Five More Solar Power Myths

Ok, so here are the other five promised solar energy myths.  See my previous post for the first five.

6 – Solar power can only exist with subsidies/tax breaks

Right now this is actually true in most places for most solar power technologies. There are probably some thin film installations and a few concentrated solar thermal installations that approach cost effectiveness, but in general without some sort of subsidy, solar can’t compete.

Yet.

The reason it can’t compete, yet, is partly because every other form of energy is heavily subsidized as well and partly because true, industry-wide economies of scale haven’t truly kicked in yet. Coal, oil, natural gas, hydro electric, nuclear… all of those industries get money from the government and lots of it. Solar companies would love a level playing field, either remove the subsidies from the competitors (not realistic), or give us a taste. Solar really only needs a little, and the ideal model is based on a feed-in tariff so the subsidies are power output driven.  Traditional energy also has decades, in some cases, centuries of industry establishment, solar is catching up, but it’ll take another few years.

That said, with the price of electricity in many parts of the US expected to double in the next five years, and the price definitely rising rapidly everywhere, combined with the falling price of different solar technologies, solar power won’t even need a level playing field soon enough. In as little as five years, unsubsidized solar will be a cost effective way to generate electricity in many places.

7 – Solar power needs extremely intense sun to work (solar isn’t for Canada, New York, the UK etc)

For now, the real cost considerations for solar are the regulatory environment and the price of electricity. I know this slightly contradicts what I said in myth 6, but note the clever inclusion of the words “for now“.  Barry Cinnamon, the CEO and founder of Akeena Solar, outlined this better than I ever could in this podcast (definitely worth a listen).

If you go to solar conferences, especially conferences in the US South West and California, they’ll show you these beautiful NREL Direct Normal Irradiance (DNI) maps.

http://www.nrel.gov/gis/images/us_csp_annual_may2004.jpg

NREL Direct Normal Irradiance US Map, original image URL: http://www.nrel.gov/gis/images/us_csp_annual_may2004.jpg

They’ll talk about land speculation in the Mojave desert and write off solar development in the rest of the US.  Here’s Germany’s DNI map:

Germany DNI Map

Germany DNI Map

Germany is the currently biggest solar energy market in the world.  If intense direct sunlight was an absolute requirement for a viable solar market, then that would be impossible.  Spain and Japan also have large and growing solar energy markets, and neither has sunlight like the Mojave. Spain averages between 6.0 to 8.5 kWh/m2/day depending on the region.) In every case it’s not the amount of sun, but a positive regulatory environment, and expensive electricity.

Having lots of intense sun is great, but Ontario up here in Canada is going to out pace many US states for solar (including Southern states), mark my words.

8 – The only viable solar power technology is…

I’ve heard enough versions of this many times, people who latch onto thin film or Concentrated solar thermal and treat all other solar technologies like they’re trivial sideshows or over hyped non-starters. Some people have this weird tendency to latch onto a single metric and then just over simplify the market and dismiss amazing or at least viable technologies.

Thin film is cheap and getting cheaper, but it’s not very efficient and needs lots of space to generate power. Concentrated Solar Thermal can store heat for use later, but needs perfect site conditions or the price goes up. No solar power technology is a one size fits all solution; all of them have their strengths and weaknesses. Basically, I’m not even going to waste my time on this one, if you really think there’s only one “real” solar power technology, then you’re wrong.

9 – Solar is a bad investment compared to other alternative energy sources

This one I’ve heard often, and it’s not as crazy as myth number 8. Solar is still the most expensive, although the degree to which that’s true is less every day.

Most solar technologies are on the high end of the price scale, but solar technology prices are falling fast so the graph below will be out of date very soon (it is already actually).

Costs of Different Renewable Energies in California

Costs of Different Renewable Energies in California

ALL renewable energy sources need to be explored, and all of them, including solar, have their strengths and weaknesses. Per watt, wind is cheaper than solar, but wind tends to produce more power in the evenings and at night than in day which doesn’t fit a demand curve as well as wind proponents would like. Geothermal is an excellent source of energy that we should explore more of, but it’s not appropriate for all locations. The beauty of solar, wind, geothermal and other renewable power sources is that once you’ve built the systems, the fuel is free.

As a society, we need all the energy we can get. Look at Google – right now they’re building data centres where the power is, not necessarily where the users are. Power availability is the key driver for them when choosing a data centre location. We need all the power we can get, and renewable energy absolutely has to be part of our power portfolio.

And finally…

10 – Solar power will save us from global warming

If only that wasn’t a myth.

But the truth is that no amount of renewable energy adoption and investment is realistically going to stop global warming. The US and the rest of the West have designed their entire economies around the idea that oil and coal are cheap and unlimited, and that burning them is a good idea. Emerging economies like China and India are working hard to copy the same model.

The fact that neither coal nor oil are unlimited, and that there’s nothing written in stone about them being or staying cheap means that we’ve built everything on a set of false premises. That we’re discovering now that there are long term environmental consequences really just means we need to examine a broken system sooner, and that the system was more broken than we expected.

Solar power and other forms of renewable energy, and the inevitable hydrogen economy that will follow in post oil days will do many things, but only a serious, wide scale and major commitment at a society and individual level will stop global warming (if it isn’t already too late). Renewable energy will help certainly, and solar power has a role to play in the solution.

Global warming is a cultural problem, and technology by itself won’t solve it.

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2 responses to “Five More Solar Power Myths

  1. Pingback: Five More Solar Power Myths

  2. Oh my…more than half of your myths in this and your previous are actually true…please do some research before you post these kind of unsubstantiated posts that mislead people.

    Solar power IS expensive. It IS inefficient NOW. Its technology is FAR from mature. Do you actually know the conversion rate of solar panels? And the power loss in converting electricity generated from solar power into usable electricity? (The power electrical components)

    Solar power has huge potential. But research in this renewable source of energy has not being driven till recent years when everyone is suddenly concerned about climate change. On an average, it takes 50 years for a new resource to replace the former dominant resource, which is currently oil and natural gas. This is heavily driven by policy makers, and it would be save to say that NO ENERGY RESOURCE including coal, oil, natural gas, nuclear, solar and hydro (the list goes on indefinitely…) is viable without having appropriate policies to drive the industrial market. You are correct in saying the technology does not drive the change. Its the policy makers. You may not know, but they have the power to even change human conceptions through effective government policies. Solar power can ONLY EXIST with tax subsidies and incentives. Unsubsidised solar power will NOT WORK. Please check out the current costs of other energies like NUCLEAR and HYDRO. Then you will understand how expensive unsubsidized solar power is. Both grid and off-grid utility costs are driven by the industry which is in turn driven by policies. That is the reason why energy sources differ in every country.

    And for your learning and understanding, firstly technologies from places like MIT or any other research facility does not come cheap and viable. They produce new and innovative technologies from the LABORATORY. The next step is to produce a viable PRODUCTION LINE before it can be deemed viable. So please check with industry prices before you say storage can be cheap. It may just be 10 years later before the hydrogen cell technology can be viable on a competitive basis.

    Also, the REAL reason why intense sunlight is actually NOT GOOD for solar power is because most of the time intense sunlight is associated with high ambient temperature, and the maximum power drawn decrease with increasing temperature. So please grab any renewable energy textbooks and learn more about the characteristics of a solar cell before you make such ignorant comments.