In which my old professor loses his marbles over solar power

To make non-carbon energy become competitive is a major scientific challenge, not unlike the challenge of developing the atom bomb or sending a man to the moon. Science rose to those challenges because a clear goal and timetable were set and enough public money was provided for the research. These programmes had high political profile and public visibility. They attracted many of the best minds of the age.

The issue of climate change and energy is even more important and it needs the same treatment. In most countries, there is at present too little public spending on non-carbon energy research. Instead, we need a major international research effort, with a clear goal and a clear timetable.

What should it focus on? There will always be many sources of non-carbon energy – nuclear fission, hydropower, geothermal, wind, nuclear fusion (possibly) and solar. But nuclear fission and hydropower have been around for many years. Nuclear is essential but faces political obstacles and there are physical limits to hydropower. Nuclear fusion remains uncertain. And, while wind can play a big role in the UK, in many countries its application is limited. So there is no hope of completely replacing fossil fuel without a major contribution from the power of the sun.

Moreover, the sun sends energy to the Earth equal to about 5,000 times our total energy needs. It is inconceivable that we cannot collect enough of this energy for our needs, at a reasonable cost. The price of photovoltaic energy is falling at 10% a year, and in Germany a serious amount of unsubsidised, solar electricity is already being added to the grid. In California, forward contracts for solar energy are becoming competitive with other fuels and they will become more so, as technology progresses.

But time is desperately short and there are two even bigger scientific challenges. The first is to make solar power available on a 24-hour basis, when the sun shines only part of the day and can be obscured by cloud. This requires a major breakthrough in the storage of electricity.

All of this is entirely true. Indeed I write a piece saying much the same earlier this week.

But then they lose their minds.

So here is our proposal. There should be a world sunpower programme of research, development and demonstration. The goal would be by 2025 to deliver solar electricity at scale to the grid at a cost below the cost of fossil fuel. All countries would be invited to participate. Those who did would commit, in their own countries, to major new programmes of research, internationally co-ordinated, and to share their findings for the benefit of the world.

Each country would have the goal of demonstrating bulk supply of unsubsidised solar electricity in scale to the grid by 2025. At the world level, the target would be for solar electricity to be at least 10% of total energy supply by 2025 and 25% by 2030. Countries’ contributions to this target would be closely watched.

Yes, they want another traveling circus of bureaucrats. And the reason why they have lost their minds is there in their own evidence:

Moreover, the sun sends energy to the Earth equal to about 5,000 times our total energy needs. It is inconceivable that we cannot collect enough of this energy for our needs, at a reasonable cost. The price of photovoltaic energy is falling at 10% a year, and in Germany a serious amount of unsubsidised, solar electricity is already being added to the grid. In California, forward contracts for solar energy are becoming competitive with other fuels and they will become more so, as technology progresses.

You can look at this in two ways and I don’t particularly mind which way you do. Either that the market has already started to do what was necessary, produce reasonably priced solar power, or that the market needed help, which we’ve given it, and now we’re getting reasonably priced, or will very soon, solar power.

But the point is still the same. It is their own evidence which tells us that we’ve already done whatever it is that we needed to do to get reasonably priced solar power. It’s falling in price by 10% a year, it’s already price competitive in some areas and we’ve absolutely no reason at all to think that it won’t keep falling in price at that rate (or faster) and thus become ever more competitive.

In such circumstances why the fuck do we need to piss money away on another Manhattan Project?

29 comments on “In which my old professor loses his marbles over solar power

  1. In the assertion that “in Germany a serious amount of unsubsidised, solar electricity is already being added to the grid”; does this allow for the fact that, thanks to the rush to renewables, electricity supply in Germany has become so unstable that some factories have had to install their own power generation? Aren’t the costs of that a hidden consumer subsidy to solar power?

  2. Professor says more research grants are needed.

    Solar is competitive in Germany because all other sources are artificially expensive – to pay for the solar.

  3. Moonbeams.

    I’ve got an idea, lets harness the power of moonbeams to generate power at night when the sun don’t shine and we need electricity at home.

    Research grants please! We will produce glossy brochures and tell everybody we are saving the world.

    Troughers and tossers, the whole lot of them.

  4. @The Jolly Green Man
    Hey! You’re way behind the curve there. Spain had the solar energy at night problem licked couple years back. They pay solar farms for their moonbeam generated power here..Really.
    .

  5. People have been spending vast fortunes on renewable energy research for a generation. The idea that “The Answer” hasn’t been found because of a lack of research is naive.

    “It is inconceivable that we cannot collect enough of this energy for our needs, at a reasonable cost.” I can conceive of it, easily.

    The best thing to do is nothing. The market place will work all this out when the time comes, maybe 300 years from now.

  6. Science rose to those challenges because a clear goal and timetable were set and enough public money was provided for the research.

    How much richer did Americans get from putting a man on the moon?

    It’s also the case that with both, by the time they started, they had a theoretical solution (in the case of the atomic bomb, they had to change the approach as practice presented some problems). We don’t even have a theoretical design for the decarbonising solar cell yet.

    Solar could be like chips, where we keep improving for decades, or it could be like car engines, where we are doing little more than tiny improvements.

    And why is the push always about production, when improving consumption often shows the best real gains? In the past decade, putting a GPS in your car probably saved more energy than buying a newer car.

  7. The science and indeed the technology for the Bomb and Moon landing had been around for the most part for some considerable time, discovered without any goal, timetable or taxpayer money.

    Science means knowledge and it is incremental and often accidental. It does not come along because we wish it or toss money at it.

    If that were so we could be making gold from lead… scientifically possible.

    And as Tim reminds us, except on those occasions when the AGW worm takes over his mind, it is innovation and market demand which determines what we get, not Government programmes which he also tells us diverts resources from elsewhere which could produce more valuable results.

    Solar power falling 10% per year. No it’s not because solar power is not consumed and is free.

    The cost of solar panels may be reducing but the unit of consumption is the kWh, not the kW of capacity to generate.

    Let us assume a domestic solar installation costs £10 000.

    If 1kWh is consumed it will cost £10 000.

    If 3 000kWh are consumed, it will cost £10 000.

    If grid electricity costs 10p per kWh, £10 000 will provide
    100 000kWh.

    If 3 000kWh is an annual supply, the solar installation will break even after about 33 years.

    Now do your 10% decrease per year solar panel costs… presumably the price will hit a minimum and not reduce to zero… and then figure out, taking into account you will still have to buy substantial quantities of electricity from the grid as solar don’t work when the Sun don’t shine, opportunity costs for the capital outlay, maintenance and replacement costs when you imagine solar panels will be cheap enough to make them viable.

    OK now think in terms of supplying solar at scale. In the Northern hemisphere it would require huge solar arrays to capture energy – the capital cost would be enormous.

    And we would need battery technology we do not have. Batteries have been around for over a hundred years and in fact despite a lot of research and money are not that much better except for small devices.

    We really are in gold from lead territory.

    The problem is too those who promote solar and wind, do not understand electricity, how it needs to be generated and distributed or even what the unit of consumption is.

    Besides which what problem are we trying to solve? None.

    And why would we divert all that resource incur all that cost when we already have existing technology and energy supply, cheap and readily available.

    Where improvements could be made is in conductor technology and transformer technology to reduce transmission losses.

  8. And how apt the comparison with the Atom Bomb and Moonlanding, which taken together in a nutshell sum up ‘renewables’, the former the destruction of cities and people; the latter no practical purpose outside political vanity.

  9. Re domestic solar & to establish the playing field the game’s being played on.
    Done this before.
    In the UK there’s isn’t the room on the average house roof to put the panels would enable it to be energy independent. Even for daytime requirements only. Simple calculation of incident solar energy available throughout the daytime period & the dominant architectural features of UK housebuilding.

  10. “And how apt the comparison with the Atom Bomb and Moonlanding, …; the latter (had) no practical purpose outside political vanity.

    Taken in context of the geo-political.situation of the time it had an extremely practical purpose. It was thought dominance of the military ‘high ground’ of near earth space was strategically important. The Apollo & later Shuttle/SDI programs showed the US was capable of occupying that high ground & prompted the agreements with the USSR not to deploy orbital weapon platforms. It was a facet of the post ’45 non-shooting ‘Technological War’ conducted throughout the period eventually resulting in the disintegration of the Warsaw Pact & the USSR itself. Compared with a reruns of previous conflicts, remarkably cheap at the price.

    And reminds us, most of this renewable energy debate is political & bugger all to do about energy production.

  11. John>

    It’s not alchemy at all. Despite the UBS report all this is based on being a load of bollocks – they got their result by ignoring subsidies, rather than excluding them – we’re not all that far off solar making financial sense. 10% a year decrease for five years would see a ~40% reduction in cost, at which point it’s very plausible that solar will make a lot of sense. Unlike wind, it’s at least fairly predictable; it goes off at night, for example.

  12. The Manhattan Project and the moon landings were made possible only by the quality of the Germans put to work on them. That high calibre of German doesn’t seem to be available at the moment.

  13. dearieme>

    The Apollo Project, certainly, but there weren’t that many Germans contributing to the Manhattan Project. Almost all of those with German names were, like Oppenheimer, actually American. There was a far larger proportion of foreign refugees of all nations, of course. Come to think of it, there were quite possibly more Hungarians than Germans.

  14. Surely, if we are in the “planet saving” game we need to consider the energy cost not the monetary cost. Does solar energy really “work”, i.e. do solar panels actually generate more energy than it takes to make and maintain them over their lifetime?

    Solar, wave and wind use the “free” sunlight which, after travelling several million miles, and through an atmosphere and climate system, and finally into a very inefficient collection device, become almost laughable as a serious energy source, you get what you pay for.

    This kind of technology is already behind the curve, why not have a piece of the sun on Earth where you can dispense with all that intervening energy dissipation – it’s called nuclear power.

  15. “Moreover, the sun sends energy to the Earth equal to about 5,000 times our total energy needs. It is inconceivable that we cannot collect enough of this energy for our needs, at a reasonable cost.”

    Let’s play with this a little more.

    The earth has about 200,000,000 square miles of surface area. Assuming “5,000 times our total energy needs” is true, we can divide 200M by 5k to get the surface area for which we would need to get 1X our energy needs.

    40,000 square miles. Assuming 100% efficiency. Since no one has come close to even 50% efficiency, let’s say you need to capture and convert to our needs the sunlight hitting 100,000 square miles of the earth’s surface. Considering other losses, like transmission, and conversion to commodities that can be used (you can run an airplane on electricity), maybe you need 2-3X more surface area.

    But it doesn’t matter. Man is not going to cover 100,000 square miles of earth’s surface with anything. Solar energy does not have enough density to be useful except for specialized needs.

  16. Problem: energy storage (batteries won’t do 240V)
    Solution: more research on 1.5V solar panels.

    Is this professor all he’s cracked up to be, or simply cracked?

  17. Gamecock>

    “Man is not going to cover 100,000 square miles of earth’s surface with anything.”

    We can and will. In fact, we already have, or fairly close to it, specifically for power generation purposes. Hydro dams, of course, hold back vast lakes. The largest each have surface areas of more than 1000 sq km, and there are hundreds, if not thousands, of hydro lakes around the world.

  18. Dave, I have stood on Hoover Dam. The most striking perspective is how small it is at the top.

    Equating water backed up behind a dam with solar collectors is fun. No practical connection, but still fun.

  19. Does solar energy really “work”, i.e. do solar panels actually generate more energy than it takes to make and maintain them over their lifetime?

    This doesn’t matter, and it’s something a lot of demented lefties/greenies say about nuclear (and it’s probably true for some oil and gas projects too). The idea is to have concentrated energy on demand, even if it costs you more energy overall – from a million different sources – to get to that point. It’s a bit like having a steak which has far less calorific value than the many tonnes of silage that went into making it.

  20. Yes Tim N
    It’s not an energy problem, the sun will do that. It’s a concentration and distribution problem. Exactly the same problem that your average living cell faces.

  21. Gamecock>

    Of course it’s hardly directly applicable. It just seemed like a particularly close example of the kind of things we do which are indeed on the kind of scale you’re talking about. There are plenty of others. I’d hazard a guess that petroleum extraction and distribution is on a similar scale, at least once you include all the world’s petrol stations. I didn’t turn up reliable numbers, but Wikipedia says there are upwards of 50,000 coal power stations on the planet right now; they’re obviously not covering half a square mile each, but they must be covering a fairly hefty fraction of 100,000 square miles.

    Some other things on the scale we’re talking about include the area covered by US cities, the total area of paved roads in Western Europe, and so-on. Things like the total area under cultivation are many orders of magnitude larger.

    Building 100,000 square miles of solar panels is not a trivial job, nor one that’ll be complete overnight, but it’s on the same scale as the kind of things we build over generations almost incidentally.

    And just for some real sense of scale, the Sahara desert covers 3.5 million square miles. You could lose 100,000 square miles of solar panels in there. That’s what, a square 300 miles on each side? You could build that in the UK if you had to.

  22. “To make non-carbon energy become competitive is a major scientific challenge, not unlike the challenge of developing the atom bomb or sending a man to the moon.”

    Wait, is he actually saying that in order to make ‘non-carbon’ energy affordable we have to spend great huge gobs of money to do it? Doesn’t that defeat the purpose?

    And yes, we did succeed in getting to the moon, at great cost, through forced public funding of the project – to extend the analogy to solar power, we *already* have done that. We already have non-carbon power sources.

    Unfortunately, government spending hasn’t reduced the cost of getting to the moon yet.

  23. The Apollo project was a tax payer subsidy to the military. I am sure there was a significant return to the US economy by advancing technology and a fair amount of willy waving against the Russians. It was also a great way of developing missile technology at a time of concern about nuclear proliferation etc, etc.

    As tim says “Clean” Energy production is essentially a problem that can be fixed by markets (including carbon emissions in the price through a carbon tax ought to work if done properly). The Manhattan project was a military problem while the moon landings a political endeavour. They are simply not comparable

  24. “Nuclear is essential but faces political obstacles…So there is no hope of completely replacing fossil fuel”

    Hold on: it’s physically impossible, because people don’t like it?

  25. As he says solar is falling at 10% a year for technological reasons (not unrelated to Moore’s law) so that is a correct process to choose except that it is happening anyway. However the problem with solar is that it doesn’t work at night. What is needed then is an international HVDC grid which would allow electricity to be transported around the world at good efficiency. That would indeed work and like transport systems generally is somewhere that state investment would actually work in (or perhaps even an international system of regulation so that such things could be built across borders without the diplomats messing it up. Most of the long distance HVDC lines (eg from the 2 Gorges dam to the coast) are within 1 country.

    Note, however, that he accepts that a practical, reliable CO2 free generating system does already exist – nuclear – and the only problem is “Nuclear is essential but faces political obstacles”. In engineering costs it is also cheap.

    In which case rather than spending hundreds of billions on a new system which the ecofascists currently approve of (though experience strongly suggests they will change to disapproval when it becomes workable, as with shale gas) why not spend a fraction of that on promoting nuclear and countering the purely political obstacles.

  26. @Dave – “That’s what, a square 300 miles on each side? You could build that in the UK if you had to.”

    Are you serious? Think of all the NIMBYs. And the National Trust and Greenpeace and FoE. They would have an aneurysm if their pet power generation method was actually implemented. Which highlights why they are so stupid.

  27. Offshore Observer
    September 30, 2013 at 3:00 am

    As tim says “Clean” Energy production is essentially a problem that can be fixed by markets (including carbon emissions in the price through a carbon tax ought to work if done properly).

    ================================

    There is no problem to be fixed.

    A carbon tax is just a tax. Applying a tax to the market place to push a politically desired outcome is not a market solution. It is corrupt government intervention with the market place.

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