Solar PV


  • Solar PV ‘cheaper than grid’ claims
  • Middle-class welfare funded by the poor
  • But what about going off-grid?
  • But what if an entire nation tries to backup solar PV storage?
  • But Amory Lovins says a smart grid doesn’t NEED storage?
  • But what about Germany’s solar?

First of all, I’m not against solar and think it will have important niche energy product that might shave a little demand off the afternoon electricity peak in overloaded grids, preventing ‘gold plating’ of the grid. (Solar PV is also the backbone of hippie hobbity earth-ships, but that’s a real niche market.) But given that solar PV only works about a third of a sunny day (and only half that again if cloudy), it is simply not going to run our energy hungry society.


Solar PV ‘cheaper than grid’ claims

Sure, if you stick some Solar PV on your roof and it cuts your electricity bill, it will pay for itself in about 5 years. Assuming a 30 year lifetime before the panels really start to drop output, that’s a quarter century of free electricity. Sounds great! But that’s because so many of us think only about our electricity bill at the beginning of this transition, and not about the long-term societal costs. People who think like this have forgotten about one great big dirty secret. Night time!

Middle-class welfare funded by the poor

They want the grid to be there for them after dark, but they don’t want to pay for it. They want solar to be cheaper than grid electricity, and don’t really want to be charged what it actually costs to cover them at night. So while reliable baseload utilities lose customers, those same customers often get government rebates to not pay for their night time grid and coal-fired power! Which has social justice ramifications. It’s downright unfair! It becomes middle class welfare, paid for by the poor.

George Monbiot analyses the costs in the UK, which are crippling, for extremely poor outcomes for the environment.

So while the electricity you might generate from large wind turbines and hydro plants will earn you 4.5p per kilowatt hour, mini wind turbines get 34p, and solar panels 41p. In other words, the government acknowledges that micro wind and solar PV in the UK are between seven and nine times less cost-effective than the alternatives….  This means it will cost about £430 to save one tonne of CO2.

Last year the consultancy company McKinsey published a table of cost comparisons. It found that you could save a tonne of CO2 for £3 by investing in geothermal energy, or for £8 by building a nuclear power plant. Insulating commercial buildings costs nothing; in fact it saves £60 for every tonne of CO2you reduce; replacing incandescent lightbulbs with LEDs saves £80 per tonne. The government predicts that the tradeable value of the carbon saved by its £8.6bn scheme will be £420m. That’s some return on investment….

But it’s mostly because solar panels accord with the aspirations of the middle classes. The solar panel is the ideal modern status symbol, which signifies both wealth and moral superiority, even if it’s perfectly useless.

If people want to waste their money, let them. But you and I shouldn’t be paying for it. Seldom has there been a bigger public rip-off; seldom has less fuss been made about it. Will we try to stop this scheme, or are we a nation of dupes?

Those customers that are being reimbursed by utility money are wealthy enough to install the solar panels in the first place, and are being paid by either public money or private utility reimbursements, both of which largely come from those too poor to buy their own Solar PV. The rich robbing from the poor in a massive green-wash that actually does not reduce carbon emissions as efficiently as the state buying nuclear power and charging everyone the same, fair price for the electricity they use.

But what about going off-grid?

Good luck with that! Buying just one Tesla Powerwall stretches the payback period out to 10 years. But that house is still grid-connected. The Powerwall might get them through an afternoon’s blackout, but most Australian homes use far too much energy to actually go off-grid. Most Australian homes could not afford the 4 days storage and vast solar array overbuild that is required to ensure year-round reliable electricity in the face of weeks of overcast weather, even here in sun-blasted Australia! We might well be the “sunburnt country”, but remember the rest of the poem! We also experience “flooding rains”, rains that (as I write) have left much of Australia overcast and gloomy for most of the last month! Going off grid requires lots of solar panels and batteries. Unless you live in an extremely energy efficient Earthship, most Aussie homes simply could not afford it. Even in good weather, solar PV only offers full output around a third of each day, dribbling power in at the morning and gradually tailing off in the late afternoon. So to go off grid during good weather requires 1 set of panels to get you through the day, and 2 extra sets to charge a great big battery to get you through the evening and night. But add in bad weather, and you may need to add a whole extra set or 2 to charge make up for a 50% drop in output. Former Australian of the Year Dick Smith produced “Ten bucks a litre” and analysed the costs of going off grid. Drag the youtube clip to 25 minutes in. This section goes for about 3 minutes. The bottom line? Back in 2013, the cost would have been $80,000, or calculated over the lifetime of the equipment, about 4 times MORE expensive than grid electricity. (The entire documentary is well worth watching).


But what if an entire nation tries to backup solar PV storage with a smart grid?

I cover this on my storage page.

But Amory Lovins says a smart grid doesn’t NEED storage?

That discussion fit more naturally into my wind power page.

But what about Germany’s solar?

George Monbiot crunches the numbers:

An analysis by the Breakthrough Institute finds that the entire German solar sector produces less than half the power that Fukushima Daiichi – a single nuclear complex – generated before it was hit by the tsunami. To build a Fukushima-sized solar industry in Germany would, it estimates, cost $155bn. To build a Fukushima-sized nuclear plant would cost $53.5bn. And the power would be there on winter evenings.

For now I will hand you over to Tom Blees 2009 article on Brave New Climate, but I am looking for a more recent critique. I’ll announce in my blog pages when I update this page. Over to Tom!

So by 2013, Germany will have committed to spending €77 billion (that’s over $113 billion USD) for solar capacity equivalent to less than 2% of their 2006 electrical demand.

Now let’s look at the cost of nuclear power plants. Setting aside the legalistic and political quagmire that characterizes the nuclear power industry in America, we can look at the cost of the Advanced Boiling Water Reactors (ABWRs) that were built in Japan in the late 90’s at a cost of about $1.4 billion/GW, and the 
Chinese’ recent estimates for the final cost of their first two AP-1000s
($1.76 billion/GW), and come to the reasonable conclusion that Germany could build Gen III+ reactors for $2 billion/GW, especially modular units in the dozens.

At the moment, Germany’s Gen II nuclear plants have strong capacity factors, including probably the best one in the world with about a 94% CF. So let’s assume that Germany’s brand new Gen III plants could average a 90% CF. For $112 billion, they could build 56GW of new nuclear capacity, for an effective capacity at a 90% CF of about 48GW. Those plants would thus produce about 421,000 GWh annually, which is approximately 68% of Germany’s electrical needs in 2006 (I keep using 2006 figures to be consistent here because that’s the latest IEA data I can find for Germany’s energy stats). Compare that with the <2% expected from solar, and of course unlike solar, nuclear runs 24/7. Now figure in the expected lifespan of the systems: Nuclear: about 60 years. Solar PV: 20-30 years. Being generous and saying 30, that means you’ll get twice as much as the already astounding 34 times the energy that nuclear will produce compared to the same solar investment.

So Germany’s ill-considered (and, amazingly, continuing) national experiment with solar power is costing them roughly 70 times (in costs/kWh) what it would have cost them to build top-notch nuclear power plants, disregarding the intermittency problem with solar, which is no small matter. In other words, Germany could have gone France one better and gone 100% nuclear and saved a ton of Euros in the process. Instead, we have the example of environmental ideology run amok, with very real and seriously negative economic and environmental ramifications.

While I suspect that solar advocates might quibble with some of my figures above, perhaps pointing out that Germany might install even more solar panels by 2013 than I project here, but really there’s simply no comparison no matter how you massage the numbers. The statistics are there in plain sight.

So what will happen in Copenhagen come December? If the result of that conference is some cap-and-trade shell game along with solemn (and ultimately ignored) promises to cut down on CO2 emissions based on fantasies of wind and solar power, the end result will be as ineffectual as the previous conferences have been.

The people on this planet will not be satisfied with an energy-starved and desperately thirsty world. Before they settle for that they’ll yank every bit of coal and oil out of the ground and toss it on our unfortunately common (funeral?) pyre, solemn promises to the contrary be damned. Delusions about wind and solar coming to the rescue are ludicrous, especially in the face of the demographic landslide in which we find ourselves until at least mid-century.

There is only one source of energy currently available that can possibly provide an energy-rich yet environmentally benign future, including supplying the massive amounts of energy that will be required to desalinate water for literally billions of people. I fully realize that pro-nuclear people at Copenhagen will probably be about as popular as a porcupine in a condom factory, but unless these harsh realities—and their politically incorrect solution—are brought to the fore, just what effect is Copenhagen going to have? What we should be talking about there is how to ramp up nuclear power while putting in place an international regime to forestall nuclear weapons proliferation in the process.

Why do I have the sinking feeling that isn’t going to happen?