This page was originally put together as two posts, but dedicating a small space to dispelling solar myths makes sense.
There are many misconceptions about solar power floating around, and lately I’ve been hearing many of them repeated in the mainstream media. Solar power is still a young industry, so that’s understandable, but these misconceptions will never go away unless people start addressing them. If you find any errors on this page, or if you disagree with something I say here, please, comment.
So, without further ado, and in no particular order – ten common myths about solar power, with the full description of each one below.
I talked about this somewhat in my last post about the MIT scientists and their hydrogen battery technology. Solar power is basically a mature technology now – this is a multi-billion dollar industry with hundreds of millions in new investments pouring in every week. The majority of that new investment is to ramp up production of existing technology, not in new research.That said, we’re developing new technology, and we’re going to have a profound impact on the CPV solar farm market as well as the BIPV market.
There’s a big space for new technology in solar, but if discoveries and new technologies stopped happening today, the solar energy market would still be thriving 50 years from now.
Solar power benefits from cheap, efficient storage sure, and on an industrial scale being able to control exactly when you get power is really valuable, the truth is for most users, solar power is producing peak electricity when people need it the most. Storage would be great for all that cheap morning power that could be stored for use for a couple of hours after sunset, but the peak demand is 2 or 3PM to 7 or 8PM. I covered this in detail in this post and I can leave it alone for now.
Right now, if you compare the average price of electricity today, to the average price of a solar power installation today, it takes between 9 and 16 years for the system to pay for itself. As an investment, at today’s energy prices, it doesn’t make sense.
Factors to consider:
- The price of electricity is going up (it’s expected to double in the next five years)
- The price of oil is much more volatile than anyone predicted 5 years ago, and people are talking about the possibility of $250 a barrel oil by the summer of 2009.
- The electricity market was mostly insulated from the recent high prices of oil but that won’t last forever.
- Cost overruns for current nuclear power projects are running into the billions, which means higher electricity prices or massive tax breaks for nuclear.
- Many proposed coal fired plants are getting blocked by concerned locals. Concerns voiced include carbon emissions, mercury toxicity and smog. NIMBY activism against coal plants will only accelerate the increased price of electricity. (That makes it sound bad, it isn’t, coal plants suck, oppose them where ever and whenever you can.)
- We’re eventually going to put some kind of price, tax or disincentive on carbon emissions. This is going to hit us at the electrical meter unless we’re in an area with a strong renewable portfolio.
These are literally just off the top of my head examples, there are literally hundreds of factors that can impact global, national or local electricity prices and energy security. So, in a perfect world, it’s true, solar is just too expensive. Given the reality of the world we live in, solar isn’t such a bad bet. Of course, the fact that solar is rapidly declining in price doesn’t hurt either.
Grid parity is the point where generating electricity through solar power costs as much or less than the average price of generating electricity.I’ve seen people refer to grid parity like it’s some fixed number, ignoring the fact that people living next door to each other in California aren’t necessarily paying the same for their electricity. Never mind the price difference in electricity between Seattle and San Diego or San Francisco and Cleveland.The price of electricity is variable throughout the day (highest between 2PM and 7PM) and variable depending on where you are. So grid parity is a moving target, and since the price of electricity is going up, it’s a fun target to shoot for if you’re a solar power company.
Also, remember that when solar power is producing electricity, the price is at it’s highest. If you look at total output to average price, solar is a few years away still. If you look at daytime output to compared to daytime electricity prices, some solar installations are at grid parity now.
Coal production in the US is so heavily subsidized in so many ways it’s frightening. I won’t go into it here, but spend a couple of minutes at Coal-is-Dirty.com, or even just do a google image search for “Mountain top removal mining”
Really, if you believe that this:
are cheaper than this:
You’re a sucker.
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.
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.
Edit: I have expanded on this myth in a separate blog post, with some additional detail and more analysis.
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.
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 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.
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.
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).
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.
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.