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Archive for the ‘Solar’ Category

Is our solar pv panels learning?

Posted by Rich Sweeney on February 20, 2009

According to a new LBNL report (pdf), yes. For those with short attention spans busy schedules, the main findings are presented in a powerpoint here (pdf). The authors find that installed pv costs declined substantially from 2001 to 2007 (by 32% in the commercial sector and 7% in the residential sector). However, as is the typically the case when it comes to renewables, public policy is a key determinant of net costs, with the authors attributing recent movements largely to the ITC.

Posted in Solar | 1 Comment »

Is our solar pv panels learning?

Posted by Rich Sweeney on November 17, 2008

In last week’s RFF policy commentary, Stanford’s Jim Sweeney, Kenny Gillingham, and Arthur van Benthem explain that learning is key when evaluating whether the California Solar Initiative (CSI) is good policy or not. Citing results from a paper they published in the Energy Journal this year, they argue that environmental benefits alone are not sufficient to justify the CSI. However, when they add even conservative estimates of learning by doing into their model, they find that the policy becomes worthwhile and improves economic efficiency. They find:

The present value of the decreased costs of future installations due to LBD caused by one additional installed kilowatt of solar is estimated to be $1,140; the present value environmental benefit from reduced carbon dioxide (CO2), if we assume a CO2 damage of $50/ton of CO2, is only $192. This numerical estimate indicates that the primary motivation for solar policy in California should be LBD. If we do not believe that there are LBD spillovers, the environmental reasons alone are not sufficient to justify the ambitious CSI.

While the authors have a somewhat detailed discussion of the literature on learning by doing (LBD) in the paper, more empirical work needs to be done to understand the true source of these costs improvements. Home PV systems involve the panels themselves, as well as inverters and, often, battery or storage devices. Cost improvements are possible in all three of these areas, as well as in the cost if installation and maintenance. Understanding where and how learning is actually taking place will allow us to better structure and evaluate policies to promote PV in the future.

Posted in Government Policy, Solar | Leave a Comment »

Solar powered car…sort of

Posted by Evan Herrnstadt on October 14, 2008

I was driving through Maryland yesterday with some friends, and we were discussing what a new national PHEV recharging infrastructure might look like.  Although commercial PHEV’s are still at least a couple years away, Premier Power Renewable Energy, Inc. is integrating them into its projects, linking charging stations to large solar arrays mounted on a parking facility.  This story is also just one more reminder that even straight EV’s aren’t carbon-free unless the source of electricity is as well.  It’s encouraging that there are some firms out there that get that.  From MarketWatch:

Premier Power Renewable Energy, Inc., a leading solar integrator with operations in US and Europe, announced today that it has completed the first of two 201kW solar canopies which will total 402Kw, on the rooftops of two large six-story parking garages on each side of the new Trenton AMTRAK/NJ Transit center. Each project includes more than 600 solar panels. The solar systems are operated by Lawrenceville-based real estate developer, Nexus Properties, Inc. The scheduled ribbon cutting for the project is scheduled for Tuesday, October 14, 2008.

The dual-purpose “solar canopy” designed systems provide, on a combined basis, about 467,500kW hours per year — enough energy to heat and light 50 homes per year. The solar systems will eliminate approximately 141 tons of CO2 emissions annually.

In addition to producing clean energy for each of the parking structures, each solar array is being equipped with 110v charging stations for Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicles (PHEVs) and Electric Vehicles (EVs). These charging stations allow PHEVs to move closer to carbon independence by utilizing solar energy to directly recharge car batteries, reducing their reliance on fossil fuel. The power generated by the solar systems at times, will be more than the structures need, and Nexus Properties will be able to sell excess power back to the grid.

Posted in PHEVs, Solar | 1 Comment »

Solar fact of the day

Posted by Rich Sweeney on July 31, 2008

According Lew Milford at the Clean Energy States Alliance, California handed out $198.1 million in solar incentives in 2007.

According the DOE’s Solar Energy Technology Program website, total federal Solar R&D in 2007 was about $150 million.

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How we got here

Posted by Rich Sweeney on July 30, 2008

When it comes to the current climate/ energy crisis, people often scratch their heads and wonder “how the hell did we get into this mess?” As I’ve written before, a large part of the blame belongs to Ronny Reagan, who, with his infinite faith in free markets and hatred of government, killed almost all of the solar research that was taking place in this country in the late 1970s.

Yesterday I attended a conference called “Making Big Solar Work” at the National Academies. The list of speakers was impressive and contained a good mix of government and private researchers. Literally 2/3 of them started his speech with “I was working on this same problem back in 1980 when I lost my funding…” People cited all of the impressive research Bell Labs had done in this arena back in the day, and few doubted that our predicament would be much much better today had we continued down the path of funding basic solar R&D. For an idea of what I’m talking about check out this Bell solar video from 1954.

On April 18, 1977 Jimmy Carter gave this televised address. Much of it sounds like it could have come out of last weekend’s New York Times. He then went on to set a goal of getting 20% of our energy from solar power by the year 2000. Last year solar made up about .5% of our electricity generation. As an economist I often find myself chastizing pols for attempting to pick winners. Boy to I wish we’d stuck with this winner back in 1980….

Posted in Solar | 1 Comment »

The Green Monster just got greener

Posted by Rich Sweeney on April 10, 2008

I used to think there wasn’t anything I’d change about Fenway Park, but this is pretty sweet.

The green at Fenway Park will no longer be limited to the cushiony grass, historic rafters, and 37-foot high wall in left field. Enough solar panels are being installed on the roof to heat a third of the hot water needed at the 96-year-old ballpark.

City and federal officials trumpeted the environmental upgrade at Boston’s most celebrated home yesterday to highlight a $600,000 initiative to increase the city’s solar energy output 50-fold by 2015.

H/T to Environmental Capital (which I typically read before I hit the Globe sports section :) )

Posted in Random, Solar | 1 Comment »

Sun scorn

Posted by Rich Sweeney on February 22, 2008

I’ve been meaning to post on a new PV paper by Berkeley’s Severin Borenstein for a while now. Unfortunately, while I was being lazy, several other bloggers have picked it up and it has provoked a bit of rage from the renewable energy/ clean tech blogs.

Borenstein is head of the UC Energy Institute and actually presented a working version of this paper at RFF last summer. Borenstein’s paper is the most rigorous and complete analysis of the actual micro-economics of distributed PV that I’ve seen so far. Despite recent positive trends, a cursory analysis of the costs and benefits of PV indicates that it is still just way too expensive. However, the solar lobby usually points out that such analyses ignore two important benefits of PV, net metering and the elimination of transmission costs. The argument goes that when you incorporate these, PV is actually npv positive. Using cost data on actual PV installations in California and a simulation model on solar load curves which incorporates time of day and locational variation, Borenstein addresses both of these issues. The result is that PV is still npv negative, even when you incorporate very favorable assumptions.

Earth2tech quotes a SunPower spokesperson as saying that Borenstein’s analysis “is predicated on a host of faulty assumptions”. I’ve read this paper several times (and encourage yall to do the same), and I think the methodology and assumptions are pretty solid. However, the same Earth2tech post does bring up another criticism of sorts that I actually think is valid. Borenstein is quoted (perhaps out of context) as saying that people are “throwing money away” on PV. I think what he means is that if the goal is to reduce carbon emissions, then installing PV at current prices is a very inefficient way of doing this. However, from an individual’s perspective, Earth2tech is right to point out that its not necessarily irrational for early adopters to pay more for solar. They get the utility of being first. Moreover, these decisions indicate that the market may not view all electricity as perfect substitutes. I’m no expert on this topic, but the notion that early adopters pay a premium and drive down costs for future adopters sounds reasonable to me.

Posted in Solar | Leave a Comment »

Sunshine on my double-glazed low-E windows makes me happy

Posted by Daniel Hall on February 15, 2008’s Tech.view columnist has a great article up today about his research into putting solar cells on his own home. The article provides an accessible overview of photovoltaic technology as the author goes through the calculations of home installation. His conclusion? Even living in sunny southern California, he estimates that going solar would cost him “$600 a month for ten years, even after setting the interest charges against tax. And all that just to feel good about saving $75 of electricity a month.”

Although the article doesn’t state it explicitly, it sounds as if the downfall of solar technology is not only the expense — around $65,000 at his home, before any subsidies or rebates — but that there are easier ways to go green. We get a clue here, as he talks about the electricity needs of his home:

It’s not even as though the place gobbles electricity. When the house was being rebuilt five years ago, the new roof came with over a foot of thermal insulation. The floor-to-ceiling windows along two sides of the structure were replaced with double-glazed “low-E” glass (the sort that blocks infra-red radiation), and thermal linings were included in all the exterior walls. Even during the summer, the air conditioner usually stays off.

Admittedly, the architect went overboard on lighting. Fully illuminated, the house demanded seven kilowatts of raw lighting-power before fluorescent lights replaced thirsty tungsten filaments. Overall electricity consumption is now a reasonable 8,300 kilowatt-hours (kWh) a year.

Based on this description it sounds like his home is already pretty efficient. And those efficiency improvements were probably undertaken primarily because they made financial sense — the installation cost was less than the expected savings on energy. But given the author’s interest in going solar and his exactitude in calculating the cost, it’s also likely that he’s much more environmentally aware and economically savvy than your average homeowner. There’s a lot of research suggesting that many other — less savvy — property owners are leaving money on the table by failing to increase the efficiency of their buildings.

From the viewpoint of both the homeowner and the electricity company, efficiency improvements and solar technology look very similar: they reduce a home’s demand for electricity from the grid. Given the large subsidies regulators seem ready to give out to solar panels — perhaps $14,000 in this author’s case — it’s easy to think that regulators could be getting a much better deal if they figured out how to buy some energy efficiency with those dollars.

Posted in Efficiency, Electricity, Energy Technology, Solar | 1 Comment »

Solar statistic of the day

Posted by Rich Sweeney on February 12, 2008

Average number of solar hours per day in sunny southern California: 5.5

That is from John Supp, of California’s Solar Initiative. What this means is that even in southern California, a PV panel produces at its optimum output only 22% of the time. In northern California this figure drops to 18% (4.5 hours).

While there have been a lot of exciting developments on the PV front in recent months, the practical realities remain discouraging. Unless we figure out how to store this energy (or how to make the sun shine longer), its going to be a long time before PV makes a significant dent in our coal/ natural gas consumption.

More to come on the economics of PV later today (I hope).

Posted in Electricity, Solar | 3 Comments »

Solar sentence of the day

Posted by Rich Sweeney on January 2, 2008

The energy in sunlight striking the earth for 40 minutes is equivalent to global energy consumption for a year.

From “A Solar Grand Plan” in last month’s Scientific American. While I’m a little skeptical about some of the numbers used (although I think they’re probably too pessimistic on the costs side, given recent developments), it’s definitely worth checking out. The authors lay out a surprisingly clear and coherent plan for getting large scale solar farms off the ground. Nevertheless, I have a few small questions/ gripes about the plan:

  • Not sure if we should pick compressed air as the storage mechanism of choice just yet. Nanotechnology/ batteries are still promising; and a look at R&D expenditures quickly reveals that the DOE knighted hydrogen some time ago.
  • On a related note, I’m not sure if the authors properly considered how installing DC lines across regions would alter the competitive landscape. Ignoring any political/ siting barriers, I think interregional HVDC is a worthy aim and real possibility in the medium term. But those wires would be open to all generators, not just solar. The authors go on to vaguely assert that total electricity demand would go down under their plan. If DC is involved, I highly doubt this.
  • The authors suggest that society could pay for the $420 billion overhaul with a carbon tax of “0.5 cents per kWh”. I’m going to assume that this tax is listed per kWh, as opposed to per ton of carbon, strictly for illustrative purposes. Taxing all electricity generation equally regardless of carbon usage would be insane.
  • Finally, I’d just like to state my categorical annoyance at the opening statement of the last paragraph:
    • “The greatest obstacle to implementing a renewable U.S. energy system is not technology or money, however. It is the lack of public awareness that solar is a practical alternative….”

    The US and other developed countries have been funding solar research since the ’70s. Californians, some of the richest people on the planet, periodically endure rolling blackouts. Given the obviousness of the solution (duh, the sun’s hot and free) and the amount of money at stake (the total of the electricity system was around around $130 billion), I don’t think solar’s prolonged infancy can be simply attributed to some information asymmetry.

H/T The Energy Blog.

Posted in Renewables, Solar | 1 Comment »


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