Friday, August 16, 2013

Solar Fail

So, this article has my silky-soft boxers all knotted up and pinching.

Let's get something straight:  I'm a fan of solar power.  A big fan.  Solar power is the energy of the future.  It's going to work, and we are going to depend on it.  Unlike wind power, which is a mature technology, and based on mechanical generators that are heavy, expensive, noisy, and dangerous, solar power is great.  To start with, let's note that right now solar power has three problems:  generation, storage, and transmission.

More after the leap of faith...

There are three varieties of solar power.  I'll list them in decreasing order of current viability.

1.  Passive solar/design principles.  Houses designed with south-facing windows, massive stone walls, breezeways, decks and plumbing designed to heat water with stored heat energy (Angus's new house, in other words) are obviously terrific.  Everyone should do this, if they live in an area where it makes sense (note:  That's not Germany).  Additional technology required to make it work:  None.  Stone are ass-kicking heat storage devices, and the wind is a mighty cooling device.  Ready to go.

2.  Massive solar generation facilities that create power through focused heat or by using other central generation technology.  This is a power plant that would supplement the electric grid in areas where peak demand is (a) in the summer and (b) on the hottest days.  Additional technology required to make it work:  This is a mechanical generation process, so it will never be good.  But there are lots of ways to improve it.  Big drawback is transmission, since this is industrial scale and takes a lot of land.  Have to get the juice from where it is generated to where it is use.

3.  Point-source local generation, using solar panels.  These are those small panels on roofs or in yards, angled to meet the sun (perhaps with motors to optimize direction).   Additional technology required to make it work:  Pretty much everything.  Current panels (generation) are expensive and inefficient.  Storage (batteries) is terribly inefficient, and making and then decommissioning batteries uses a gigantic amount of energy and creates dangerous toxic waste.  And transmission is awful.  It's expensive to retrofit for bi-directional transmission, and monitoring and payments are just not worked out yet.

My problem with solar-itis is everyone wants to start off on retail home-generation, using technology #3, often in homes (and locations) that take no advantage of technology #1.

The solution:  focus on #1 and #2, and spend public funds on improving technology for #3.  As it is, we are installing first-generation solar panels, at huge expense, when within five years we are likely to have panels that are twice as efficient if we focused on research.

Worse, nations have this strange desire to "dominate" the industry by paying the largest subsidies to their home companies, thereby in effect providing other countries with (inefficient) solar panels at the lowest cost.

Thank goodness, after much fanfare, GE pulled the plug on its "state-of-the-art" (NOTE:  in solar panel production, "state-of-the-art" means "bankrupt") facility in Colorado.  The story is here.  Even with a vast array of federal and state kickbacks and incentives, there is no way to produce solar panels that produce enough revenue to cover their (wildly subsidized) cost.

The reason is all too simple:  current panels just don't produce much energy.  There is no way to store the energy.  And since there are cloudy days, traditional generators and utilities can't cut back on capacity.  They still have to provide the full load of the system, so solar cannot take a reliable part of the generating pie.

The dumbest example is Germany.  Peak load is at night, consistently.  The thing about night is that it's dark.  There are no good battery systems.  That means that generators have no way of cutting back on capacity.  And the marginal (as opposed to average) cost of generating electricity is not that high.

But Germany has decided to "invest" heavily in solar, and to subsidize solar by charging higher rates.  As a result, Germany's investment has given that country the highest electric rates in Europe.

Regarding the article (finally):  

"It said innovative financing was the key – and could lead to growth in above all expectations if new sources of low cost capital is made available for the sector."  This is a subsidy.  People build solar for the subsidies, not the actual value of solar.  Fail.  The people who were originating mortgages from storefronts in 2006 are now selling solar panels.  It's the same scam.  They "sold" mortgages to Fannie and Freddie, and now they "sell" solar panels to the state, for the subsidies.  But it's a bubble.  The houses (in 2006) and the solar panels (in 2013) are not worth what the government is paying for them.

 "It also noted that the speed of the sector’s transition to grid parity meant that most governments are “somewhat behind the curve” in adjusting regulation to promote the desired growth of the solar sector over the next several decades."   Um..."desired growth of the solar sector"?  Why is it desired?  If it works, it will be built, because it saves energy.  If it doesn't save energy, we shouldn't desire it.

Germany has the highest proportion of solar (for an actual industrialized country) in Europe.  They have the highest (and rising) electricity costs in Europe.  And that's not counting the gigantic subsidies they have wasted inducing people to put crappy, inefficient solar panels on their roofs in the darkness.

In 20 years, solar will be useful, and used.  But it's a mistake to spend our money now on an immature and still not well-engineered solar generation system.


Jeff said...

Another Cato Unbound series? I enjoyed your stuff on recycling there.

Simon Spero said...

Passive solar is old and busted.

It's been in development for hundreds of years and where's the fun in that. Heat absorption capacity of stone floors verified by one night trying to sleep, in a good sleeping bag, on the floor of a room at an Oxford college. Also, benefits of insulation and air tightness shown by complete lack thereof.

A friend had a late 80s built passive solar house that was so well sealed that if you ran the attic fan the doors would not open. Where micro power generation would have been useful would have been in the aftermath of Fran, as a means of pumping well water. Of course, no solar panel or windmill/turbine would be likely to be in one piece, or the same place, after a Fran type event.

Aggressive solar is the new hotness.

It doesn't just benefit the solar panel industry ; there are huge spillover benefits for diesel generator manufacturers too.

Also, if other countries are spending huge amounts subsidizing production, then might it make pseudo-mercantilist sense to distort your competitor's economy by buying as many of the most heavily subsidized panels as long as the subsidized price is low enough to be viable without local subsidies? Plus, by concentrating pollution in their backyard, you are setting up future Superfund sites that will slow them down when their GDP per capita gets large enough for them to care about such things.

Especially if done on a subsidized lease, or through subsidized loans, via a vehicle that can go bankrupt when required?

This sort of Intercontinental Rent Seeking Missile is a good way to amaze your friends and baffle your enemies.

James Moore said...

German peak load is at night, but it's workweek/daytime everywhere else? That doesn't seem likely to me.

Trivial googling says Germany isn't different, and peak load is daytime:
load demand during night time and early morning will be much
less than during the day.

(I suspect much deeper reading on this requires being able to read German)

Anonymous said...

Solar power is the energy of the future. It's going to work, and we are going to depend on it.

Yep. Just like we're gonna run out of oil.

Yawn. Let me know when you've got more than prognostication.

Anonymous said...

Is Germany worse than Spain's $556/megawatt hour?

Anonymous said...

There's also solar "technology" in the more encompassing sense, like just moving to someplace that's sunny and has a mild climate. And making those places more like places people want to move to, and less like California.

Tom said...

Mungowitz: "The solution: ...and spend public funds on improving technology...."

Naive. First, there's no reason to believe bureaucrats and politicians will make better decisions about research than they do about deployment; friends of the party in power (FOPPs) will get all the dough. Second, improved technology (however financed) cannot be confined to national borders; let the Chinese waste their billions -- if they EVER make something practical, entrepreneurs of the world will copy it, and patents be damned.

Third, and worst of all, politicians can't be faithful to a "principle" like "research only" any more than they stick to any other principle. With money flowing, there will need to be field trials, then "test counties" (but only in some congressman's district). If Congress is even still bothering with excuses, there'll be humanitarian help for Poorslobistan (with foreign aid, of course) to buy FOPP's product, then a "limited" release to the needy here, with subsidy. ... and who's not needy?

"Public funding" is a curse.