will produce heat at a rate of about 50 GW(thermal)-days per tonne of uranium fuel. Or
1 GW(thermal) : ~0.02 t/d;
1 GW(electrical) : ~0.06 t/d = 22 t/yr.
Over 30 years, that's 660 tonnes. Enriching the fuel produces on the order of ten times as much depleted uranium. And 30 years is about half the lifetime of the reactor, so add some prorated figure for the mass of the decommissioned plant.
8.16.2008 10:31am
Miked0268 (mail):
I used to argue with people about all this kind of stuff until one day I suddenly realized it was a waste of time.

A few very simple back-of-an envelope calculations reveal that, at 250 W/m2 insolation at the Earth's surface, solar power is never going to be a meaningful contribution to energy needs. There's no need to convince people of this because there's no danger that they'll change the laws of physics. In the future, we'll have a whole lot of nuclear plants, or we'll still be burning alot of fossil fuels, and there just isn't any third option no matter how much a bunch of technically ignorant people wish for it.

Build tens of thousands of square miles of solar panels? Heft thousands of tons of equipment into orbit and beam it back with giant microwaves? No need to argue with people about this stuff - none of that is ever going to come remotely close to happening. A bunch of non-engineers who believe in magic are going to have exactly zero impact on this reality. Why argue? Reality doesn't care what any of us think.

Oh by the way: Hydroelectric power is as close as you can get to something-for-nothing in the energy game, so if there are any sites left where a productive dam could be built I'm all in favor of it. Note, about 80 feet of elevation change is needed to get any kind of reasonable output, so forget about ocean tides, but there may still be a few sites left and I think they should be exploited as quickly as possible. The main barrier to this? Environmentalists.

To some extent I blame energy companies. Outfits like Exxon-Mobil and GE put some R&D funds into the solar and wind nonsense as PR window dressing, even though they are fully aware that they are dead ends. I think that is deceptive of them, but I can sort of understand it...if they try to explain reality to the public, they'll just be demonized for it. They figure it is a waste of time and they're probably right.

Please don't take my word for it folks. Please, just look up a few figures - current electricity usage, total energy usage, sunlight intensities, the amount of power available from windmills - you'll be able to verify it for yourself very quickly with simple arithmetic, and you won't have to waste any more brain cells thinking about solar energy or wind power.
8.16.2008 12:04pm
Oren:
Miked, Spain and Denmark make 10% and 20%, respectively, of their power from wind. Then again, I hear there are different laws of physics in the Old Continent but I don't know, I just got a degree in American Physics.
8.16.2008 12:36pm
Soronel Haetir (mail):
I'm not sure about tide power but I expect a serious try at ocean current power at some point. The engineering hurdels there are even higher than tidal power but if the durability issues can be resolved it seems like that would be even better than wind. Ocean currents are far more regular than any wind pattern and the sheer mass of water makes up for the speed difference.
8.16.2008 12:44pm
nedjinski (mail):
to most if not all of the posters on this thread -

the concept that seems to elude people's thinking and is mysteriously and constantly overlooked is centralized vs decentralized power generation.
look at this thread: the whole discussion revolves around centralized power.
think of it this way - if each residence in this country were to have a 4kw solar system in a grid tied arrangement where would this discussion about huge solar, wind, nuclear, coal, power plants be? I suspect it would become a non issue - so why isn't it happening? well duh! can you say big oil, big gas, big coal???
the localized solar concept in this country is virtually sabotaged and is swimming uphill against a huge current of corporate greed.
does this sound whacko? think about it . . .
8.16.2008 12:44pm
Curt Fischer:

I used to argue with people about all this kind of stuff until one day I suddenly realized it was a waste of time.

A few very simple back-of-an envelope calculations reveal that, at 250 W/m2 insolation at the Earth's surface, solar power is never going to be a meaningful contribution to energy needs.



Hey Sarcastro, you still reading? If so, do your thing...
8.16.2008 1:19pm
mockmook:
"if each residence in this country were to have a 4kw solar system in a grid tied arrangement where would this discussion about huge solar, wind, nuclear, coal, power plants be?"

Wow, can I get one of those magic wands to make this happen?

So, inefficient centralized solar plants will be replaced by even more inefficient decentralized solar sources, and that will make solar competitive?
8.16.2008 1:35pm
Miked0268 (mail):
Hi Oren,

Nice try at sarcasm, but I'm afraid you'll find those laws apply very rigidly in Europe as well.

Denmark consumes about 0.25%, and Spain about 1.7%, of world electricity usage; so two tiny markets (both still plugged in to controllable power sources to deal with the uncontrollable fluctuation in wind power output) have managed to make impressive-looking percentages.

If you artificially select some small energy consumer and look at their percentage of wind or solar use, it isn't hard to make it look reasonable. Installing enough wind or solar power to supply one house is certainly doable, but it doesn't prove anything. The point is that it doesn't scale up. It is not doable to cover a meaningful percentage of world supply that way.

To put a serious dent in fossil fuel use requires not only generating electricity some other way, but also reducing point of use direct consumption, such as transportation and heating. Those uses of energy are several times as large as current electricity use. In other words, current worldwide electricity use (and transmission infrastructure) would need to increase by a very large factor - making Spain and Denmark's wind power contributions even more miniscule.
8.16.2008 1:57pm
Elliot123 (mail):
"To some extent I blame energy companies. Outfits like Exxon-Mobil and GE put some R&D funds into the solar and wind nonsense as PR window dressing, even though they are fully aware that they are dead ends."

I think it's a mistake to think of the oil and gas companies as energy companies. What they do is find oil, get it out of the ground, refine it, distribute it, and sell it. They are oil and gas companies companies. Sure, they have some other irons in the fire, but it's mainly oil. That's what they are good at.

Notice nobody ever expects them to provide nuclear power? So, why look to them for solar, wind, or geothermal?

As an aside, does anybody think state utility commissions will allow utilities to hike rates to pay for these proposed massive solar arrays? And if the arrays are built, how many years of lawsuits will it take before the power lines can conect them? It's a safe bet we can find some group that is against anything, and all these groups have access to years of litigation.
8.16.2008 2:23pm
Fub:
Oren wrote at 8.16.2008 11:36am:
Then again, I hear there are different laws of physics in the Old Continent but I don't know, I just got a degree in American Physics.
That is correct.

In the Old World, the speed of light is 1.803 terafurlongs per fortnight, but in America it is 186,000 miles per second.
8.16.2008 3:09pm
Oren:
Mike, Denmark and Sweden have a similar per-capita electricity use as the US and much less open land. The fact that Denmark generates .25% of the world's power when they occupy .00025% of the world's land-area actually makes it quite a bit more impressive. What makes you think their results can't scale to less dense countries?

Also, I never questioned the need for conventional (preferably nuclear) power plants to take on the baseload and fossil fuel (preferably gas) plants to meet fast-changing needs. In between those two, however, there is ample room for solar, wind and hydro power to proive 30-50% of our bulk power needs.
8.16.2008 3:13pm
Gregory Conen (mail):
@Miked0268:
In 2005, the entire US used about 10^17 btu, or an average rate of about 3.3 TW. At 250 W/m2, that would be 13 billion square meters, or 3.2 million acres.

That sounds like a lot (and it is), but there's more than 500 million acres of land in use for agriculture in the US (including both cropland and pasture).

This is not to say there are not serious challenges to getting a significant portion of energy from solar (efficiency of energy use, costs and difficulties of manufacture and installation, and timing of energy delivery, to pick out major ones). But to dismiss it as prima facie impossible is ignorant or dishonest.
8.16.2008 3:20pm
nedjinski (mail):
mockmook -

like I sed - nobody wants to think in these directions - it's the big energy corporate brainwashing and it's worked on you - of course nobody wants to spend any money on anything - duh - but do you really want to be always and increasingly under the thumb of corporate america? or are you willing to take your own steps towards individual energy independence? it starts with you - if you think the government and / or big corporate energy is going to save your ass someday think again - they will keep you on a string forever because it's in their best interests, not yours. and that's why they don't really want it to work. if they can't own it and control it they don't want it to happen - is that a difficult concept to grasp?
talk all you want about centralized power systems and what will work and what won't work - it's the great distraction from where you should be thinking.
8.16.2008 3:39pm
Miked0268 (mail):
Well, Denmark *consumes* 0.25% of the world's electricity, and manages to produce 20% of that with wind turbines - but at the same time they probably consume around 5 times as much energy by direct fossil fuel use as they do by electricity. And, their electricity consumption per capita is indeed pretty typical for industrialized nations with high living standards - but a huge percentage of the world's population currently uses much less. I would hope everyone here shares my hope that the populations of China, India, and Africa will attain similarly high standards of living in the future. However, that means the world's energy requirements will be many times higher than they are now.

Now, about that 3.2 million acres of solar panels - well, OK, factor in the losses of solar panel efficiency (currently the best available are only 12%) and transmission losses - now you're looking at many times more. Do you understand how large 3.2 million acres is? Do you have any concept of the cost of building and maintaining something like that? It utterly dwarfs anything that has been done before. You wouldn't be able to cover an area like that with plywood at a reasonable cost, let alone solar panels with a power transmission infrastructure.

I have no reason to be dishonest and I've had more professional involvement with power generation and transmission than most. I may be ignorant, but you can be pretty ignorant and still be smart enough to see that solar power is a non-starter.

Yes, prima-facie impossible. Again, no amount of argument is going to change that. I'm not sure why I waste any time on it - it's not clear what the value of trying to gather converts is.
8.16.2008 3:58pm
Oren:
Mike, nobody is trying to convert any country to 100% solar. Everyone agrees with you that that's an unreasonable goal.

Getting 15% of our power from solar, 25% from wind, 10% from hydro, 40% from nuclear and the remaining 10% from fossil fuels in the next 2-3 decades, OTOH, is fairly reasonable. That amounts to roughly 4,000,000 acres of solar plants, easy to fit in otherwise useless deserts, which total about a hundred of million acres (roughly).

Combined with increased efficiency on both the production and consumption end, energy independence seems eminently doable.
8.16.2008 5:13pm
Smokey:
FWB:
Why do so many people get up in arms about a tiny speck of land needed for solar power oil drilling?


Billions of barrels of oil just sitting there for the taking, and under only 3.13 square miles of complete waste land. And that oil will produce a lot more energy than this hair-brained scheme ever will.

Only the envoroweenies and their string puppets in Congress stand in the way.
8.16.2008 8:24pm
Oren:
Smokey, if the recent negotiations in the House are any indication, we'll likely get both.
8.16.2008 8:29pm
Smokey:
About subsidies: the government could pay me $10,000 a week to peddle my bicycle hooked up to a generator. The power could go into the national grid. That would be a subsidy.

Same thing with wind/solar. It's a complete waste of taxpayers' money. When the market develops solar panels that produce a watt for $5, every home will have panels, batteries and an inverter. 2 kilowatts, $10,000. Payback in a few years.

Moore's Law applies to lots of different technologies. Why should solar panel technology be much different? The only thing I see going on here is special interests money-grubbing for more tax dollars and subsidies. Let the market decide. Because the gov't will screw it up big time - guaranteed.

And for those poor souls so frightened of carbon dioxide, check out what Prof. Freeman Dyson and tens of thousands of other scientists have co-signed. Read the second paragraph real close. The truth will do you good.
8.16.2008 10:14pm
Oren:
Subsidizing development will make the technology improve faster still. Most Americans have a strong preference for clean energy subsidies.

Also, Moore's law emphatically doesn't apply to a lot of other technologies. Storage media (both persistent and not) for instance, stubbornly insist on growing linearly. Whether solar panels are 'Moorish' or not is yet to be seen.
8.16.2008 10:47pm
Miked0268 (mail):
What I'm saying is, I don't think even 5% of world energy consumption from wind and solar *combined* is reasonable - not even close.

Four million acres of solar panels isn't remotely doable. Put it this way, it is estimated that there is about 12 million acres of paved road surface in the United States - accumulated over the course of about 100 years. Paving a given area is orders of magnitude cheaper than covering it with a solar panel. And yet, that four million acres of solar panels only provides around 3MWh/year of power at current efficiencies, without counting (significant) transmission losses. That compares to world electricity consumption of around 16MWh/year, before switching fossil fuel uses over to electric and before accounting for rising living standards in the rest of the world.

I don't think it is worth wasting time on solutions that have no potential to have a meaningful impact.
8.16.2008 10:51pm
Elliot123 (mail):
"Getting 15% of our power from solar, 25% from wind, 10% from hydro, 40% from nuclear and the remaining 10% from fossil fuels in the next 2-3 decades, OTOH, is fairly reasonable."

Why bother with solar or wind? Why not just use nukes for 80%, hydro for 10%, and fossil for 10%?
8.17.2008 1:08am
Oren:
I don't think we can build nuke plants fast enough.
8.17.2008 10:50am
Miked0268 (mail):
Pardon my typos in that last post, I meant 3 x 10^9 MWh/year and 16 x 10^9 MWh/yr.

And also please forgive me if I've been a little rude or dismissive in some of these posts, but the whole thing is very frustrating. People are yapping on about solar power in every direction while it is obvious and easily verifiable that it cannot possibly make a meaningful contribution. The situation with wind power is a little more complicated to explain, but it is even more of a ridiculous fantasy than solar. (I've somewhat avoided it because I feel my posts are already kind of obnoxiously long). In both cases we are dealing with an energy-density problem that is handed down to us from Nature and that we can't do anything about.

If we wish to operate under the hypothesis that fossil fuel use is going to destroy the environment unless usage is sharply curtailed in the near future, then it is pretty urgent that we go about dramatically upgrading the power transmission infrastructure and building nuclear plants as quickly as possible. Current technology would allow us to eliminate almost all fossil fuel use with no need to invent anything miraculous - everything but portable generators and aircraft engines, as far as I can determine. (Maybe everyone could keep their natural-gas cooking stoves installed, since the electric ones suck).

And, for those who doubt global warming - I submit that it doesn't matter very much. At some point in the future, fossil fuels are going to get too difficult and expensive to obtain. They won't be worth extracting for anything other than chemical manufacturing feedstocks. That is just a matter of time and there's no getting around it. I have some doubts about global warming myself but I don't see where it makes any difference to this issue.

And one final note, I think we need to re-evaluate how concerned we are about the environmental impacts of hydroelectric projects. I think that route should be exploited almost anywhere the geography allows it. Yes, nuclear reactors can be built with extremely safe designs, there are known solutions to the problem of disposing of the waste, and the supply of uranium is for practical purposes limitless - but still, nothing is cleaner or cheaper than hydro.

If environmentalists had any brains they'd recognize the superiority of both options to strip-mining coal, and stop waiting for the solar-and-wind-power fairy who is never going to come.
8.17.2008 12:39pm
jukeboxgrad (mail):
mike:

Paving a given area is orders of magnitude cheaper than covering it with a solar panel.


Are you sure? According to figures here, the interstate highway system is 46,837 miles long, and cost $425 billion. That's $9.1 million per mile. That checks out nicely compared with this:

a mile of freeway through a rural area costs approximately $8 million


Let's assume that the paved area of a highway is 100 feet wide (8 total lanes, including shoulders, at 12' per lane). So a mile of highway is 528,000 square feet of pavement. That's 49,053 square meters. Figure a cost of $8 million per linear mile, and that works out to a cost of $163 per square meter.

I can buy a solar panel, here. The cost works out to $675 per square meter. $163 per square meter is not "orders of magnitude cheaper" than $675 per square meter. It's not even one order of magnitude cheaper.

I realize there are all sorts of problems with this analysis. For example, the highway cost probably includes the cost of buying land. Then again, the solar cost is unfairly inflated because the panels undoubtedly cost a lot less when you're not buying them one at a time. Anyway, it's hard to figure where you got "orders of magnitude cheaper."

that four million acres of solar panels only provides around 3MWh/year of power at current efficiencies, without counting (significant) transmission losses. That compares to world electricity consumption of around 16MWh/year


I think you're using the wrong units. World electricity consumption is around 17 trillion kWh/year (I just noticed you acknowledged the error). Also, I don't know why you're bringing in world electricity consumption. The statement that was made was about US energy consumption. Let's take a look at that. The US uses this much energy: 29 trillion kWh/year. That's energy in all forms (including oil), not just electricity. That works out to an hourly rate of 3.3 trillion watts.

Just for fun, let's supply all the US energy needs (including what we currently get from oil, coal and nuclear) with solar panels that we buy on the internet. The panel I cited generates 130 watts per square meter. To get 3.3 trillion watts, we need 25 billion square meters of panels. If I buy these one at a time over the internet, the amount I'll pay (probably via PayPal) is $4 trillion. Now I need to put them somewhere. 25 billion square meters is 6 million acres. Total US farmland is 900 million acres. So I need to get my hands on 0.7% of that.

$4 trillion is a lot, but let's put that in perspective. It's not much more than the total long-term cost of the Iraq war, according to some estimates. It's also about 10 years of oil imports (assuming the current price of $115/barrel). It's also roughly ten years of our military budget.

I made one simplifying assumption that's very unfair: I pretended that solar panels generate power 24 hours/day. Of course they don't. Not even close. I also realize I'm setting aside the very large problem of energy density, and how to use electricity for transportation. On the other hand, I'm sure we can do a lot better than a panel I randomly selected on the internet, paid for at unit-one prices.

And keep in mind this analysis is not about using solar just to replace all our current sources of electricity. It's about using solar to replace all forms of energy, in the US. I'm not suggesting we do that, but I think the analysis is a useful exercise.
8.17.2008 12:53pm
jukeboxgrad (mail):
I said this:

That works out to an hourly rate of 3.3 trillion watts.


I meant to say this:

That works out to an average rate of 3.3 trillion watts.
8.17.2008 12:57pm
Oren:

If we wish to operate under the hypothesis that fossil fuel use is going to destroy the environment unless usage is sharply curtailed in the near future, then it is pretty urgent that we go about dramatically upgrading the power transmission infrastructure and building nuclear plants as quickly as possible.

Agreed 100%.

Now, suppose arguendo (and contrary to the facts) that the nuclear industry is currently building plants as fast as technically possible. Perhaps there is some room for solar/wind to grow in the meantime in the most favorable places for them (e.g. Cape Wind, Texas win farms)? In those places, the cost of solar/wind are comparable to nuclear in the short term (longer term, nuclear will win but the up-front capital costs are a real problem).
8.17.2008 1:03pm
Parenthetical:
@Smokey:
When the market develops solar panels that produce a watt for $5, every home will have panels, batteries and an inverter. 2 kilowatts, $10,000. Payback in a few years.

Actually, the full retail cost for core hardware (PV panels + inverter) has been at $5/watt for a few years now. I wouldn't recommend batteries for most grid-tie systems (few people will take proper care of them) and the rest of the system is only loosely a function of watts.

That said, PV doesn't seem like a sensible choice for utility-scale production right now. And, the last time I checked, few homes have these panels.
8.17.2008 1:22pm
Fub:
Oren wrote at 8.16.2008 9:47pm:
Also, Moore's law emphatically doesn't apply to a lot of other technologies. Storage media (both persistent and not) for instance, stubbornly insist on growing linearly. Whether solar panels are 'Moorish' or not is yet to be seen.
Agreed on that point. Moore's "law" was an empirical observation describing the increase rate over time of discrete device count per unit area of silicon, for a limited manufacturing cost. Moore's observations arguably fell on the approximately linear portion of an ojive or ogive form curve of device density vs. time. Current IC manufacturing technology is arguably on the knee of that curve, limited as much by the underlying physics as by manufacturing process development.

With PV, discrete device density is not the most significant measure of the PV device's performance, although IC manufacturing process advances do impact cost of PV manufacture. But the PV goal is to manufacture devices at lower cost per unit area (or greater PV efficiency for the same cost), independent of device density. This approximates the cost per watt output, and the goal is to decrease it. Cheaper manufacture processes are much more important than increasing discrete device density for a constant cost.

In that sense, Moore's law is IC apples to PV oranges. Whether some new manufacturing process or even solid state physics advancement will cause some "Moorish" manufacturing economics to develop remains to be seen. Whether subsidies make those advancements more likely, or faster, is another question altogether.
8.17.2008 2:02pm
Mike G in Corvallis (mail):
Miked0268 wrote:
And one final note, I think we need to re-evaluate how concerned we are about the environmental impacts of hydroelectric projects. I think that route should be exploited almost anywhere the geography allows it. Yes, nuclear reactors can be built with extremely safe designs, there are known solutions to the problem of disposing of the waste, and the supply of uranium is for practical purposes limitless - but still, nothing is cleaner or cheaper than hydro.

More than a few people would disagree with you. What was done to Hetch Hetchy Valley borders on the obscene.

And we're pretty much running out of places to put new hydroelectric plants and reservoirs. Got any candidate locations for us?
8.17.2008 3:28pm
Brian Macker (mail) (www):
"I'm not a big environmentalist, but I'm pretty sure we liberals are no longer interested in ethanol. Support of that one comes from Big Corn. "

Typical liberal. Initiate some legislative monster then walk away or deny the resulting problem. One thing liberals don't understand is that these things have a life of their own. That's why we don't need any more 'programs'.
8.17.2008 3:38pm
Elliot123 (mail):
"I don't think we can build nuke plants fast enough."

We can build them just as fast as comparable scale solar or wind. However, the tangle of regulations and lawsuits takes longer to navigate than design and construction. The same is true of ANWR and offshore production.
8.17.2008 9:59pm
Smokey:
Oren:
Moore's law emphatically doesn't apply to a lot of other technologies. Storage media (both persistent and not) for instance, stubbornly insist on growing linearly.
Really?

Eight years ago I could buy a one gig flash drive for around $500. Now, the same drive costs way less than one-tenth as much.

Six years ago I bought a computer with a 30-gig hard drive. Now I can buy a computer with a 300-gig+ hard drive. For less money.

Better go pick another example of "linear."

A recent article in Forbes shows the economics. And this article mentions the cost/watt [about $7.10/watt].

There is absolutely no reason to create an indestructible new layer of government bureaucracy for solar power, when the market is doing a much better job. As always. But try and convince the nanny-staters that taxpayers are better off without government meddling.
8.18.2008 12:24am
Miked0268 (mail):
Hi all,

Well, first of all, I suppose it was sloppy for me to say the paving was "orders of magnitude" cheaper without some explanation. I'll clarify: Paving a road surface is a fairly simple operation and nearly a one time cost. Maintenance of roadways is not terribly costly compared to the initial construction and full replacements are not needed very often. Solar panels, on the other hand, are likely to be pretty high maintenance items and require all sorts of additional infrastructure to become functional. Most panels will have a pretty long transmission path involving alot of wire and the voltages they produce are way too low for long distance transmission - so there will have to be alot of extra equipment (with the attendant additional efficiency losses) to step the voltage up to something useable. On top of this, the panels will either need some kind of mechanism to adjust incident angle or we'll have to accept even more reduced efficiency for most of the day and certain times of year. Multiply this by the literally billions of individual units and the maintenance requirements are a whole lot more than road surfaces. You could keep an army employed year round just to clean off the bird crap.

And then - we are calculating areas already in the millions of acres without even considering the fact that all of these units will need to be accessible for maintenance and replacement. And then, we are also talking about numbers that are absolutely astronomical compared to the current production capacity for these things. The list of problems go on and on.

There are difficulties with ramping up construction of nuclear plants too but they are minor compared to these. And we are talking about 4 trillion in costs (10 years of pentagon budget!) as compared to a far smaller cost to get a similar capacity with nuclear plants.

I think it makes sense to consider total worldwide energy use because that is the number we have to put an appreciable dent in to address global warming and fossil fuel depletion concerns. The responsibility to develop replacement energy schemes is pretty likely going to fall on the fully developed economies like ours.

All the talk about solar and wind power lulls people into a state of not recognizing the urgency of building the nuke plants, and allows environmental groups to continue their opposition to nuke development because they are not forced to confront its inevitability. Oren quite correctly points out that nuclear plants are not being built as quickly as possible but I think false hopes about other sources are contributing to this alot.

As far as the administrative hurdles in the way of nuke development: Well, at least these are administrative/legal issues that are more or less arbitrary rather than hard physical limitations.
8.18.2008 7:12am
Elliot123 (mail):
"As far as the administrative hurdles in the way of nuke development: Well, at least these are administrative/legal issues that are more or less arbitrary rather than hard physical limitations."

They certainly are arbitrary, but they have grown as the design and construction costs and schedules have decreased. The physical limits have been pushed back as the arbitrary isues have grown.

For example, directional drilling has made huge advances in the past twenty years, and ANWR will take far fewer drill pads than Prudhoe Bay or Kuparuk. However, those arbitrary issues have already delayed ANWR for 28 years. We face a similar situation with offshore technology vs. regulations. I'd suggest it is the arbitrary issues, rather then the physical limitations, that are the problem.

And does anybody want to talk about the Democrats fierce opposition to offshore wind in Massachusetts? Technology is ready, financing is in place, and so are the Democrats.
8.18.2008 11:52am
Oren:

And does anybody want to talk about the [one] Democrat's fierce opposition to offshore wind in Massachusetts? Technology is ready, financing is in place, and so are the Democrats.
FIFY
8.18.2008 12:24pm
wfjag:

Multiply this by the literally billions of individual units and the maintenance requirements are a whole lot more than road surfaces. You could keep an army employed year round just to clean off the bird crap.


Dear Miked:

Your long and factual comments almost had me convinced that solar panels were a complete waste of time, money and effort -- till I read the above. With a 19% drop-out rate before High School graduation in the U.S., however, there appears to be a need to create a need for an army of bird-crap wipers.
8.18.2008 12:39pm
ralph:
There are currently three constraints on building more nuclear plants, not counting the NIMBY effect: (1) there is only one foundry(in Japan) that can create the large steel forgings needed - this could be fixed in a few years by opening facilities in the US and Europe; (2) there are only three nuclear fuel manufacturing plants in the US (in SC, NC, and Washington State), and they cannot be ramped up quickly - this would take about 5 years to fix; and (3) there are not enough experienced engineers to build and operate many new plants, because many schools stopped giving NE degrees, and no one wanted to go into a dead industry - this could take at least 5-10 years to fix.

The environmentalists are well on their way to shut down western industrialized society. They stopped the expansion of the nuclear industry. They have strangled the oil/gas/chemical industry in the US, so that no one has built any new refineries in decades, and they have demonized it with chemophobia so that everyone is afraid of any "chemical". They are doing well to shut down modern agriculture, with tales of terror about GMOs. They are now trying to demonize the fundamental element(carbon) of life on the planet, to shut down fossil-fuel use and force a contraction of society back to a subsidence-level existence.

The biggest problem for them is that the Chinese and the Indians have not quite bought into this. The Europeans have swallowed it hook, line, and sinker, but not the Asians.

Maybe the sun will continue to stay quiet and it will start to get real cold, and the people will finally realize what a con they have been getting from the Greens. Hopefully, this will prompt a review of everything they have said(lied about) to support their program for a return to the simple life...
8.18.2008 12:41pm
jukeboxgrad (mail):
mike:

as compared to a far smaller cost to get a similar capacity with nuclear plants


I think "far smaller" should be defined. According to the DOE, the cost of building a nuclear plant is about $1.74 per watt (pdf, see table 38 on p. 73, the relevant column is "Base Overnight Costs;" that term is defined here).

If I buy this solar panel (PV), one at a time, the cost is $5.18 per watt. That same DOE table says PV costs $3.98 per watt. And solar thermal (which I think has not been mentioned in this thread) costs $2.59 per watt. The nuclear cost ($1.74) is indeed smaller, but I'm not sure it's fair to call it "far smaller."

I realize I've oversimplified the analysis by leaving out the capacity factor (the fact that the sun doesn't always shine). But I'm also leaving out operating costs, and costs of disposing waste, which greatly favor solar.

The list of problems [with solar] go on and on.


That's what the telegraph people said about the telephone. And it's what the railroad people said about the airplane. It's what the buggy people said about the automobile. It's what the radio people said about TV. Etc.
8.18.2008 12:51pm
Elliot123 (mail):
"That's what the telegraph people said about the telephone. And it's what the railroad people said about the airplane. It's what the buggy people said about the automobile. It's what the radio people said about TV. Etc."

The telephone, airplane, automobile, and TV all work at night.
8.18.2008 9:25pm
jukeboxgrad (mail):
When they were new, they barely worked at all, day or night. Getting them to work the way they do now required solving lots of problems that seemed insurmountable, at the time.

Using solar energy at night is a storage problem, and the solutions to that problem are going to keep getting better.
8.18.2008 10:10pm
TokyoTom (mail):
I have no objection to solar; it's the mandates that I hate. Far better to have a carbon tax, rebated to consumers, and let investors determine what to build and where.

My only caveat is if they're going to put solar plants on public land, a big chunk of the proceeds should be passed through to citizens (same with ANWR, by the way).
8.19.2008 4:25am
jukeboxgrad (mail):
"it's the mandates that I hate"

In Colorado, renewable-energy mandates seem to be working well. A utility executive said this:

We ended up opposing that amendment. In retrospect, I wish we hadn't


Meanwhile, the GOP has been blocking the extension of tax credits for wind and solar. And "McCain has a perfect record on this renewable energy legislation. He has missed all eight votes over the last year."

But that didn't stop McCain from saying this: "I have a long record of that support of alternate energy … I've always been for all of those and I have not missed any crucial vote." Other votes he missed are documented here: "McCain hasn't missed 'any crucial votes,' except all the crucial votes."
8.19.2008 7:56am
TJIT (mail):
jukeboxgrad,

Something else from the article you linked

Once Xcel executives began to come to terms with the new rules, they discovered that federal tax credits made wind power affordable, especially in relation to rising natural gas prices. The cost of wind power is relatively constant and provides a hedge against future emissions regulation, such as the cap-and-trade approach favored by presidential candidates Barack Obama (D) and John McCain (R).
Let me translate that for you.

If the government gets in the market and:

1. Throws lots of tax money at rent seeking corporations,
2. Makes energy expensive for consumers
3. Mandates alternative energy sources

Then alternative energy sources are cost effective, otherwise not so much.
8.19.2008 10:39pm
TJIT (mail):
jukeboxgrad,

Alt energy enthusiasts like yourself should remember how much environmental damage the biofuels mandates caused. These mandates (endorsed and pushed for by the environmental community) increased carbon emissions and caused massive habitat destruction in the process.

Complex engineering issues are at the base of energy delivery. It takes a disgusting amount of hubris for lawmakers and activists (most of whom have zero engineering or technical knowledge) to conclude that their mandates can trump the laws of thermodynamics.

Engineers tried to tell people the biofuel mandates were going to be a disaster but they were ignored.

We should avoid making the same mistake with windpower.

Research: Wind power pricier, emits more CO2 than thought
'Windfarm output is never zero. Sometimes it's less'


He says that most people, in allowing for gas backup to wind farms, assume that the current situation of gas-turbine usage applies.

Not so, he says. Gas turbines used to compensate for wind will need to be cheap (as they won't be on and earning money as often as today's) and resilient (to cope with being throttled up and down so much).

Even though the hardware will be cheap and tough, it will break often under such treatment; meaning increased maintenance costs and a need for even more backup plants to cover busted backup plants. Thus, the scheme overall will be more expensive than the current gas sector.

And since people won't want to thrash expensive, efficient combined-cycle kit like this, less fuel-efficient gear will be used - emitting more carbon than people now assume.
8.19.2008 11:08pm
jukeboxgrad (mail):
tj:

If the government gets in the market


According to the Heritage Foundation, the GOP energy bills (2003 and 2005) were packed with "pork" and "giveaways" for the oil companies (link, link).

Aside from a few lonely voices (like them), I don't remember hearing a lot of concerns about the bad things that happen "if the government gets in the market." Then again, maybe you were complaining when they were. Just curious.
8.19.2008 11:24pm
miked0268 (mail):
Your friendly internet crank here...

A note about the capacity-total energy-storage problems mentioned above: That's another giant problem that we haven't discussed much. You could improve batteries 10-fold or more beyond what they are now and still have a big problem with the fact that your power supply shuts off at night. Another bout with the laws of thermodynamics: all conceivable storage technologies involve dramatic efficiency losses. You pretty much need an installed backup system of controllable power (coal, nuke) that has equal capacity to the solar power system. In other words, even if the solar power fairy came and gave us those thousands of square miles of solar panels, we have to go build all those nuke plants anyway.

Another thing: it is certainly true that the nuke power industry has been gutted, and no one goes to school for nuke engineering anymore. I suppose the closest fit in professional expertise might be we Comical Engineers (oh, I mean "Chemical...") but we would really need alot of training to be redeployed.

Well, at least the situation isn't as bad as with solar panels! Check the current production capacity and figure out how long it would take to cover half of Utah with sun farms.

Anyway, one consolation, recently I've become involved in petroleum refining alot and they are really heating up in terms of capital plant investment these days. Finally there is money pouring into refinery upgrades. The industry is doing a fine job of upgrading efficiency and capacity, and there might not be much need for whole new refineries for a while. And they're learning how to crank out ultra low sulfur diesel really well (it recently became super profitable). Oh well, at least someone is on the case.
8.20.2008 8:20am