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One frequently hears all sorts of claims about the potential of solar generated electricity.   These claims are not new.   They date back to 1954 when the solar cell was first invented at Bell Laboratories and proclaimed as a "breakthrough" with unlimited potential for unlimited energy, "too cheap to meter."

Of course, in 1954, there was little sense of urgency.  The possibility of global climate change was a bit of esoterica in the physical chemistry world:   The number of people in the world who were familiar with Arrhenius's work on this subject dating from the 19th century could probably be numbered on the fingers of one or two persons.

Today, of course, the matter is esoteric no longer.  Most people are familiar with climate change, and most, I think, accept that the matter is as incontrovertible as, say, Newton's laws.  

From my perspective though, I must say that the urgency of the matter is no where near expression as action.   Too often on hearing about the subject, people issue vague platitudes about how we need more renewable energy - as if saying the word "renewable," somehow was a palliative salve.

Energy however is a physics concept.   The unit of energy is the joule, often expressed - on a macro scale - as the exajoule, the exajoule being 10 to the 18th power joules.

Trends in solar energy are available on line dating back to 1992.

(Note that one thousand megawatt-hours is equal to 3.6 trillion joules, or 0.000036 exajoules.)

The results should disturb anyone with an ounce of sense who thinks that all we need to do is to wait just a little longer for the solar ship to come in.

The production in absolute energy terms produced for solar energy actually fell from 2004 to 2005.  In 2004, the total solar energy production in the US was 0.00207 exajoules.   In 2005 it was 0.00195 exajoules.

The electrical demand of the US as a whole is available from the EIA for the years 1994 to 2004:

The view is even more unsettling - at least, again, if you see solar energy as a serious tool against climate change - if one looks at the matter in percentage terms.

In 1996 the percentage of electricity provided by solar power peaked:  It was 0.0151% of US electrical energy in that year.   As of 2004, the percentage had fallen to 0.0145%.

I know that many of us would like to believe that solar energy is a more serious option in the energy future than its history suggests.   However a sober evaluation of the actual state of affairs belies this hope.  

One of the most important steps in solving a vast problem like global climate change is a wholly realistic view.   We must resist the temptation to lie to ourselves.   The matter is far too serious to be addressed by seeing what we want to see as opposed to what is really there.

Originally posted to NNadir on Wed Sep 13, 2006 at 08:14 PM PDT.


Do you think solar energy is a serious player in energy?

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| 33 votes | Vote | Results

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Comment Preferences

  •  Every Day Solar (5+ / 0-)

    I use solar every day.  My bedside radio is powered by a solar/dynamo.  My reading lights are solar LEDs. On my backpack are two solar bike lights (and a home-made button reading Solar Is Civil Defense).  None of this is counted in the energy budget, drop though it is.

    In point of fact, all of us are solar powered, unless you had a cup of oil for breakfast.  The sunlight that goes into the photosynthesis of our food and fiber is on the order of three times the total annual energy budget - electricity, gas, oil, coal, nuclear, hydro...

    Do I think solar is a serious player in energy?  Let me know the day after the sun doesn't rise.

    Solar is civil defense. Video of my small scale solar experiments at

    by gmoke on Wed Sep 13, 2006 at 08:27:55 PM PDT

    •  Well (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      A Siegel

      By that thinking since oil is from forests it is "solar powered" as well. It doesn't taste so good for breakfast, however.

      I love my solar gadgets, but the diarist does have a point for commercial production of energy. This is not going to be what powers us solely as we don't get enough energy from the sun to do it.

      •  not true (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:

        see my post below.  AMPLE energy from the sun.  

        •  Ultimately all of our energy has to be solar (0+ / 0-)

          And by "solar" I also mean wind, wave energy, hydroelectric, and biomass, which are all forms of "solar" power.

          The energy arriving on the Earth everyday is our energy "budget". We have to live within our budget.

          Oil is sequestered solar energy. It is buried in the ground and is like having a bank savings account. We can live on our energy "income" that arrives everyday from the sun, but if we continue to live beyond our income, using up our savings account, pretty soon we will be broke.

          Nuclear power, geothermal energy, and tidal power are the only other forms of energy supply that are not solar.

          Tidal energy is being developed.

          Geothermal is not available everywhere, but in places like Iceland, it can be a major source.

          Nuclear may end up being part of the mix, but it's potential is not unlimited, and until nuclear plants can be made "intrinsically safe", meaning that they can't meltdown, it's too dangerous for broadscale use.

          "Like the mirror told me this morning, it's all done with people" - Wavy Gravy

          by offgrid on Wed Sep 13, 2006 at 11:58:41 PM PDT

          [ Parent ]

      •  Primary and Secondary Solar (0+ / 0-)

        Solar tends to be invisible.  The energy budget does not include the solar contribution to agriculture nor the solar contribution to space heating through south-facing windows nor the solar contribution to lighting throughout the daylight hours.  We take that as a given and leave it out of our calculations.

        That is my point.  

        Yes, it is important to recognize that the contribution of solar electric which we do count as part of our energy budget has declined.  Yes, it is important to discuss the practicalities of a shift towards a solar economy, as necessary as it is possible.

        Secondary solar is doubly invisible.  Wind, biomass, and hydro are all considered separately, generally, sometimes not even attributed to solar.

        These are obvious facts that are not often part of the conversation and, because they are not part of the conversation, we start from false premises.

        As biological creatures, we are solar powered.  Until we recognize that fact, we ain't gonna get far.

        Wake up, without sunlight, without solar power, there wouldn't be any human life on this planet.  That's the base fact.  Get used to it.

        Solar is civil defense. Video of my small scale solar experiments at

        by gmoke on Thu Sep 14, 2006 at 09:22:24 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

  •  Ugh. A downer diary (5+ / 0-)

    Your diary reads like one written in 1904 saying that the automobile will never replace the horse.

    The reason that solar (photovoltaic or "PV") production declined in 05 was because there was a worldwide shortage of refined silicon. This happened because solar is growing so fast that production exceeded supply of raw materials, along with the rebounding of the computer chip industry after a few years in the doldrums.

    Up until this year, the PV industry has relied on what was essentially the leftovers of the computer chip industry. But with PV now growing at a 30-35% yearly rate worldwide, silicon refineries are now being built to supply the PV industry directly.

    Is PV the "silver bullet" for the coming energy crunch?


    There is no "silver bullet". Nothing will replace petroleum as an all purpose energy source.

    But along with wind power, wave and tidal energy, biomass, geothermal, and other renewable energy sources, we will have "silver buckshot".

    Or is the point of this diary to get us to bend over and accept nuclear power as our savior?

    "Like the mirror told me this morning, it's all done with people" - Wavy Gravy

    by offgrid on Wed Sep 13, 2006 at 08:33:46 PM PDT

    •  The point of this diary is to put numbers on (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      A Siegel


      I note that your comparison with the automobile is spurious.   In 1905 the internal combustion engine was about a decade old.  Solar PV is 52 years old.  There's a big difference.    I note also that the development of the automobile was an incredible disaster for humanity.   I claim that chanting about solar is also a disaster.   It's not happening, at least not on a scale that polishes the scratch on the barest point of the surface.

      Your post says about all that needs to be said when it is coupled with the numbers I provide.

      You write: "The reason that solar (photovoltaic or "PV") production declined in 05 was because there was a worldwide shortage of refined silicon. This happened because solar is growing so fast that production exceeded supply of raw materials, along with the rebounding of the computer chip industry after a few years in the doldrums."

      Yet the numbers - unless you call them a lie - indicate that solar electricity provided less than 0.02% of the electrical energy of the United States.   Here you have an industry that starts out trivial and cannot expand even from that trivial level.   It faces supply problems and does not have even a 1% share of production.

      Maybe you haven't heard about global climate change.  It's real.  It's not happening "by 2050" or "by 2100" when solar advocates tell us solar energy will have 10% or 20% or 30% (ignoring of course the 70% left by coal, oil and gas.)   On the contrary global warming is happening now.

      Even the most optimistic people - and there aren't very many optimists left among people who know science - concede that we have less than a few decades left.

      I also note that the environmental consequences of solar energy are completely obscure mostly because the form of energy is trivial.

      Calculations of the external cost of energy are quite clear about what is safe and what is not.   Solar's external cost - although lower than the external cost of things like biomass - is still rather high:

      Please see table 1 in the second reference which is very clear on the numbers connected.  

      My prediction is that the pollution cost of a huge solar industry - should one ever come to exist - will very much model the computer industry - where the pollution is shipped overseas so that the rich countries can pretend that things are not so bad.

      •  Spurious? (0+ / 0-)

        While I agree that the development of the automobile was an disaster for humanity, they did in fact replace the horse.

        Your "52 years old" statement is "spurious". Yes, the silicon PV cell was invented 52 years ago, but it wasn't until the late Seventies that modern glass-laminate PV modules became available. And it has only been about 10 years that reliable utility-intertie inverters have been available. The technologies continue to improve every year.

        The silicon supply problem will be solved. Silicon is one of the most abundant elements on the planet. Throwing our arms up in dispair because of a temporary supply problem doesn't get us anywhere.

        Your "less than 0.02% of the electrical energy of the United States" line is also "spurious". While the number may be true today, it doesn't say anything about future potential. It also doesn't count my house, and the thousands of my neighbors houses that are off the grid.

        My 24-year-old PV modules are still working perfectly, cleanly and quietly providing about 98% of my household's electricity.

        We certainly don't have to wait until 2050 for PV to provide a major part of the world's electricity. We have the technology. All we need is the political will.

        The chart in your link is interesting, but it is based on current production methods. The PV industry most certainly needs to address the environmental consequences of PV production, and I'm confident that it will, but this needs to be weighed against the environmental consequences of other technologies, or of doing nothing.

        Which leads to the big question: What do you propose we do to provide our future electricity?

        Without a huge reduction in the world's population, we are going to have to use some technological method to provide energy. No technology is completely benign. Do you have a better idea?

        "Like the mirror told me this morning, it's all done with people" - Wavy Gravy

        by offgrid on Wed Sep 13, 2006 at 11:20:31 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

      •  is it NaderNadir, from smirking chimp? (0+ / 0-)

        or do i have the wrong person?

        crimson gates reek with meat and wine/while on the streets, bones of the frozen dead -du fu (712-770)

        by wu ming on Thu Sep 14, 2006 at 01:04:54 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  Yes, how are you? (0+ / 0-)

          I have not written regularly at SmirkingChimp for many years, although occassionally I've read stuff there and more rarely added some comments.

          Most of my work in recent years has been at Democratic Underground, but I have decided to come here and meet some new folks.

          I sort of recall your work over there.

          •  the energy focus tipped me off (0+ / 0-)

            i migrated here during the primaries, and split my time these days between daily kos and my left wing. never been to DU, actually.

            i check in at SC every hurricane season to see how the gulf coast chimpsters fare, but rarely other than that.

            crimson gates reek with meat and wine/while on the streets, bones of the frozen dead -du fu (712-770)

            by wu ming on Thu Sep 14, 2006 at 11:29:37 AM PDT

            [ Parent ]

            •  Yeah, I'm still doing energy and climate change. (1+ / 0-)
              Recommended by:

              It is still the issue for which I have the most passion and I will argue, as always, that really it is the most important issue humanity faces, that it is the most important ethical issue there is.

              I haven't changed in that regard.

              I think it's good to change websites once in a while.  It broadens your horizon and helps your ideas get broader exposure.

              I stopped by SmirkingChimp recently.  It looks like they've made big changes, erased the past, and deleted everyone's logins.   You have to re-register if you want to post there.   I think I'll just read over there though.

              Anyway, it's very good to hear from you.

  •  I have 4kW of Solar on my roof (5+ / 0-)

    It will pay off in 2018.

  •  Solar only makes financial on the retail level (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    SarahLee, A Siegel

    as on the roofs of energy customers' houses.  It just can;t compete on a wholesale basis as from a centralized power plant.  What we need is a government loan guarantee program to fit their roofs with solar panels.

    "All my soldiers in the field I will wish you safe return/ but only love kills war, when will they learn" ~Jay-Z

    by Roatti on Wed Sep 13, 2006 at 08:44:58 PM PDT

  •  The technology needs to improve (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    SarahLee, A Siegel, offgrid

    When solar panels are more efficient and cheaper, they will take off. I remember reading a Slashdot article a while back that said the best solar panels converted about 20% of the power they received, but scientists theorized they could get it up to 70%. If you could roof a house with double or triple-efficient solar for under $5,000, then every house would have it and we would need fewer power plants. That still doesn't get us off oil for our cars and machinery, but it would help a lot with the worldwide power situation.

    •  70% would be very, very tough (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      but order of 50% may be accessible.  See the links down below.  

    •  Actually ... (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      skids, offgrid

      Isn't the real challenge price per kilowatt ... For example, what if the price of solar roof tile panels were cheaper than traditional roofing but produced only at 5% ... would that really matter?  

      While a 50-70% would require less surface space for producing power, overall roofing for placing solar panels is huge ... if cost effective/affordable, a 5% efficiency that is cheaper than traditional roofing would be acceptable (very acceptable) to me.

      Energy Consensus: Learn - Connect - Share - Participate: For a new dialogue on Energy issues.

      by A Siegel on Wed Sep 13, 2006 at 10:51:55 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  Cars (0+ / 0-)

      Most daily automobile use in the US is short-distance commuting and city driving. This can easily be accomplished with electric cars.

      While your car is parked at work, it can be recharged from the building's PV array.

      "Like the mirror told me this morning, it's all done with people" - Wavy Gravy

      by offgrid on Thu Sep 14, 2006 at 12:03:21 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  asdf (4+ / 0-)

    I wonder why you chose to express it in exajoules. It makes it a lot harder to read, although perhaps that was your intent.

    If one thousand megawatt-hours is equal to 0.000036 exajoules, then 2005's solar energy production was equal to 54,000 megawatt-hours.

    The results should disturb anyone with an ounce of sense who thinks that all we need to do is to wait just a little longer for the solar ship to come in.

    I don't know any advocate of solar power that thinks all we need to do is "wait". If all we did was sit around and wait, we never would have discovered how to make fire.

    It is the job of thinking people not to be on the side of the executioners.

    by A Citizen on Wed Sep 13, 2006 at 08:52:33 PM PDT

    •  The exajoule is an SI unit of energy. (0+ / 0-)

      There are many units of energy, including the kilowatt-hour, the quad, the BTU, the megawatt-hour, the calorie.

      To eliminate confusion scientists around the world have agreed to use one unit of energy, the joule with standard prefixes such as kilo (1000), mega (1,000,000), giga (1,000,000,000).

      The kilowatt-hour is a better unit than say, BTU or calorie, because it, at least is derived from SI units.  The watt, a unit often used by solar advocates to make a system that works for 1 hour day seem equivalent to a system that works 24 hours a day, is a Joule/second.   If one multiplies a kilowatt-hour by 3,600 seconds/hour and then by 1000, (kilo) one gets a joule.

      Joules are standard units in all fields, physics, engineering, chemistry, biology.

      I am using the SI unit in quite the opposite way you claim I am using it:   I am using it for clarity.

      The constant references to the discovery of fire, the invention of the automobile etc, etc, etc are irrelevant.  Such references do nothing to stop global climate change which is an immediate crisis, not something that's going to happen someday somewhere.   The solar cell is 52 years old.   If the invention was going to make an impact, it's coming in a little late I think.

      Now, maybe, if you're not waiting, you can tell me about your plan to provide 440 exajoules of energy.  This is the world demand.   Are you content to burn coal until solar energy - which world wide does not produce a single exajoule - magically arrives after 50 years of not doing so?

      I am trying to shake up complacency.   I think there is too much magical thinking going on about the subject of energy.   Saying the word "solar" doesn't do very much, not even, apparently 1/440th of the job.

  •  Semiconductors are expensive (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    SarahLee, A Siegel, offgrid

    and inefficient. However, there have been some recent innovations in photovoltaics. Researchers have been able to increase the sensitivity of photovoltaics into nearly the entire visible spectrum by depositing metallic substances onto silicon waffers, resulting in an efficiency gain.

    It takes lots energy (from fossil fuel) to make solar cells. The end of cheap oil means the end of cheap solar.

    I agree with your sober assesment of solar, NNadir.

    Still, I like solar for some small applications and some passive systems actually have decent returns. Who knows where we could be with solar today, had we started 10 or even 5 years ago. The money bush burned in Iraq could've been used to bring the cost of solar down.

    •  Some new technology coming up (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      xjac, A Siegel, offgrid

      Thin film solar is starting up big-time in Silicon Valley (ironically using anything but silicon); check out and  Nanosolar in particular is building a 430 megawatt/year plant - that's a nuclear power station every two years (at peak insolation), and there's no reason for them to stop at one fab line.

      The claim to fame for thin-film solar is no so much efficiency (at 10% it's well below silicon's 20%), but cost per watt: Nanosolar expects its cells will cost one-fifth the price of silicon.  At that point, roofing your house with solar becomes not just attractive, but with power utility buybacks, compelling.

  •  Oh please (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    SarahLee, ovals49, A Siegel

    Don't you think the federal government's posture on renewables has any effect?  What if we used the tax base we lose to the mortgage interest deduction toward alternative energy?  I know the housing market would collapse, but my point is that the government chooses to subsidize particular industries and lifestyles and solar gets none of that love.  Renewable energy subsidies are always on the chopping block which keeps the industry in limbo.

    No, the problem is that there is no seriousness in the government's approach, and nothing can compete with oil until the shortages and shocks get really dire, when it will really be too late.

    Say nothing once, why say it again? - Talking Heads

    by Jason on Wed Sep 13, 2006 at 08:59:44 PM PDT

    •  Actually the solar industry has been subsidized (0+ / 0-)


      Everybody wants to act like it's Dick Cheney's fault, but solar electrical energy has been a trivial form of energy for more than 50 years.

      As indicated in the data - yes Virginia there is such a thing as data - the percentage of solar electrical energy in this country peaked in 1996, not 2003.

      Personally I think the excuse making is based on a rather dogmatic approach.   The numbers support me.  I am always met with platitudes when I reference these numbers, not because the numbers are wrong, but because they are numbers that people don't want to hear.

      If I wanted to approach problems by prayer, though, I would be a Republican, but I'm not.

      There is not one nation on earth - anywhere - that produces even 1% of it's electrical energy by solar power, not one.   If you care to contradict that, it is easy to do.   Give us some data and be sure - because I will call you on it - to make a distinction between peak power and energy.   A peak megawatt produced for twenty minutes at noon on a cloudless day is not the same as continuousl power.

      The fact is that relying on the solar panacea, because it sounds good and sounds cool, is a plan for doing almost nothing.   For 50 years the solar energy scheme has been far more talk than action.

      •  Solar Subsidies (0+ / 0-)

        I did a back of the envelope calculation on how much renewables received from the government from around 1950 to 1980.  My calculations were on the order of about $6 billion.

        Fossil fuels and nuclear during the same period received about $60 billion.

        Furthermore, I would venture to say that much of the aforementioned $6 billion was spent on futile ventures like the Golden Carrot program of the DOE in the early 1990s.  Under this program, the DOE encouraged refrigerator manufacturers to make an energy efficient refrigerator.  They offered a fairly hefty subsidy as I recall.  The refrigerator in question was built and went into factory production.  It was large, something like 24 cubic feet, the innovations were not replicated throughout the product line, and production ceased as soon as possible under the terms of the Golden Carrot progam.

        If you want to know what the future of solar will be like, read A Golden Thread by John Perlin and Ken Butti, a history of solar energy.  There have been solar booms in the US around the turn of the 20th century, in Florida in the 1930s and again in the 1950s, and, of course, in the 1970s.  We've forgotten a lot of what we once knew.  Hell, I don't believe we even manufacture black selective surfaces for solar hot water and space heaters any more.  No market.

        Solar is civil defense. Video of my small scale solar experiments at

        by gmoke on Thu Sep 14, 2006 at 09:35:14 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

    •  Somewhat disagree ... (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      solar gets none of that love

      is simply not true.  Now, we can argue as to whether the tax benefits are sufficient, balance against other energy sources, etc ... but there are, for example, $2000 (or so) available for homeowners against solar pv / solar hot water installation.

      Energy Consensus: Learn - Connect - Share - Participate: For a new dialogue on Energy issues.

      by A Siegel on Wed Sep 13, 2006 at 10:55:28 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  I think you should look at (0+ / 0-)


        Almost $600 to light a single light bulb (during daylight hours) is rather expensive.   When you add batteries - assuming you hate the power grid - the price goes even higher.

        One can show that a solar installation that produced as much energy (not instantaneous peak power) as a EPR nuclear power plant ($2-3 billion) would cost $30 billion dollars via the solar route.  

        Solar power is a great scheme for rich people who wish to assauge their consumer guilt I think, but it's not going to help people of marginal economic means.   It's basically rich kid stuff.

        Note that the cost of PV electricity has been rising, not falling for almost two years.   It takes energy, carbon based energy, to reduce silicon.   That's part of the reason for the price increase.

        •  Numbers (0+ / 0-)

          Your use of numbers and statistics is really off the mark.

          $600 in PV, that will last for at least 50 years, running a compact fluorescent bulb, that uses 1/4 of the power that an incandescent bulb does, blows your figures out of the water. $600 for 50 years is $12/year, and since other forms of energy are going to get more expensive over the next 50 years, that's not a bad deal

          $600 will buy about 110W of PV at current pricing. That 110W module will produce a yearly average of about 400 watt/hrs/day in Buffalo, NY, or 550W/hrs/day in Sacramento, CA. That would run a 25W CF bulb, with equivalent light output of a 100W incandescent bulb, for 16 hrs in NY and 22 hrs in CA. And since most household lights only need to be on for 4-8 hours per day, depending on the season, that's a lot of light for the money.

          And that's at current pricing.

          If mass production drops the cost of PV in half, your $30M solar power plant would cost $15M. Your "$2-3 billion" figure for the nuke is only possible with massive subsidies, such as government paid for waste storage, government paid for insurance caps, and massive pollution in the mining and processing phases.

          "Like the mirror told me this morning, it's all done with people" - Wavy Gravy

          by offgrid on Thu Sep 14, 2006 at 12:31:16 AM PDT

          [ Parent ]

          •  Current pricing. (0+ / 0-)

            Is actually in the low $4s per peak watt.  FWIW.  In fact there's a high-power-density panel selling now at $4/Watt.

            Solarbuzz tracks industry averages -- individual shoppers can do better.


            OpenSource volunteers needed to bring election accountability:

            by skids on Thu Sep 14, 2006 at 03:34:26 AM PDT

            [ Parent ]

          •  If you have $600 dollars to invest of course, its (0+ / 0-)

            great.  I submit that no many people have this amount of money.   You are claiming all sorts of things about "hours" though.   The real capacity utilization for solar cells around the world is well known and is always much less than 30%.  

            Also this reminds me of the joke about the stupid astronaut who announces a plan to go to the sun.  When other astronauts tell him he'll burn up he says he'll go at night.

            Or do you only plan to run your putative CF bulb during daylight hours?

            If you are talking 24/7 this involves batteries or some similar approach, which necessarily therefore involves increase economic and environmental cost which you are glossing over.

            We do not know the life time of solar cells, by the way.   Saying they will last 40 years is somewhat arbitrary.    Some day, one way or the other, they will end up as waste and if, for instance, they are cadmium telluride cells, toxic waste.

            Later I may come back and calculate the true capacity loading of PV cells, which can be obtained from EIA data.

            •  Of course I don't mean that (0+ / 0-)

              the power created is to be used to run lighting in the daytime. Nobody is arguing that PV is going to be our only source of electricity. But kWhrs are kWhrs. The solar power can be used to run other loads, such as refrigeration, air conditioning, water pumping, charging electric cars, or running industrial processes during the work day. It would offset the need to use another energy source, such as natural gas, during the day, so that those energy sources can be saved for nightime use. And of course other renewable forms, like wave power, wind power, and hydro are available at night.

              We may have to adjust our use patterns of energy to match the times that it is available, in the same way that "time of use metering" is used today to give incentive to people to not use heavy loads at times of peak power demand.

              Energy storage may also be something that can help out here. While battery technology is certainly improving, other storage schemes are also possible. Pumped water storage, flywheels, and hydrogen production are all possibilities. Storage of energy is not very efficient with current technologies, so I don't think that it's going to be a major part of the mix, unless we develop some new method.

              I live offgrid. I use lead-acid batteries. I am certainly not advocating that every house have a set of the damn things. Grid connected, battery-less systems are much more efficient, require virtually no maintenance, and are cheaper and easier to install. I talk people out of battery systems everyday, unless the grid is not available where the power is needed.

              I spend 40-50 hrs a week designing PV systems, and selling the equipment to engineers, installers, and retail dealers all over the world. There are thousands of solar installations out there with my, and my co-workers, fingerprints on them. I am the main person in my company who deals with, and solves technical problems when they come up. I know what works and what doesn't. Those figures I cite work. They are working everyday, in cities and on remote mountaintops.

              Yes, some of the PV technologies are a toxic waste problem, but there are some companies, such as Schott/ASE and Mitsubishi that produce lead-free, non-toxic-waste PV modules. More work needs to be done to clean up the production process, and most PV manufacturers are keenly interested in doing just that.

              We don't know yet exactly how long a PV module will last, but the common consensus is 40-50 years. Like I said my 24-year-old modules are working perfectly. Nothing in the PV cell itself is "used-up" during operation. Most likely the materials that are used to seal the module against moisture penetration will fail first. There is now a recycling plant in Europe that can de-laminate modules to be able to reuse the cells, frames and glass. Amorphous silicon modules may not last as long, however, especially if they are made with plastics instead of glass. We shall see.

              Again, PV is not the "silver bullet". We are going to have to use many different technologies to provide our energy. PV is only one pellet in the "silver buckshot".

              "Like the mirror told me this morning, it's all done with people" - Wavy Gravy

              by offgrid on Thu Sep 14, 2006 at 10:13:08 AM PDT

              [ Parent ]

  •  It's all about price (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    SarahLee, offgrid

    Because we don't pay for external costs, people will simply use the cheapest available power source.  There are two ways to change that.  Increase the cost of fossil fuel generated electricity.  Decrease the cost of solar generated electricity.  

    The first part of the equation is going to take care of itself.  Currently, the second part of the equation is stalled out, primarily because of a temporary shortage of silicon.  The demand for solar panels world wide has far outstripped the supply of electronics grade silicon.  This has caused the availability of Si to be a problem and reversed the downward trend in the price of panels.  Rather than going down in price, as most electronic devices tend to do over time, they have been steady or rising slightly because of this material shortage.  This has slowed down the growth.

    It should also be remembered that anyone who sells photovoltaics as THE solution is blowing smoke up your ass.  It is one of the solutions.  It is the ideal solution in certain circumstances.  But the fact about renewables is that there is no ONE single solution.  It is a combination of multiple solutions deployed where they make sense.  And then, even when all of these solution are deployed where they make sense we are still going to come up short.  That is where we will have to fill in with nuclear and god help us sequestered coal.  But the point is, the more we can use these alternatives, the less of the other we have to resort to.

    Bemoaning the lack of market penetration for an emerging technology is a pretty silly exercise.  Of course it isn't going to be widely adopted until it makes economic sense.  Right now photovoltaics makes economic sense for more people than the industry can comfortably supply with product.  That is why the price isn't coming down as it could.  As the manufacturing capacity picks up, economy of scale will once again begin to lower the price and an even greater pool of folks will join those who will find this an attractive alternative to paying monthly electric bills.  Probably never a majority of the population but potentially a significant fraction.

  •  Wind Power (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    Wind poser is much cheaper than soalar, most growth in renewables in the US is coming there.

  •  I will cover wind in another journal entry. (0+ / 0-)

    I think wind is a promising form of energy, but it is hardly sufficeint either for a host of technical reasons.

  •  the problem may be linked to silicon supply (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    as you probably know, the primary feedstock for conventional solar cells is silicon.  Solar has now grown so much that it is on a par with the chipmakers in competing for silicon, and there is a bottleneck because only a relatively few plants in the world can do the purification of silicon from silica (sand if you will).   The SF Chronicle
    had a good article
    about this recently.

    I have faith this will be solved, in part by technologies that grow the silicon up from the nanoscale (see nanosolar inc, the company the google guys are backing) as opposed to vapor deposition.  There are also some great new ideas for how to boost efficiency using nanoscale techniques and other technologies.  

    I think the bulk of our electricity will have to come from solar.  For example, wind is promising, but to supply the energy needs for a typical large city you need hundreds of thousands of windmills.
    (big windmills for sale at eg give about 10 KW, a typical city of 300,000 uses 1 GW of energy, so that tells us we need 100,000 such windmills, ballpark, for a city of that size).  

    If you do the math, you can see that solar would easily  
    supply our electrical energy needs with about 5% of US land area with current efficiencies.  If we boost
    the efficiency we can also think about running the hydrogen economy from it (biofuels can at best give 10-15% of our transportation needs, so we had better look at renewably driven electrolysis to make hydrogen).

    Solar is the best way in my view.  We should invest in wind, and others, but solar is the best path to the future.

    •  Agree, with one correction (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      A 10kW wind generator is not "big". It's big for one house, but "big" wind generators are now in the 5-6 MEGAWATT size.

      "Like the mirror told me this morning, it's all done with people" - Wavy Gravy

      by offgrid on Wed Sep 13, 2006 at 10:19:08 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  Solar Silicon (0+ / 0-)

      I had heard that the use of silicon for solar had surpassed the use of silicon for computer chips within the last year or so.  Tokuyama Chemicals is one of the major producers of silicon feedstocks for both markets and may be a good investment depending on the price.

      At least for the next decade or so before the non-silicon solar cells begin coming to market.

      Solar is civil defense. Video of my small scale solar experiments at

      by gmoke on Thu Sep 14, 2006 at 09:40:55 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Solar is a piece of the puzzle (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    an it will grow as it becomes more efficient.

  •  Future energy (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    I think will come from a broad mix of technologies.  Photovoltaic (solar cells) are great for peak power during high-demand periods (no surprise that maximum demand happens right at maximum insolation, when the air conditioners kick in).  Denmark proves you can use wind for 20% of your grid without problems.  Some interesting work is being done in using oil-bearing algae to mitigate greenhouse gases, and they can be reused for their chemical energy.  Even nuclear is starting to look a lot better these days, what with new plant designs emphasizing safety.

    Long story short, there are all sorts of Good Things on the horizon.  Does anyone believe the drop in oil prices is a coincidence?  Didn't think so.

  •  Why an absolute drop? (0+ / 0-)

    I don't quite understand the whys / hows for an absolute drop in the solar electric power production.  

    Why the roughly 5% total drop in electrical power production?

    Is it possible that this is statistical anomaly rather than accurate trend / data?

    Energy Consensus: Learn - Connect - Share - Participate: For a new dialogue on Energy issues.

    by A Siegel on Wed Sep 13, 2006 at 10:44:19 PM PDT

    •  I believe several large solar thermal plants (0+ / 0-)

      came off line.   I don't recall the statistics.

      Other effects could be the weather, higher cloud cover, and systems destroyed by hurricanes and the like.   I am only speculating.

      I don't have the details, only the data.   The EIA has a number of reporting forms, but clearly doesn't include off grid systems.   My understanding though is that off grid is not the largest part of the solar power demand.

      •  Off Grid (0+ / 0-)

        Last I heard, which was about a decade ago, there were about 100,000 households living off grid in the USA.

        Homepower magazine - - would be the people to ask for the latest figures.

        Solar is civil defense. Video of my small scale solar experiments at

        by gmoke on Thu Sep 14, 2006 at 09:44:02 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  If the number were quadrupled since then, (0+ / 0-)

          solar would still be a trivial form of energy.

          I don't think the number is quadrupled, though.

          The number of households in the United States is now past 101 million.

          I have seen Homepower magazine many times.  It strikes me as a hobbyist magazine - for people who can afford expensive hobbies.

          We're not talking minimum wage laborers, and certainly not persons from the third world (except when funded by rich westerners either trying to make a point or assuage guilt) when we speak of these wonderful off grid systems.

          One can always hear about particular individuals with cool solar systems, just as one can hear about people with cool stereos or cool cars.  

          The question I mean to pose is however not about individuals but about macroscopic trends.   The question is:  Is solar energy a form of energy that can make a significant impact on global climate change?   I think that when people answer this question affirmatively they are engaging mostly in wishful thinking.

          •  Solar Energy or Solar Electricity (0+ / 0-)

            If your question is about solar electricity, that's one thing.  If it is about the full range of solar energy resources, then my obvious points about the extent of the positive externalities of solar come into play and your question, as far as I am concerned, is moot.

            In order to reach "minimum wage laborers" and "persons from the third world" we need to make solar a mass market, commodity product.  I'd go from solar rechargeable reading lights to solar/dynamo flashlight/radios that can also charge standard size batteries, such a device would give you the radio, flashlight, and extra set of batteries we are all advised to have on hand in case of emergency plus the ability to supply low voltage DC electricity day or night, by sunlight or muscle power.

            That's one reason why I say Solar Is Civil Defense.

            I lay out my approach to solar development at

            This isn't macro but it's entry level solar, both practical and feasible and probably even affordable.

            Solar is civil defense. Video of my small scale solar experiments at

            by gmoke on Thu Sep 14, 2006 at 08:30:26 PM PDT

            [ Parent ]

  •  Sobering material ... an alternative perspective (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    I agree that this is distressing information/data although I am uncertain of the trend based on 'single point'.

    I am not a believer in the solution (no silver bullet).  Seems to me, that I view solar as part of the solution path.

    Now, there is a perspective that points to Nanosolar breakthrough possibilities, for example, which would create a path toward a true exponential (+) growth in solar PV production / installation.

    Taking this to heart, the growth potential is multiples of this rather rapidly. Yes, solar starts slow ... but this analysis suggsts that it can build quickly.

    Energy Consensus: Learn - Connect - Share - Participate: For a new dialogue on Energy issues.

    by A Siegel on Wed Sep 13, 2006 at 11:02:56 PM PDT

  •  Power Decentralization (0+ / 0-)

    is also what we need to go to.  The success of the Internet is that model.  Units should be as self-sufficeient as possible.

    I want my condo building to get panels on the roof!

    Don't start a blog, build a community with SoapBlox - the NEW blog framework.

    by pacified on Thu Sep 14, 2006 at 01:27:13 AM PDT

    •  Important point (0+ / 0-)

      the decentralized nature of PV can work to great advantage in lessoning the load on the power grid. Energy can be produced at the point of use, relieving the need to move as many megawatt-hours through the grid at a loss of at least 7% nationwide.

      "Like the mirror told me this morning, it's all done with people" - Wavy Gravy

      by offgrid on Thu Sep 14, 2006 at 10:25:26 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

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