Which is the more important headline?

US solar power nears competing on price (“US solar power will compete on price with conventional generation within three years without subsidy thanks to plummeting costs, industry leaders say.”)


Oil leaps as Opec descends into acrimony

Is a falling oil price a necessary concomitant of viable solar power on a large scale?  Or not?  Is the price of natural gas falling through the floor?  I missed that headline.

I thank Jim Olds for a relevant pointer.


I'd say not. Certainly not in the short run because by and large, at least in the U.S. applications of solar are more likely to compete with coal or natural gas than oil. (There are places like New England that do power generation with oil but I'm not sure they're ideal locations for early adoption of solar. So for the most part I don't see oil and solar being very tightly coupled.

I mean, yeah, you could see a move towards lightening cars to a point that direct-charging them with some kind of super-efficient solar could be viable. But any engineering that makes cars more solar efficient would make gasoline-powered cars even more efficient (and virtuous-circle higher mileage.) In the long run solar-generated electricity could begin to displace gasoline in conventional cars but I don't think "within the next three years" counts as a long run.

If there was more overlap between oil and solar then I'd really expect to see solar become competitive even without plummeting costs and the upcoming generation of innovations. That they're anticipating becoming competitive against coal and natural gas and not oil sounds either wildly optimistic or else very impressive. (My friends in alt-energy policy think there's a magic price point where economies of scale on both supply and demand sides will trigger downward acceleration of the price of solar. That could be pretty cool, Nathan Myhrvold's silly complaint about the color notwithstanding.)

Note: And just as I'm about to press submit it looks as though an unknown-to-me stock analyst at Seeking Alpha seems to think there's even more room for optimism for at least two companies he expects will excel in a price-declining commodity-solar market. His analysis is better than mine but mine's consistent with his. But also note that analysts with optimistic plays are often motivated to share their enthusiasm with finance journalists. We'll see, I guess, within three years.


Agree. Hawaii is another place that does a lot of electricity generation with oil; while they get a lot of sun, they don't really have a lot of surface area, but maybe it could help them.

If solar can compete on price, it will compete with coal, natural gas, etc. for electricity generation. I suspect that oil will still have solar beat on the weight/volume issue, though perhaps a hybrid solution could be useful.

Last I checked, Hawaii's average solar incidence per square km was maybe a little less than Arizona's. Being more tropical also means more storms.

If at all solar became competitive the first place I'd look for a hint would be electricity generation profits and prices.

Solar and wind in the US are at a disadvantage due to massive subsidies for alternative power generation. If you have a home in remote rural New England, without subsidies, wind and solar are cheaper and are becoming cheaper. The obstacle is you the homeowner must be a capitalist, sacrificing consumption in the short run to invest in energy producing capital.

The standard alternative is to turn to a sometimes for-profit, but historically coop electric utility and ask them to invest hundreds of thousands in power line capital, channeling government wealth transfers to fund the capital investment. You will be required to pay a portion of the capital costs, but only a portion, and it will be spread over a decade or more with no interest and added to your power bill. And if anyone connects into the line, they will be billed for a share of your costs, and you can even get a rebate on the amount you have paid. If you sell the property, the cost of capital assessment is transferred to the new owners and they continue paying monthly. If that isn't socialism, then Obama is hardly a socialist, for everything about electric power in the US involves government dictates, government directed transfers of wealth, forced payments enforced by government, and often the individual pays a high price if they don't buy from companies making a lot of profits.

Imagine the New Deal not including the REA so few farmers could get electric power unless they built their own electric generation plants. At the time, wind power was used to pump water. Wouldn't the US be faced with the situation in Africa and Asia where solar power is a superior way to bring light into your home at night so your kids can read and study? Wouldn't generating methane in biodigesters be a cheaper and cleaner way to cook than buying kerosene or burning dung?

Fossil fuels, especially oil, not to mention nuclear, produce electricity at a lower price because of massive government controlled capital investments, wealth spreading, and out and out subsidies - the Global War on Terror is all about oil. Some African doing a terrorist attack in the US because he claimed Clinton wanted his tribe slaughtered in Rwanda, with credit claimed by the Rwanda Kill American Front would not have resulted in a war, just sending FBI and CIA to arrest them. The West has installed and supported dictators in the Persian Gulf region for one reason, control of oil - this has required a heavy US imprint in the region, and al qaeda was just one liberation movement like the Boston Tea Party that got lucky and got headlines.

Just because Congress dictated the shape of electric power economics in the New Deal doesn't mean we are forever bound to FDR's "socialism" forever. The electric power system, the entire energy system is a creature of Congress, not the "free market".

You forget a historical fact that neither wind nor solar were anywhere close to where they are today back then. For most of the 20'th century it made a lot of sense to do centralized generation in spite of the large transmission costs.

X<Y has lots of solutions

My problem is that I feel like I've seen headlines similar to the former all my life. Solar power price equivalence thanks to plunging costs always seems to be a few years away. Once it actually happens, that will be an important headline.

Wonder if Intrade has a relevant market about this?

"My problem is that I feel like I’ve seen headlines similar to the former all my life. Solar power price equivalence thanks to plunging costs always seems to be a few years away." Similarly, fusion power is only forty year away. Always.

Nuclear power will be competitive if only government got out of the way, dictated where power plants can be built overriding local opposition, dictated which States must bear the risks of spent fuels to save reprocessing costs and promote increased uranium mining on government land, subsidized enrichment in government dictated and funded plants, and insured investors from all losses and risks from building and operating nuclear power plants, and removed plaintiff access to civil and criminal court to adjudicate torts.

Similarly, fusion power is only forty year away. Always.

US fusion research tends to get censored. Anything which might help foreigners build fusion bombs is not publishable, and possibly this slows the research.

If we were to push for fusion completely independent of whether we also get cheaper H-bombs, maybe we'd get quicker results. I don't know how to tell for sure unless we try it.

Seconded. My first reaction is that the second statement is a headline and the first statement is a prediction, probably made by people who want that prediction to be true.

Or, more precisely, people that want to encourage yet more government subsidy. By making it seems like self-sustainable green energy is just around the corner they make political support of subsidy that much more appealing. What politician wouldn't like to claim he played a pivotal role in bringing green energy to the masses or, at least, get to pretend like virtually every kilowatt of green energy isn't produced at heavy cost to the tax payer today?

Isn't the second headline also based on a prediction by people who want it to be true? (I.e. people buying oil because they predict and hope that the price will go up)

I didn't read the second article but the headline says "leaps" not "will leap" so I took it as a statement, not a prediction. The article may be a prediction, I don't know.

Oil will be cheap and in amply supply only if government gets out of the way of corporations and invades and occupies Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq, et al, and protected the free market capitalists from the arrogant people who think living on the land for thousands of years gives them superior property rights to Exceptional Americans who deserve to take anything they want.

What if we paid for the two trillion dollar cost of Global War on Terrorism by taxing oil, which after all is the reason for that war? If there were no oil in the Persian Gulf, then US interests in the region would be like our interests in what has gone on in Rwanda,Darfur, Kosovo, Bangladesh, Greece,...

Let's leave subsidies out of the discussion. Green energy subsidies pale in comparison to the subsidies handed out for dirty energy production.

Let’s leave subsidies out of the discussion. Green energy subsidies pale in comparison to the subsidies handed out for dirty energy production.

Heh, are we leaving them out or discussing them? Seems to me you're doing the latter. In that case, green energy subsidies are massively higher on a per unit basis. That's even counting as "oil subsidies" subsidies that aren't specifically for oil and are reasonable tax treatment to start with. The biggest single named "subsidy" is the ability to deduct from US taxes extraction royalties paid to foreign governments as taxes; however, they basically are taxes, and most world governments have a territorial based tax system anyway instead of taxing worldwide income.

>within three years

Solar: It's the Power of The Future.

And it always will be.

As stated above that's fusion. Assuming you come here because you are an evidence based thinker, signs really do point to solar (wind in my state) taking over a lot of energy production. Potentially we'll even be able to decentralize production, though that will require a leap of solar and battery tech that is still in their infancy.

Not. The energy pie is large enough for all to eat without fighting.

Worst case OPEC can always throttle supply.

"Is a falling oil price a necessary concomitant of viable solar power on a large scale? Or not?"

No. Solar is to produce electricity. Oil is not used (except in some odd places, like the last 1-2% of peak demand, or island nations like Jamaica) to produce electricity.

Electric cars might change the oil price, so would fuel cells running on natural gas, but not solar PV per se.

No need to wait for fuel cells -- conventional ICE engines run very well on compressed natural gas. This is already pretty common with buses and other fleets, and for private vehicles in some places in the world. There are conversion kits that enable vehicles to run on either gasoline or CNG by flipping a switch.

In Indian cities more than half cars have converted to CNG. The economics is very attractive; especially for taxis and public transport it is impossible for a diesel or gasoline operated taxi to compete any more.

Don't overlook the death toll. In this week's Telegraph: old dear buys electric car, trips over re-charging cable and dies.

I would guess that the latter is a bit more volatile. I expect the cost of solar to steadily decline while the price of oil will move erratically up and down.

So is the price of natural gas falling rapidly? I haven't seen that headline yet.

Natural gas prices are now lower than they were from 2003 to 2009. All tha shale gas is lowering the price. American ammonia producers have not gone forward with mid-decade plans to return to ammonia production from coal because natural gas got cheap enough again.

No. Spot prices have risen slightly this year. The futures curve is in moderate contango. (Although nat gas in North America is half the price compared to Europe)

Re: Spot prices up this year. But the medium-to-long term trend, which is really what we're talking about if we're talking about solar, is downward due to shale gas.

Re: Europe. Natural gas prices are only higher in Europe because NG contracts in Europe are priced based on the price of oil.

The price of natural gas fell rapidly two years ago but has held fairly flat since. There were headlines back when the price fell. Its price isn't news anymore.

The futures market for natural gas in 2016 is 30% higher than today's price, so the market views the collapse in the price due to shale and LNG to have been a one time event, not a trend into the future.

If solar is really on verge of price parity with coal, and there are massive renewables subsidies everywhere,
why does solar have pretty much zero market share, even compared with other renewables like wind?

I'm going to take a guess that the limiting factor is manufacturing capacity for solar panels - every efficiency increase
in manufacturing increases demand until it reaches subsidies-above-coal levels where it becomes uneconomical to install more solar.
Wind power sees something similar, even if at much higher scale.

As far as I can tell scaling wind turbine production up is far easier than scaling solar panel production up.

John Thacker is right - we've seen this exact headline for many decades now - I have a collection of "just around the corner" and "any day now" and "just a few years away" quotes going back nearly half a century. It's starting to sound like predicting the rapture, "Oh, well, that last one was wrong, but *this* time I know I'm right ...".

Check out Wikipedia's timeline. First modern solar cell from Bell Labs in 1954. Salyut-1 and Skylab were solar powered 40 years ago.

Also remember, the current predominant (nearly universal except for Nanosolar) method of making solar cells (including that used by First Solar named in the article) requires quite a large amount of coal (and thus emissions) both to smelt and heat the silicon to extremely high temperatures and run the slow Czochralski doped-crystalization process.

Finally, for that just have irrepressible faith in eventuality of progress (which is more a religious than scientific mood) then why won't the same forces making solar generation cheaper also make combustion plants and coal mining cheaper? Wouldn't magic technological progress always keep currently uncompetitive alternatives perpetually uncompetitive? If not - you've got to concede stagnation in the current established power sources - but if you concede it there, why not solar too? Look again at the timeline and the history of media - both popular and technical.

"at peak demand"

It isn't competing on baseload prices.

@David: Sure, but I'm not sure what "at peak demand" means since solar has no variable costs. If it means that solar's average cost per kilowatt-hour (which depends only on the capital cost and the capacity factor) is exceeded by market prices at the peak, well, solar is screwed without subsidies for a long, long time.

I think that/s exactly correct. The average levelized costs of solar are the same as a natural gas peaker plant. Or, in other words, somewhere in the neighborhood of over twice as high as a baseload natural gas plant, which is about 4-5 cents. Honest estimates of solar are north of ten cents.

Thanks guys, I was pretty sure this was overly optimistic.

I find it hard to believe solar will truly compete within 5 years. 10-15, maybe.

The solar companies are a little guilty of putting their best foot forward in this article. They're comparing their cost to "peak" pricing (the highest prices of the day) in California (one of the highest cost electricity markets). If you compare your prices to the highest of the high prices, you get a skewed picture. Additionally, they're comparing their pricing to NEW generation construction. Currently power plants are selling at approximately less than sixty cents on the dollar because the demand for electricity has fallen with the recession - you'll notice that very few non-renewable power plants are being built at the moment.

Going back to the original question - oil and solar power aren't true competitors in power generation. Typically, oil is used in peaking facilities that aren't designed to be run 24/7 and only come online during the coldest winter/hottest summer days. Additionally, these facilities usually sell their power on a merchant basis (no long term contract; just when there is demand at oil's high price of generation). Solar plants generate whenever they can and sell because their incremental cost of a kilowatt of generation is very very low and their power is sold under long term contracts to secure debt to construct the plant. Is it possible that oil goes to $8 a barrel and pushes down the total cost of generation slightly? I suppose, but the far bigger factors will be the prices of coal and natural gas which hold far larger portions of our generating capacity as noted above.

As a final note on solar, the current market dynamics will appoint the solar company with the lowest cost structure the victor. So, the race toward the bottom has begun and they may surprise me.

Natural gas prices will be hard pressed to go lower than they've been in the past year - the break even for drilling in the most cost effective areas is around $4/mmbtu and this price is likely to climb over the medium term as the EPA and state agencies start to increasingly regulate fracking.

With Germany's decision to drop nuclear and subsidize solar and other non fossil r&d, look for Germany to be beating us in the future while we still chant drill baby drill.

I assume that is satire, correct?

No, Bill hates oil almost as much as he hates reality.

True. Clearly oil is our long-term energy savior.

I assumed that was why we weren't drilling now, thus saving our oil for future generations.

When the choice exists between drilling for more oil domestically or importing more -- why are we choosing to import more? Why not create more jobs here and keep more capital here?

No doubt solar will become increasingly viable -- but why not drill baby drill domestically now? No need for either/or thinking. Anti-domestic drilling voices are essentially chanting import baby import!

When the choice exists between drilling for more oil domestically or importing more — why are we choosing to import more?

If you're asking why private US oil companies prefer to import oil rather than drill more here, my doctrinaire orthodox answer is that they must want to maximise their profits because that's what corporations are supposed to do according to the theory.

If you're asking why the US government doesn't pile more subsidies onto domestic oil drilling, my doctrinaire orthodox answer is that the US government does what lobbyists and focus groups tell them, and they must think it would be unpopular with voters or with influential lobbyists.

If you're asking whether it would be a good idea, I don't know.

Imagine for a moment that we have subsidies on our agriculture so they get cheap fuel to run tractors and combines etc. Imagine that these subsidies are so big that farmers can export our grain at a profit, but the nation doesn't make a profit because the government is making up the difference between what it costs to import the oil versus what the farmers pay, and that's more than the profit. And so the more food we export, the more oil we have to import at a higher price to do that, and at the margin exporting food makes our balance of payments worse.

If that was true, would we be better off to import the oil and pay for it, or would we be better off to subsidise more expensive oil here, and then give it to farmers so they can export food?

It would cost the government more to drill for expensive oil at home, but at the same time all the oil-drillers and pipeline guys etc would have jobs. The extra money would be going to stimulate our own economy into pointless activity. I'm not sure how to calculate which is worse.

What I am sure, though, is that in this hypothetical case either approach is worse than getting rid of the agricultural subsidies and exporting only the food we can export at a profit to the nation. Regardless where the oil comes from, we are better off not to use it to make stuff that requires a subsidy to break even. At least for most things.

(This thinking is oversimplified but it's mostly kind of true on average anyway.)

Germans will meet its energy needs with sunbeams and zephyrs whereas Spain went bust.

That's because Germans are geniuses. Spaniards are . . .

Has anybody estimated how many acres (would it square miles?) of solar panels and/or wind farms would be required to power an auto plant or te Empire State Building?

I see the price of food rising . . .

I see the price of solar... not falling.

I seems they left a major cost out of their price calculation.

Yes, they left the cost of covering the entire earth with solar panels out.

You don't need to go anywhere close to covering the Earth with solar panels. The sunlight hitting the Earth is orders of magnitude higher than mankind's current energy use rate.

I made a reply to T Shaw that the spam filter ate, but 0.02 square miles of panels would provide 9MW of power at peak time, and 9MW is usually enough for the Empire State Building's peak power consumption times.

On sunny days, or on average?

With maintenance, or without?

Is the product lifetime reasonable?

I said "at peak time." I meant it, too.

Questions about cost and maintenance weren't asked, just the area of the solar panels needed for the ESB. Probably because the poster thought it would half the state of New York or something.

Turns out tall buildings are pretty good at being efficient.

I'm not really a solar cheerleader, but c'mon, the cost cuts in recent years have been impressive. Will they get to widespread grid parity without a carbon tax? I'm pretty skeptical of that, but I think more and more solar will make sense in some high-cost areas and maybe some far-sighted building owners will invest in solar as an energy price hedge. My guess is that solar will soon be more than just a gimmick, even if it's never more than a niche product. I'd rather talk about wind.

I think the spam filter ate my other reply because it had URLs.

But the short answer is 0.02 square miles of solar panels to power the Empire State Building at its peak times.

Which is roughly the surface area of one side of the Empire State Building (it's about 0.2 mi high and 0.1 mi wide on its south side)

Hmm, interesting: so light+heating or colling+elevators generated from light at 15% conversion rate?

I found the sample panel by googling "affordable solar." They're selling it now, rated at 230W at 1.61 square meters. I assume that requires pretty solid noonish sunlight, which is probably also when the ESB's needs are the highest. It probably doesn't get that much on the side of building, though.

Average yearly insolation of NYC should be ~5 kWh/m^2/day. Add to that a cell efficiency of about 20%.

I think Dan's estimate is reasonable.

Revisiting the question: I mentioned that solar probably wouldn't compete directly with oil, at least in the U.S., because so much of the oil we use goes into gas tanks. The energy density of gasoline is kind of awesome relative to pretty much everything except maybe compressed natural gas. Definitely awesome compared to batteries, which has tended to handicap electrics which in turn would tend to handicap even very-efficient solar generation.

This morning's news about what amounts to "battery goo" which is allegedly about half the weight of conventional batteries and which and can be drained and refilled with fresh charges service-station style while also being conventionally trickle charged at night. If that pans out it might help dent oil demand and thus at least dent marginal prices at peak price points.


Gasoline has a 3x higher energy density than even compressed natural gas. Assuming we are talking of volumetric energy density. On a per-kg basis natural gas is just a wee bit better than gasoline perhaps.

The only way of getting high-density liquid fuels in the long run is Fischer Tropsch. Unless you want to wait for superman batteries.

Mass is more important than volume for this application, as long as you're not talking truly fluffy propellants like hydrogen.

And I don't think the ratio of specific gravities is that high. Methane is less dense than the long chain hydrocarbons, but not by that much. I think it's about half as dense as gasoline, when stored as a liquid.

The fact that the US seems to hoard its oil is vote of no confidence in the ability of alternative to replace liquid fuel.

If anyone took alternative energy seriously, we'd be agressively pursuing oil in atticipation of a coming peak in oil prices.

Domestic oil production is about the best economic stimulus there is. It contributes to GDP twice before even considering multipliers. Each barrel produced increases GDP by the price and second time by the reduction in imports.

As someone mentioned earlier, the actual numbers are misleading as it's comparing the cost to generate solar without subsidies with the price that NG plants get for electricity during peak times. That being said, the costs have dropped 60% which is impressive, and the nice thing about solar is that its peak generation time corresponds nicely with peak energy usage.

The only way it would replace oil is if we were to switch to fuel cells and had enough capacity to use solar energy to produce hydrogen from water, and the process to get hydrogen from NG sources would probably always be cheaper. Also, solar isn't going to be viable for the parts of the country that get less sun than California or the Southwest.

Hydrogen from NG is a bad idea. H2 has such a horrid storage density it'd be far more logical to convert natural gas into liquids or use CNG straight in IC engines.

H2 was one big red herring on the energy landscape; wonder why it got there!

Most of the world's hydrogen is now produced from NG. And they do it to convert the energy in the natural gas to liquids (anhydrous ammonia or methanol).

I'm not saying it's necessarily a good solution, but unless solar powered cars become useable, H2 cars are probably the only way to fuel vehicles off of solar. And H2 from natural gas is more efficient than H2 from solar.

Often the prices quoted per megawatt are simply the cost of the panel and the peak output of the panel in direct sunlight.

What you really want to know is the overall cost of the system, including megawatts generated per year given average cloud cover, and including the losses from transmission lines, battery charging, the cost of the batteries, inverter losses, real-estate, installation costs, supporting infrastructure like mounts for the panels, cost of maintanance to keep the panels clean, and all the rest. When you do that kind of apples-to-apples comparison, the cost of solar doesn't look quite so good.

Still, there have been impressive improvements in technology, and there are new technologies coming that will make solar much more practical.

But ultimately you're limited in power by the amount of solar flux available, and that means solar will not make up a significant fraction of our energy needs. It would just require way too much area.

For example, the average solar energy per square meter is about 5 kWh per day in the U.S. The best solar cells are somewhere around 15-20% efficient in converting solar energy to electricity. Call it 1 kWh of electricity at the terminal of a 1m^2 solar panel in one day. A Chevy Volt has a 16 kWh battery. If your charger is 70% efficient at getting electricity into the battery, it would take 23 days for a square meter of solar cells to charge the Volt's battery. Or another way of looking at it - put a large solar panel charger on your Volt, and after a full day of charging you can drive about a mile and a half. That's being generous with efficiencies, and assumes the panel is always aligned directly into the sun, there's no other smog or other limiting factors.

This has nothing to do with solar technology - it's a fundamental limit of how much solar energy is available, which in turn limits the way in which we can use it.

You make a bunch of good points, but

But ultimately you’re limited in power by the amount of solar flux available, and that means solar will not make up a significant fraction of our energy needs. It would just require way too much area.

There is a lot of solar flux hitting the Earth. Every spot in the continental US averages over 3 KWh/square meter/day. So that's 3GWh on 1 square kilometer.

The US uses 4156 TWh of electricity a year or 11.4 TWh every day. So that's like 3800 square kilometers of the US to completely power it.

Even if we can only get 10% of that power, that's still a fraction of our land. If I did my decimal points right, it's 4% of 1% of 1% of the continental US.

Solar does have issues (like only working in the daytime), but the amount of solar flux isn't one of them.

Think about the scale of what you're talking about. At 10% efficiency, that's 38,000 square kilometers of industrial construction. We have never, ever built anything remotely like that in scale. And in reality, you would need a lot more space than that, because you need room between the panels. And to extract the maximum amount of energy from the solar flux, the panels have to tilt towards the sun and move with it. Then you have to recoup the energy cost of building, maintaining, and replacing something of that magnitude.

The limits of solar flux matter because energy density matters. The less dense your power source, the more difficult it is to profitably extract that energy, and the more infrastructure you tend to need to get it. OIl and coal and natural gas and nuclear are extremely dense energy sources. Solar and wind are not. So while they will play a useful role in the future energy mix and may eventually combine to provide 10-20% of our energy needs, they will never be able to supply the majority fraction.

If I wanted to build solar power plants, I wouldn't look to solar-electric technologies anyway. Solar electric is more suited to distributed power applications. Thin-film solar applied to shingles might help offload a portion of household electricity, thin-film solar applied to an electric car's roof will provide a trickle charge to keep the battery topped up and a small fan blowing to keep the interior cool, small solar cells can power road signals and remote antenna warning lights and the LED lighting in your camper. More and more of those applications will become viable as solar cells come down in cost and become easier to apply to different materials. But we aren't going to be powering our factories with them.

Solar thermal power plants have more potential for concentrated power generation.

38,000 sq km is less than the surface area paved for transportation infrastructure in the US.

Yes, and that was cheap and easy to build, and requires no upkeep.

Those are not problems of scale. Whatever obstacles solar faces, scalability is not one. There is enough insolation, and if you can profitably collect that diffuse insolation for general-purpose generating capacity, you can do so on a large scale. If it becomes the most competitive choice outside small niches and can hit 2% of generating capacity, it can scale to 20% of generating capacity.

It's one thing to build a bunch of highways which are fixed concrete structures with no moving parts and strong, cheap materials that last a long time. It's quite enough to build 38,000 square kilometers of glass, steel, pipes, electronics, motors, gears, wiring, and all the other things that would go into a large solar PV plant. The cost per square kilometer would be much, much higher, and the maintenance requirements would be at least an order of magnitude greater, and probably more.

And the interstate highway system is still the largest engineering project ever undertaken, and it was built at a time when labor and materials were much cheaper.

I was recently in Germany, and they've been heavily subsidizing solar for quite some time. Driving around the countryside, you see solar panels everywhere. Many houses have panels on their roofs. They are way beyond the U.S. in solar adoption, to the point where the infrastructure for it is visible just about anywhere you go. They also have 23 very large solar power stations. And how much of their power do they get from solar? About 2%.

I talked to one of the people who put solar panels on his roof because of the government subsidy, and he told me that it was a mistake - the government's promise of his return on investment wasn't even close to being realized, and he figured that even with the feed-in tariff he was probably going to be worse off for having installed them.

I then asked him what the government's plan was for refurbishing all those solar cells when they all start to fail in a decade or two, and he said there is no plan. That cost hasn't even been factored into the equation.

Germany also has the world's largest photovoltaic power plant in Finsterwalde. It covers 250 acres of land, has 225,000 solar panels, and generates about 36 million kWh of power per year. For perspective, this is about the same power output capability of an Hyperion Modular nuclear generator that fits on the back of a truck.

Your constraining assumption is the solar panel mounted on your car. Cover your house roof with a photovoltaic and suddenly you are seeing 150 miles.

Why do I need to consider " including the losses from transmission lines" for solar. Of course, transmission lines are a government transferred rent from the landowners to the corporation to deliver cheaper electric power to its customers. Power line, gas line, roads, etc., right of way takings are government transfers from individuals to for-profit corporations.

And after government dictates you must give the right of way, government then increases your taxes because you have been provided with road frontage, water, sewer, electric, gas, telco, etc access on the right of way which you benefit from even if you don't connect to any of them.

A solar power installation in your own property provides you value in direct proportion to your investment without others getting a free ride on your sacrifice of land and capital.

If you lived in a wilderness area without having granted any right of way to anyone else, what would be the cost of solar over a lifetime relative to your other fossil fuel or nuclear options?

Your "apples to apples" comparison ignores the socialized capital investment and free rents of our current fossil centric system which "transfers wealth" between people of the same and different generations in order to promote building a huge productive capital asset base to make our current US global energy system affordable based on technologies of the New Deal. The Cold War nuclear just can't compete with the New Deal system even with massive government market distortion, and solar runs up against the New Deal system design based on large scale central power when it is a distributed individual energy solution that doesn't need the New Deal government control fossil fuels depend on.

My argument had nothing to do with the economics of taxation or free rents or who pays. I'm talking purely about the efficiency of creating and distributing energy from an engineering standpoint.

You need to consider transmission line losses because traditional power plants are generally located very close to the consumers of the power. A large wind or solar plant is not likely to be located very close to consumers, and therefore when calculating the total cost of producing usable power, you have to consider the additional losses of transmission lines. Or, if you're going to locate your wind or solar plants near consumers, that greatly reduces the number of suitable areas for those plants, and that in turn limits how much of our total energy we can get from them.

In addition, other plants can provide power on demand when needed. Solar and wind cannot, and therefore if you want to use it to provide baseload power you need some way to store the energy, and that brings in additional losses. Battery charging may be only 70% efficient, and discharge losses accumulate. You can pump water up into a reservoir and then use gravity to power turbines, but there are losses at every step of that process, too.

I agree that solar makes all kinds of good sense for remote areas that are off the grid. Solar also makes a lot of sense for embedded applications, such as self-powering ventilation fans. Use of solar coupled with high efficiency lighting on farms can reduce the need to run power lines everywhere. Solar trickle chargers can keep batteries topped up on equipment that's used infrequently. There are many good uses for solar power, and it's great to see it coming down in price.

> You can pump water up into a reservoir and then use gravity to power turbines, but there are losses at every step
> of that process, too.

This can only really work if you have the appropriate topography available. And many of the places that look like this are already in use for hydroelectricity production.

I appreciate your critique, but I think the difficulty of energy storage is under-emphasized. It has to be a whole lot better for solar to be viable, because you just can't count on solar to generate power when you want it.

Agreed. There are some interesting solutions, though. There are solar thermal pilot plants that use solar concentrators to melt salt, and the molten salt is then stored in large vessels and the heat is used to drive turbines. These types of plants can generate power 24 hours a day. Unfortunately, they're not ready for prime time because of practical issues - the highly corrosive nature of the salt mixture, the difficulty of managing miles of pipeline with 700 degree molten salt flowing through it, and worst of all - if the plant shuts down, all that molten salt solidifies in the pipelines and creates an incredible mess.

There are solutions to this - for example, Nevada has a project that uses molten salt in a huge tower, kept molten by heliostats focused on the tower. This avoid the problem of having to run the salt through pipes all over the plant, but then your heliostats have to track the sun and that adds cost, maintenance, and construction effort. Still, this is probably a better way to go than large PV solar plants. The limitation here is that it's only going to work in places like the Nevada desert which gets a very large amount of solar energy.

Is a lot of the difference due to energy content of oil to be easily storable/portable - and alternative sources not so? Each will have its uses but some forms of energy storage are more flexible than others.

People forget it all boils down to one basic principle: how much energy can be produced per unit?

For example, let's say you have a container 10' x 10' x 1''. Now fill that container with various fuels, say oil, solar panels, and ethanol. Which fuel provides the most bang for the buck?

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