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Clean Power solar energy

Published on August 23rd, 2011 | by Zachary Shahan


About Solar Power / Why Solar Power

August 23rd, 2011 by  

This isn’t an intro on solar power technology (some top posts on that are linked at the bottom, though) or how solar power works. This is a quick intro on some of the top topics of concern to those who want to see us cruise into a bright future.

This is just a start. It is a growing resource page on solar that will be continually updated (much like the wind power page we are still adding to). And it is now easily accessible on the side of our site.

If you have something you want to add, just shoot me a message on Google+ or a comment here!

Solar Power Myths Are So Last Year

Solar power myths and anti-solar-power talking points are all over the place. I think the ones in this fabricated quote are the most common:

“Solar power is just a tiny portion of our electricity supply and will never be more. Solar power is just too expensive and too impractical.”

Completely ridiculous that anyone would believe or say these things, and here are some key reasons why:

1. Solar energy is the most abundant source of energy on the planet, by far. Just take a look at the image below, and note that renewable energy potential below is per year while it is in total for fossil fuels. Clear enough?

"Comparing finite and renewable planetary energy reserves (Terawatt‐years). Total recoverable reserves are shown for the finite resources. Yearly potential is shown for the renewables." (source: Perez & Perez, 2009a)

2. Solar power costs are dropping like leaves in the fall, unless my eyes deceive me (see images below).

With almost all technologies, it takes awhile for direct costs to hit a point where the masses will buy them, but once that point is reached, Bam!

While the true cost of solar is already competitive with other options, we don’t really take the true cost into account with our decisions.

Additionally, while investing in solar power is already a super intelligent thing to do, meaning your return on investment is excellent since you can save so much money on electricity every month and (with the tremendous government incentives and innovative purchasing options available today) can end up making money on your solar power system before you know it.

It’s true that we don’t have a ton of solar installed yet, but we’re getting there (see the next section). Also, even with the fossil fuel industry stacked against us, progress is being made. Costs, in general, continue to fall fast. Here’s more on costs:

  1. True Value of Solar Power (linked above)
  2. Cost of Solar Power Competitive with Coal Some Places, & Dropping Fast
  3. GE: Solar Power Cheaper than Fossil Fuels in 5 years
  4. Solar Power Graphs to Make You Smile
  5. Historic Report: Solar Energy Costs Now Lower than Nuclear Energy

3. The solar power industry in the U.S. and globally is growing at a breakneck pace, largely for the reasons mentioned above (and the widespread acceptance that we need to combat global warming). For details, if the graphs above aren’t enough for you, check out any of these posts:

  1. Solar Industry on Solyndra, Tremendous Job Growth (100,000 US Jobs Now), & Doubling of Installed PV
  2. U.S. Solar Energy Growth Continues to Crush Records (10 Key Findings)
  3. International Solar PV Nearly Doubled, PV Growth Doubled in 2010
  4. Cleantech’s Revolutionary Growth & Expectations for Coming 10 Years
  5. Solar Power Blowing Up in the United States
  6. Solar Power Graphs to Make You Smile
  7. Solar Energy Markets and Growth

click to enlarge

We’ll follow up with some more important points soon. Again, if you want to chime in, you can comment below or connect with me on Google+.

For those interested in cool or ‘new’ solar technologies, here are some posts for you:

  1. Spain’s Gemasolar 24/7 Power Plant (VIDEO)
  2. 1st Large-Scale 24/7 Solar Power Plant to be Built in U.S.
  3. Cheap Solar Paint
  4. Solar Shingles about to Blow Up?
  5. Solar Energy Telescope: More Output, Less Cost
  6. High-Efficiency Solar Cells Getting More Efficient, Cheaper
  7. How to: Cheap or Free Solar Panels
  8. Solar Thermal Panels, Practical but Not Yet Popular – A Solar Overview

Top image via University of Albany

Info on electricity rates.

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About the Author

Zach is tryin' to help society help itself (and other species) with the power of the word. He spends most of his time here on CleanTechnica as its director and chief editor, but he's also the president of Important Media and the director/founder of EV Obsession and Solar Love. Zach is recognized globally as a solar energy, electric car, and energy storage expert. He has presented about cleantech at conferences in India, the UAE, Ukraine, Poland, Germany, the Netherlands, the USA, and Canada. Zach has long-term investments in TSLA, FSLR, SPWR, SEDG, & ABB — after years of covering solar and EVs, he simply has a lot of faith in these particular companies and feels like they are good cleantech companies to invest in. But he offers no professional investment advice and would rather not be responsible for you losing money, so don't jump to conclusions.

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  • robert bernal

    The ONLY way solar will ever make it big time is IF it is mass produced in robotic factories AND with a NEW LAW which states:
    “We the people declare null and void any profit past 7 cents per watt per solar collection media produced” (2010 dollars). Or something like that! Any excess profits would have to go right back into exponentiation of the “business”… It should be a corporation owned by ALL people who like solar. If All the people who like solar contributed $1,000, surely, the corporation would start of with a cool 10 billion, interest free! That should be good enough to get the robotics developed…

    You see, we already have the tech, it’s just that we have the greeed toooo!
    Solyndria proved that, and Obama should have known (as I did) that there was NO WAY it would ever compete with China unless mass produced in a robotic factory for like 50 cents/watt.

    Now, before we go off all giddy to build solar panels, we MUST declare what is the BEST technology… There’s a thousand different ways to collect sunlight. And there are some wrong ways too.

    Global warming.. It is caused by excess CO2 (for the most part), however, if too much infrared is emitted from light that would not otherwise be converted into it, we could have problems, especially since a full 2% of the Earth’s land would have to be covered with the dark (15% efficient) panels in order to compete with the likes of closed cycle nuclear or ocean wind to power almost 10 billion people at close to a per person western energy consumption.

    Should it be the power tower and molten salts, the Stirling dish, the CPV dish, the CPV fresnel?… Again, there’s a wrong way. The trough. It is less efficient and… Imagine this, fully 1.75% of the land COMPLETELY BULLDOZED OVER. No, not happening!

    What about rooftop? In the USA, there are about 100 million homes. If each had a 10kW system, then there would be a 250 million kW capacity (after 25% capacity factor figured in). Which should translate into 2.2 trillion kWh per year. Remember, this is per perfect conditions for 6 hours per day, every day, across the whole country, even in winter.
    Total US energy consumption was 98 quadrillion btu, which if converted, should be 28.7 trillion kWh. This is for ALL refining, agricultural, even Disneyland, but most importantly, remember that that close to 2/3rds of it was wasted in the conversion process into useful power! Perhaps, if everything was electrified, we could (eventually) get away with powering a full quarter of our daily needs with just rooftop alone!

    We will still need huge amounts of land, just to provide power to make the solar infrastructure, infact, it takes up to 3 whole years just for a panel to energy pay for itself (the EROEI) and we need either a massive amount of LiFePO4 batteries (also produced in robotic factories for like 10% of current costs) or molten salts (for solar thermal storage). Chances are, the BEST solar solution would entail an EROEI of only about 1 year or less.

    To recap, parameters for deciding what the best solar collection are:
    Ability to be made for almost free by advanced machine automation,
    Integration into the cheapest energy storage,
    No massive bull dozing,
    Least amount of infrared emittance,
    Greatest EROEI,
    And longevity…
    Any other parameters?

    Of course, if implemented, would create the greatest jobs program ever created… Installations, electric cars, utility, and secondary supporting jobs!

    Now, what we need to do is figure out these parameters. To start, we need to catalog EVERY most efficient type, such as concentrating GaAs solar freznel (and all of its moving parts), the power tower (and all of its moving parts PLUS whatever best cost efficient generator, be it Rankine or the more costly Brayton) or simply a flat plate coupled with LiFePO4 (battery material) that is also only as dark in color as it needs to be.

    Thanks for reading!

    • Anonymous

      PV panels already have a low labor input. Fully automating solar plants is not what is needed to bring the price of panels down to “cheaper than coal”. Evergreen built a fully automated plant but they couldn’t compete, their very low labor input was not enough to keep them from going bankrupt.
      PV is well on the way to being one of the ‘cheapest three’, along with wind and natural gas. Natural gas prices will almost certainly rise, leaving solar and wind the ‘cheapest two’.

      You don’t know jack about Solyndra. There’s a nice article on this site which could help you educate yourself. Search ‘Solyndra Media Matters’.
      Your solar panels and infrared make no sense. Incoming solar power eventually gets turned to heat, that which is not immediately reflected out. Solar panels let us cut back (hopefully eliminate) fossil fuels which are the major source of human produced CO2.

      Solar panels pay back their energy in two years or less. Thin film and some silicon panels have a payback of less than one year.

      I don’t think that all 100 million US homes have roof space for 10kW of solar, assuming <20% panel efficiency. Remember roof slopes face all four directions, many or parts of many are not oriented for solar collection.
      It's not clear that we will be building tremendous amounts of real estate
      using storage. Batteries, as they mature, will rack up nicely in
      multi-story buildings. We'll minimize the amount of storage we need by
      calling on a wide range of inputs. The Sun shines during the day, the wind
      typically blows harder at night. EVs may play a large role in meeting our
      storage needs.

      You're on the right track, but you need to catch up a bit with where
      technology is today.

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  • Tickedoffpapa

    I am not sure where all the good research on solar energy is coming from. All the research I have done points to solar and wind being the most expensive types of energy and the least reliable of all the green energy movement. There are to many hidden cost connected to solar. One big one is, the sun doen’t shine all the time. There are many days when there is not any sun. Where does the power come from then? Why a coal, gas, oil, nuclear or geothermal power plant. Or maybe a battery backup storage complex. But the batteries wear out and need replace every few years so the solar complex must be connected to a souirce that is reliable and can dispatch power upon request. Solar is not that source.The new thing, which I have just read about, is connecting many solar complexs’ to each other for when the sun doesn’t shine and the wind doesn’t blow. Give me a break folks. Be real. I do believe we need to do something in the renewable energy field, BUT IT IS NOT SOLAR OR WIND. Taxpayers of the United States have lost at least six hundred million dollars recently due to defunked solar companies and projects. That is enough. No more. Forget solar and wind. Those whol support solar need to wake up and smell the next green energy source. And that smell is not solar, wind or nuclear.

    • Mike SR

      Hi TickedOff,
      Are you assuming that there will only be wind and solar?

      No one is expecting other sources of power generation to disappear. Instead, wind and solar are additive to the current power sources (carbon-based, nuclear, etc.). When the sun is not shining, you will get your power from whatever other plants exist. We have “peaker” plants which ramp up and provide power during critical afternoon times when sunlight is a maximum and air conditioning is needed most. This is the same time/weather condition when solar will be most effective for generating power. Today, we have seamless switching between plants of all types. This means that solar can act as a peaker plant when appropriate, for example. Or as solar-generated electricity ramps up, the grid will notify nearby conventional plants and they can be slowed/shut down.

      Someone please jump in if this doesn’t sound right.

      Also, there are other advantages to solar and wind – no pollution after installation. We humans care about pollution since we have to breathe the air and since we are warming up our planet. Solar and wind power generation do not contribute to global warming, except for ancillary power needs.

      • Tickedoffpapa

        Believe me I know about breathing. I have COPD and air polution really bothers me. When the air is poluted, I stay inside to breath good. However, there are not any good advantages to wind or solar. Neither are reliable, dispatchable or efficient. When you talk about what you are, the cost of solar and wind goes up dramatically. there is one green energy that is the best and that is Geothermal. It is available nationwide and the plants do not produce any polution especially binary. All the money that has been poured into solar and wind should have went to Geothermal. Are you aware that you can take a geothermel plant with you, drill a couple of holes and produce electricity. Yo cannot pick up a wind turbine or a solar panel, move it and in a short period of time be producing electricity. People do not do the research on green energy. They listen to the green movement people like Al Gore and take that informtion to heart Instead of doing a full reasearch on the subject and them making a decision. Everyone should do all the research needed to make an intelligent conclusion about green energy. Should one do that, the only green energy that we should be exploring is Geothermal. But maybe people will have to wait until my book comes out about the first of the year titled, “The Green Energy Movement Must die”. This book should open a lot of people eyes as to what is needed and what should be done in the green energy movement. Of course the research I have done is only my opinion but the information is solid. Very solid. I live in California so I see everyday what this green movement is doing to the enviroment and taxpayers pockets. It really hurts. I am retired and have no vested interested in wind, solar, geothermal, nuclear or any other source of energy. I do pay my electrice bill monthly and that is what I am concerned about. Hoepefully you and others who read this will take a look at the research and make an intelligent conclusion.

    • Mike Hearts

      Tickedoffpapa, we only have certain options that are within the scope of today’s technology. I know several people who worked at Solyndra, and they claim that the company failed because the technology was not cost-effective – it was out-competed by other technologies (domestically and internationally) and by lower-cost production off-shore. The people who worked at the company believed it was possible to make a very efficient solar collector with this cylindrical technology – they were wrong and that is a lesson learned. Solyndra is a classic Silicon Valley story (granted with a big loan from our government), but failure of some ventures is expected. That does not mean we shouldn’t try the array of technologies now under development.

      Rather than try to quash future investments in wind and solar, it might be more effective to ask that US installations require purchase of some percentage of their supplies from US-based innovators and manufacturers. How about 30-70%? It might cost more (or might not), but it would help us create jobs in North America.

    • Anonymous

      Ticked – Let’s talk cost first.

      Now, how about we break cost into two categories, the first being the price of electricity from various sources once the initial capital expenses have been recovered, once the investment has been repaid.

      Probably the cheapest source of electricity from a paid off generator is solar. No fuel cost, essentially no maintenance costs, low security costs.

      Next are probably wind and hydro. Both have zero fuel cost, but they do use ‘moving parts’ and both are going to wear out at some point and need to be replaced. Hydro turbines have to be replaced. New wind turbines should last 40 – 50 years. Neither have high security costs.

      Next, natural gas. Gas isn’t free. It’s temporarily cheap, but is expected to rise over the next few years. Any form of generation that utilizes fuel is going to be more expensive than renewables that rely on wind, solar, or other energy sources for which we pay no money. And gas has maintenance costs.

      Next is likely nuclear. Low fuel costs, but again moving parts that require maintenance. And certainly the highest security costs. Some costs that are born by the taxpayer and are not reflected in the price at the meter. Nuclear receives significant government subsidy which few realize. The Union of Concerned Scientists calculate that for every kWh that we use from nuclear the taxpayer is dinged $.06.

      Highest is coal. Not at the meter, but the externalities – the health damage – caused by coal is very large. It’s a hard number to generate but if we pick a number in between the lowest and highest estimates we spend $0.18/kWh in taxpayer funds and health insurance premiums.

      (I left out geothermal because I don’t know the price of geothermal once the plant and well have been paid off. It’s probably between hydro and gas.)

      Now, new generation. What the power costs while the capital costs are being regained.

      Combined cycle gas. Gas turbines and secondary boilers are some of the least expensive equipment to install. And they come on line fairly quickly thus don’t accrue lots of financing costs before they start to produce.

      Next, wind. Wind farms get built very rapidly which means they, like CCG don’t have large financing costs to service. New wind, good site/modern technology, costs about $0.05/kWh.

      Next, geothermal. (I’m guessing this based on LCOE of geothermal.) About $0.09/kWh.

      Next, solar. Very, very rapid to install thus almost all the investment goes to equipment and installation. Large commercial rooftop, sunny location just under $0.16/kWh.

      Then coal and nuclear. Both are very equipment/plant intensive and both take many years to build and bring on line. It’s hard to nail down the cost of what a new coal or nuclear plant would cost. I’ve seen $.019/kWh for coal (don’t forget to add in the $0.18/kWh for externalities). Estimates for new nuclear run as high, or higher for new nuclear (plus the $0.06/kWh). It’s clear that the cost of new coal or new nuclear would be higher than new solar.

      Just to be clear, I did not add any subsidies in for wind, solar or geothermal. Those are, the best I can determine, real costs. I did point out the costs that nuclear and coal bring with them, costs that most people do no know about.

      Wind gets a $0.022/kWh FiT, a two point two cent subsidy. Because of that wind farms are writing long term contracts for power at as little as $0.035/kWh. Solar has been writing contracts at $0.10/kWh, helped down by subsidies.

      The problem most people have, a problem promulgated by fossil fuel interests, is that they compare the cost of new solar or wind along with their subsidies to paid off nuclear and coal plants and do not add in the ‘hidden costs’ of the latter.

      Compare the price of electricity from paid off plants/farms/whatever and wind and solar are at the bottom.

      Compare the price of electricity from new generation and wind and solar are at the bottom.

      The only non-renewable that is close to the bottom, price-wise, is natural gas. And that is not a price that can be maintained for more than the immediate future. Our supply of gas is limited and as we find more and more ways to use it supplies will shrink and prices will rise.

    • Anonymous

      Now, reliability. That’s probably not the criterion that we should use. No source of electricity is 100% reliable. Back in August there was an earthquake in Virginia and two reactors suddenly went off line. They are still not generating. The Sun, on the other hand, comes up very reliably every day and utility grid operators know hours in advance if they are likely to have cloud problems over part of their solar farms.

      Better to think of all generation methods as being intermittent. Solar works when the Sun is shining, not when it sets. Nuclear works except when it has to be shut down for refueling, repairs, or emergencies. Hydro works except when something has to be repaired or water behind the dam runs low.

      Grid operators deal with these problems of intermittent output 24/365. They also deal with intermittent loads. Offices open at 9AM on Monday and people go to bed at 11PM. Plants run shifts. Heat waves cause a lot more demand for AC.

      The trick is to have enough supply available to fill the need and to have some load which can be switched off when supply is taxed. Some plants and commercial buildings sign agreements to shut down in times of grid stress in order to reduce demand/load.

      Utility grid operators will, as much as possible, use the cheapest inputs first. That means wind and solar – no fuel costs. Then they will dial back on dispatchable inputs – gas and about half of coal. Hydro will be curtailed as much as possible. Then as need demands they will bring back coal, gas and hydro. They will used stored power (we have 25GW of pump-up hydro and are building more). And finally they will call on the most expensive source of power – gas peaking plants.

      As we all more wind and solar we will (and are) replace coal with natural gas. Even with a combined cycle gas plant the gas turbine can come on line in 10-15 minutes. The steam part (about 30% of the total output) may take four hours to get fully to speed. We’ll also build more storage. We’ve got several pump-up hydro sites in the works and we’re starting to install utility scale battery systems. And EVs will also likely serve some storage functions later on.

      It’s hard to say what the future grid will look like. In some ways it will look like the old grid, supplied by a variety of generation (none 100% reliable) and some storage. We’ll just change the sources of supply and likely add more storage. We’ll almost certainly utilize more dispatchable load.

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  • Mike SR

    This is practically a whitepaper on solar installed base today. In particular, the projections for cost of solar vs. nuclear and coal are enlightening (yellow/gray graphs). My father worked to help design/build Shoreham Nuclear Power Station on Long Island, NY in the 80s. It took more than 10 years to complete and then was never commissioned. Think about the timeline and sunk costs (billions of dollars). I think that fast design/installation of solar panels on any parking structure roof in the west/southwest in a matter of months explains part of the difference. You can effectively build your own solar “plant” with off the shelf parts today. Consider it.

    • Anonymous

      Well said 😀

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  • Anonymous

    I do hope solar energy succeed.
    But this article is severely biased and just points the good things about solar. I’ll try to do the same exercise but on the other side of the barricade.

    Indeed solar power is very abundant, the problem is to collect it, I know there are a few deserts in the world, but the area required to harvest solar energy is huge, not all Earth surface can be covered, nor it’s placed in a convenient zone.

    About solar power costs. Germany (that indeed is not the most sunny place on earth), has spent 6 times more in solar energy that on wind energy, but solar output is just 1/3 of that of wind. Prices are falling fast, true; but it’s not just solar energy that is becoming cheaper. Buying gold or long term bank accounts are a much better investment… even with huge FITs.

    Solar industry is failing everywhere except in China. Europe is almost out of it, US manufactures are going bankrupt and others are facing an extremely pressure from China.

    Electricity from solar is indeed tinny, about Germany the biggest player and quoting:

    By 2008 solar PV was producing a grand total of 0.6% of Germany’s electricity. 0.6% for €35bn.

    Solar makes a lot of sense in some cases, but it’s not a dream come true… far from it.

    • Anonymous

      I’m sorry but you’re off with several points here.

      Yes, a lot of space is needed for solar. But we have a TON of rooftops and parking lots and ROWs where solar could easily be placed.

      The solar industry failing? I don’t think you’ve been keeping up with the industry at all if you think that’s the case. The solar energy industry is the fastest growing industry in the U.S.! It now employs more people than the coal industry,.. in 5,000 companies. It is a net exporter (even to China) by $2 billion!

      Solar PV installations have grown 69% in the last year (40 times faster than the US economy as a whole).

      The amount of sunlight hitting the earth is so large it’s almost inconceivable what it could power.

      Costs are coming down, but even without that, I’ve seen utility company CEOs speaking on the fact that solar is a good investment now because of the long-term changes in the energy industry (over the next 20 years).

      If you include the price of CO2 and other externalities (as some policies do), solar is already cost-competitive (at the least).

      • Anonymous

        I agree that my post was looking at just one side of it and that can be extremely unfair. But I wanted to show that solar energy are not just roses.
        I agree with one thing though, roof tops are an excellent idea that needs to be more explored.

        But I still have to hear from the solar defenders about the net energy that is produced from solar PV systems, all those jobs, investment, growth in installations, … has turned to what… 3% of energy in Germany – one of the wealthiest countries in the World?!!!!! Wow!

        • Anonymous

          You have to get to 3% before you get to 6% and to 6% before you get to 12%….

          Germany did the world a huge favor. They (and Spain) built the solar market to the point where economies of scale started the huge decrease in price that the whole world is now enjoying.

          Germany is now likely to support a lot of solar installation in southern Europe and will then buy power from there. Put the panels where the sun shines more in winter. Germany will benefit from panels in Germany during long northern summer days and from panels further south.

          The Europe/North Africa grid is starting to be built. Here in the US, we need to be paying attention.

        • Anonymous

          As Bob says.

          It won’t be too long before that number doubles. And some projections even put the number at 25 percent by 2050.

    • Anonymous
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  • Anonymous

    I think one or more of your graphs might already be out of date.

    Over at GMT it is being reported that solar farms are starting to sign 25 year sales agreements with utility companies for $0.10/kwh.

    I’ll try to dig up some info/links for you.

    If it is possible to wholesale PV electricity at a dime per kWh then the world has changed.

    And I suspect your 10GW by 2015 graph is incorrect. That’s a linear function plotted. Solar is growing exponentially. I’ve seen projections of 32% growth per year. That would double in only a bit more than two years (2.3 years) and take the 10GW closer to 12GW.

    Finally, solar is already cheaper than coal if you add in the hidden costs of coal. Coal, electricity form paid off plants, is our most expensive source of power when we included health and environmental damage costs.

    • Anonymous

      Thanks, Bob.

      I follow GTM, but may have missed those. Let me know if you find something.
      On growth, yeah, it’s hard to predict. It has been exponential, but hard to know if that will continue.

      Included mention of the hidden costs/true value thing above, but not in the graphs shared. Will highlight it more in the next draft. Have some charts on that, but they aren’t the best. Let me know if you have anything top notch. Otherwise, think I will make something.

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