Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Riding the wrong solar technology

Back in the 1970s when I was still in college, solar thermal was considered a very good idea. Photovoltaic cells were still insanely expensive at something like $75 per watt and required so much energy to make, it was highly unlikely they would ever return their energy investment.  By contrast, solar thermal only required simple mirrors to concentrate energy on a tower that collected heat energy into a fluid that turned into steam—thereby powering the sort of electrical generator we had been using for decades.  Compared to PV, it was the soul of simplicity and reliability.

Unfortunately, by the time serious, commercial-grade solar thermal facilities actually got built, the technology began to look hopelessly primitive.  All those "simple" mirrors are not so simple when they have to move to keep the focus of their reflection on the power tower.  These installations require a lot of space.  And compared to PV cells that now sell for $0.75 per watt and trending lower, solar thermal is now almost prohibitively expensive.

In the time it required to scale up the technology to a commercial size, solar thermal went from the most promising to almost irrelevant.  It has become a perfect object lesson in how insanely difficult it will be to replace our mature and highly developed fire-based energy systems with systems barely off the drawing boards.  In fact, it is so difficult, the only reason to try is that we really have no alternative but to succeed if we have any hope for survival.

California's Record-Breaking New Solar Plant Is Already Irrelevant

ROB WILE  FEB. 18, 2014,

Last week, dozens of people, including Google energy chief Rick Needham and Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, trekked out to the California-Nevada border in the middle of the Death Valley to dedicate what is believed to be the world's largest solar thermal facility in the world.

At 392 megawatts, the Ivanpah solar thermal plant will be able to power 140,000 homes — the equivalent of all of Newark (averaging two people per household).

We covered the project when BrightSource, the main developer behind the project, first put up a stunning 3-D tour of the site.

But for all its scale and beauty, in terms of the future of renewables, Ivanpah is already irrelevant.

Solar thermal creates electricity by using mirrors to direct intense amounts of heat at a centralized collector, which is used to heat a substance like water to create steam power. Solar photovoltaic, meanwhile, directly converts solar energy into electricity through semiconductors.

If solar thermal sounds unnecessarily complicated, you're right. Solar photovoltaic has seen explosive growth in the past few years thanks to plummeting material costs, state incentives, and eco-conscious homebuyers putting up panels on their roofs. But solar thermal growth has stalled, and is expected to continue to do so. Ivanpah cost $2.2 billion. Warren Buffett paid the same amount for the world's largest photovoltaic plant just up the road outside Bakersfield. That plant will generate 1.5-times as much power as Ivanpah.

As the New York Times' Diane Cardwell and Matt Wald wrote Friday, Ivanpah probably represents an end, not a beginning.

"When BrightSource and other companies asked [investor] NRG to invest in a second thermal project, said David Crane, NRG’s chief, he responded: 'We’ve got $300 million invested in Ivanpah — let me see that work for a few months and then we’ll decide whether we want to be involved in more.' "

And here's what Lux Energy analyst Matthew Feinstein told them:
“I don’t think that we’re going to see large-scale solar thermal plants popping up, five at a time, every year in the U.S. in the long-term — it’s just not the way it’s going to work... Companies that are supplying these systems have questionable futures. There’s other prospects for renewables and for solar that look a lot better than this particular solution.”
It's not that Ivanpah itself won't be cost-effective. BrightSource locked in a 20-year power purchase agreement with local utilities that includes fixed pricing, and the vast majority of costs were borne up front, according to Shayle Kann, director of GTM Research. That means the Energy Department, which lent the project $1.6 billion, and Google, which put up $168 million, will likely see a decent return.

"So it's not so much an issue for Ivanpah as it is for any future solar thermal project," he told us in an email 
But it's a sign of how fast renewable energy technology is moving these days. more
And now that China has figured out how to mass-produced PV solar panels, it looks like she will soon become the champion of renewable energy.  Considering that her coal-fired energy generation is making her major cities uninhabitable, this cannot come a moment too soon.

China Will Take Gold In The 2014 'Solar Power Olympics'

ROB WILE FEB. 12, 2014

China is projected to install 12,000 megawatts of solar power in 2014, giving it the "gold medal" in the figurative 2014 Solar Olympics, according to GTM Research.

That amount will be greater than what the United States has installed in all of its solar history.

Japan will take "silver" in 2014 with 7,500 megawatts forecast. The U.S. will take bronze at 5,300.

"China's rise to the top in global PV installations has been impressive, to say the least," GTM Research solar analyst Adam James said in the release. "Although transparency continues to be a problem in accurately sizing the market, GTM sees the shift to production-based incentives and increased downstream financing support driving deployment to new heights over the next few years."

For the first time in the past four year period, no European country will feature on the podium.

"While European feed-in tariff markets have been great at the short-distance events, the global solar market is clearly aiming toward the long-distance contenders in Asia and North America," said Shayle Kann, senior vice president at GTM Research. "But don't count out emerging markets.  By the time the Summer Olympics roll around in Rio, Latin America will be a PV force to contend with." more

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