Arnold Kling  

Solar Power Update

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MIT Technology Review reports,

By the end of the decade, manufacturers in the United States could make solar panels that are less than half as expensive as the ones they make now.

Would that be so impressive? Compared with Moore's Law, it's a snail's pace. And here is the kicker:

To make solar power more competitive, installers will also need to reduce costs. Installation and the cost of inverters, wiring, land, and financing account for half--and sometimes as much as 80 percent--of the cost of solar installations. Much of this needed cost reduction could be achieved by improving efficiency, which would reduce the number of panels needed in a project.

I was more optimistic about solar power five years ago than I am today. I agree that when solar power becomes competitive with fossil fuels, it is likely to continue improving more rapidly, so that energy usage patterns will change sharply. But I would push the date for that out past 2025.

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COMMENTS (9 to date)
E.Atkinson writes:

The important point isn't that its costs are going to be cut in half by the end of the decade, but rather that it will be cheaper than fossil fuels long before then. Solar has already reached grid parity in a select few other places in the world, and may already be making parity in a few places in the states.

The larger challenge isn't bringing down the price of solar panels, but making them widely adoptable. Battery technologies have a long way to go before centralized solar plants can replace coal plants on any significant scale. Dispersed solar panels, on the other hand, has a potential that few other energy sources have.

I think that Moore's law has given us unreasonable expectations about how quickly technology moves. I read an interesting illustration of why that may be: take the processor chip vs. the battery. The processor functions better the closer its components are to each other. The extra space achieved can be used for more processors or smaller devices. Furthermore, given their size, it is easy to manufacture and ship processors all over the planet. However with batteries, because you can manipulate the chemistry only so much, you have to make batteries larger to make way for more energy storage. That method is quickly subjected to diminishing marginal returns and is expensive.

I recommend looking at for a pretty interesting look at the world of alternative energy.

RGV writes:

Comparing anything to Moore's Law is ridiculous. ML is the exception to the rule. Everything else grows at a snails pace.

Kevin L writes:

I think other parallel technological changes, like using DC low voltage LED light fixtures that don't need inverters, will make solar panels attractive in southern latitudes. Energy storage is still a big cost for the foreseeable future.

Chris Koresko writes:

Would solar panels be competitive if they were free?

I'm not sure what the answer is. The cost of installation, storage batteries, wiring, power conversion, interfacing with the grid, etc. might be enough by themselves to keep the price of solar energy above that of coal and natural gas, for most of the market.

Will the cost of fossil-fuel energy rise or fall over the next 20 years? I don't know the answer to that one either. We're nowhere near running out of either of them, and the technology to extract and use them is likely to improve a fair bit. So they might well get cheaper.

What about externalities? Even that one isn't clear. Coal and gas can be burned in power plants that cover only small areas of land and placed near cities and factories, whereas solar arrays must shadow vast areas to produce comparable electric power. Those panels need to be manufactured, and that involves large quantities of energy and toxic chemicals, and so do storage batteries. And the panels need to be kept clean, and availability of fresh water doesn't correlate well with clear skies. And solar panels have finite lifetimes, typically much shorter than that of a big steam turbine and boiler, if I recall correctly.

One way solar might make clear sense... maybe... would be putting the light-to-electricity converters in high orbit. There they shadow nothing, are in (nearly) continuous full sunlight, accumulate little dust, and occupy no real estate. It's been demonstrated that power can be transmitted to Earth's surface efficiently via microwaves, and collected using large 'rectennas' which block little sunlight, so you can farm under them. Power densities are low enough that the beam is not especially dangerous (no cooked birds). This idea comes from Peter Glaser in the 1960s if memory serves, but it's never been practical. More efficient power electronics -- and solar panels -- might change that.

The trick of course is figuring out how to build the collectors in orbit without blowing your budget. Launching mass from Earth has been much too expensive for that. But there's a fair chance we'll see a large drop in launch costs over the next decade. The new SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket is supposed to be about a 6-fold reduction in cost per unit mass to orbit compared to its nearest competitors, and there is a credible effort to make some of its major components reusable. So we could easily see a factor of 10 or more compared to today's launch cost.

We'll have to wait and see.

Steve Sailer writes:

About a year ago, Costco started selling a portable solar panel / battery system for car camping. It was expensive but at least it was real and practical enough for Costco to offer it. So, that's progress.

Jeremy, Alabama writes:

Northern latitudes further reduce the effectiveness of solar because the sun goes away for longish periods, such as the winter. An impossible 100% efficient panel produces zero when the sun is not in sight. Even in sunny countries, e.g. Spain, solar is putting governments out of business.

By what arcane method do we bring the cost of "inverters, wiring, land, and financing" into balance with other uses? It's called the market, and the market says solar is not profitable. At some latitudes solar will never be profitable. A truly private investor in solar power would have gone broke and be living in rented accommodation by now. But well-connected political clients and allies are making billions.

Solar power has nothing to do with economics, ideology, green causes, energy independence, technology, Moore's Law, or climate. My belief is that government funded solar projects have been universally abused as a means of transferring wealth to political cronies.

John Thacker writes:

The first comment, while I'm not sure about the claim, does get at the real point. The absolute improvement doesn't matter, it's the comparison.

Internal combustion engines in cars have dramatically improved in efficiency in the last 30 years. However, people don't realize it because a great deal of that efficiency has been put into higher power output.

cke writes:

Solar has one potentially competitive advantage over conventional electricity generation: solar can compete at the retail level as opposed to the wholesale level, and retail prices of electricity for the average home owner tends to be double, or more, the wholesale price of electricity.

Of course, the upfront cost will continue to be a downside, but the cost comparison should not be generation cost but the retail price of electricity.

diz writes:
Solar has one potentially competitive advantage over conventional electricity generation: solar can compete at the retail level as opposed to the wholesale level, and retail prices of electricity for the average home owner tends to be double, or more, the wholesale price of electricity.

Hoo boy, is this far from true.

If you want to compare solar costs to grid prices, you can't rely on the grid to be there when the sun is not shining.

If everyone goes to stand alone residential solar, the grid will fail to exist. In the current system the cost of the grid is amortized across power sales.

The cost of maintaining the grid is what accounts for most of the difference between wholesale and retail pricing.

Solar PV, quite frankly, is a joke. It is not even close to competitive with other renewables on a wholesale cost basis. And those other renewables are no where close to natural gas fired CCGTs.

But if you wish to worship at the temple of Solar PV, I'm OK with that. All I ask is that you spend your own money to advance your religious beliefs, not mine.

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