Common Tragedies

Thoughts on Environmental Economics

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.

One Response to “Solar sentence of the day”

  1. Hydra said

    Anybody know what the latent energy in manufacturing solar cells is: how much energy it takes to manufacture one? Isn’t glass (and polymers for the newer cells) among the mmost energy intensive products to produce?

    A recent story in a local paper outlined the efforts of a local couple to install solar ( a partial system at that). Because of the orientation and construction of their house, the neede to isntall the panels on the ground. It strikes me that putting them on the roof is a bad idea anyway. Those things need to be cleaned pereiodically, and if you have aroof problem, you’d have to remove the panels to do the roof repairs. It sounds like a maintenance nightmare.

    Anyway, the article included quotes from the vendor/installer. He said that you do not install solar to save money, you do it to make a political statement.

    That’s quite a quote, coming from a vendor. He’s probably right. If you invested the money you might spend on solar in an oil company, the oil stock would probaably pay for itself, and the solar, before the solar would pay for itself.

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