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It’s Always Sunny In China

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Shibani Joshi, Fox News Business Reporter, explains on Fox & Friends the “dim future” of the U.S. solar industry:

Her argument is that President Obama’s solar subsidies have failed to deliver green jobs. According to Joshi’s research, “one-tenth of one percent of the grid comes from solar power, so you think about the money that has gone in, billions, the output, nothing.” And credit where credit is due, Joshi’s numbers check out. I crunched some quick numbers using the EIA’s Electricity Generating Capacity data and found 1074 MW of rated PV capacity out of a total generating capacity of 1051 GW for the entire U.S. grid, for 0.10 percent. (XLS)

My problem is that I think she is missing the big picture. Again, Joshi: “But the problem is, the solar industry has never proved that it can take the training wheels off of, of, additional funds and run on its own.”

Let’s take a step back and look at the U.S. solar industry in context of the global energy economy. It would be shortsighted to expect only instantaneous returns on investments in the solar industry. The Obama Administration, through its clean energy investment programs, is investing in the long game, in which the United States is competing with the rest of the world to develop clean energy technology that it can sell to the rest of the world. And by the rest of the world, I mean China and other Asian nations. I would expect more from someone with an MBA from the Harvard Business School.

In a recent post, NASA’s Earth Observatory website posted satellite images of solar PV farms in Dunghuang, China, along the old Silk Road:

The Advanced Land Imager (ALI) on the Earth-Observing-1 (EO-1) satellite captured this series of images showing the installation of solar power panels on the outskirts of Dunhuang in the Gansu province of western China. In 2006 (top image), barren desert dominated, except for the road and a few patches of agricultural fields (lower right). By 2011 (middle image), grids of photovoltaic panels began to appear in large numbers. By 2012 (lower image), thousands of square meters were covered.

China’s State Development & Investment Corporation and the China Guangdong Nuclear Power Corporation (CGNPC) began construction in the area in August 2009, according to China Daily. Two 10-megawatt (.01 gigawatt) facilities were opened by July 2010, making the site China’s first large-scale solar power station.

As of now, not a huge installed capacity. But looking ahead:

Chinese authorities hope to expand the electricity-generating capacity of Dunhuang’s solar farms in the future. The State Council (China’s equivalent of the cabinet) set a goal of increasing Dunhuang’s solar power generating capacity to 1 gigawatt by 2020. For context, China’s total installed solar capacity at the end of 2011 was about 3.1 gigawatts; the United States had 4.4 gigawatts of capacity by the same date.

And the kicker:

Space and sunlight will not be limiting factors to expansion. There are more than 3,500 square kilometers (1,400 square miles) of unused land around Dunhuang, and the area receives about 3,250 hours of sunlight per year.

It’s reasonable to expect that China will be able to expand its solar generation and will want to develop domestic solar technology to make that happen. It would behoove the United States to get out in front.

And it’s already happening, thanks to investment from federal and state governments. There’s a great local success story here in Austin, TX. The University of Texas at Austin has recently installed 226 KW of solar PV on two campus facilities. The $1.1 million projected was funded by the Texas State Energy Conservation Office (SECO) and the University’s own Green Fund, which is a self-imposed fee to support sustainability initiatives around campus, the project produces over 350 MWh of electricity annually while saving the University over $33,000 annually.

The best part of the story is that all of the components and workforce used were local to Austin. When the project team solicited bids, it was the local companies that came in cheapest. Meridian Solar designed and installed the array, Ideal Power provided DC to AC converters, Alpha Building Corporation provided construction and project management, Firefly Lighting provided LED lights, and Grid Bot installed electric vehicle chargers.

It’s projects and companies like these that will help the United States develop the world’s clean energy technologies. Simply saying that the industry hasn’t taken off its training wheels and parading Solyndra around misses the point. The point is investing, and investing takes patience and money.

Kudos to Will Oremus at Slate for picking up the story first, and debunking another of Joshi’s claim: that Germany receives more sunlight than America, and therefore is better at solar. OK.

David Wogan About the Author: An engineer and policy researcher who writes about energy, technology, and policy - and everything in between. Based in Austin, Texas. Comments? david.m.wogan@gmail.com Follow on Twitter @davidwogan.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. krohleder 1:47 pm 02/8/2013

    I am glad to see some progress for solar here in Austin TX. Solar power is the most promising energy source we have. Now that low cost grid level storage technology is almost in place we should see an even larger growth rate in an already booming business.

    Link to this
  2. 2. RSchmidt 2:02 pm 02/8/2013

    What a surprise faux news lying and distorting the facts to advance a radical right wing, fossil fuel funded agenda. Republicans are incapable of thinking outside their ideology. There is no point in even discussing the issues with them.

    Link to this
  3. 3. sethdayal 2:19 pm 02/8/2013

    Actually wind is currently 40 cents/kwh -solar 90 when 5 to 7 times sized transmission requirements and gas backup are included. Replace the gas with the best projections of grid level storage add a buck a kwh to that. Primarily backed up with inefficient fossil plant run inefficiently its less ghg’s less fossil fuel far less money skipping the wind and solar and just using efficient fossil plant.

    The cost of wind and solar having already achieved its maximum economy of scale benefit will resume its slow annual cost increase once Chinese dumping ends.

    90 cents for solar. How’s that:

    Lets take Vermont for example. Lotsa greenies there telling us the wonders of solar.

    https://openpv.nrel.gov/rankings

    So vermont $7.53 watt/peak or 7530 kw/peak installed average. Ok so using pV watts in Burlington the one watt peak gets 1.117kwh per annum. Financing at 7% home equity over 20 year life gives approx

    53 cents a kwh

    now lets add in for the array on every roof scam the low information greenie is wont to propose, 17 cents a kwh for gas backup, and 10 cents a kwh for 7 times sized transmission systems and we get

    80 cents a kwh.

    While the installed cost might be lower, commercial is similar but financing rates for the typical fly by night solar/wind operator are at least 15% so

    90 cents a kwh.

    Here’s a 17 MW peak solar install in service Jan 2011 by expert engineers at Duke Energy using real solar panels made in the USA not the Walmart quality Chinese junk with the same service life as everything else you buy at Walmart.

    http://www.pv-tech.org/project_focus/davidson_county_solar_farm_north_carolina

    $43 a watt average, 65 cents a kwh at Dukes discount rate. To that we need to add 17 cents a kwh for gas backup and 8 cents for transmission. 90 cents a kwh – Nice publicity.

    According to the NREL the cost of commercial solar installs has not changed significantly since Jan 2011.

    Now remember because of gas backup to solar no GHG’s are saved. So we need replace the gas with green storage.

    The DOE projects future research bring that cost to $120/khr resulting in a buck a kwh added to your power bill.

    There is a cost to the silly obsession of the uninformed in these worthless forms of power and its paid in the blood of millions of innocents.

    If all the money wasted on wind and solar in the last 10 years had been spent on nukes the world would now be coal free, 30 million air pollution deaths worldwide wouldn’t have happened and the AGW precipice be moved back 20 years.

    Link to this
  4. 4. sault 2:33 pm 02/8/2013

    RSchmidt,

    Well, when a Saudi Prince owns 10% of News Corp and the hard-right Murdoch clan owns another significant chunk (51% I think), it’s no surprise what comes out of the propaganda organization posing as News outfit.

    Link to this
  5. 5. sault 9:07 pm 02/8/2013

    Seth, you don’t even know what you’re talking about. You’re just a bitter troll that can’t stomach the FACT that clean energy works and nuclear power hasn’t panned out like you had hoped. So you have to invent all these silly, non-existent reasons why the nuclear industry imploded in the 70′s and 80′s…And then you just MAKE UP all these silly, non-existent “backup” generators that you think clean energy requires! Please, just show me ONE plant that was built to back up solar or wind! Numerous studies have shown that grid operators have to spend about $0.004 a kWh to manage variable power sources like wind and you just ignore them. I’ve pointed out that variable renewables appear like negative loads to grid operators and that they’re ALREADY accustomed to handling variable loads to begin with! How could they manage the unpredictable swings in demand to begin with? And look at all the serious studies showing that new wind energy generation is being sold at $0.04 – $0.07 a kWh while Areva’s (rejected) bid for new nuclear power in Ontario came in at $26B!!!

    http://www.thestar.com/business/2009/07/14/26b_cost_killed_nuclear_bid.html

    And considering the MASSIVE cost overruns experienced in building CANDU reactors, this was probably LESS THAN HALF of the final cost:

    “To most Ontarians, the Darlington station is associated with the massive cost overruns incurred during its construction. The initial cost estimate for the station was $3.9 billion CAD in the late 1970s, while the final cost was $14.4 billion CAD.[6] The project was adversely affected by declining electricity demand forecasts, mounting debt of Ontario Hydro, and the Chernobyl disaster which necessitated safety reviews in mid-construction. Each delay incurred interest charges on debt, while ultimately accounted for 70% of the cost overruns.”

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Darlington_Nuclear_Generating_Station#Cost_overruns

    Sorry, “Too cheap to meter” has become “too expensive and slow to build to matter”.

    Link to this
  6. 6. sault 9:20 pm 02/8/2013

    My bad, that was ACEL’s bid coming in at $26B. Areva came in at $23B but was rejected because the government wouldn’t allow them to put its taxpayers on the hook for cost overruns and / or a possible failure of the reactor build altogether. Smart move.

    Link to this
  7. 7. dwbd 9:44 pm 02/8/2013

    The new Nuclear bids at Darlington by AECL were $2700 per kw, Areva was $2400 per kw vs your worthless Wind running > $13,000 per kw.

    djysrv.blogspot.ca/2009/07/is-aecl-down-for-count.html

    “..$26 billion is an aggregate number that includes two reactors, turbines, transmission and distribution infrastructure (power lines or T&D), plant infrastructure, and nuclear fuel for 60 years as well as decommissioning costs. [and new HIGHWAY CONSTRUCTION!] The most important number in the whole controversy has gone largely without notice and that is the delivered cost of electricity from the plants is in the range of five cents per kilowatt hour..”

    Link to this
  8. 8. secretagent3180 10:31 am 02/9/2013

    The point is not that investing takes money and patience. The point is that if this investment makes sense, the stock market will fund it rather than the state-run bureaucracy. The stock market has trillions. The amounts needed are pittance to the them, if it makes sense. Apparently it doesn’t.

    Link to this
  9. 9. Fanandala 11:31 am 02/9/2013

    @ Krohleder
    “low cost grid level storage” could you please tell me what exactly you mean by that and where it is being put almost in place.

    Link to this
  10. 10. sault 1:50 pm 02/9/2013

    dwbd, gimme a break! Installed wind power prices have never gone above $4,500 per kW since the 80′s and the average cost for 2011 was $2000 per kW:

    http://eetd.lbl.gov/ea/ems/reports/wind-energy-costs-2-2012.pdf

    “Our contract with NextEra Energy Resources is one of the lowest we’ve ever seen and results in a savings of nearly 40 percent for our customers,” said David Eves, president and CEO of Public Service Company of Colorado. “The addition of this 200-megawatt wind farm demonstrates that renewable energy can compete on an economic basis with more traditional forms of generation fuel, like natural gas, and allows us to meet the state’s Renewable Energy Standard at a very reasonable cost to our customers.” (Reuters article)”

    And you math for the Darlington bids is WAAAYYY off!!! From the Star article I posted before:

    “AECL’s $26 billion bid was based on the construction of two 1,200-megawatt Advanced Candu Reactors, working out to $10,800 per kilowatt of power capacity.”

    So, you’re about 5x too low on your BELIEF of what nuclear power costs and more than 6x TOO HIGH on your price for wind power. Comparing apples to apples means wind comes out on top, even when assuming that the nuclear industry’s habit of MASSIVE cost overruns somehow magically stops. And clean energy capacity can be installed 10x faster (or more) than nuclear capacity, so we’ll never meet CO2 emissions targets relying on a massive nuclear build-out.

    I keep saying that LFTRs or something might make sense after 2030, but right now, we need as much efficiency and renewables as we can manage to meet our short-term climate goals.

    Link to this
  11. 11. davidwogan 2:45 pm 02/9/2013

    @secretagent: I think I understand what you’re saying, and I would agree that to the stock market, these investments don’t make sense. Investors want quick (and large) returns on investments. Government is able to, by its size and budget and accountability to citizens, invest in projects and R&D with longer paybacks, and projects with higher risks. It’s not that one is better than the other, it’s that one type of investor is looking for something else out of the investment.

    Link to this
  12. 12. sethdayal 3:47 pm 02/9/2013

    Once again our resident troll Sault with his laughable claim of a MS and BS in Engineering, spewing the same debunked horsepucky over and over again – the Everready Bunny of the trolling kingdom.

    Actually everything I put out is backed by real numbers or real projects and reputable journals. Nothing the troll puts out comes from any reliable source, especially his nonsense about 80′s nukes now proudly generating power at 4 cents a kwh. What he does put out, its obvious he didn’t read or understand.

    Sault of course is too stupid to realize there is a difference between a grid where a few percent of energy comes from wind and normal spinning reserve handles winds ups and down, and double digit wind regimes where up and down and up wind frequently carries 100% of load, requiring a massive investment in spinning reserve.

    Google “gordon-hughes-response-to-goodall”

    It doesn’t matter what wind is sold for it is the unsubbed cost that is the issue, with the difference funded by the taxpayer.

    DWDB just trashed your Darlington nonsense with your response showing either can’t read or understand what he had to say. Like all trolls, you are too stupid to participate in this forum. Get some help from your Mom maybe?

    All 7 Candu’s built in the last 20 years were built on time on budget at $2B/Gw 3 cents a kwh in 4 years and less.The cheapest form of power there is. Cape Wind proposed in the early 1990′s still hasn’t had a wheelbarrow load of concrete poured.

    The latest wind large wind project – Shepherd’s Flat – came in at $11000/Kw 15 cents a kwh at typical corporate finance rates while the current Ontario feedin tariff is 13.5 cents a kwh. And that is with massive Chinese dumping under way. Add 25 cents a kwh for gas backup and 5 times sized transmission costs.

    There are only 2 reactors in the world of the 80 under construction that are suffering from cost overruns. Conservatively even then their costs are 20% of the all in unsubbed cost of wind.

    Large wind projects routinely take 3 years (shepherds flat) to build compared to 4 years for current 1st of a kind nukes (VC Summer) and 3 years for ABWR’s. After the first dozen or so are built that difference will disappear.

    Sault is pants on fire lying troll that over and over again repeats the same nonsense no matter how many times he is thrashed. He is a plague on this web site.

    Link to this
  13. 13. sault 12:38 pm 02/10/2013

    Wow, seth, I’ve finally figured out why you’re off the deep end. You’re telling people to search for “gordon-hughes-response-to-goodall” because you’re to disingenuous to just say you’re linking them to a climate denier website (Global Warming “Policy” Foundation)! Who’s funded by “Big Oil” now, sethy?

    STILL no links to EVEN ONE power plant built to “back up” renewable energy, STILL no proof presented outside of the fanciful BLOGS of nuclear power supporters or clean energy haters.

    I’m beginning to think all you pro-nukers (or the blogs that get all of you so fired up) are made by fossil fuel companies to muddy the waters on climate and energy discussions. Based on how you post a bunch of climate denier bunkum concerning clean energy and try to distract us with your FAILED nuclear power, I can see where they are going with this strategy: Discredit their greatest threat (renewables / efficiency) all while promoting something that people have a lot of doubts about (nuclear power). Clever.

    Link to this
  14. 14. sault 12:58 pm 02/10/2013

    Also, way to cook the books on Shepard’s Flat! It cost $2B and generates 845MW, so it comes in at $2,367 per kW!

    http://money.cnn.com/2009/12/10/news/companies/GE_wind_farm/index.htm?cnn=yes

    AGAIN…I should just divide by 5 when you quote clean energy costs…and I should MULTIPLY by 5 when you low-ball nuclear power costs. I mean, existing nuclear power is so cheap only because the industry got to unload all its bad debt onto taxpayers / ratepayers during all the bailouts in the past (Energy Northwest and Ontario Hydro come to mind, but there are others!) And you want to talk about “unsubbed costs”? Get back with me when the nuclear industry can get ADEQUATE liability insurance on the private market!

    Oh, and I know you’re FURTHER off the deep end when you’re stating construction times for reactors that haven’t even completed yet! NOBODY knows FOR SURE how long it will ACTUALLY take, but i guess it’s too much to ask you to leave your nuclear fantasy world and spend some time in the really real world the rest of us inhabit. BTW, VC Summer Unit 2 is projected to take 5 YEARS to be completed (not 4!), so you’re only 25% off (only if there’s ZERO construction delays) instead of the normal 400% off you usually manage. Can I call it an improvement?

    Link to this
  15. 15. sethdayal 12:35 pm 02/11/2013

    Once again our resident troll Sault with his laughable claim of a MS and BS in Engineering, spewing the same debunked horsepucky over and over again – the Everready Bunny of the trolling kingdom.

    I’d didn’t see a single link or argument from the troll that contracted Hughes argument as usual. Just the usual ad hom.

    There are two gas plants in Ontario at Napanee and Oakville that are required for spinning reserve caused by wind.

    However maybe the twit can tell us.

    #1 How much spinning reserve – % – is required when there is no wind.
    #2 How much spinning reserve is required in a power grid when wind is 20% of annual average but today at the moment the wind is blowing like hell with a front forecast to pass by sometime in the two hours.

    When the brainless halfwit can answer that we he will be well on his way to the OZ’s straw man dream..

    Once again with his record intact as the stupidest troll on the net, the halfwit can’t tell the difference between peak and average power with wind. Never heard of capacity factor. To compare to other power sources Shepherds flat a lifetime average of 22% capacity is 11B/Gw.

    Well “come to mind is a strange concept to put over on the good readers of SCIAM when it comes to viewing Sault who obviously lacks this attribute, Energy Northwest all in is pushing power at at 4.5 cents a kwh and Ontario Hydro at 3 cents – not bad huh.

    Let us all know when Congress requires Big Oil to get full insurance on its facilities (liability limit $150M) or we can be sure those wind and solar companies for the tens of thousands sickened by the deadly air pollution from their gas backup. And also let the readers know which insurance company is legally able to insure for an asteroid strike – an event more likely than an accident in a modern nuke plant.

    The AP1000 are actually projected to complete in 3 years and less after the experience gained on the first few rolls to the newer installs.

    Link to this

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