From the comments

To Tyler and to all commenters: beware mood affiliation.

It can simultaneously be true that (1) solar technology has substantial environmental and economic downsides, (2) very few people are aware of these downsides, and (3) solar technology is a great boon to humanity’s present and future (i.e., the world we live in is superior to a counterfactual world with no solar).

Also keep in mind that in the grand scheme of things, today’s decisions matter more in terms of the technological path they put us on rather than the actual kWh generated today. If solar is generating 50% of Earth’s electricity in the year 2100, then a 5-year acceleration or deceleration in the technology/market/regulation environment could be worth trillions of dollars.

Lastly, many ‘arguments’ seem to occur where one person makes a true claim with a certain mood. A commenter disagrees with that mood, and makes a different true claim. A second commenter disagrees with THAT mood and makes a third true claim. This pattern of discussion is not always healthy. We should hold ourselves to a standard higher than saying things that true. We should say things that build useful generalizeable mental models. If we only say the counterintuitive hipster ‘facts’ we can in fact paint a misleading picture even though we share only facts that rigorously true. (Tyler, I love you and your work, but this is one of the ways that I think your writing can improve. Contrarian statements, even when true, can sometimes be less good than other true statements. I understand this is vague, but I hope you understand.)

That is from Ted.

Comments

It's interesting that many are framing this argument as the equivalent of : "Oranges are expensive - we should not eat Oranges. Apples are cheaper." Or: "They don't have Oranges in Alaska, therefore we should not eat Oranges anywhere." Or: "Even if we may be running out of Apples, we should not plant Oranges, because we like Apples better." Or: "Since we can't live by eating only Oranges, we should not eat any Oranges."

Or as two competing musicals -

West Side Story - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NPlcE3GcoFc

vs.

The Producers - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HPXHRX8Q2hs (obviously the original version, as the audience reacts the way Americans always used to towards anyone clapping at the end of such a lavish display of musical devotion)

I see a lot of "ifs" in that article. I have been an eager follower of PV for over 60 years. I got a tiny PV cell in the mid 50's to experiment with and loved the concept and believed in it. Since then the story of PV has been a series of claimed breakthroughs in efficiency and price that would finally make PV practical. Still not true. If you compare all the costs a commercial PV generation facility will provide electricity to the consumer for about $.25-$.60 a kWh while the cheapest existing commercial generation operations will provide electricity to your door for about $.05 a kWh.

If you look at it another way the pure stupidness of commercial PV becomes obvious: When competing with cheap alternatives to generate electricity PV will never generate enough electricity to even pay for itself. That is a dollar of actual costs for PV will in it's economic lifetime generate about $.50 worth of electricity. What makes this calculation so much worse is that almost all of the expense of PV is the energy costs to mine, manufacture, transport and support it. It is a net energy loser and always has been. It's only practical purpose is where any other alternative is simply not possible, viable or cost effective such as a remote ranch house or a space station. It is not practical for commercial energy generation and may never be.

What is is practical for and does extremely well is mine taxpayer dollars in huge subsidies and that seems to be it's only driving force today.

I guess all studies of cost are wrong then. Because costs of solar power now are lower than gas and nuclear and near even with coal according to the studies I read.

Studies aside, I looked into actually getting solar panels for myself just two months ago. Factoring in the 30% tax credit (my state offers none, so it's just the federal), the best I could do would be to break even in about 12 years. That is assuming the cost of electricity from my provider doesn't change (it's declined over the past decade), my demand doesn't fall (a decent assumption, since while things are becoming more efficient and will likely continue, I will likely have more children living in my house and their demand will rise with age), and that I do not replace my inverters (possible, but this cost is really ignored because who knows what inverters will cost at the end of the ten year expected life of inverters bought today). This was not the estimate of some coal speculator, but the promises of solar panel installers trying to sell me their service.

I have personally read zero studies on solar power, just articles written by third parties, but I am very skeptical of something that is still economically stupid, even with 30% of the bill paid for by someone else.

Residential solar costs about 3x utility scale....

At its best, solar is cheaper than than coal or nuclear but more expensive than natural gas. And, yes, this is before factoring in tax credits. See the estimates of levelized cost for different types of power plants (not residential installations) from the Energy Information Agency: https://www.eia.gov/outlooks/aeo/pdf/electricity_generation.pdf

"Studies aside, I looked into actually getting solar panels for myself just two months ago. Factoring in the 30% tax credit (my state offers none, so it’s just the federal), the best I could do would be to break even in about 12 years."

What state are you in? That makes a big difference.

And as previously noted by "Sandia", residential solar has much higher costs per kWh than utility solar.

If you want to know why residential is so expensive in US:

https://www.greentechmedia.com/articles/read/how-to-halve-the-cost-of-residential-solar-in-the-us#gs.X40fYEI

"At its best, solar is cheaper than than coal or nuclear but more expensive than natural gas. And, yes, this is before factoring in tax credits. See the estimates of levelized cost for different types of power plants (not residential installations) from the Energy Information Agency: "

Yes, I see that. And I see that they assume a capacity factor of 87 percent for conventional combined cycle and advanced combined cycle natural gas power plants. The question is, what was the average capacity factor for conventional combined cycle and advanced combined cycle power plants in the U.S. in 2017 (or 2016, or 2015, or other recent year)?

Exactly! "all studies of cost are wrong then". You stumbled into it. If you make believe there are no subsidies AND if you ignore the cost of money THEN a PV system still will never pay for itself but it will come close, perhaps pay for 50% of it's costs. And THAT assumes you live in Southern Nevada the sweet spot in the U.S. for solar power. If you live anywhere else it gets worse.

In what may well be one of the biggest ironies in the PV business China built a PV manufacturing plant and right beside it they built a coal fired electric generation facility. You see the process to make PV is heavily dependent on electric power. Imagine that IF solar power was actually all the hype claims that it is this would have been the perfect opportunity to build a solar powered PV plant. But they didn't, even with all the efficiencies they automatically inherited by being a PV manufacturing plant. They could get the PV panels for cost, they didn't have to transport them anywhere... I mean, all the stars aligned in their favor and they built a coal fired plant. They have to go somewhere else to dig the coal. They have to transport it. They have to lay pipes to bring in water and on and on but it was still the cheapest most effective solution. Go figure!

"Since then the story of PV has been a series of claimed breakthroughs in efficiency and price that would finally make PV practical. Still not true."

Utilities--especially in the Southwest--don't appear to agree. Nearly 7.7 GW of solar capacity was added in 2016:

https://www.eia.gov/todayinenergy/detail.php?id=30112

"“Oranges are expensive – we should not eat Oranges. Apples are cheaper.” Or: “They don’t have Oranges in Alaska, therefore we should not eat Oranges anywhere.” Or: “Even if we may be running out of Apples, we should not plant Oranges, because we like Apples better.” Or: “Since we can’t live by eating only Oranges, we should not eat any Oranges.”"

My objection to the previous thread about solar would not quite fit that analogy. It would be more like:

The phone company provides affordable landline phones to everyone because they spent a huge amount of money to build and maintain a network of lines connecting the whole country together!

Someone can get a mobile phone today and not need a landline phone at all! In many cases that might be more affordable!

No no no, if fewer people have landlines then the fixed cost of all those cables will be divided among a smaller number of users increasing their costs. Also since lots of the assets will no longer be used at full capacity, that unused capacity is a waste, therefore we must add that to the cost of the cell phone when considering whether or not it is a good or bad thing.

Traditionally the economic risks of an asset belong to the owner of the asset. Consider taxi cabs. Before uber taxi cabs might be heavily used to capacity. After uber taxi demand gets more erratic (because like solar on sunny days, you can't always get a uber driver whereas before the 24-7 on call taxi cab company was always available). Since the taxi owner reaps the rewards from owning the asset, we normally assume he assumes the risk that his asset may suddenly become less economically viable.

Mood:

https://youtu.be/N0nyOyrprIs

Does anyone really click on blind links posted by anonymous posters?

Why not take 3 seconds and write a sentence explaining the link.

I think pasting blind links should be raised to near the top of the list of annoying and inconsiderate internet actions.

If you have been reading "bear" comments, you can probably puzzle it out, based on yesterday's news and confirmation of my long held views.

I got one, with Trump's "I am a very stable genius." I also got one in my replies to Ted in the original thread.

But, I tell myself, don't get cocky.

Overall I think too many people on this page take Ted and Tyler too narrowly. This is really about how right (or wrong) you have been with your past reasoning, about where you let mood or other affiliation blind you.

I got one, but I won't get cocky. I believe firmly in bounded rationality, including my own.

50% of the load? Sure. I stopped reading there.

Not a science fiction fan, or simply unfamiliar with this idea? 'Space-based solar power (SBSP) is the concept of collecting solar power in outer space and distributing it to Earth. Potential advantages of collecting solar energy in space include a higher collection rate and a longer collection period due to the lack of a diffusing atmosphere, and the possibility of placing a solar collector in an orbiting location where there is no night. A considerable fraction of incoming solar energy (55–60%) is lost on its way through the Earth's atmosphere by the effects of reflection and absorption. Space-based solar power systems convert sunlight to microwaves outside the atmosphere, avoiding these losses, and the downtime due to the Earth's rotation, but at great cost due to the expense of launching material into orbit.' https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Space-based_solar_power

Add in a space elevator, and you solve many of the problems identified since the first powersat proposals from the 1970s - 'A space elevator is a proposed type of space transportation system. The main component would be a cable (also called a tether) anchored to the surface and extending into space. The design would permit vehicles to travel along the cable from a planetary surface, such as the Earth's, directly into space or orbit, without the use of large rockets. An Earth-based space elevator would consist of a cable with one end attached to the surface near the equator and the other end in space beyond geostationary orbit (35,786 km altitude). The competing forces of gravity, which is stronger at the lower end, and the outward/upward centrifugal force, which is stronger at the upper end, would result in the cable being held up, under tension, and stationary over a single position on Earth. With the tether deployed, climbers could repeatedly climb the tether to space by mechanical means, releasing their cargo to orbit. Climbers could also descend the tether to return cargo to the surface from orbit.

The concept of a tower reaching geosynchronous orbit was first published in 1895 by Konstantin Tsiolkovsky. His proposal was for a free-standing tower reaching from the surface of Earth to the height of geostationary orbit. Like all buildings, Tsiolkovsky's structure would be under compression, supporting its weight from below. Since 1959, most ideas for space elevators have focused on purely tensile structures, with the weight of the system held up from above by centrifugal forces. In the tensile concepts, a space tether reaches from a large mass (the counterweight) beyond geostationary orbit to the ground. This structure is held in tension between Earth and the counterweight like an upside-down plumb bob.

To construct a space elevator on Earth the cable material would need to be both stronger and lighter (have greater specific strength) than any known material. Development of new materials which could meet the demanding specific strength requirement is required for designs to progress beyond discussion stage. Carbon nanotubes (CNTs) have been identified as possibly being able to meet the specific strength requirements for an Earth space elevator. Other materials considered have been boron nitride nanotubes, and diamond nanothreads, which were first constructed in 2014.' https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Space_elevator

clockwork_prior January 6, 2018 at 10:47 am

Not a science fiction fan, or simply unfamiliar with this idea?

So you are saying that if only we had a whole bunch of technologies that we do not have - and are wildly dangerous by the way - then solar could totally make sense?

Great. Thank you for your contribution.

The time frame is almost 100 years.

The retansmisssion of the energy back to Earth (using microwaves) would be a fantastical weapon, of course.

"Nice megalopolis you have here, shame if our deadly ray 30 km in diameter went straight through it. Better pay so that our operators do not make any mistakes."

"Mr. Dent, have you any idea how much damage you would suffer if I just let it this microwave beam pass straight through you?"
"How much?"
"None at all."

There is a formula for depth at which photon / EM wave energy deposition is 37%. Microwave wavelengths/frequencies have significant energy deposition at depths relevant to humans.

Ted's a moron. This was well-established in the thread just after his absurd comment.

>50% of the load? Sure. I stopped reading there.

Exactly. Not Tyler, though -- he was so enamored, he posted it again!

"50% of the load? Sure. I stopped reading there."

By 2100? I would say that's virtually certain...unless a new nuclear technology (like liquid thorium reactors) becomes spectacularly inexpensive.

We might draw some further distinction between Dr. Zycher's comments. I am particularly interested in the first, which is demonstrably false but sufficiently arcane that very few readers will be able to rigorously evaluate its truth value. What is the standard for sharing such a "fact"?

We should say things that build useful generalizeable mental models.

That strategy always works well with my wife when I come rolling in at 1 am.

That got a chuckle out of me. Well done.

I rarely read comments, but was happy to have read this one. I am glad Tyler saw it as well.

Especially considering how much attention Prof. Cowen apparently pays to the comments at MR - 'I only remove overt obscenity, libel, and racism when I spot them. I don't spend that much time looking at the comments section, would rather write more posts. I say just ignore them.' https://www.reddit.com/r/IAmA/comments/5xv3am/i_am_tyler_cowen_blogger_at_marginal_revolution/

Not sure why this is your thing now.

Let us just say that any longer term commenter that pays the slightest attention to comments over time in a thread knows that someone is carefully reading the comments, even if it may not be Prof. Cowen as quoted on reddit. And that this reader of comments is definitely interested in considerably more than 'overt obscenity, libel, and racism.'

No need to rehash such a discussion in more detail, seeing as we both know how that turns out anyways. This is not a new subject, after all.

"We should say things that build useful generalizeable mental models. If we only say the counterintuitive hipster ‘facts’ we can in fact paint a misleading picture even though we share only facts that rigorously true. (Tyler, I love you and your work, but this is one of the ways that I think your writing can improve. Contrarian statements, even when true, can sometimes be less good than other true statements. . . .)" Kinsley the contrarian got on my every nerve, and Cowen the contrarian sometimes does too. What I love about Cowen's work is that he isn't afraid of constructive criticism. Yesterday I suggested that Cowen had assumed the mantle of contrarian to be provocative, and regrettably I connected the two to hypocrisy, which at least one reader read as implying that Cowen is a hypocrite. My bad. My very bad. Cowen is no hypocrite. Cowen is one of America's foremost public intellectuals. One with a thick skin, no less. A contrarian statement might imply that the person making it is acknowledging that the particular issue is subject to differing and equally plausible views. I suppose that would be provocative since most people are certain they are right and anyone who disagrees must be wrong.

"Also keep in mind that in the grand scheme of things, today’s decisions matter more in terms of the technological path they put us on rather than the actual kWh generated today"

So ignore the facts we face and keep the dream alive. Perhaps we should rethink steam car engines? Did we really give it a chance? Perhaps with massive government subsidies, we could make it economically viable.

Resources are limited and spending resources on technologies whose full true costs are ignored by advocates isn't the best path.

'Resources are limited and spending resources on technologies whose full true costs are ignored by advocates isn’t the best path.'

As electric utility rate payers in San Diego, the UK, and Finland are now fully aware of.

"technologies whose full true costs are ignored by advocates"

Like coal, and to a lesser extent, other fossil fuels?

Companies generally do not spend on things that will pay off in 20 or especially 50 years time.

This is why a successful economy has significant additional governmental allocations contributing to technological development, most especially through general education and higher education, but sometimes in the form of favourable terms for promising areas of technological development.

For example, many European colonial empires had significant government-led research endeavours through various institutes, etc., and East Asian growth success stories are generally accompanied by significant government involvement in technological development, in particular at earlier stages.

i do wonder: was that OP self aware hypocrisy and written for the humor? If so, it was indeed an epic troll.

Isn't hypocrisy generally self-aware, in the sense of the compliment that vice pays to virtue?

What is the connection between mood and solar?

The two counterfactuals are covalent bond vs ionic bond.

Ionic bonds are hugely expensive to contain in huge piles all over the place, unstable with low energy content. Sipping covalent energy bonds around the globe is not all that expensive, though pipelines are more inefficient than wires.

Covalent bonds, the only way to go.

Salt is maintained in huge piles in many places.

+3 for an interesting sounded nonsensical analogy.

Not nonsense if you are referring to the advantage of gasoline relative to lithium ion as energy storage!

Building a consensus on any question is hard. But it is arguably also the single most important evolutionary development in the history of homo sapiens.

What is the purpose of communication, web-linked or via wetware, if not to build consensus on a perceived threat or opportunity?

And what is the purpose of a contrarian statement in that context? Does it engender healthy skepticism, or simply erode the possibility of reaching consensus?

As long as wetware influences our species, mood and emotional response are likely to remain determinative factors in building consensus.

Maybe if we put a virtual chip in our brain we could outsource the answer to a computer-directed groupthink?

The options are in favour or counter-revolutionary.

And some people wonder where the term "reptilian overlords" comes from ...

Tyler like to give advice to Tyler. Tyler likes!

Let's have a Conversation!

Sounds like the commenter is making an argument for mood affiliation: true statements with the wrong ("contrarian") mood affiliation are something we should be careful about.

"Also keep in mind that in the grand scheme of things, today’s decisions matter more in terms of the technological path they put us on rather than the actual kWh generated today. If solar is generating 50% of Earth’s electricity in the year 2100, then a 5-year acceleration or deceleration in the technology/market/regulation environment could be worth trillions of dollars."
-------------------

How much ice will Elon Musk and pals melt today while he builds the lithium infrastructure? Probably the optimist plan on adding 2% more CO2 in the next 10 years while reducing much more than that in the next 90.

What happens if we find a better way to make liquid fuels by then? Then we need another 10 years to remove Elon and pals and replace all that infrastructure, we are melting ice for 20 years and have reduced our expectations of future returns.

The better path is to keep liquid fuels, simply based on the efficiency we have learned in chemistry. Then, solve the following equation:
solar + atmospheric co2 yields liquid carbon fuel.

We can do this inefficiently, say at 5% vs the solar electric of 15%. Then we still beat lithium over the 50 year horizon, based on what we know today.

I like your way of thinking. The short sighted use of [non renewable] natural gas in power plants for a slight CO2 reduction is threatening my way of life. Compressed or liquefied natural gas can be used for air transportation with some R&D costs, and some trade off in terms of available space inside aircraft, as LNG is somewhat less than JP5/kerosene in energy density per volume, and CNG is a lot less dense.

It will always be easier to move electrons than liquids.

But liquids are easier to store than electrons. It is more likely that liquids would be a temporary solution until a better battery (or other) solution is figured out.

While the path being most important is true, it asks us to suspend disbelief that wind/solar technologies that have come nowhere near to helping anyone achieve sufficiency without subsidies even in the medium term after hearing 50 years of blather and spending untold sums of money (not counting airtime and head time) on alternative energy while inducing Europeans to dirty the air with coal seems about as sensible to me as destroying a random European town in 1750 in the hope that it would prevent the rise of Hitler or Lenin a couple of centuries later. People were talking up solar and wind and fusion as "just around the corner" technologies in the Carter era. Too much money has been wasted and too many prices have been distorted (and rents created) to make this a sensible path for the world.

Might as well ask WHICH better technologies have been harmed by distorting GNP growth for so many decades.

Apples are not oranges, and the well-known failure to produce profitable energy surplus from fusion does not negate the easily-researched volume of the renewable energy supply.

Also, for many areas, using renewables contributes to energy security, because I don't think anyone would trust Russians or Texans (for example) to prioritize foreign energy security in a crunch.

“Also keep in mind that in the grand scheme of things, today’s decisions matter more in terms of the technological path they put us on rather than the actual kWh generated today. If solar is generating 50% of Earth’s electricity in the year 2100, then a 5-year acceleration or deceleration in the technology/market/regulation environment could be worth trillions of dollars.”

True. But most of the money we spend on renewables today isn’t on a pragmatic research path toward an eventual net benefit. It’s on implementation right now, even though it makes no sense economically or scientifically.

I’ll restate something I’ve said before. Ontario is one of the most indebted governments in the world and yet its residents have been forced to spend almost $40 billion more than they needed to on energy even as the province suffers through the coldest winter in 60 years.

They could have built 40 new hospitals with that money. So tell me, who’s suffering from mood affiliation.

"True. But most of the money we spend on renewables today isn’t on a pragmatic research path toward an eventual net benefit. It’s on implementation right now, even though it makes no sense economically or scientifically."

This. I wonder why we in Europe had to build so many solar plants when the technology was expensive. Were the resources - both actual and humen - that went into building these power plants really necessary?

"Ontario is one of the most indebted governments in the world and yet its residents have been forced to spend almost $40 billion more than they needed to on energy even as the province suffers through the coldest winter in 60 years."

Yes, one should never talk about non-hydro renewables versus fossil fuels or nuclear without first mentioning location. Africa or the U.S. Southwest? Photovoltaics make tremendous sense. Ontario or Germany? Photovoltaics make far less sense.

Some of that is related to the debt structuring that co-incided with opening up the energy sector to private competition.

If oil were $100 a barrel, the situation would look quite different ... I don't think anyone suggested at the time of specific subsidies to solar and wind production that it would be a sure thing to become technological leaders in those fields.

Expecting people with little relevant experience ("the chattering classes") to come up with generalized mental models via chatter with near-strangers on social media in their spare time seems far too optimistic. Sharing interesting facts and links, and telling stories of our personal experience is about the best we can hope for. If we can learn to share what little we know without unnecessary heat, I think we would be doing well.

>beware mood affiliation.

No kidding.

Apparently, on this blog, anyone pointing out the obvious ongoing (for decades) shortcomings of solar power "needs to be countered."

"Apparently, on this blog, anyone pointing out the obvious ongoing (for decades) shortcomings of solar power 'needs to be countered.'”

Yes, absolutely. Just like anyone in 1918 pointing out the ongoing (for decades) shortcomings of aircraft.

Someone's figured out a way to use solar power that might provide the ability to extract water from the atmosphere for near-to-zero cost, even in desert-like conditions, via metal organic frameworks.

Solar is so stupid.

"That is from Ted." Nice sermon, Ted.

I prefer Ted's talks.

When people value the "useful" over the "true", the only result is an edifice of counterproductive lies.

Since the topic is mood, I'll mention that 2017 was the year the Australian federal government finally accepted there will be no new coal power stations built in Australia and no refurbishments of old coal power stations. I expect this mood, which I christen "grumpy acceptance", will mellow over the next year or two until they realize they were actually always in favor of moving away from coal.

How is that working out in South Australia?

I predict that the right side of politics will ditch their LINO Prime Minister and choose someone sensible who is capable of sustained rational thought as it relates to the real world. And Australia will build coal fired power stations once more.

It is amazing how fast a cold snap clarifies stupid thought.

Yep. Definitely the reason the coal power stations are not being built is because the pro-coal party is not sufficiently pro-coal. But once they increase their coal adoration levels high enough, private companies will suddenly go, "Hey! Look at that! Coal power stations suddenly make economic sense!" And they'll start building coal generating capacity they previously rejected as uneconomical.

So Much For Subtlety, here is a news article on how AGL found renewables plus gas turbines and other dispatchable power sources cheaper than refurbishing an old coal power station or building a new one:

http://www.news.com.au/national/breaking-news/agl-to-close-liddell-power-station/news-story/c64cef61b868464e1a2198b0bcc1ea7c

After all, it only seems fair to warn you that Australia's power companies have betrayed Gilgamesh, the god of carbon, and you must now denounce them with furious commentary.

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This will inevitably end thusly:

"Here's what I think you should build into YOUR mental model!"

"Oh yeah? Well, here's what I think you should build into YOUR mental model!"

"Oh, a wise guy, eh...?"

Etc., etc.

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