Solar PV: no longer “the energy of the future and always will be”

by John Quiggin on January 5, 2012

I have piece in the National Interest about developments in non-carbon based energy. It ran under the headline “The end of the nuclear renaissance”, but that’s only half the story and probably the less interesting half. The real news of 2011 was the continued massive drop in the price of solar PV, which renders obsolete any analysis based on data before about 2010. In particular, anyone who thinks nuclear is the most promising candidate to replace fossil fuels really needs to recalibrate their views. There’s a case to be made for nuclear as a backstop option, but it’s not nearly as strong as it was even two years ago.

{ 75 comments }

1

David 01.05.12 at 4:18 am

Indeed.

2

Vance Maverick 01.05.12 at 4:47 am

This is kind of a big deal. Almost 40 years now since the design of the classic No Thanks logo….

3

Omega Centauri 01.05.12 at 5:07 am

If it wasn’t for Fukushima, I’d say PV and Nuclear are complementary, one is intermittent (but cheaper), while the other can provide a robust weather-independent baseline. The problem is post Fukushima the PR case for nuclear has been so ruinously negative, that it isn’t politically viable anymore.

The solar PV price trend is a bit hard to fully explain/predict. Generally there’s been an observed Moores law type trend of a 20% reduction in unit price per doubling of production. The price had stalled for several years, due mainly to undersupply of silicon feedstock, and high demand from (over?)generous European FITs. The past couple of years the price has collapsed, far beyond the extrapolated Moores law. So how much of this price drop is fundamental -due to better methods, versus how much is due to market factors. Currently Chinese companies with access to very cheap capital are undercutting the non-Chinese manufacturers, and trade sanctions are being sought. Its not clear if current prices are high enough for even heavily subsidized Chinese manufacturers to make a profit.

There are also a lot of intriguing research results promising further large price reductions and/or efficiency improvements to come. With the price of panels expected to fall still further, the importance of the so called balance of system costs come to the fore. Much needed innovation in mounting and electrical integration to the grid will be required to fully utilize these cheaper products. Meanwhile the environment for panel manufactuers has become challenging to say the least. Several companies have failed, with more likely to follow.

Another potential casualty, are solar thermal plants, which use concentrated solar energy to drive thermal electric power plants. These have the promise of being able to store the heat and dispatch the power as needed. But several projects that were slated to be of this type (usually designated as CSP) have been converted to PV, because of the later’s lower price.

4

Matt 01.05.12 at 5:30 am

1) The average capacity factor for fixed-angle PV installations is usually worse than 25%. California solar had a 16.4% capacity factor in 2009 according to EIA data. That said, the trend is indeed encouraging for solar and discouraging for nuclear. Since the first European Pressurized Reactor installations started in France and Finland, both have had mammoth delays and cost overruns. Even if solar isn’t expected to be cheaper than nuclear on average, solar projects may be more palatable because their costs and scheduling are more predictable. There’s a virtuous feedback cycle: more solar projects get built because they are low risk and they become lower risk because more get built (more historical data to estimate from). And of course the smallest projects don’t even need coordinated financial arrangements; a small residential solar system can be in the low 4 figures range, while even “small” nuclear reactors are hoped to be in the mid 8 figures range. Actually-being-built nuclear reactors are all in the 9 figures range.

2) The National Renewable Energy Laboratory estimates that the US could generate about 800 terawatt hours per year (roughly 20% of current US electricity consumption, roughly equivalent to current US nuclear output) from solar panels placed on existing rooftop space. That estimate is based on 13.5% efficient panels. There are already commercial panels based on plain old silicon that can do better than 20%. The US could generate a tremendous amount of PV energy without developing any new land, relying on any unproven technological advances, or discovering any new sources of rare elements like indium and tellurium.

3) The big sticking point is storage. Right now there is no inexpensive way to save electricity generated during the daytime peak for use at other times. At low intermittent-renewable penetration this is unimportant but it will become important as the renewable share grows. It is already a problem in Hawaii, which relies on expensive diesel fuel for most of its electricity and has seen solar installations soar recently. The utility companies can’t accept more than 15-20% renewable capacity on the grid without destabilizing it. Electricity storage is the next great renewable challenge now that PV generation has established favorable cost trends and multi-gigawatt scale.

4) Pure-electric and plugin hybrid vehicles could be an excellent complementary technology to stabilize grids in the presence of high intermittent-renewable production. Keep more production near point of generation for charging car batteries. In the case of necessarily grid-linked renewable generation, like wind farms or utility scale solar, electric vehicles can still serve a stabilizing role by matching demand to production through smart grids. This is a mirror image of the historical practice of matching production to demand.

5) Substituting renewable electricity for fossil fuels has an earlier, more favorable cost parity point when it goes up against liquid vehicle fuels instead of coal or natural gas. The Nissan Leaf consumes 200 watt hours per kilometer traveled, on average. According to Solarbuzz, current solar PV costs in sunny climates are from 15 to 29 cents per kilowatt hour, depending on the size of the installation (industrial to residential). That means the Leaf consumes 3 to 5.8 cents of sunny-climate-PV-electricity per kilometer traveled. A Nissan Sentra will consume 6.8 cents of gasoline per kilometer traveled (12.75 kilometers per liter, 87 cents per liter of gasoline). That’s based on current average US gasoline prices. If you live somewhere where liquid fuel costs more (like the US West Coast, Hawaii, or most of the rest of the developed world) then the savings are greater.

Of course, the US MSRP of a Leaf is $19,000 more than that of a Sentra — ouch! At current US gas prices you’d have to drive 500,000 kilometers on low-cost PV energy to make up the initial sticker price difference. If you were paying Perth, Australia prices of ~ $1.60 per liter, it would still take nearly 200,000 kilometers to reach break-even. But in a few years you can expect that PV will cost even less and gas will cost even more.

6) The environmental benefit as well as the economic benefit is also higher if renewable electricity displaces motor fuels instead of conventional grid tied generation. Small internal combustion engines are less efficient at using fossil fuels than utility scale power plants and their combustion emissions cannot be scrubbed as effectively.

7) The energy security benefit is also higher if renewable energy displaces motor fuels instead of conventional grid tied generation. The US currently imports about half of its oil consumption but only a tiny fraction of its coal consumption. By far the dominant use of oil in the US is for car and truck transportation. If the US oil consumption per capita could be brought down to the average level found in the EU, the US would actually be a net oil exporter and eliminate more than half of its annual trade deficit (more than $250 billion).

5

hix 01.05.12 at 6:03 am

The numbers still dont add up. Solar energy is location dependend just like wind. Right now, most real life solar panels or on roofs in southern Germany where they work at arround 55% of their possible capacity under ideal weather conditions. Most on shore wind installations in contrast are at decent spots.

Takeing Quiggins Australian pov for a second, there seems to be more than enough coastline close to the population centers to get by with a wind heavy mix, while weather conditions for solar energy are only perfect far north from the population centers.

6

J. Otto Pohl 01.05.12 at 8:44 am

In 2007 the PV that powered my uncle’s well in Arivaca finally died. They had been manufactured in 1979 so their death was not unexpected. What was unexpected was how extremely expensive buying new PV panels was in 2007. I believe my uncle replaced the two small PV panels at a cost of $3000 a piece or $6000. At those prices the only way that the market could expand at all was to greatly reduce prices.

7

ajay 01.05.12 at 10:51 am

The numbers still dont add up. Solar energy is location dependend just like wind.

All power generation is location dependent. You pretty much can’t put a nuclear station anywhere but on a coast or beside a major body of water, because it needs plentiful water for cooling. You can’t build a hydro power station where there isn’t any water (duh) and you can’t really build it where the geography doesn’t give you a decent fall of water. Gas and coal stations need access to water too, and they need to have access to fuel supplies – you don’t want to be shipping your coal 2000 miles before you burn it. And none of them can be built in or even near cities, because of pollution concerns, aesthetics, or public worry.

8

reason 01.05.12 at 11:04 am

“Takeing Quiggins Australian pov for a second, there seems to be more than enough coastline close to the population centers to get by with a wind heavy mix, while weather conditions for solar energy are only perfect far north from the population centers.”

(North? Don’t you mean west/north-west?)

P.S. Tropical areas may have stronger sunshine, but it is less seasonal. That is both an advantage and a disadvantage – so I’m not sure quite what you mean by “ideal”.

9

Tim Worstall 01.05.12 at 12:24 pm

“On the other hand, solar output broadly coincides with peak demand, making the power more valuable”

Does depend rather where you are. In Oz, sure. In the UK not so much.

Two minor amusements. The argument that nuclear is huge, expensive, complex, has merit but then so does the argument that government doing something is similarly so. I’m just amused by those who argue that the one is not to be used because it is huge, expensive and complex and the other is just fine (this amusement extends to my own views which are pro-n and anti-g, the mirror image of JQ’s I would assume).

The second is, as I’ve mentioned here before, that the drop in solar prices is not unprecedented nor was it unforecast. In fact it was forecast. By Lomborg and haven’t people been giving him stick for that over the past decade?

10

Daragh McDowell 01.05.12 at 12:41 pm

Very cool and heartening article. At the risk of going slightly OT do you have any similar info on pebble bed nuclear reactors? From what I’ve read they seem to have enormous potential both as a power source and as an acceptable means of electricity generation for environmentalists and industry alike.

11

Zamfir 01.05.12 at 1:02 pm

The South African company working on pebble beds is effectively dead. Their knowledge goes to Westinghouse, who aren’t interest in developing HTRs unless someone pays them to do so. China has a very small project in cooperation with the Germans who build the original pebble bed reactor, but from what I’ve heard it’s nowhere near the point where it could improve on the German stuff.

So at currents rates of development, you won’t see a pebble bed reactor near you in the next handful of decades.

12

Ebenezer Scrooge 01.05.12 at 1:18 pm

Count me in as one of the pro-nuke leftoids who is reconsidering. I’m not there yet, because nukes remain the only currently existing baseline power source that does not contribute to global warming. But I’m beginning to wonder if the ever-escalating fixed costs of nukes are beginning to swamp the very low marginal costs (costs calculated both environmentally and monetarily.)
One of the open questions in my mind is to what extent coal, if used as baseline (or backup) power in a mostly-renewable economy, will continue to drive global warming. Or whether a fully-renewable economy is medium-term feasible (e.g., energy storage through pumping water or practicable superconducting long-range transmission lines or fuel cells that can drive a real-world car.)

13

Daragh McDowell 01.05.12 at 3:24 pm

Zamfir – many thanks for the info. To develop on that theme slightly then: given that the technology is available, but being effectively left to moulder on the shelf, shouldn’t environmental progressives be making a case for government to step in and offer similar economic incentives to develop it further? And wouldn’t this a) neutralise (some) of the denialist arguments that environmentalists’ preffered sources of electricity generation are all impractical, b) present an opening for tactical alliances with existing and politically powerful industries in power generation?

14

Tim Worstall 01.05.12 at 3:28 pm

“fuel cells that can drive a real-world car.”

We can do that already. Just not a price that anyone is willing to pay.

There’s no theoretical reason at all why they aren’t possible. I’m sure they will be made too, at prices people will pay. It’s just there’s another decade or two of fumbling around in the manufacturing process to get the production cost down.

15

Zamfir 01.05.12 at 5:06 pm

@Daragh, the reason noone is seriously pursuing them is in the first place that no one is sure that they can be made cheaper than normal nuclear power.

And since normal nuclear power is not exactly cheap, it’s unclear who should want them. People who don’t trust nuclear power don’t trust pebble beds either, and people who trust pebble beds are usually in favour of normal plants as well.

After all, the main debate about nuclear plants (especially new designs) is not that their safety is known, and considered acceptable by some and unacceptable by others. The problem is that the true safety of a plant is hard to know for sure, and some people have more confidence in the predictions than others.

Pebble beds don’t change that: if you think that the nuclear sector has a bad track record of predicting and managing safety, you won’t suddenly think “hey, pebble beds, now I’ll trust those same people that I didn’t trust before”.

16

Sock Puppet of the Great Satan 01.05.12 at 5:29 pm

“One of the open questions in my mind is to what extent coal, if used as baseline (or backup) power in a mostly-renewable economy, will continue to drive global warming.”

Coal’s cheap, but the capital cost of a pulverized coal plant is about $3,500/kW compared to $800-1000/kW for a natural gas combined-cycle plant. So cheap natural gas (e.g. from fracking) will tend to stop coal plants from being built, as the rationale for building more coal plants is the volatility of natural gas prices. You’ll still see coal plants being built where natural gas is expensive or there’s a geopolitical concern about security of gas supplies.

What you may see more of is more coal bed methane, which (in my mind) is going to be prone to unmeasured and unmonitored (and hence uncosted) CO2 and methane emissions, especially where they’re using chemical and biological treatments to get more methane. There’s also a technology called Underground Coal Gasification, but that’s still in the pre-commercial stage.

17

NBarnes 01.05.12 at 5:32 pm

Zamfir makes a good point. I’m a technophile and I trust technology and I nominally trust that nuclear plants can, in theory, be a safe and effective part of the US power grid.

I completely, totally, and comprehensively fail to trust the people in the nuclear sector to predict and manage the risks of their plants. Never in a million years would I trust these people.

18

Sock Puppet of the Great Satan 01.05.12 at 5:34 pm

Cheaper cells won’t entirely solve the problems with solar: you still need the ancillary costs of inverting DC to AC for transmission (or domestic use), and energy storage. At the moment, solar thermal is still cheaper than solar PV, and solar thermal is more amenable to overcoming the intermittency of solar energy (because you can store the thermal energy in a heated material and then tap it later on.)

Also, there’s still concern on the stability of the grid with distributed power.

But agreed, the fact that Solyndra went Tango Ultra because solar cells got too cheap was actually *good news* that the MSM didn’t pick up on.

19

Sock Puppet of the Great Satan 01.05.12 at 5:50 pm

“After all, the main debate about nuclear plants (especially new designs) is not that their safety is known, and considered acceptable by some and unacceptable by others. “

In fairness to the industry, the uptime and [routine] safety of nuke plants has improved immensely since 3-mile island and Chernobyl. What’s still up in the air are the safety during [externally caused] catastrophe like Fukushima, and the problem of waste disposal. But I’d take those risks over a coal plant anytime, unless we start seeing serious rollout of carbon sequestration. And for expansion of base power, it’s nukes or coal (and maybe natural gas, so long as we continue to allow fracking).

[Wind and solar can’t be relied for base load, potential expansion of hydroelectric is very limited, and geothermal, except in a few areas, is cost-prohibitive because of drilling costs.]

20

Sock Puppet of the Great Satan 01.05.12 at 5:58 pm

A diagram of U.S. Energy use is given here:

http://lawprofessors.typepad.com/environmental_law/2011/12/the-2010-us-energy-use-flowchart-.html

Total energy use is 98 quadrillion BTUs (aka quads). Energy from solar is a barely perceptible yellow line at the top of the diagram, ~0.1 quads.

A useful measure of energy (instead of hard to envision exajoules or quads) is “The Cubic Mile of Oil” [http://www.amazon.com/Cubic-Mile-Oil-Realities-Averting/dp/0195325540]. Currently, the world’s energy consumption is equivalent to 3 cubic miles of oil per annum. Useful for putting technologies into perspective.

21

Substance McGravitas 01.05.12 at 6:01 pm

But I’d take those risks

Go ahead, take them. You have a back yard?

22

Steve LaBonne 01.05.12 at 6:05 pm

There’s little point in debating nuclear power. After Fukushima, it’s politically dead, dead, dead, no matter what one’s theoretical attitude to it might be.

23

NBarnes 01.05.12 at 6:15 pm

I don’t get the people who dismiss Fukushima with ‘it was externally caused’. What, you’re ok with massive radiation leaks so long as they were externally caused? You’re comfortable with nuclear power that lacks the robust construction to survive major catastrophes without becoming a massive catastrophe in its own right?

Major catastrophes happen. It’s the nature of catastrophes. Nuke plants that are only safe under ‘reasonable’ conditions aren’t particularly safe at all.

24

Omega Centauri 01.05.12 at 6:15 pm

The site variability of solar is a lot less than for wind. I saw a claim (I don’t have the data to back it up), that claimed the max site difference in the USA was only a factor of two. They were comparing a site in Arizona with one of the Washington coast. Wind varies very substantially, and doesn’t scale downwards in turbine size well. Intermittencywise a mix of solar and wind is better than using either method alone.

The nearterm constraints on PV penetration are islanding (turning off the distributed generation during an outage), and less predictable generation swings, like happens during a partly cloudy day. Predictable production/load changes, such as sundown can be handled with natural gas plants. I expect intermittency will be handled with a combination of storage, demand management, and wide area transmission, rather than by a single method.

25

Jeffrey Davis 01.05.12 at 6:56 pm

re:9

Lomborg wasn’t criticized for predicting a decline in the cost of PV.

26

Matt 01.05.12 at 7:22 pm

Total energy use is 98 quadrillion BTUs (aka quads). Energy from solar is a barely perceptible yellow line at the top of the diagram, ~0.1 quads.

A useful measure of energy (instead of hard to envision exajoules or quads) is “The Cubic Mile of Oil” [http://www.amazon.com/Cubic-Mile-Oil-Realities-Averting/dp/0195325540]. Currently, the world’s energy consumption is equivalent to 3 cubic miles of oil per annum. Useful for putting technologies into perspective.

The present scale of energy use is indeed daunting. However, it is also worth considering the concrete consumption by source and technology mix rather than reducing everything to one standard of joules or oil-equivalents.

By way of example, my earlier Nissan Leaf vs. Nissan Sentra comparison: the Leaf consumes 0.72 megajoules (200 watt hours) of electricity per kilometer traveled, on average. The Sentra consumes 2.75 megajoules of gasoline per kilometer traveled (gasoline: 35 megajoules/liter, fuel economy: 12.75 km/liter), on average. The Leaf goes 3.8 times further on the same number of megajoules.

Processes that consume energy to perform computation, emit electromagnetic radiation (including visible light), do mechanical work, or regulate temperature (at least in the range of a few tens of Celsius from ambient) are much more systemically efficient when the primary energy source is renewable electricity rather than fossil fuels*. Fossil fuel combustion to directly produce mechanical work, low-grade heat, or light is very inefficient. Even in the best case more than half of the energy is wasted as heat, and 2/3 waste is more common. The balance improves if you can find additional useful work for the waste heat, like district heating from your fossil fuel power plant.

Fossil fuels do better at making full use of their energetic potential when they are used to manufacture chemicals or provide high-grade heat. Producing methanol starting from natural gas consumes much less primary energy than producing it starting from renewable electricity, water, and carbon dioxide. Producing cement from limestone using fossil fueled kilns consumes little, if any, more primary energy than producing it in electric furnaces, and coal/natural gas are certainly cheaper than electricity.

The good news for the future is that energy needs for present society are weighted toward the former sort of work, where renewable electricity can “punch above its weight” by doing the job with fewer primary energy megajoules. This includes all surface transportation, all agricultural and industrial processes that involve pumping, drilling, crushing, grinding, rolling, digging, welding, and cutting, all lighting, ordinary refrigeration and freezing, data centers, computers, and consumer electronics, and all building climate control excepting some very cold regions. 3 quads of coal might be replaced by 1 quad of renewable electricity, depending on the end-uses that coal was supporting.

Building climate control and water heating is a major energy consumer that has the potential for thermal-solar to punch even further above its weight. Low grade thermal energy — exactly what you need to keep buildings comfortable — can be extracted from sunlight at lower cost and higher efficiency than electricity production. This has much more potential for new buildings than for existing ones, though. It’s probably too expensive/disruptive to re-engineer existing buildings to take full advantage of passive and low-cost solar climate control.

*Strictly speaking, the “primary” energy source for wind, hydroelectric power, solar PV, and coal alike is the sun. If you divide the total energy produced by hydroelectricity by the total solar energy input driving precipitation cycles in a watershed, it’s abysmal. But of course the efficiency of fossil fuels is worse yet if you trace it back to millions of years of prehistoric sunlight. Practically speaking it makes sense to treat the electricity produced by solar/hydro/wind as their primary energy and to treat the heating value of fossil and nuclear fuels as their primary energy.

27

shah8 01.05.12 at 7:22 pm

On some shallow thoughts, I think I’d posit that:

1) Nuclear technology is fundamentally valid and viable.

2) Nuclear technology is fundamentally incompatible with capitalism.

3) That incompatibility has a lot to do with the rather considerable planning and management, with very narrow and rigid (if you know what’s good for you) constraints. Capitalism is far too messy and far too dependent on failure as a regulatory mechanism to be safely used for a nuclear industry. There is very little bezzle available before you hit screaming sky-high costs like what was seen at the Okiluoto site in Finland.

4) I fail to see that solar will get different results. No, no massive environmental disaster can occur with solar panels. However, a solar industry will require massive new social infrastructure, with reams of new regulatory ordinances that allow efficient utilization of solar energy. It will require huge new investment in the energy grid (where the real savings can occur, one new energy grid vs many new and slightly different nukes) which probably would be composed of vastly more complex subgrids. We would have to change how we see energy as a social construction, and we would need quite a few more laws when neighbors fight about who gets the sunshine and who gets the hot water. It’s not going to be minimally complex–it will require that people make large, out of pocket (or considerably higher taxes) expenses to be compliant in the new regime. For example, one might have force everyone to buy some kind of energy store before selling energy to the grid–and that hydrogen fuel cell could be a pretty penny in acquisition and in safe installation. So forth and on.

5) The chief constraints that prevents us from benefiting from nuclear power, I think, will prevent us from benefiting from solar power, in different ways. We’re kinda in late-state capitalism right now. We don’t have the sort of governmental energy (and freedom from corruption) to do much. We can’t even shut down coal plants with any authority…

28

NBarnes 01.05.12 at 7:37 pm

Capitalism is far too messy and far too dependent on failure as a regulatory mechanism to be safely used for a nuclear industry.

I love this. I am adopting it whenever I discuss nuclear power, especially in the USA. ‘dependant on failure as a regulatory mechanism’. <3

29

Jeffrey Davis 01.05.12 at 7:43 pm

re:26 “However, a solar industry will require massive new social infrastructure, with reams of new regulatory ordinances that allow efficient utilization of solar energy.”

Sweeping (and unconvincing) assertion. Why would people having a private source for some of their energy use require a “massive new social infrastructure”?

30

TheF79 01.05.12 at 8:17 pm

What does this price drop mean for the levelized cost of solar PV (JQ’s article gives the old price per kWh, but what is it now)? The other link states that the module cost is 35-40% of the total installed cost of PV. So if PV was around $0.50 per kWh before the price drop (which is typically the number I’ve seen), this will get it down to what, $0.35-0.40 per kWh? That’s still several times more expensive than fossil fuels and even wind.

Add in the fact, as noted above, that solar PV is a trivial amount of power generated currently, and it still has a long way to go. Wind has rapidly grown from a trival amount of power in 2000 to about 3% of total power in the US (about half of hydro), and it has been working through growing pains associated with dispatch and integration, supply of turbines, NIMBYism, wildlife impacts, health impacts etc. I think a lot of those concerns (outside the dispatch problem) are overstated, but don’t expect anti-renewable advocates to go quietly into that good night. Once solar hits a sizable portion of total generation, I expect there will be similar rows over externalities (real and made-up) associated with production and disposal of panels, dispatch, etc.

So while this great news (especially for off-grid applications), I wouldn’t take a solar victory lap quite yet.

31

John Quiggin 01.05.12 at 8:24 pm

The adaptations that need to be made are substantial, but not an overwhelming barrier. An electricity system based on renewables and gas (the best case for the next couple of decades) will need different pricing structures and network technologies to one based on coal and nuclear. But these things change all the time.

As regards balance of system costs, these are falling as well, and for the same scale economy reasons, though not as fast since there is a bigger site-specific component. AFAICT, the current cost of solar is around 20c/kwh – that’s the feed-in tariff price the Chinese have just adopted, which presumably reflects a judgement that at least some firms can supply at this price.

32

John Quiggin 01.05.12 at 8:30 pm

@Tim W – the big reductions in the price of PV were driven by the various renewable energy mandates, feed-in tariffs and so on that permitted the achievement of scale economies. These are inefficient substitutes for a carbon price (FITs are like a source-specific carbon price). Lomborg opposes carbon prices and his arguments, to the extent they are valid at all, apply equally to FITs. His suggestion, and the main themse of The Sceptical Environmentalist, was that technology would solve the problem automagically, as he (falsely) claims happened with other environmental problem.

On the contradictions in our various positions, thinking about nuclear power (and also war) has contributed to a change in my political position. I was at one time a believer in fairly extensive central planning and macroeconomic fine-tuning, now I’m not.

33

Sock Puppet of the Great Satan 01.05.12 at 8:37 pm

” AFAICT, the current cost of solar is around 20c/kwh – that’s the feed-in tariff price the Chinese have just adopted, which presumably reflects a judgement that at least some firms can supply at this price.”

That’s still 5x the MidWest ISO mean price last year. Solar’s still got a long way to go.

34

Sock Puppet of the Great Satan 01.05.12 at 8:46 pm

“I don’t get the people who dismiss Fukushima with ‘it was externally caused’. What, you’re ok with massive radiation leaks so long as they were externally caused? “

Because I get less nervous about nuclear incidents caused by external events than those caused by lack of following Standard Operating Procedures and made worse by inherent design flaws (like the RMBK reactors which operate in a metastable equilibrium). In the same way that we see the driver in a traffic fatality caused by slipping on black ice less culpable than one caused by a driver texting or with a glass of Jim Beam in his hand.

And because nuclear accidents scare me much less than the potential of a 7 C warming by 2300. Which I saw in some climates projections at a conference a few weeks back.

35

Matt 01.05.12 at 8:53 pm

India’s most recent reverse solar auction produced bids on average 8.77 rupees per kwh and as low as 7.5 rupees per kwh (USD $0.17 to $0.14 per kwh). The lowest cost reported by Solarbuzz, for a 500 kw installations in a sunny climate, is $0.15 per kwh. The lower Indian bids may reflect further economy of scale from larger scale (megawatt-plus) installations.

36

Sock Puppet of the Great Satan 01.05.12 at 8:56 pm

“However, it is also worth considering the concrete consumption by source and technology mix rather than reducing everything to one standard of joules or oil-equivalents.”

AFAIK the authors of the “One Cubic Mile of Oil” factor the thermodynamic efficiencies in.

However, solar thermal has greater thermodynamic efficiencies (because it’s a heat cycle with a lower delta-T than most fossil-fueled heat cycles), and if solar PV’s thermodynamic efficiencies are miserable compared to any heat engine. So I’m not sure what your point is, here.

The only advantages I can see to a large-scale switch to electric cars are (1) recovery of energy from regenerative braking and (2) CO2 emissions from electric generation are point-source and so you could do carbon capture and sequestration. You’re just displacing the emissions.

If you can’t scale up renewables, and a glance at the diagram shows how far renewables have to go, and new nuke plants are off the table, a switch to electric cars is just displacing the emissions. Fukushima will do more damage environmentally because of its stalling of new nuclear plants than the primary damage from the radiation leak.

37

Jeff Nagle 01.05.12 at 9:08 pm

hix:

Right now, most real life solar panels or on roofs in southern Germany where they work at arround 55% of their possible capacity under ideal weather conditions.

Just speaking in terms of North America and rough N/S irradiation patterns, you do realize the extreme southernmost point in Germany is about ten miles south of the northernmost point in Maine, in the suburbs of Seattle, and almost 300 miles north of Toronto, right?

38

John Quiggin 01.05.12 at 9:47 pm

“That’s still 5x the MidWest ISO mean price last year. Solar’s still got a long way to go.”

To be sure, we are not at grid parity. What’s needed now is another 50 per cent cost reduction for solar, and a $50/tonne carbon price (=5c/kwH for coal-fired power), or some similar combination.

The cost reduction seems like a pretty safe bet over the next 5-10 years, and maybe less. The carbon price is harder, given the problems of making policy when one major party is batsh*t insane, but at least we are in the realm of soluble policy problems.

By contrast, there is no apparent path to a solution based on nuclear power. I argue at my own blog that the only option with even a remote possibility of making a substantial contribution by 2030 is the AP1000, and even that’s a long shot

http://johnquiggin.com/2012/01/03/the-nuclear-option-ap1000-or-bust/

39

Omega Centauri 01.05.12 at 10:02 pm

Sock Puppet,
One argument for electric cars is that they are inherently more efficient than ICE engines, i.e. calculating emissions from well to wheel, the electric car requires less carbon. The downside, is that if you make the assumption I do, that any barrel of oil saved by doing X, will be consumed by someone else doing Y, then you’ve just increased the number of cars that a fixed amount of oil can support, increasing net emissions in the meanwhile.

40

Sock Puppet of the Great Satan 01.05.12 at 11:01 pm

“One argument for electric cars is that they are inherently more efficient than ICE engines, i.e. calculating emissions from well to wheel”

Depends on the efficiency of the underlying electrical source, whether it’s coal or natural gas.

A lot of the well-to-wheel estimates for electrical cars assume Natural Gas Combined-Cycle as the source of the electricity. A state of the art NGCC plant with the latest spiffy high-temperature gas turbine from Siemens or GE gets up to 60-62% thermodynamic efficiency. Add to the lower carbon intensity of methane than petroleum, and yep, electric cars look better than hybrids or straight internal combustion.

It’s different if coal’s the electricity source. A supercritical pulverized coal (PC) plant has an efficiency of 30-35%. Add to the higher carbon intensity per joule of coal compared to liquid petroleum fuels, and things look worse for electrics than for IC engines and hybrids.

At the moment, there’s a lot more electricity supplied by PC than NGCC. It’s all where you draw the envelope for your analysis. An additional complication is when the electricity is generated – if you’re charging at night and there’s a nuke or hydro or wind plant supplying the off-peak electricity, then things look better.

Again, I see the advantage of electric vehicles as turning mobile CO2 sources into static CO2 point sources, at which point we can Do Something with the CO2 emissions, like shoving them into a saline aquifer. That’s if CO2 sequestration doesn’t turn out to be a busted flush like first- and second-generation biofuels have turned out to be.

41

gordon 01.05.12 at 11:18 pm

Sock Puppet of the Great Satan: “Coal’s cheap…” (at 16).

It’s cheap if you subsidise the price. In Australia, the NSW Govt. subsidises the price of coal supplied to generators:

http://www.climatespectator.com.au/commentary/nsws-great-big-coal-subsidy-scandal

Globally, the IEA estimates “Fossil fuels currently receive USD 312 billion (2009) in consumption subsidies, versus USD 57 billion (2009) for renewable energy (IEA, 2010g)”:

http://www.iea.org/papers/2011/CEM_Progress_Report.pdf

Somewhat entertainingly, that IEA report’s recommendations for promoting renewables include both reduction in subsidies for fossil – and increase in subsidies for renewables!

In a subsidy-riddled system such as we have, does it make any sense to talk about “price”?

42

derrida derider 01.06.12 at 1:25 am

“The cost reduction [sufficient for solar to achieve grid parity] seems like a pretty safe bet over the next 5-10 years” – John@38

A very optimistic prediction. Yes, we have had a sharp price drop in the last 5 years – that doesn’t mean we will have a similar one in the next five. I think it is far more likely the recent price drops were a one-off step change as China geared up, rather than establishing a new trend. Absent some exciting *fully developed* cost-saving semiconductor technology waiting to be implemented (do you know of any?) then I’d expect that we’ll just see a modest further reduction over the next decade as we asymptote towards what is possible with manufacturing existing designs.

Plus, of course, people are right to point out that the cost of the panels is not the sole factor limiting very large scale PV use. In the long run I reckon nuclear – hopefully better than we currently have, and certainly far better than we had with Fukushima – is still a good bet, despite its very real drawbacks.

43

John Quiggin 01.06.12 at 2:45 am

@DD There are examples right through the production chain. For example

* The spot price of polysilicon is now about $20/kg, and this is about equal to production cost
http://www.pv-tech.org/news/gcl_poly_claims_polysilicon_cost_down_to_us22.5_per_kilogram_wafer_capacity
but most module producers are currently locked into contracts at twice this price or even more

* There’s been steady progress in increasing solar cell efficiency, and no reason that should stop – the labs are still breaking records regularly

* Balance of system costs are more specific to particular types of installation, so they haven’t yet had much benefit from scale factors, but there are plenty of possibilities

44

chris 01.06.12 at 4:40 am

The downside, is that if you make the assumption I do, that any barrel of oil saved by doing X, will be consumed by someone else doing Y, then you’ve just increased the number of cars that a fixed amount of oil can support, increasing net emissions in the meanwhile.

That’s why in my opinion, the big energy efficiency savings (in the US at least) will have to come from a redesign of urban planning and infrastructure that drastically reduces vehicle miles traveled per capita. Other high-tech countries already have much lower VMT/c while maintaining equal or better overall quality of life compared to the US, because their development is designed to allow people to take better advantage of mass transit and because they don’t systematically underfund (a) urban governments in general and (b) mass transit systems in particular.

45

Sock Puppet of the Great Satan 01.06.12 at 5:46 am

“Balance of system costs are more specific to particular types of installation, so they haven’t yet had much benefit from scale factors, but there are plenty of possibilities.”

Maybe aid we strt seeing more use of DC residentially. I like LEDs for lighting, but hate that I pay for an inverter ‘ballast’ each time to convert the AC to DC.

46

Sock Puppet of the Great Satan 01.06.12 at 5:54 am

“Globally, the IEA estimates “Fossil fuels currently receive USD 312 billion (2009) in consumption subsidies, versus USD 57 billion (2009) for renewable energy (IEA, 2010g)”

Fossil fuels supply about 375 Exajoules, and renewables, including biomass, about 70 Exajoules. Eyeballing those numbers and those from the IEA, it looks like on a per joule basis are subsided to about the same level. But even compared to other fossil fuels, coal is cheap on a per million BTU basis.

As for the Aussie subsidies: my limited experience with the convoluted ownership structures and shell games Aussie energy investors use has convinced me that if I ever had such an investor over for dinner, I’d count the silver afterwards.

47

Peter T 01.06.12 at 7:06 am

I believe the site referred to by Omega Centauri at 24 on variability of solar by location was one by Tom Murphy at Do the Maths. One such is:

http://physics.ucsd.edu/do-the-math/2011/09/dont-be-a-pv-efficiency-snob/

48

gordon 01.06.12 at 8:09 am

Sock Puppet of the Great Satan, you’ve got that right; that kind of investor would not only trouser the spoons, he’d leave you a bill for your own food.

49

hix 01.06.12 at 11:24 am

“Just speaking in terms of North America and rough N/S irradiation patterns, you do realize the extreme southernmost point in Germany is about ten miles south of the northernmost point in Maine, in the suburbs of Seattle, and almost 300 miles north of Toronto, right?”

Yes, i do. Southern Germany ~1100 kw/h, best conditions, found in some Chilenian or Australian desert regions where no one lives: ~2300. Melbourne ~ Rome thumbguestimate 1600. Sydney ~ Tunesia thumbguesstimate ~1850. Still not good enough to competete with decent on shore wind spots at the moment.

Here wikipedia has a global map:
http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/d/db/Solar_land_area.png

50

Zamfir 01.06.12 at 12:16 pm

By contrast, there is no apparent path to a solution based on nuclear power. I argue at my own blog that the only option with even a remote possibility of making a substantial contribution by 2030 is the AP1000, and even that’s a long shot

http://johnquiggin.com/2012/01/03/the-nuclear-option-ap1000-or-bust/
Have you looked at South Korea? Korea plans to bring about 14 GW online domestically until 2021 (and has recently affirmed they will continue on that path), partially current designs alread under construction, partially their evolved APR-1400 design. And they are also building 4 of the new design in the UAE for another 6 GW by 2020. That brings them to your 20GW by 2020 on currently affirmed plans alone.

51

Tim Worstall 01.06.12 at 1:33 pm

“the big reductions in the price of PV were driven by the various renewable energy mandates, feed-in tariffs and so on that permitted the achievement of scale economies.”

I’m not hugely and entirely convinced by that. Speaking as someone who supplies materials into a renewable technology. It’s certainly true that First Solar has sold a lot of panels as a result of Germany’s FTT (they had at least one factory there just to supply that market). Yet FS was founded in 1990 and the upgrade to the German FiT didn’t come until 2000. So there would have been continuing technological development of Cd/Te thin film cells whether Germany had upgraded that FiT or not.

And I’m really not sure (as in, don’t know, would like to know) how much of FS’s ability to drop prices is a result of scale economies and how much is as a result of a pretty new technology (thin film itself isn’t that old) just getting better over time.

Moving to a technology I know better, solid oxide fuel cells, Westinghouse was patenting stuff that would be useful back in 1990/91, before Kyoto had even been passed. Their particular work didn’t, umm, work, but many of the same ideas turn up in the Bloom Energy boxes.

And one of the reasons that those SOFCs don’t work economically as yet isn’t because there isn’t demand for them, nor is it scale economies. It’s just that the technology isn’t ready for prime time yet. There’s just too much investigation of the possible alternatives that needs to be done. Also, too much building of the back industry needed to supply the necessary materials in volume.

One technical point to provide an example. For SOFCs we know what we should make the cathode from for maximum performance. Unfortunately, said material means the boards are prone to cracking. This wasn’t solved until 2000 or so, when it was realised that using a mixture of two rare earths instead of one alone would degrade performance only slightly while solving the cracking problem as the board went through the heating and cooling cycle in operation.

Now, I’m not trying to insist that FiTs didn’t increase demand and thus increase scale economies and thus lower prices. Rather, I’m insisting that there’s more to such new technologies than this. Different renewables are at different stages but most of them (even windmills, where new blade materials will allow them to operate at higher wind speeds) aren’t really fully developed yet. And that continuing development runs at its own speed, perhaps influenced a little by demand and FiTs, but it really isn’t “only” scale economies that are bringing prices down. There’s still a whole lot of basic scientific work, as well as engineering, being done rather than just working out how to make things cheaper at scale.

Yes, even in Si PV, where advances in ingot size and, would you believe, how thinly you can slice the wafer, have brought prices down (that wafer slicing is, according to John Hempton at Bronte Capital anyway, responsible for more than doubling the number of wafers you can get out of an ingot: thus, ceteries paribus, halving the raw material cost).

52

Omega Centauri 01.06.12 at 8:11 pm

To continue Tim’s argument. A lot of the supply chain development is fed or starved based upon the demand -and future expectations of demand, for the end product. Economists, or techologists like to sweep all of this complexity into the concepts like learning-curve, economies of scale, and Moore’s law type empirical fits. Of course few industries are an island in themselves, many technological advances are imported from unrelated industries, and vice versa, so changing the scale of one industries cash flow (say Silicon PV) doesn’t change the funds available for all useful subcomponents by the same factor.

One example, is floating offshore wind, importing marine platform expertise and manufacturing from off shore oil drilling.

53

Sock Puppet of the Great Satan 01.07.12 at 12:13 am

“And they [South Korea] are also building 4 of the new design in the UAE for another 6 GW by 2020. That brings them to your 20GW by 2020 on currently affirmed plans alone.”

On another note, the Chinese have 600 GW of new-coal fired plants, mostly ultra-supercritical, planned to built before 2035. Yeah, they’ll be retiring older, less efficient plants, but that’s an eye-popping (and depressing) number for those of us nervous about CO2 levels.

54

Peter Smith 01.07.12 at 12:42 am

SPGS (19)
“geothermal, except in a few areas, is cost-prohibitive because of drilling costs”

Funny thing, the oil industry doesn’t appear to have been inhibited by drilling costs.

55

MarkusR 01.07.12 at 5:03 pm

Gen III+ and IV nuclear reactors are where solar was 5 years ago. They are just as expensive as solar. And with electric cars coming to the grid that is all the more reason to add clear energy. Oil is currently our direct obstacle to overcome since it amounts to greatest amount of CO2, energy, and money, that we spend on energy each year. Compared to oil based energy, solar in temperate regions is a bargain bin price.

56

Tim Wilkinson 01.07.12 at 5:35 pm

Tim Worstall – continuing development runs at its own speed, perhaps influenced a little by demand and FiTs

Omega Centauri – To continue Tim’s argument. A lot of the supply chain development is fed or starved based upon the demand, and future expectations of demand, for the end product. Economists, or techologists like to sweep all of this complexity into the concepts like learning curve, economies of scale, and Moore’s law type empirical fits.

If only some way could be found of directly channeling resources into this kind of research so as to rouse it from its torpor, rather than relying on the oblique and apparently rather ineffectual method of prodding and tweaking Market Forces.

It’s conceivable that we could find experts who are interested in solving these issues, and give them control of substantial funding, rather than hoping some get-even-richer-quick merchant will take a punt. As a side-benefit of putting such experts in control, we’d have found a respectable referent for the term ‘technocrat’.

Obviously we can’t do that really, because it might stifle ‘entrepreneurial activity’, which would be a crying shame. The Invisible Hand processes of the market are, like natural selection -a cruel, wasteful, aimless and agonisingly slow random walk- spontaneous, and that is the really important thing where -ideological appeals to high Tory sentiment- industrial production is concerned.

57

Lee A. Arnold 01.07.12 at 6:25 pm

“Carbon Dioxide Capture from the Air Using a Polyamine Based Regenerable Solid Adsorbent”
http://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/ja2100005
(via Metafilter)

58

Omega Centauri 01.07.12 at 6:44 pm

Tim @56.
Even if we didn’t have ideological blinders preventing us from having a largescale industrial policy, the experience of my many coworkers who used to work at government research labs, is that they become stiflingly dominated by internal politicking. Various medium level and above managers start building and protecting empires. And because the nature of the work and its potential is so difficult for the managerial class to assess, inevitably spin and PR end up dominating the future direction of research determining process. I doubt it would work very well.

59

mpowell 01.07.12 at 9:13 pm

@58: Well, the other approach is government financed private research through grants. I don’t have the experience to say whether this ‘works’, but it is a considerable portion of STEM research money at US universities currently. It results in a different sort of politicking I suppose.

60

Tim Wilkinson 01.07.12 at 10:52 pm

Various medium level and above managers start building and protecting empires remind me, we’re talking about large organisations in the public sector are we?

Thing is, as with solar cells, efficiency is not really a concern per se, or rather there is no particular level of inefficiency that would make proceeding not worth bothering. (There is no real shortage of sunlight, nor in the circumstances much of a constraint on available funds or personnel for research, I should think). It’s output we’re interested in. And mpowell beats me to pointing out that there are already organisations full of scientists ready to conduct research projects if funds are made available (I find it odd to think of them as ‘private’ but I suppose in the US many of them pretty unambiguously are.)

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ezra abrams 01.07.12 at 11:41 pm

In regard to nuclear power
One should never forget that civilian nuclear power increases the spread of nuclear weapons. This is because much of the technology is similar, and it is easier for a state to develop bombs if they have electric plants
Second, to my knowledge, nuclear power in the us would shut down Tomorrow if not for the taxpayer subsidy known as the unsurance backstop – you and me – if you are a US taxpayer like I am – are on the hook for any damages over 15 billion.
Given our litigous climate, does anyone seriously think nuclear power plants would stay open for a day without insurance ? and how on earth would they get it if the US gov’t withdrew ?

Second, I wonder if of all the 1,000s of people who have blogged over the last few years, often rudely and sarcasticaly , that solar is a pipe dream – is even ONE of these people going to apologize and admit they were wrong

62

Tim Worstall 01.08.12 at 5:56 pm

“It’s conceivable that we could find experts who are interested in solving these issues, and give them control of substantial funding, rather than hoping some get-even-richer-quick merchant will take a punt. As a side-benefit of putting such experts in control, we’d have found a respectable referent for the term ‘technocrat’.”

Hey, count me in. I’ve got 5 applications in at present anyway. Would love one or more of them to come off.

63

piglet 01.08.12 at 10:30 pm

I still don’t get it why solar water heating, which is much cheaper than PV, isn’t much more widely adopted even in places with ample sun (e. g. Southern US). Not to mention basic energy conservation measures that are available and much cheaper than any alternative but remain neglected. Price isn’t the only driver of energy use.

64

Omega Centauri 01.09.12 at 2:44 am

Tim @60.
I used to think much like your comment, that efficiency doesn’t matter, just raw cost per watt of capacity. But, I’m largely changing my mind. I think we can both agree that for a site with enough available area, and a fixed need, that the figure of merit is (annualized) output per unit of cost. But, I think not all applications and sites fit that billing. Also we need to consider the cost of the entire system, not just the cells or panels. Most of the BOS costs are proportional to area, so clearly a more efficient panel even with a higher cost per nameplate watt, may be able to recoup that disadvantage once the cost of the entire system is considered.

Then, the biggest growth area for PV, in the US at least, is utility scale plants -not residential rooftops. These are typically rated in the tens to hundreds of megawatts, and the land requirements are substantial, as well as the political battles related to the use of that much land. Consider that to replace a 1GW reactor, with PV at say 10% efficiency requires 50 square kilometers, (assuming a 20% capacity factor). Thats a pretty hefty amount of land. Higher efficiency can greatly cut into the needed size. Currently there are battles going on concerning the construction of large scale PV in the Antelope valley near LA. Obviously a decrease in acres needed per megawatt would be a big help.

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Tim Wilkinson 01.09.12 at 11:26 am

O.C. Yeah, that was a bit of a gratuitously poor quality point chucked in as an afterthought. As far as PV is concerned, I was really just thinking that very low nominal efficiency figures – getting less than one theoretically might have from the input of sunlight – might well be good enough; ‘wasting’ sunlight is not an issue since it’s not as though we are trying to fend off the inevitable exhaustion of our sunlight reserves. But ‘efficiency’ or output ratios as against other inputs, including sunlit surface area, are still an issue, and in fact the technical efficiency of the PV process will affect those.

But the points still hold (1) that empire building, bureaucracy is a feature of private firms over a certain size too, (2) the key point that nominal inefficiency of these government labs is not an issue if they are still better than the alternatives including doing nothing (3) that university departments exist already so that govt needn’t necessarily construct an in-house research capability.

And the real idea was to criticise what appears to be the obstructive role played here by ingrained market-fundamentalist assumptions.

TW (not me, the other one): You’ve applied for government funding to carry out research, you mean?

TW (not the other one, me): get on with your alotted tasks.

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Omega Centauri 01.09.12 at 3:26 pm

TW. Actually we agree about the need for publicly directed research/development -even “subsidies”. A lot of would be things that require technological/industrial development have serious chicken and egg type problems. The barrier to becoming commercially viable can be too steep for the private market to tackle.

67

Sock Puppet of the Great Satan 01.10.12 at 9:40 am

“Funny thing, the oil industry doesn’t appear to have been inhibited by drilling costs.”

Don’t you think you’re cute.

The energy density of oil is a tad higher than hot water. Also, oil is in sedimentary basins, i.e softer rock.Geothermal means drilling through granite, which means having to replace the drill bit often. Which skyrockets the drilling costs, not because of the expense of the bit, but because of the cost of the drill rig while you’re pulling the drill string up every 10-20 meters of penetration.

68

Sock Puppet of the Great Satan 01.10.12 at 9:42 am

“One should never forget that civilian nuclear power increases the spread of nuclear weapons. “

Oh balls. Not all fuel cycles do, plus there’s the work on thorium plants.

69

Sock Puppet of the Great Satan 01.10.12 at 9:46 am

“Second, I wonder if of all the 1,000s of people who have blogged over the last few years, often rudely and sarcasticaly , that solar is a pipe dream – is even ONE of these people going to apologize and admit they were wrong.”

They’re still not wrong. Even if PV cell price drops, you still have the balance of the system cost and the issue of grid stability. Plus solar PV can’t do base load. It’s 0.2-0.5 of a Socolow wedge at best.

70

Sock Puppet of the Great Satan 01.10.12 at 9:51 am

“Carbon Dioxide Capture from the Air Using a Polyamine Based Regenerable Solid Adsorbent”

OK, here’s the problem: the less concentrated the CO2, the more thermodynamic work to capture it with a material and then regenerate it. So while it’s good to have these capture co2 fom the air ideas, it’s far from the ideal option. Capturing CO2 from the air makes solar look cheap. Unless you’re using plants.

71

ajay 01.10.12 at 9:57 am

I still don’t get it why solar water heating, which is much cheaper than PV, isn’t much more widely adopted even in places with ample sun (e. g. Southern US).

It’s almost universal in rural Turkey – last time I was there, anyway, pretty much every house seemed to have the tank-plus-panel solar water heater setup on its roof.

72

John Quiggin 01.10.12 at 11:24 am

Baseload is a myth, or more precisely a backwards version of the truth. An always-on power source is less valuable (per watt generated) than a daytime only source. That’s why coal and nuclear power is given away at night.

http://johnquiggin.com/2009/07/22/the-myth-of-baseload-power-demand/

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Omega Centauri 01.10.12 at 10:45 pm

JQ:
At low solar penetration, the daytime power source is more valuable (per unit output). We are dreamers here, we want PV to become the dominate power source. Then baseline power will become more valuable. Admittedly, we don’t know what baseline demand in a highcost at night regime is, i.e. industrial plants that are currently run at night to take advantage of cheap power can timeshift their operations. But, there will remain residual nighttime (and cloudy windless weather) demand which must be met by some other means.

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John Quiggin 01.10.12 at 11:34 pm

@Omega Centauri: That’s true, and will require a reversal of the current pricing pattern to match supply and demand. But, as you observe, there isn’t a fixed quantity called “baseload demand” that must be met no matter what. Rather, what we have with coal and nuclear is a “baseline supply” that must be disposed off. A modest price premium for night time power would be enough to kill off most of the existing demand – the industrial plants you mention, off-peak hot water systems and so on.

For the rest, some things will go the other way, with timers designed to turn off at night and restart in the morning. After that, there are some uses important enough to run on batteries if they have to and that may be the most cost-effective solution.

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Sock Puppet of the Great Satan 01.11.12 at 10:39 pm

“Baseload is a myth, or more precisely a backwards version of the truth.”

“An always-on power source is less valuable (per watt generated) than a daytime only source. “

I think you’re equating “higher variable cost” with “valuable”, here. Coal and nuke have higher capital costs than natural gas power plants, but, at least up until a few years ago, gas had a much higher variable cost. So the gas plants only got used for peaking.

It used to be the case that coal plants were operated near 100% capacity, but with the drop in natural gas prices from fracking, that’s no longer the case. Those coal plants are learning to be more flexible.

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