Sensible Solar Promoter

It is amazing how some solar promoters out there talk about this technology as of the Second Coming.
There is too much hype surrounding solar panels / wind turbines. Here a former solar energy promoter (myself) will present a balanced view of this technology without exaggerations and even dishonesty.

  • Solar is ideally suited for remote off-grid installations. However, these applications tend to be low energy ones not suitable for running air conditioners or even microwave ovens. So, if you have a cottage in the middle of nowhere with little chance of soon connecting to the grid, solar is a good option whether by itself or combined with a gasoline generator. Use solar for the basics such as lightning and operating your electronic devices.
  • In space, in the inner solar system solar is best. Even though the Juno mission (to Jupiter) uses solar panels to power the spacecraft this is already stretching things too much. In Earth orbit, nothing beats solar and that is the reason this technology has essentially cornered the market there. 
  • Grid connected solar is another animal altogether. It is hard to find an environmental reason for doing it. Economically, there are subsidies and incentives and thus some persons do benefit from solar but it is usually at the expense of other customers on the grid. Solar cannot stand by itself so (to provide reliable electricity) it needs to be paired with reliable power plants. The ideal pairing power plant for solar is natural gas. Since the U.S. has ample natural gas generating capacity it is one of the countries that will end up managing efficiently relatively high penetrations of solar / wind. However, from the point of view of grid stability / cost, the ideal penetration of renewables is zero. 5 to 10% penetration from renewables can probably be managed without serious harm, but going much higher than these numbers can wreak havoc in a grid starting by increasing the cost of retail electricity and eventually starving the grid of badly needed maintenance funds. The latter could eventually cause an electricity supply crisis.
  • With respect to reducing CO2 emissions, solar is not as good as it seems. If paired with a natural gas power plant, on an annual basis solar (say) will provide 20% of the energy while the gas plant will provide 80%. So, in theory we would be reducing 20% of the fuel consumption. However, in practice it is less than that since the gas plant has to idle, ramp up, ramp down, shut down, restart, etc. Worse, if investing in solar precludes investing in, say, nuclear power then solar actually increases CO2 emissions. Just look at Germany where the carbon intensity of its electricity is stuck long term at around 500 grams per kWh.
  • Finally, we have to stop labeling solar as "clean energy." Yes, the shinny panels on your roof look clean but the mining, manufacturing, transportation, installation and disposal activities are not clean and could even be argued are very dirty per TWh generated as compared to other options. Also, vast tracts of vegetation have to be cleared when installing solar farms. Oh, and "storage" is just like fusion energy: it will come some time in the future but it never arrives (yes, there are some token installations around the world but to the nearest percent they are storing 0% of our current energy needs). 
Bottom line: solar has niche applications where it is the best technology we have but trying to force it where it doesn't fully make economic / environmental sense is a mistake.

Feel free to add to the conversation in Twitter: @luisbaram

Thank you. 


Renewable Targets

Renewable energy targets should not be set with the gut. If at all, they should be set after careful engineering / economic considerations have been studied.

At the very least, the following factors need to be considered:

  • Annual insolation patterns (for at least ten years).
  • Annual wind patterns (for at least ten years).
  • Annual electricity demand patterns (again, for at least ten years).

Off the bat we know solar does not produce at night. So, does wind somewhat complement solar output or is its contribution mostly random (on an annual basis)?

What types of pairing power plants will be used. Natural gas? Coal? Hydro? Nuclear?

What will be the cost of the electricity produced by the panels / turbines considering the system, not only individual components? (Paring power plants need to be ramped up / down, idled, stopped, started and thus even though their fuel use drops, their fixed costs per kWh increase). 

No conventional generating capacity may be retired as at any particular moment during the year there may be no sunlight or wind.

Finally, it needs to be decided beforehand what will be done with unwanted generation: will solar panels / wind turbines output be curtailed or will this energy be dumped (possibly at a negative price) into another jurisdiction?

After all of the above is carefully studied, the ideal "renewable" energy penetration in a grid (annual basis) may be between 0 and 5%. 

Feel free to make your own homework and add to the conversation in Twitter: @luisbaram


The Climate Question

The question, "do you believe in climate change?" doesn't make a lot of sense. Many times it is used by "believers" to justify them labeling skeptics as "deniers."

However, these are some of the reasons it doesn't make sense:
  • Essentially everybody believes the climate is changing. It has always changed (for many millions of years) and there is no reason to believe it will ever stop changing (at least as long as the Earth hangs on to a significant atmosphere).
  • So, the question should probably be framed differently: do you believe the additional CO2 that humans are pumping into the atmosphere via the burning of fossil fuels will change the climate? Even if this were the question, it can hardly be answered yes / no. If somebody answers "yes" what do they actually mean by that? Yes, imperceptibly. Yes, mildly. Yes, significantly. Yes, catastrophically. And yes, but it will IMPROVE the climate. So, we are back at square one.
  • If the belief is that yes, additional CO2 will affect the climate negatively and we should prevent it, then belief and faith, no matter how strong they may be, won't change the composition of the atmosphere. If we do want to reduce CO2 emissions from our primary energy supply, nuclear energy is a must and it should end up supplying more than 50% of our requirements. Eventually, it should probably go up as high as 90%. However, we should understand this energy transition will be slow. It may require 100 years or more. 
  • Unless we want to commit economic suicide, solar panel / wind turbine capacity needs to be paired with the same capacity of reliable power plants. And the latter will always end up producing most of the energy on an annual basis. Thus we cannot move to a low CO2 global economy piggybacking on "renewables." It could even be argued that investing in "renewables" is among the least effective ways of reducing CO2 emissions. 
So, bottom line, more than feelings and beliefs what we need are hard headed engineering / economic decisions. Feelings and beliefs more often than not are just counterproductive. 

Feel free to add to the conversation in Twitter: @luisbaram



Not Created Equal

A one GWe nuclear power plant operating at 85% capacity factor produces annually 7.45 TWh.
Thus, some people believe that a solar PV farm producing this same amount of energy on an annual basis can replace the nuclear power plant. 
This is not correct.
Nuclear power plants for the most part operate 24/7 and thus produce reliable base load power you can count with.
Solar PV farms produce continually varying output during the day and nothing at all during the night.
Also, in most places there is significant variation in solar insolation throughout the year. And the lower levels might actually coincide with the times of year when the most electricity is needed. As an example, here we have the insolation data for Berlin, Germany:

The variation between July and December is 10 to 1. Plus, Germany usually needs the most electricity in the dead of winter. 

Thus, solar PV does not replace nuclear capacity (or any other capacity), it just displaces energy from reliable producers in a semi-random fashion. (Nothing at night and a variable amount during the day). 

If the grid cannot absorb the solar electricity in full at any particular moment, then it has to be dumped into neighboring countries. This energy is usually not very valuable and may even require negative prices to be disposed of. If neighboring countries refuse these energy dumps then solar capacity might just have to be curtailed (further reducing its already relatively low capacity factor). 

Bottom line: solar PV for the most part does not replace installed capacity of reliable producers and just ends up being duplicated investment producing energy when it may not be particularly needed. 

It could be argued the output of wind turbines (years in advance) is even less predictable, and thus less valuable, than that of solar PV. 

Feel free to add to the conversation in Twitter: @luisbaram


Less Arrogance

The CAGW discourse could be less contentious if climate alarmists tamed their arrogance. Here is some humble advice on how this could be achieved:

1. Accept, off the bat, that Earth's climate system is extremely complex and thus that neither you, nor anybody else fully understands it.

2. Don't try to frame EVERYTHING that happens as "consistent with what you would expect from a warming planet." This reduces your credibility or worse, makes you sound like a clown.

3. If your premise is that increasing concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere are a serious problem then BEHAVE as if you believe this is true. You don't need to completely eliminate your fossil fuel use (an impossible feat for you as for anybody else) but at least engage in token actions such as eliminating all air travel.

4. This is a critical one. Again, if CO2 is a very serious issue, then you need to become a card carrying nuclear power advocate. And if you are already a closet nuclear supporter, then you need to come out.

5. Even if it is painful for your followers, you should educate them in the uselessness of solar panels and wind turbines to take us to a low CO2 global economy.

6. Maybe long term fossil fuels could be significantly displaced by nuclear power, but today they are indispensable to combat poverty. Thus, carbon taxes are not only a very bad idea, but also one of the cruelest things governments can implement.

7. You should never close your mind to new facts and data. You should even be open to recanting your AGW beliefs if reality ends up not agreeing with them.

Thank you.

Feel free to add to the conversation in Twitter: @luisbaram


ITER: Going Nowhere Fast

If no further cost increases happen and everything works according to the plan, in a few years ITER will be able to produce 500 MW of heat (not electricity). This heat will just be released to the atmosphere without producing any useful electricity (ITER will not even have an electrical generator). This heat dump into the atmosphere is planned to take place during 2035 if no additional delays occur. 

The input for producing this output is calculated to be 50 MW of heat. However, since the input heat will be produced with electricity, at a 40% efficiency for the generator it actually requires a thermal input of 50 / 0.40 = 125 MW of heat. So the net heat production of ITER should be 500 MW - 125 MW = 375 MW. If this heat were used to power an electrical generator (at say, 40% efficiency) its output would be 150 MW. 

The cost of ITER, so far, is projected to be 20 billion euros, so per GWe of capacity it corresponds to 20 / 0.125 = 160 billion euros. And again, this cost does not include boilers, generator, transformers, etc. 

160 billion euros per GWe is 20 times or more the current capital investment in a fission reactor. In order for fusion to compete in the marketplace at least 95% of the cost of the reactor will have to be cut for it to be attractive to electric utilities. Yes, there will be a learning curve but the magnitude of the cost reduction required seems challenging, to say the least. At the same time, fission is a moving target.

Also, a fusion reactor might not be as long lived as an equivalent fission one. "A technical concern is that the 14 MeV neutrons produced by the fusion reactions will damage the materials from which the reactor is built."

Plus, since it is inherently more complex, its capacity factor would almost certainly be lower than that of a fission reactor (in the US the whole nuclear fleet operates at around 90% annual capacity factor).

So, will ITER type fusion electrical generation ever be able to compete with fission technology?

Feel free to add to the conversation in Twitter: @luisbaram


A Dose of Reality

Most climate alarmists think reason and science are on their side and thus tend to have an arrogant attitude when dealing with climate skeptics.

They get annoyed when skeptics call their alarmist beliefs CAGW. They fight back saying the "C" is a "denier" plot but then we ask, if AGW is not catastrophic, why should humanity spend (waste) tens of trillions of dollars to "fix" something that ultimately may not be bad (if it is even being caused by our CO2 emissions)? 

Also, with a perfectly straight face many alarmists underline that "climate action" requires the replacement of fossil fuels wholesale by (mostly) solar panels and wind turbines. And yes, many of them confuse "energy" with "electricity." The latter is only a fraction of our civilization's total energy consumption. 

Here is where their boat, as it were, begins to thread water. Fossil fuel generating capacity cannot be replaced by solar and wind. At the most, these so called renewables can displace a certain number of hours annually of fossil fueled generation. However, the power plants themselves stay, as at any particular moment (that may well be during peak electricity demand) renewables may produce little or nothing. Solar PV produces nothing at night or when the panels are covered in snow. Their output is significantly curtailed during overcast days. Wind turbines' generation is more random. 

Today, solar panels and wind turbines produce marginal amounts of energy globally and this energy for the most part is not even needed as reliable power plants need to curtail their output to accommodate these semi-random energy dumps. 

So, these persons that believe reason and science are on their side promote an impossibility: replacing fossil fuels in a hurry with marginal, unreliable, energy sources that need to be paired with the same fossil fuels they want to replace. Obviously, they are not on the side of reason, they are not only denying reality, but engineering itself. 

Fossil fuels have lost, and will continue to lose, market share. However their absolute use is still increasing led by natural gas which is currently the fastest growing fuel worldwide. 

Yes, nuclear energy can replace fossil fuel capacity but many decades will be required for say, nuclear to supply 50% of the primary energy of our civilization.

So, fossil fuels are here to stay. If their CO2 emissions are a problem (that is worse than the benefits they provide) then reasonable solutions that do not contradict sound engineering and economics should be found. Maybe those "solutions" are just adaptations to a somewhat warmer planet.

Thank you.

Feel free to add to the conversation in Twitter: @luisbaram