Solar power: the teddy bear of energy sources

teddy bear

Solar is so cute and cuddly we can bear-ly stand it. But does this teddy have any teeth?

Is there a more lovable energy source than solar power?

Its fuel is light from the sun, which is free and available almost anywhere. It’s entirely clean to run. It’s easy to install and maintain. The big utilities can use it to generate green grid power, but you can also put it on your own roof to become your own utility or to go off-grid.

And did I mention that it’s powered by THE SUN?

(Full disclosure: I do some work for a solar power developer).

It’s no wonder that public support for solar power is high, with 92% of Americans in a 2009 poll saying that it’s important to develop solar energy resources. In particular, environmentalists love solar power best of all energy sources. It’s as clean as wind power, but solar is much less controversial.

Wind turbines make noise and spoil hillside “viewsheds” that bother the neighbors and the turbines’ huge spinning blades can kill birds and bats. But aside from a need for land and some use of toxics in manufacturing, solar has few environmental impacts. And so far, there has been very little NIMBY opposition to solar installations.

Itsy bitsy teeny weeny

But many experts in energy beg to demur. They admit that yes, solar power sure is cool. But they say that solar is not a practical source of electricity today. And they predict that it will probably never become practical in the future.

Skeptics have three main problems with solar. First, because it’s intermittent (the sun doesn’t always shine), solar power can’t provide the always-on power that we’re used to. So, every time you put up a solar power installation you also need to build or pull in a dirty fossil fuel or nuclear plant to back it up. That’s not so clean, is it? And it’s wasteful too, since you basically have to keep those backup plants running on standby 24/7.

Second, solar power is also expensive, not only because you need all those other plants just sitting around as back up, but also because making solar panels requires fancy-dancy materials like rare-earth minerals and costs money for many other reasons. Even with government subsidies, solar power still can’t compete today with coal or nuclear power rates.

Finally, even if you could store solar power at night or ship it over from sunny areas like Arizona to places that need the juice like New York City, the battery and grid technology is so far in the future that solar power won’t be able to scale up in any meaningful time frame to replace coal or nukes.

solar panel

Solar panels look cool. But are they practical?

So, critics say, no matter how neat solar panels and reflector mirrors look gleaming in the noonday sun, solar power always seems to be the energy source of tomorrow. Put together, after decades of development photovoltaics and solar thermal power still can’t produce even one percent of America’s juice. Doesn’t that prove that solar will always be rinky-dink?

In support of this view, Tad Padzek of the University of Texas at Austin told the ASPO-USA conference in October that if you measure all electricity sources by the number of days worth of usage per year that each provides, solar is microscopic. If coal covers 176 days, nuclear power covers 72 days and wind power covers 5 days, solar power would account for only one puny hour of America’s electricity usage.

Another skeptic, Robert Hirsch, who also spoke at the ASPO event, referred to solar power in his book The Impending World Energy Mess as the “emperor’s underwear,” an energy source that is not a total fraud and does have some value, but whose power comes only at a very high price.

Growing, but without much love

“You have to start somewhere,” says Ken Zweibel, director of the GW Solar Institute at George Washington University.

Zweibel told the ASPO-USA conference that, although the US doesn’t have much more solar power today than we did ten years ago, we have yet to see a nationwide emergency program to ramp it up. Quite the opposite, in fact. Most of solar’s growth has taken place in a start-again-stop-again policy atmosphere where incentives were intermittent and investors had difficulty planning the true costs of a project. “We’ve seen a 3000-fold increase in solar capacity without really trying.”

“Recently, the numbers have started to grow, doubling over the year before,” Zweibel told me. “It doesn’t take many doublings for things to get pretty astounding.”

Adoption curves for various energy sources

(Click image to enlarge.) Chart showing similar adoption curves for solar power and other sources of electricity. Image: Terry Peterson.

In support, Zweibel cites the work of researcher Terry Peterson, who did a study of the rate at which wind power ramped up to its current nameplate capacity of about 100 gigawatts worldwide. “Solar is now on the same increase curve as wind and also as both natural gas and nuclear power were in their big periods of growth.”

Zweibel cites another report, this time a forthcoming study by Robert Margolis for the Department of Energy, that in twenty years solar power could supply 20% of US electricity demand, an amount equivalent to the energy now used by America’s entire fleet of cars and light trucks.

And if wind power can ramp up to provide yet another 20% of US electricity in the same period, as many experts have also projected, then in 2030 nearly half of America’s power will come from these two clean, renewable sources, the sun and the wind. That’s definitely not chickenfeed.

Ken Zweibel

GW Solar Institute’s Ken Zweibel.

Today, bigger and bigger solar projects are in the works. For example, in October California approved the world’s largest solar installation, a thermal plant capable of generating 1,000 megawatts of power using mirrors to heat water that would turn turbines to generate electricity.

Zweibel says that such projects could overcome the challenge of providing always-on power by pairing solar installations not with fossil fuel or nuclear plants, but instead with wind farms of appropriate capacity. Working together, solar and wind often balance out each others’ intermittency, since the wind often blows harder at night while the sun isn’t shining.

But to supply power from the sun that’s more consistently available, storage will have to greatly improve. Along with better batteries and other ways to store electricity such as compressed air and pumped water, Zweibel says that we can use the growing fleet of hybrid electric and all-electric vehicles as batteries-on-wheels, one of those neato ideas that seems to solve two problems at the same time.

“Electric vehicles can be brought online without adding much capacity,” Zweibel says. “EVs are storage which allow you to add more solar power without adding more cost.”

Your roof in Cleveland vs. that blinding Arizona sun

Zweibel sees a place for millions of panels on rooftops across the country. Those panels won’t be as affordable as doing solar at utility scale. But distributed solar will have the advantage of adding needed competition so far missing from most regions’ electricity markets. By requiring utilities to become more efficient, competition from home PV systems will drive down costs for retail electricity.

But Zweibel thinks that big solar will be more cost-effective in the long run. Large installations can turn the burning sun of the southwestern US into affordable juice for the rest of the country at competitive rates — 14 to 17 cents per kilowatt hour without any subsidies.

grizzly bear

Can solar power become the grizzly bear of energy sources, ready to rip carbon emissions to shreds?

And in the future, Zweibel sees solar only getting cheaper because, viewed from every aspect of the energy business, solar enjoys the lowest risk. While coal, natural gas and uranium are sure to rise in cost as supplies deplete, solar has no fuel cost to pay. Instead, its main cost comes from manufacturing equipment, and that is likely to continue falling in the future. “Total prices today are 40% to 60% less than three years ago,” he says.

Operational and regulatory risks are both also low relative to other power sources, particularly those environmental bad-boys, coal and nuclear. Coal is sure to feel the wrath of carbon taxes along with additional costs from carbon sequestration, if the industry ever delivers on the so-far elusive promise of “clean” coal. And if nuclear begins to ramp up again as President Obama has promised, the public is likely to demand expensive measures to increase the safety of new plants and to store growing piles of radioactive waste.

Meantime, the break-even point on investment for solar PV has come down to ten years in the US southwest and 14 years in a moderately sunny East Coast state like Virginia, for example. Today’s solar panels are rated to last 30 or 40 years, and in the near future, panels could be built to last a full century, Zweibel says.  As simple to maintain as they are to assemble, the only major component of a solar system that needs to be changed out regularly is the inverter, a relatively inexpensive part of the whole setup.

So, what will it take to help the solar teddy bear grow into a thousand-pound grizzly, ready to rip to shreds high energy costs, polluting fuels and dangerous nukes?

Aside from new technology, Zweibel calls for certainty in deployment. Because they’re not predictable — one year they’re here and they next year they could be gone — tax credits have not been the most helpful form of incentive to invest in solar power. Also, tax credits favor Wall Street speculators over entrepreneurs and homeowners. “I hate these tax credit things. They bring in Goldman Sachs and firms like that while pushing out the rest of us,” says Zweibel.

He calls for outright grants over tax credits, and for public incentives that are locked in for a period of years to avoid the on-again-off-again syndrome and provide some predictability for investors to put their money into building solar installations.

Roman aqueduct

Large installations of 100-year solar panels could be the Roman aqueducts of our generation. Photo: Wolfgang Staudt via Flickr.

“Simple, rugged, long-lived infrastructure like dams, harbors, aqueducts, schools and libraries differentiates great civilizations from failures,” says Zweibel.

And with peak oil coming on, if we can convert many of our cars, trains, and buses over from liquid fuels to electricity, then solar power could just help America find a cost-effective substitute for some of the oil that we’ll lose. This could help provide a much softer landing to our oil-soaked economy.

Because transportation is so key to our economy and our culture, powering transportation with solar could, by itself, make the America of the future a great civilization rather than a failure.

–Erik Curren, Transition Voice

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  1. says

    And it’s wasteful too, since you basically have to keep those backup plants running on standby 24/7.

    It’s *incredibly* wasteful. Solar power, especially solar PV, is one of the most expensive forms of energy we’ve ever invented, and it only works a quarter or third of a day!

    And let’s not forget that many renewables advocates just assume a MASSIVE capital overbuild to back up solar for that inevitable, inconvenient fortnight of freak of rain. So the wind will blow instead. Really? We’ve just going to assume a double capital overbuild are we? And if it is both rainy but not really windy? Oh, another state will back us up. Really? They don’t have their own energy customers already using their own wind and solar? We’re just going to assume they’ve got enough spare capacity in wind AND solar (because it could be rainy there too!) and basically *quadruple* the capital overbuild are we?

    As Harry Potter would say to a Dementor, “Ridikulus!”

    Gen3 nukes are safe and clean.
    And Gen4 nukes eat waste! Waste = fuel!

    The problem with nuclear waste is not too much but too little!

    Today’s waste is *only* worth $30 trillion dollars!

    With Gen4 reactors, we can *only* run the world for 500 years on the waste and warheads we’ve already got sitting around in stockpiles.

    Storing waste in Yukka mountain would be like digging up cheap oil somewhere and burrying it as deep as we could.

    But the problem is that it takes a few generations of reactor burn to breed up the depleted uranium fuel to the point where it could run the world for 5 centuries. So if we finally bit the bullet and constructed a massive fleet of Gen4 reactors, we’d run short of fuel at the start.

    Fortunately, cheap Gen3 reactors are coming out of China soon.

    These will create enough waste to feed Gen4 reactors. Scientists have over 300 years of reactor experience with Gen4 reactors. They are coming. Fast.

    This is all written by someone who has been a fan of renewables for 6 years, but recently ‘converted’ to the nuclear cause when I realised peak uranium was a myth. Nuclear fuels have energy a million times more concentrated than fossil fuels. We can do this. WE HAVE THE TECHNOLOGY! It’s a myth that we don’t. But do we have the time?

    PS: I’m still into energy efficiency, New Urbanism, biochar for our soils, Electric Vehicles (for those who INSIST on driving in a New Urban world), Fast Rail, and all that good stuff.

    I would LOVE a RENEWABLE world, but don’t think we have the technology yet. We simply don’t have the energy storage techniques for reliable baseload power all year. It’s a myth.

    So back to nukes. Gotta love em.

    • says

      PS: When I said ‘peak uranium was a myth’ I wasn’t denying geology, but just showing that because uranium is a million times more concentrated than fossil fuels, you can mine ANYWHERE, even under the dirt in your backyard, and the ERoEI of picking at tiny parts per million uranium out of the ground is still very, very positive.

      Gen4 reactors totally change the picture.
      The world has enough fissile material to last 200 million years!

      But I personally think by the time we had burnt up all today’s nuclear waste, we’d have discovered or built something else. Maybe we’d have a Moon colony in 500 years, manufacturing all the Solar PV we could ever need, sitting in space with 24/7 access to clean solar power beaming it back to the earth? Or maybe we’d have cracked fusion? Or maybe we’d have built DEEP geothermal mines everywhere? Or the ultimate super-capacitor battery that finally makes today’s renewable technology possible?

      Who knows? That’s 500 years away. Until then Gen3 and Gen4 nukes will become the cheapest, safest, cleanest, most convenient industrial power we’ve ever had.

      • says

        What about the fact that businesses wanting to build nuclear refuse to raise their own capital, expecting tax payers to provide it instead, but then keeping the profits to themselves? Or the fact that they can’t get insurance, but expect to be exempt from liability? Or that nuclear plants are notoriously underbudgeted in both time and expense? Or the fact that whether waste is reusable or not, it is a legacy of massive pollution to future generations that some deem immoral?

        Just wonderin’?

      • says

        All this Generation 3 and 4 nuclear talk sounds like the “too cheap to meter” talk we used to hear from the nuke industry in the 1950s. It turned out to be hype then and I can’t imagine why it wouldn’t be hype now. You know the old saying, “if it sounds too good to be true…”

        Anyway, nuclear power so far has turned out to be not just a crime against present and future generations, but, as Lindsay says, it doesn’t even pay for itself without government support. I think it’s a good yardstick that something is too dangerous if private insurance companies won’t cover it, and that’s the case for nukes. Without the public assuming the tab for massive liability, nukes aren’t even a business proposition.

    • Hillwalker says

      Everything I’ve been told by the nuclear industry has been a lie, and when pressed, the industry (which is effectively the government) backs up and hides behind the veils of court ordered hush agreements screaming national security while running away.

      You’ll pardon me if I’m skeptical.

  2. Maggie says

    While not an engineer or anything else quite so educated on the matters at hand, I did study solar power actively from about 1980–92. Yes, ‘advances’ have been made in the technologies…but the thing that hit home early on and still does now is that solar energy on the scale you (and others) describe still relies upon toxic technologies that the planet and all its life forms including human simply cannot afford for us to indulge in any longer. For me, the real beauty of solar power at its most efficient AND safest for Life lies in Passive Solar: architecture and invention aimed to make the best use of passive solar power to help us reduce our need for other forms of energy. In some cases, passive solar design of bulidings and appliances can vastly reduce that need.

    However, with this must come the revisiting of attitudes and lifestyles of traditional peoples all over the world: that is, living more simply and in full respect for what our local environments and biospheres ARE in their totality, and what is needed for sustainability of the Whole. We must re-adopt the ancient understanding of ourselves belonging to the Earth, as but one part of the community of Life within which we must acknowlege our interdependence, honoring the reality and value of all life forms. We can no longer afford to see ourselves as owning it or having any right to gain control over it for human-centric desires.

    This means an end to the idea that Earth is composed of ‘resources for our use’. With our very use of the word ‘resources’ we place humans outside of nature and in a position of dominance over nature (as if that thinking has ever done anything except drive the Extinction Jaugernaut). The word ‘resources’ itself is one that conceals a Titanic-load of assumptions and beliefs. By using ‘resources’, we tell ourselves that it’s perfectly ok to mine the mountain and thus kill what lives there. We tell ourselves there is some way to ‘safely store/hide/avoid fallout from’ toxic wastes. We claim the right, most destructively of all (even to ourselves) as the ‘dominant species’ to think this way. No matter the staggering evidence that industrial/toxic-technological world we’ve created is in its essence a death dealing world that’s killing us all, we keep telling ourselves that we can create yet another toxic technology to save ourselves (and possibly, Life on the whole, but that is not our concern and we don’t seem to think it has to be).

    I completely agree that solar energy use should become a priority for people and for nations. And I disagree with any idea that leads to yet more fundamentally toxic technologies. To save ourselves–which does mean saving all life forms if we want to survive, ourselves–we must resist the temptation to continue thinking/creating in terms of preservation of the fundamentally damaging lifestyle and mass-infrastructure that brought us to such dire straits in the first place. This means, we need to be thinking about passive solar building and inventing, NOT ‘active solar’ that requires batteries and all that. We need to be rethinking our lives, and our energy consumption altogether. We need to be rethinking OURSELVES, and our place here. We need to revisit the beliefs and morals of all cultures worldwide over thousands of years, who thrived for thousands of years in a fashion that was sustainable for all of Life. We need to see that in just a few hundred years, Industrial Civilization has done nothing quite so well as destroy life–and even our own lives on every level–physical, mental, emotional, spiritual and environmental.

    • Erik Curren says

      Maggie — I appreciate your deepthink approach to ecology and survival. Reminds me of Derek Jensen or Daniel Quinn, about how civilization itself is the problem and how humans just need to take our place in nature with other species. There’s a part of me attracted to this way of thinking.

      There’s another part of me that finds it too extreme, even given that industrial civilization does now seem to be in extremis with climate change and all our other apocalyptic challenges. For my part, a decentralized world based on agriculture but with some small-scale industry seems both more practical and more appealing than a total cleansing back to something like the stone age.

      And along with Wendell Berry or EF Schumacher, I’d like to imagine that we can still have some small scale technology. I agree with you about passive solar in buildings. And also about natural solar, through photosynthesis (farming, gardening, timbering, etc, on a sustainable scale, of course). But I’m not ready to give up on electricity just yet and I’m not convinced that solar PV need be unreasonably toxic. Indeed, Ken Zwiebel of the GW Solar Institute who I quote in the article says that PV panels and other solar technologies can and are being made much more cleanly and much less water than in the past.

      In a world where most energy comes from burning huge quantities of stuff that’s incomparably nasty, it seems a bit like perfectionism to pick on solar PV. For global warming or peak oil or toxins, the world’s problem is not too much solar PV. It’s too much oil, coal and nuclear. So, I still hope that solar PV can play an important role to make our communities and families more resilient with a hybrid approach — not high tech, not no tech, but human-scale tech.

      Anyway, thanks for your thoughtful comment. We do need to think beyond the usual these days more than ever.

      • Maggie says

        Yes, Erik–

        Mine is an extreme viewpoint…and we are in extremely dire straits right now, all humans and the whole planet. Long before I read Quinn or Jensen, I’d read Mary Daly and Sonia Johnson, radical feminists who first rang the ‘truth bells’ within me, pointing toward the conclusion that Dominant Culture is fundamentally homicidal, genocidal, gender-cidal and literally ‘omnicidal’, as Jensen calls it.

        After reading Daly’s “Gyn/Ecology” and Johnson’s “Going Out of Our Minds: the Metaphysics of Liberation” in the 80s, I found I could not quite listen to those truth bells within me. Frankly, it’s terrifying to do so–and I am a very brave person. But to fully embrace a reality like ‘the fundamentally omnicidal nature of Western Culture’ was more than my heart or mind could bear. So I spent another 20yrs trying hard to ‘be the change I wanted to see in the world’, to ‘live simply’, ‘raise my kids right’, ‘think right’ and take local action toward equality, empowerment (democracy), environmental safety–while praying for the Paradigm Shift. Sparing all the details of the ways I’ve fought on personal, social, legal and political fronts for Life, in the end I found more than anything else that I was just so damn tired. Oh, I’ve made a difference– countless people have told me so. Yet all the while, omnicidal culture was just killing off life faster than ever, invading our minds, hearts, biochemistries and livingrooms more pervasively and perniciously than ever.

        In any event–yes, I know mine is an extreme viewpoint–one that my very fatique and heartbreak does not allow me to avoid anymore. And no, I don’t mean to pick on solar energy in particular–not at all.

        In fact I understand that in these times, perhaps the only way to help lead more people to awareness of global crisis, and into a kinder, gentler, more inclusive way of living on the Earth, is to support things like solar power as you describe and promote it. I’m glad you’re doing this work! Definitely an important step toward restoration of sanity and the possibility that we can prevent THE Extinction Event.

        And still I say –it’s not enough to promote intelligent, informed, bold and committed moves by people and nations toward Solar and other forms of renewable, sustainable energy (and all survival-needs production). To make the most necessary kind of difference, we must be committed to changed perception of ourselves and our place in this world. Maybe instead of thinking about solar energy on the scale of huge energy infrastructure upon which we all depend today, an important part of the message needs to be the idea that ‘small is beautiful–and essential for Earth’s survival’. Specifically, for instance–pointing design ideas toward energizing small communities with their small local industries, instead of thinking in terms like ‘how to power Manhattan and all the outlying/worldwide industries needed to feed, house and energize Manhattan’. Does that make sense?

        I support solar energy–and your work, too, even if I believe that passive solar is the safer way to go and must be included in the foundation of any plan to solar-ize our energy use. And now that I’ve made my point on the extremity of need of our times, I’m willing to come back toward center a bit. Can you see how your own work might move a little more toward my (and Daly’s and Jensen’s and…) extreme, in order to promote energy solutions that are healthier/saner for all of Life? Can you see any real value in shifting your perspective and specific ideas to be more inclusive of life? That is, shifting your perspective, instead of making an effort to help anyone believe that we can–or even should try–to ‘improve’, and thus continue, the existing mass-scale energy infrastructure via Active Solar? As some other commenters have pointed out, to try to improve that infrastructure with solar has a built-in need for large scale, toxic back-up systems anyway.

        Well, I leave it at that. I found your site through the Deep Green Resistance pages–and stayed to read, and comment–because I think you guys are not just very smart, but also very heartful. I’m hopeful that we can more fully inform, teach, and reach each other in this exchange. Know you are reaching/teaching me–more than my initial critique conveyed. I hope thoughts like mine can also reach/teach you. It’s not about me, or you–only about the benefit of Life.

        • Erik Curren says

          Maggie — One of the nicest things about running a site like this is how much I get to learn. Researching and writing articles and then interacting with readers who respond has been, for me, like going to a multidisciplinary grad school tailored just to my stage of intellectual, emotional and spiritual development. But without all the student loans!

          And I’m glad you’re extreme, because I’m extreme too sometimes, depending on the topic or the time of day…

          I like the radical approach too, literally, going to the root of the problem, rather than just looking at symptoms. And you could be right, that civilization or patriarchy or hierarchy are the real problems. I myself am drawn to a Buddhist/Christian spiritual path that encourages us to question the very nature of what we think is reality.

          So thanks again for kicking it up a notch. And of course thanks for your nice comments about Transition Voice. Hope to see you around often.

  3. bryan says

    Can you tell me where to go; I would love to visit that clean, green gen3 or 4 reactor that has been operating since 1710. I would sit in the lovely meadow surrounding the plant and eat my lunch surrounded by the prancing unicorns.

  4. Hillwalker says

    I suppose the point that shouldn’t need to be made is,
    If you can’t do it with wind, solar, small scale hydro then you can’t do it at all.
    use that as your base assumption, then figure out your energy budget from there.

    FWIW, utility scale anything doesn’t work, not really. Hamlets and towns, maybe even some cities at much more rational scales might make sense, but little else. Going bigger basically require importing lots of stuff, which basically means you have get stuff to import, which -in the end- means taking it at gunpoint, or picking it off the dead. Just like we do now.
    Burning the dead in our power plants.

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