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Will Solar Prices Fall into Grid Parity?

The following is a guest post written by Dan Harding. Dan has written numerous articles on the solar industry, and is a regular contributing author to CalFinder.

Will Solar Prices Fall into Grid Parity? 

By Dan Harding

The Holy Grail…in solar-speak, it translates roughly to Grid Parity. It is a goal either mythical or predestined, depending on which side of the solar power movement the speaker resides. A recent surge in supply and technology, coupled with increased government subsidies, are tipping the scales toward destiny, although by no means is the path to grid parity set in stone. The rapid fall in prices for solar panels and other system components in an oversupplied and flooded market could continue home solar power on its way to that mythical Grail but, all mythos and wishful thinking aside, what are the odds?

Good, says Swami Venkataraman, Director of Corporate and Government Ratings at Standard & Poor’s, in a recent assessment of the U.S. solar market for Renewable Energy World. As of February, 2009, installed costs for residential and commercial photovoltaic (PV) systems had fallen to $7.60 per watt from $10.50 per watt just two years earlier. Prices continued to fall throughout 2009 and, while expected to stabilize somewhat as the national economy rebounds, they should remain on that downward slope in 2010 and beyond.

So when will solar cross that line? It could be soon, very soon in regions of the country with either abundant sunlight (southwest) or relatively high electricity costs (northeast). Yet some valuable help is still needed at the legislative level which, if provided, could propel solar power to grid parity in the short-term in the aforementioned regions.  

Three factors, says Venkataraman, can help make PV cheaper than, say, a combined-cycle gas turbine plant. One or all of the following could ensure solar power a level playing field in the long term:
  • Rising gas prices
  • Renewable portfolio standards that make renewable energy credits (RECs) more valuable
  • The passage of carbon legislation that would force gas power producers to buy carbon credits, thus forcing an increase in price for natural gas.

Including incentives, solar power is already close to grid parity in many areas. The Northeast holds the handy combination of some of the most lucrative solar incentives (per watt installed) in the country, as well as the highest electricity prices. Therefore, solar has far less distance to make up to reach at least natural gas, and gives solar power the best and fastest chance to reach grid parity in the nation. In California, where incentives have been declining for several years now, the primary advantage is in abundant sunlight (same goes for Arizona, New Mexico, west Texas, etc.), as well as a powerful RPS and a general eagerness from the public to adopt clean energy.

But as those two examples illustrate, grid parity will almost certainly NOT come to the United States as a whole all at once. Federal incentives were expanded in 2009, including the removal of the $2,000 cap on residential systems and the admittance of utilities into the Investment Tax Credit, but continue to vary widely between states. The feds provide a baseline subsidy, but what truly makes solar affordable for most homeowners and businesses are the added incentives offered by their state. So, in terms of reaching grid parity, we can expect the Southeast — despite its healthy share of sunshine — to be the slowest to reach the Holy Grail. This is due primarily to a lack of incentives, low electricity costs and a deep connection to fossil-fueled electricity.

Without incentives, there is still a real chance for PV, especially commercial PV, to reach grid parity in the relative short-term. Current capital costs for commercial PV are about $5.50 to $6.60 per watt depending on the size of the installation, according to Standard & Poor’s. Incentive levels in many northeastern states are upwards of $4.00 per watt, which means that, given incentives, the levelized cost of electricity (LCOE) of commercial PV systems was already below standard commercial rates. Furthermore, if falling panel prices enable systems to reach or fall below $5.00 per watt, then solar PV could reach parity even without subsidies.

Residential grid parity is more distant but still closest in the Northeast. Outside of the Southwest and Northeast, where solar irradiance and/or electricity costs make the solar-grid-parity question more complicated and uncertain, help will have to come from other renewables. Most notable among these are geothermal (Northwest) and wind power (Midwest). It is important when discussing grid parity for solar power not to forget its intermittency and the fact that some backup power system will be needed. Even if our solar infrastructure were so advanced as to provide all our power needs during peak load times, we would still need alternative sources to pick up the slack on cloudy days and at night.

Of course, straight-laced economics aside, we must also consider the inherent value of solar power beyond mere dollar signs. The point of renewable energy is to switch from pollutive, peaking sources of energy to clean, renewable ones. Solar power emits no greenhouse gases, no carbon dioxide and, when distributed, can provide power at or near the point of use without turning our cities into smog factories. That alone is reason enough to subsidize solar, wind, geothermal and other renewable resources until they reach the Holy Grail that is their destiny.

March 3, 2010 Posted by | guest post, reader submission, solar power, solar PV | 14 Comments

Book Review – Power of the People

I will finish up my long-promised concluding post in the recent series on ethanol and oil imports. I have been traveling for ten days, and inadvertently left all of my graphics for that post on another computer. I am back home now, and will try to tidy it up and post it in the next few days.

On the long plane ride back to Hawaii, I read Power of the People: America’s New Electricity Choices. I picked this book up at the 2009 Solar Tour – Pikes Peak Region, which I visited on my trip to Colorado. My new job has me getting more involved in the electricity sector, and I thought this would be a book that would help push me up the learning curve. A short description of the book:

America is as addicted to electricity as it is to oil. Our electricity usage increases every year, yet we still use the same transmission grid that was constructed in the middle of the last century. The grid is stretched to the limit, creating the potential of future black-outs like the one that brought the Northeast to its knees in 2003. Meanwhile, some of our most abundant and affordable generating fuels have become major culprits in global warming.

Power of the People explores in a nontechnical, conversational way some of the clean, green, 21st-century technologies that are available and how and why we should plug them into our national grid. This important essay explores our failure as a country to adopt these “no regrets” technologies and policies as swiftly as the rest of the world, and why it matters for the future of every American.

The author, Carol Sue Tombari, works for the National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL). Despite trying, I can’t find out what her exact position or qualifications are. Here biography says:

Carol Sue Tombari has specialized in energy and environmental policy and programs for more than 25 years. She directed the State of Texas’s energy efficiency and renewable energy programs, served as natural resources advisor to the lieutenant governor, and helped found the National Association of State Energy Officials.

In addition, she was appointed to federal advisory posts by two Federal Secretaries of Energy, chairing a Congressional advisory committee on the subject of renewable energy joint ventures and serving on the U.S. Department of Energy’s (USDOE) State Energy Advisory Board. Tombari is employed at the USDOE’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory, where she works on local and rural economic development. Ultimately, it is her love for the next generation that continues to drive her work to protect the future of our planet and the lives of those yet to come.

While I found myself learning more about the sector, many things she said left me puzzled. For instance, she claimed that the U.S. uses more energy per GDP than anyone else in the world. This is exactly the opposite of Jeff Rubin’s claim in Why Your World Is About to Get a Whole Lot Smaller. Rubin claimed that countries like China use a lot more energy per GDP, which was the basis of his argument that carbon tariffs could work in favor of countries like the U.S., who are more energy efficient at producing GDP. In fact, if you look at the EIA data on energy usage per dollar of GDP, you can see that the U.S. is on the low end of the scale. According to the EIA data, China, compared to the U.S., uses about four times the amount of energy per dollar of GDP. (Thanks to reader Clee for that reference).

The book is pretty anti-nuclear, and makes the claim that renewables are “considerably more affordable” than nuclear power. She seems to rely on Amory Lovins and Tom Friedman for these sorts of claims. The book is pretty realistic about coal, however, concluding that we will be relying on coal for a good many years. She did claim, though, that there have been no major technological innovations in coal-fired central station power plants since the 1950’s. I don’t consider that accurate, as Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle (IGCC) seems like a dramatic improvement in the efficiency of the usage of coal for power production. Several of these IGCC plants will be coming online in the U.S. over the next decade, and a number have already been built in China. (You can see some of the plants that have been completed or are in progress around the world here).

There were some things I found annoying about the book. For instance, it had no graphs. However, on a number of occasions the author said “picture a graph in which the Y axis represents one variable, and the X axis another variable.” Why not just show a graph? Or if for some reason you are limited to no graphics, find another way to make the point.

There were some calculations that just didn’t make sense to me. For instance, she once calculated the required size of a PV system to run a household in Phoenix “if PV cells were 100% efficient.” Why not just do the actual calculation with typical PV efficiencies? She also commented that NREL had done a calculation in which they concluded that “100 square miles that constitute the Nevada Test Site” covered in PV arrays could meet the needs of the entire U.S. (without addressing storage). I did a similar calculation in which I tentatively came up with an area of about 100 miles by 100 miles. So I wonder if she didn’t mean that the NREL calculation concluded that a 100 mile square (10,000 square miles) would suffice.

She also spent a good deal of time talking about how a terrorist could bring down the transportation system or the electrical grid. I don’t think those are the kinds of ideas we want to plant in people’s heads.

One thing that isn’t clear to me is just how utilities benefit from efficiency improvements of their customers. She spent some time discussing various utility programs to improve the efficiency of the end user so they don’t have to construct new power plants. But utilities make their money selling electricity, don’t they? If customers improve efficiency, they just means they are selling less electricity to that customer. But there is apparently something to this model that I don’t fully understand, because I know that utilities are always pushing for – and even subsidizing – these sorts of programs. In Hawaii, the utility will pay for part of a solar hot water installation. So how do they benefit? Perhaps the utilities are compensated by various governments for pushing these efficiency programs. Otherwise, it seems that as consumers become more efficient, the utilities would have to charge more money for the electricity.

One other thing that was discussed – but that has always puzzled me – is the economic multiplier theory. She gave one example about how the benefits of a local Midwestern project ended up contributing three times the income generation to the local economy. Now I can see how a multiplier should work in theory. Pay a guy $100 in salary, and then he pays his taxes and turns around and spends that $100 in the local economy. That merchant then pays his taxes and spends some of it in the local economy, such that the initial $100 supports more than $100 in taxes and spending. In practice, it seems like if it really worked that way, we would subsidize everything. Why would we want to get any autos from Japan? Subsidize U.S. consumers for 50% of the cost of a domestic car, and then let the local multiplier give back 3-4 times that amount to the local community. But in reality, I don’t quite think it works out that way.

In summary, while it seems like I found a lot to nit-pick in the book, I did find a lot of useful information in there. Even the things I found puzzling caused me to think and to do additional research, which was helpful. The author spends a lot of time laying out the present situation with respect to electricity, and talking about the changes that need to happen. The author is peak oil aware, citing Matt Simmons and Tom Whipple (among others) with respect to a projected future energy crunch. I think the anti-nuclear stance was misguided, and I think she overestimates the ability of renewables to fill in for growing demand and the phase-out of older coal-fired power plants. In my view, it is hard to imagine how we are going to get by without building more nukes in the next few decades.

October 11, 2009 Posted by | book review, electricity, electricity usage, nuclear energy, solar power | 86 Comments

A Pair of Odd Energy Stories

I am working on a story inspired by last week’s Wall Street Journal article:

U.S. Biofuel Boom Running on Empty

It is taking longer than anticipated, but hopefully I will have something up tonight or early tomorrow. Until then, I thought I would share a couple of odd energy stories this Sunday. The first, courtesy of Solar Roadways’ press page:


Funds intelligent roads and parking lots

SOLAR ROADWAYS, SAGLE, IDAHO (August 25, 2009)- Solar Roadways today announced that it has been awarded a DOT contract that will enable them to prototype the first ever Solar Road Panel.

The Solar Roadways will collect solar energy to power businesses and homes via structurally-engineered solar panels that are driven upon, to be placed in parking lots and roadways in lieu of petroleum-based asphalt surfaces.

The Solar Road Panels will contain embedded LEDs which “paint” the road lines from beneath to provide safer nighttime driving, as well as to give up to the minute instructions (via the road) to drivers (i.e. “detour ahead”). The road will be able to sense wildlife on the road and can warn drivers to “slow down”. There will also be embedded heating elements in the surface to prevent snow and ice buildup, providing for safer winter driving. This feature packed system will become an intelligent highway that will double as a secure, intelligent, decentralized, self-healing power grid which will enable a gradual weaning from fossil fuels.

Replacing asphalt roads and parking lots with Solar Roadway panels will be a major step toward halting climate change. Fully electric vehicles will be able to recharge along the roadway and in parking lots, finally making electric cars practical for long trips.

It is estimated that is will take roughly five billion (a stimulus package in itself) 12′ by 12′ Solar Road Panels to cover the asphalt surfaces in the U.S. alone, allowing us to produce three times more power than we’ve ever used as a nation – almost enough to power the entire world.

I like the idea of converting roads into energy producers, but it seems like a real long-shot. A number of questions immediately spring to mind, but their FAQ attempts to take many of them on. I call it to your attention not because I think it will work (I haven’t had time to study it), but simply because of the novelty of the idea.

The second story is about a highly integrated variation of the algal fuel concept in Arizona:

Farmer turns waste into electricity

How it works

• Farm waste (straw, wood chips, cattle manure) heated in “gasification” unit.

• Gasification produces hydrogen and carbon monoxide, and creates a charcoal-like fertilizer called “biochar.”

• Gases are burned to make electricity, producing carbon dioxide.

• Carbon dioxide is pumped into ponds to nourish algae.

• Small crustaceans called daphnia eat the algae.

• Daphnia are harvested, pressed and cooked to process oil.

• Oil is refined to biodiesel; daphnia waste can feed animals.

• The biochar, electricity, biodiesel and daphnia waste is sold.

I was asked to comment on the scheme, and did so near the end of the article – following comments from Professor Mark Edwards, whose book I reviewed here. As I said, it is pretty complicated and interconnected, which provides more technology risks. Water usage in the desert will also be high, unless they are using some kind of waste water.

On the other hand, I think algal fuel can only work as part of an integrated scheme that provides other products/benefits (unless of course there is a breakthrough in which algae can be made to excrete their oil without having to harvest them).

August 30, 2009 Posted by | algal biodiesel, solar power | 17 Comments

Running the Electric Grid with eSolar

As I often do on a Saturday morning, I was up early reading through energy headlines. I happened across this story on eSolar:

Bill Gross’s Solar Breakthrough

“We are producing the lowest cost solar electrons in the history of the world,” Bill Gross is telling me. “Nobody’s ever done it. Nobody’s close.”

“We have a cost-effective, no-subsidy solar power solution and it’s for sale, anywhere around the world,” he says.

The article was intriguing, and inevitably led me back to eSolar’s website to get a better idea of whether the claims appear to have merit. There, I watched the slide show on the technology, and caught this bit: A single unit generates 46 MW of clean electricity on a footprint of 160 acres.

While this doesn’t help me figure out whether they can deliver on the hype, it does enable me to update a couple of essays that I have written before:

A Solar Thought Experiment

Replacing Gasoline with Solar Power

In the first, I made an attempt to calculate the area that would be required to equal the entire installed electric capacity of the U.S. – using only solar power. (Yes, I understand that this number falls to zero at night). The numbers quoted above from eSolar – combined with the latest data on installed electrical generating capacity – enabled me to update that calculation.

Per the EIA, total installed electrical generating capacity in the U.S. is approximately 1 million megawatts. If we scale up eSolar’s claim of a required footprint of 160 acres to produce 46 MW of electricity, then it would require 5,435 square miles of eSolar technology to equal current U.S. electrical capacity. This is a square of 73.7 miles by 73.7 miles. This is greater than the 2,531 square miles calculated in the previous essay, but that essay only considered the area for solar panels. The present calculation encompasses the footprint of the plant.

Looking back at the gasoline calculation, I came up with 1,300 square miles required in my previous essay to replace the energy gasoline provides. Using the current eSolar numbers changes that number to 2,413 square miles, or a square of 49 miles on each side.

Of course all of the normal caveats apply as spelled out in the previous essays. The key point is not to read these sorts of thought experiments too literally. I tend to do them to get my head around the scale of certain problems. Complaints of “the cost is too great” or “the power is intermittent” – addressed by caveats in the previous essays – completely miss the point of the essay. It is sort of like trying to figure out how much biomass would be required to power the world. If the calculation is 10 times the current annual output of biomass, then that’s not going to work. If it is 1/100th the current annual output of biomass, then that might work (again, pending lots of other things working out).

In this case, I find this eSolar thought experiment encouraging insofar as the required land area isn’t a clear knockout.

August 8, 2009 Posted by | electricity, electricity usage, eSolar, solar efficiency, solar power, solar thermal | 29 Comments

Rate Crimes: Impeding the Solar Tipping Point

The following guest essay was written by Paul Symanski. Paul is an electrical engineer with expertise in solar energy, and shares his views on why solar power often faces unnecessary headwinds.


To anyone who has ever spent a day in Arizona’s Valley of the Sun, it is obvious. The sunniest state in the nation is blessed, cursed, with a fierce sun. Yet, as one explores the landscape, artifacts of the capture of solar energy are conspicuously absent. This dearth is true for solar electric, domestic hot water, passive solar design, and even for urban design. It is as if the metropolis stands in obstinate defiance against the surrounding desert and its greatest gift.

Yet, the incessant sun is a constant agitator. Even visitors happily distracted by the Valley’s many amenities will remark while lounging by the pool, drinking in the clubhouse, or enjoying a repast on a misted patio, “Why doesn’t Arizona use more solar energy?”

Solar Tipping Point

One answer to this persistent question can be found once one comprehends that Arizona is where it first occurred: where solar energy first became economical.

Around the turn of the millennium, four decades after its destiny was foretold, an investment in electricity generated by an on-site photovoltaic system became a better investment than traditional investment vehicles. Finally, solar energy had become economically transcendent. Because of its abundant solar resource, solar energy’s transcendence occurred in the center of the desert Southwest, in sunny Arizona. It may not be mere chance that this tipping point coincided with the world’s peak production of petroleum.

The concept of “grid parity” has been promulgated by an energy regime that sees the world through grid-centric eyes. A more accurate and revealing comparison is investment parity. This approach more completely – and perhaps more directly – accounts for the myriad hidden costs embedded in the economics of the world’s energy system. Both the recent economic troubles and the fact that the solar tipping point occurred during an historical low for electricity prices in Arizona reinforce the validity of economic ascendancy of solar energy.

Implicit in the concept of grid parity is an ultimate arrival where both sides rest in balance upon the fulcrum. This subtle point of terminology further invalidates the utility of the concept of “grid parity”. The balance will likely be a brief moment of hushed breath . . . before the tipping continues in favor of solar energy.

The concept of grid parity also establishes a false dichotomy that reveals the term to be an indirection. Solar energy should be one of a multitude of energy sources to be impartially and intelligently incorporated into a flexible network of energy sharing. The concept of grid parity is a creation of a hierarchical system of centralized generation and distribution. Like the system that created it, the term ‘grid parity’ should be recognized for what it is.

The concept of a tipping point is a more appropriate metaphor. It is this tipping point that those favored by the status quo vigorously resist.

Delay Tactics

It is crucial that energy costs be accurately accounted in order to establish valid policies. Yet, in any forum where energy is discussed (present company excepted), retail energy costs are typically presented as an average, or as a range of values. Even in conversations amongst economists, engineers, scientists, business leaders, policy makers, and others who help guide our energy future, superficial valuations proliferate. Blunt statements of cost nearly always exclude associated economic, competing, and externalized costs. More dangerously, such simplification disguises a complex and telling reality.

The key observation – and the linchpin of the Rate Crimes exposé – is that the avoided cost value of solar electricity and other energy management strategies has long been dramatically lower than the retail cost of electricity under particular rate plans.

The graph below plots the avoided cost value of on-site solar electricity against retail energy costs under the Arizona Public Service E-32 commercial rate schedule for the summer season. The ranges of kilowatt demand and kilowatt-hour consumption reflect those of small businesses.

The avoided cost value of solar electricity is half that of the retail cost of electricity for a great portion primarily because of the uncontrollable billing demand, and a precipitous declining block rate structure compounded by the uncontrollable billing demand being used as a multiplier for the extents of the expensive initial block.

Of the hundred largest electric utilities (by customers served), fourteen are located in the sunny Southwest (excluding the unregulated utilities in Texas).

Of these fourteen, three have commercial rate plans with structures that most defeat the value of solar energy and energy conservation measures. These utilities are: Arizona Public Service, Salt River Project, and Tucson Electric Power. All are Arizona utilities.


The Arizona rate schedules provide an enormous subsidy and encourage prodigal consumption by discounting energy to the largest energy consumers. This was historically a common situation in other places as well. However, Arizona is special due to its extraordinary solar resources.

The pricing system redirects costs from any apparent savings in the residential and industrial sectors into the small commercial sector. Small commercial ratepayers have less capital, have fewer person-hours to commit to unusual projects, have less-diverse expertise, and are often constrained from making modifications to their premises. The redirection of costs into this captive market creates a hidden tax through the higher costs of goods and services, and through the subsequently higher sales tax charges.

Furthermore, while more fortunate homeowners can avoid energy costs by investing in subsidized solar energy, renters remain a captive market.

As you may surmise, nearly the entire Arizona economic and political system is complicit. Beyond Arizona’s borders, the state’s electricity generation from coal and nuclear sources remains the West’s dirty little secret. Environmentally conscientious Californians can nod appreciatively at their Tehachapi and San Gorgonio Pass wind farms; while behind the turbines, on the eastern horizon, the cooling towers and smokestacks of Arizona keep bright their nights.

All Arizonans need to be able to gain full value for investments in energy conservation and in solar energy. Until Arizona’s repressive rate schedules are reformed, energy efficiency measures and solar energy in the nation’s sunniest state will have diminished value. This diminishment of the value of solar energy affects all of us by delaying a cleaner energy future.


Paul Symanski is an electrical engineer, designer, human factors specialist, marketer, machinist, graphic artist, musician, LEED AP, and economist born of necessity. He is experienced with renewable energy, including expertise in solar energy both in practical application and in the laboratory. He is also a competitive masters-level bicyclist. ratecrimes [at] gmail [dot] com


August 6, 2009 Posted by | analysis, Arizona, avoided cost, distributed energy, economics, guest post, investment, rate schedule, reader submission, smart grid, solar power | 53 Comments

Solar Stories

A couple of interesting solar stories this morning, as well as a new blog covering solar power. First, the new solar-focused blog by Paul Symanski. Paul has experience in the solar industry, and many of his early entries are concerned with solar energy economics:

Rate Crimes – Bringing Transparency to the Economics of Solar Energy

From Paul’s first entry in May – There is No More Important Energy – he writes:

The Rate Crimes conversation centers on solar electric energy because of its importance to the future of our society: a society that is defined by electric energy as much as by the fuels that currently provide us mobility.

Solar electric energy has myriad advantages over the traditional fuels that provide us with electricity. Solar energy is plentiful, clean, immediate, proximate, distributed, mobile, scalable, unobtrusive, long-lived, durable, gathered, simple, safe, unassailable, independent, equitable, and profitable. And, like no other energy source, solar energy has the potential to become ubiquitous.

Solar energy is plentiful. Enough solar energy falls on the Earth in one hour to power the whole planet for an entire year. Resources for exothermic reactions (e.g. combustion, fission) diminish. As this occurs, these traditional fuel resources will no longer be able to meet our demand for energy. Energy generated by the photoelectric effect will supplant the traditional fuels.

Next, a pair of headline stories this morning about solar power:

Nation’s largest solar plant to be built in NM

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — Utility officials announced plans Thursday to build a giant solar energy plant in the New Mexico desert in what is believed to be the largest such project in the nation.

The 92-megawatt solar thermal plant could produce enough electricity to power 74,000 homes, far exceeding the size of other solar plants in the United States. The largest solar thermal plant in operation now is about 70 megawatts, said Dave Knox, a spokesman for New Jersey-based NRG Energy, the company building and running the facility.

“This is larger than anything in existence in America so far today,” he said.

It will be similar in many respects to a steam plant, using the sun instead of fossil fuel to generate steam and produce electricity, said Michael Liebelson, president of NRG and chief of development for its low-carbon technologies.

I have been thinking a little about the intermittency issue. I wonder if you could have a natural gas tie-in, and whenever your thermal mass starts to cool off after the sun goes down, just keep it heated up with natural gas. I haven’t heard of this being incorporated into these solar thermal plants (although maybe it is?), but it seems to make sense to me. The capital costs would be higher, but you then have a plant that can run 24 hours a day – with solar contributing perhaps 2/3rds of the power. Of course if you have enough thermal mass, you could potentially keep the plant running overnight anyway before things cooled off to the point that you can no longer produce electricity.

[Note: A reader sent me a link to show that yes, someone has started to build a hybrid plant incorporating the elements I mentioned above: FPL Breaks Ground on First Hybrid Solar Plant]

The second story is from India:

India plans much solar power, slower emissions rise

India is about to publish eight climate “missions” to boost efficiency, renewable energy and sustainable development. “We hope that will be completed in the next few weeks,” said [Shyam] Saran [RR: Saran is special the climate envoy to Prime Minster Manmohan Singh]. One policy aim is to install about 20 gigawatts of solar power by 2020, he told Reuters.

“It’s around 20 gigawatts, that’s something we’ve been talking about.”

The world now produces about 14 gigawatts (GW) of solar power, about half of it added last year. Analysts said they want details of the Indian plan before hailing what would be a big lift to a small but burgeoning market.

Regular readers know that I am bullish on solar power in the long run. I think our long-term future will consist of electricity produced from solar, wind, geothermal, and nuclear (it is going to be a while before coal usage is substantially impacted) and liquid fuels produced from gasification and hydrocracked lipids. Even if we see lots of electric cars hitting the roads, we are going to continue to need liquid fuels for the airline industry and for long-haul trucking. Short term (say, the next 20 or 30 years) I still think fossil fuels will be our primary source of energy.

June 12, 2009 Posted by | solar power, solar thermal | 26 Comments

Is the Dark Cloud Over Solar Energy Beginning to Break?

Sitting in DFW Airport, about to make my way back to Europe. I will be offline for a day or so. This seems like a good time for the latest from Money Morning, which as I explained last week will be featured here once a week or so. As always, normal caveats apply: I am not an investment advisor. I don’t endorse any specific stocks mentioned in the following story nor the ad at the end of the story. Personally, I have looked into investing in solar a couple of times, but the stocks always seem extremely pricey. But then that’s also why I never invested in Google. 🙂

Is the Dark Cloud Over Solar Energy Beginning to Break?

By Jason Simpkins
Managing Editor
Money Morning

By sucking the air out of energy prices and sapping private investment, the financial crisis submarined solar energy last fall. But a silver lining has emerged around the dark cloud that has blanketed the sector for so long.

Oil prices have recovered, climbing over $60 a barrel, the recent stock market rally has lured many investors back off the sidelines, and President Barack Obama’s clean energy agenda has breathed some life back into the browbeaten sector.

Now, solar energy stocks – some that lost more than two-thirds of their value last year – have come roaring back.

After topping $300 a share last spring, shares of First Solar Inc. (Nasdaq: FSLR) plummeted to just $85.28 a share in November. But since then the company has bounced back, soaring 125% to Friday’s close of $191.72 a share. Shares of Trina Solar Ltd. (NYSE: TSL) hit $52 last summer before bottoming out at $5.61 in November. That stock is up more than 260% since Nov. 21.

Global economic growth is far from guaranteed at this early stage, but there’s good reason to believe that when a recovery does get underway, solar stocks will be shooting for the moon.

California’s Gold Standard

While many other solar energy companies have collapsed under the weight of the economic downturn, a small upstart out of California has managed to greatly expand its business.

That company is BrightSource Energy, which last week agreed to what the company’s Chief Executive Officer, John Woolard, called the “the largest solar deal in the world.”

Pacific Gas and Electric Co. agreed to purchase 1,310 megawatts (MW) of solar thermal power from BrightSource Energy for a sum that analysts’ believe tops $3 billion.

BrightSource had already agreed to transmit 900 MW of solar power to PG&E in a deal that analysts valued at $2 billion to $3 billion. The terms of the new deal, which expands upon the original 900MW agreement, will build on top of that figure.

BrightSource plans to build seven solar power plants in the Mojave desert of California that will use mirrors to direct sunlight onto a group of centralized water towers to create steam that will, in turn, power turbines. PG&E estimates that the amount of energy produced by the plants will be sufficient enough to power 530,000 homes.

Earlier this year, BrightSource signed a similar 1,300 MW agreement with Southern California Edison Co. – an indication that, despite economic hardship, the solar energy business is still hot.

But a lot of BrightSource’s recent activity has to do with California’s newly adopted state energy policy. In 2006, California passed a law that required electrical utilities to get 20% of their power from renewable sources by 2010.

However, on November 17, 2008, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger took the state’s green energy mandate further by signing Executive Order S-14-08, which requires that utilities generate 33% of their power through renewable sources by 2020.

Indeed, the state of California has led the country in adopting renewable sources of energy, particularly solar.

Renewable energy accounts for 13.5% of the state’s energy consumption, and for the past three years, the California Energy Commission has been managing $400 million targeted for solar on new residential building construction. That includes an ambitious “Million Solar Roof” initiative that will create 3,000 megawatts of installed photovoltaic capacity by 2018.

But California is more than an energy pioneer. It’s an early indication of where U.S. energy policy is headed.

If President Barack Obama’s administration has its way, mandates similar to those issued in California will be employed across the country over the next 10 years. In fact, they already are.

Solar Shift

Obama announced Tuesday that he is making California’s standard for vehicle fuel efficiency and greenhouse gas emissions the new national standard.

Under Obama’s new proposals, vehicles would be 30% cleaner and more fuel efficient by 2016. And that’s just the beginning.

The President’s budget incorporated $646 billion in revenue from capping global-warming pollution, while allocating $150 billion to renewable energy investment over the next 10 years, making his green-funding initiative the largest such effort in U.S. history.

Among other things, Obama’s recent stimulus package provides a tax credit of up to 30% for home solar installations.

The Obama administration also advocates a policy that would require 25% of U.S. electricity demand be met by renewable energy by 2025. The President has the support of the Democrat-led Congress. U.S. Sen. Jeff Bingaman, (D – N.M.), Chair of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, is working on legislation that aims to make 20% of U.S. energy demand renewable by 2021.

While a renewable energy policy was largely neglected by the administration of George W. Bush, Obama’s effort can hardly be described as partisan. It is more representative of a shift in political ideology that arose when gas prices soared above $4 per gallon last summer.

A recent Gallup Poll showed that the majority of Americans support higher fuel efficiency standards such as those Obama announced Tuesday. In March, 80% of Americans said they favored higher fuel efficiency standards for automobiles.

Currently, just 28 states have renewable energy goals, but with the Obama administration’s effort and a shift in public opinion, it won’t be long before all 50 are enacting their alternative energy mandates.

According to a study by Allianz Global Investors, 78% of investors think green technology could be the “next great American industry,” and 97% of investors believe the development of alternative fuel sources will remain important even if oil prices remain relatively low.

And statistics bear that out. Venture capitalists invested $4.1 billion in alternative energy projects in 2008 – a 54% increase from the year prior, according to a report by PricewaterhousCoopers. What’s more, 45% of that money went to solar projects, compared to 23% in 2007.

“Alternative energy’s rise isn’t going to be smooth, but it’s going to be one of the great new growth industries,” Steven Berexa, managing director of research for RCM Informed, an Allianz subsidiary, told Kiplinger’s Personal Finance magazine.

A Global Industry

In addition to the United States, solar energy is gaining traction around the world.

After subsidizing 2,400 MW of solar projects last year, the Spanish government will subsidize an additional 500 MW this year. Japan aims to create more than 100,000 new jobs in its solar industry as part of an effort to jumpstart its flailing economy. Proposals for solar energy plants are also being considered in the Middle East and northern Africa.

Even BrightSource’s Woolard has attributed some of his company’s success to its overseas operations.

PG&E looked hard at what we’d done,” Woolard told The San Francisco Chronicle. “They looked at the results from our plant in Israel, and that built a lot of confidence that we were meeting milestones and delivering.”

Most recently, Australia announced plans to build a solar power station that will rival BrightSource’s Southern California operation. The network is expected to produce about 1,000 MW of energy, but won’t be operational until at least 2015.

We don’t want to be clean energy followers worldwide, we want to be clean energy leaders worldwide,” Prime Minister Kevin Rudd told the Financial Times.

The Australian government hopes renewable energy will account for 20% of the country’s power grid by 2020. Rudd said the government intends to spend about $1 billion (A$1.4 billion) of the $3.6 billion (A$4.7 billion) it has pledged to clean energy initiatives over the next decade.

Like in the United States, the Australian government hopes its alternative energy initiative will be a catalyst for private investment. John Connor, head of the Sydney-based Climate Institute, told the FT that Australia’s clean energy plan will drive an estimated $15.5 billion (A$20 billion) in private investment.

Another country with an ambitious solar agenda is China. A country with notoriously high greenhouse gas emissions, China installed about 50MW of solar capacity last year, more than double the 20 MW in 2007, Renewable Energy World reported.

Beijing plans to expand the installed capacity to 1,800 MW by 2020, as the demand for new solar modules in China could be as high as 232 MW each year from now until 2012.

China is also a good place to find promising solar companies. LDK Solar Co. Ltd. (NYSE ADR: LDK), Yingli Green Energy Holding Co. Ltd. (NYSE ADR:YGE), and JA Solar Holdings Co. Ltd. (NYSE ADR: JASO) have all been beaten down by the market, but could post a strong rebound when China’s solar initiative takes full flight.

Many analysts also like the aforementioned First Solar and Trina Solar Ltd., which stand a better shot of withstanding the recession because of their size and experience.

[Editor’s Note: This story is sponsored by Money Morning Investment Director Keith Fitz-Gerald, who is the editor of the new Geiger Index trading service. As the whipsaw trading patterns investors have endured this year have shown, the ongoing global financial crisis has changed the investment game forever. Uncertainty is now the norm and that new reality alone has created a whole set of new rules that will help determine who profits and who loses. Investors who ignore this “New Reality” will struggle, and will find their financial forays to be frustrating and unrewarding. But investors who embrace this change will not only survive – they will thrive. With the Geiger Index, Fitz-Gerald has already isolated these new rules and has unlocked the key to what he refers to as “Golden Age of Wealth Creation” The Geiger Index system allows Fitz-Gerald to predict the price movements of broad indexes, or of individual stocks, with a high degree of certainty. And it’s particularly well suited to the kind of market we’re all facing right now. Check out our latest report on these new rules, and on this new market environment.]

May 27, 2009 Posted by | guest post, investing, Money Morning, solar power | 17 Comments

New Renewable Energy Map

About to hop a plane for Europe, but wanted to share with you a new map from the NRDC that I think is extremely cool:

Renewable Energy Map for the U.S.

I like this map for two reasons. First, it shows the renewable energy possibilities across the country (solar, wind, cellulosic biomass, and biogas). But second, you can filter by planned and existing facilities for wind, advanced biofuels, and biogas. (However, I think some of the ones that they have called “existing” are not yet producing anything). There are a lot of small facilities that I have never heard of, and need to investigate when I have some time.

Offline now for a day or so as I make the journey back across the pond.

April 27, 2009 Posted by | biogas, biomass, cellulose, NRDC, solar power, wind power | 134 Comments

Arizona Solar Power Project, Calculations

The following guest post was written by Tom Standing, a “semi-retired, part-time civil engineer for the City of San Francisco.” In Part 1, Tom takes on the calculations for a 280 MW solar thermal plant in Arizona that I looked at back in February. My conclusion from that essay was that the electrical demands of the U.S. could in theory be met on 10,000 square miles of land. Tom peels the onion a few more layers and puts the energy production into perspective.

While solar calculations are by no means second nature to me, I see no obvious errors in Tom’s calculations. But I consider peer review to be a very useful component of my blog, and I know that Tom would appreciate any constructive criticisms. Part II will delve into France’s solar ambitions.


Hello Robert,

You and I met at the Sacramento Peak Oil conference. Your presentations and discussions were most enlightening. I was heartened by your analysis of cellulosic ethanol. I have always been deeply skeptical of the notion that the U.S. might displace a meaningful portion of transportation fuel with biofuels from cellulose. I could give you some of my thoughts on this subject, but you have already covered the territory thoroughly.

I want to comment on your calculations you posted in TOD in February, regarding the proposed 280 MW solar thermal plant in Arizona. First, a bit about my background. I started my career as a chemical engineer, first in refinery operations, and then chemical processing design. But that was only about 4 years. Most of my career has been as a registered civil engineer in a variety of disciplines for the City and County of San Francisco. Over the years, I have become interested, maybe even fascinated about the prospect of utility-scale generation of electricity from qualified renewable sources.

Throughout North America and Europe, many people have focused on renewable energy as a means of reducing dependence on Middle East oil and reducing CO2 emissions. They see renewable energy as an important element to achieve emissions targets of the Kyoto Protocol. In the U.S., renewable energy from wind, solar, and biofuels appears to be a keystone for energy policy in the Obama Administration. In Texas, T. Boone Pickens is campaigning for a new American energy policy centered on major input from wind-generated energy to displace electricity generated from gas-fired power plants. Natural gas would then be redirected as CNG to power autos and trucks. In California, Governor Schwarzenegger sees his “Million Solar Roofs” program as leading other states to do likewise, thereby reducing CO2 emissions. California utilities are mandated to supply 20% of electricity from qualified renewable sources (wind, solar, bio/waste, geothermal, and small hydro) by 2015. Contributions from these sources have been stuck in the range of 10-11% since 2000. The 20% mandate appears to be a major challenge, maybe unrealistic.

Many questions come to mind in looking at the proposed Arizona plant. What precisely does the 280 MW refer to? Is it the plant’s output at capacity? Is it an annual average output? How much electricity will it generate annually? How will output vary during the day, or by season? How will output be affected by clouds?

There is important data available and a few fundamental design features that will answer these questions. Costs for construction, however, are not my strong suit. Other analysts will have much better information on costs. Cost of the plant will not change the results of my analysis.

1. Insolation Data

Reliable data for site-specific solar radiation (insolation) is critical to estimating solar capabilities. Fortunately, a massive database for insolation is posted on the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) website. In 2000, an engineer who designed solar facilities directed me to the site; I was utterly amazed at what was there. I had to be extremely selective to get the most useful data. I settled on 30-year (1961-1990) average insolation for 239 U.S. cities: monthly and annual average insolation in kWh per square meter per day. Readings for all 239 stations are given for all possible orientations of solar collectors, either fixed or tracking systems. Amazingly, insolation data is also tabulated for averages of each hour during the 30 years for all 239 stations (kW/m2), enough data to make your head spin! Data is also tabulated for insolation of all collector orientations at 239 locations above Earth’s atmosphere! For reference, I eventually copied pages that filled a binder weighing 10 lbs.

2. Site Coverage with Solar Collectors

A rough approximation for coverage of the 1,900-acre site with solar collectors is 50%. Space is needed for maintenance and control centers, electrical converter units, towers for power lines, and maybe a backup power facility fired by gas or oil. Proposed facilities to store electricity for release at night will also consume land.

In 2001, I toured a solar thermal plant at Kramer Junction in California’s Mojave Desert.


At one square mile, it is about 1/3 the size of the Arizona plant. I would say that close to half of the site is taken up by gravel roads for maintenance vehicles. At least weekly, wash trucks at night clean the collectors of dust that frequently blows around. The roads also provide necessary space between rows of collectors to prevent shading. Collectors tilted upward to gather more sunlight cast shadows at low sun angles. If the designers in Arizona are really stingy with land use, they may be able to cover 50% of the site with collectors, including facilities for power storage.

As with Kramer Junction, the entire site will be dedicated to industrial use, fenced off and completely secure. Areas covered by collectors are denuded of vegetation, graded, and compacted. There is hardly space for a rodent or a bird to live. Collectors are supported by steel columns embedded in reinforced concrete foundations designed to resist maximum wind forces upon the considerable surfaces of the collectors. These are real-world features that solar advocates overlook when they envision hundreds of square miles devoted to solar power.

3. Calculate Collector Area

We calculate the area of solar collectors in square meters to utilize NREL insolation data.

The 1,900 acres converts to 7.7 million sq m. With 50% for collectors, 3.8 million sq m are on the site.

4. Model the Collection Array

The Arizona plant is to be a concentrating system that tracks the sun. Surprisingly, NREL data shows that concentrating systems collect less sunlight per sq m than systems consisting of flat plates, one-axis tracking, tilted at an angle = to latitude of site. Thus to be generous, I will calculate the output based on flat plates, 1-axis tracking, tilt = latitude.

For Phoenix, NREL data gives average annual insolation for our model as 8.6 kWh per sq m per day (i.e. all days averaged for 30 years). For Tucson, insolation under our model is 8.7, with slight differences for each month.

5. Calculate Insolation Striking the Collectors

Here we convert solar energy striking collectors during one day, to the average rate during the day. Thus, for Phoenix (the nearest station with NREL data to the plant):

The average annual rate of solar power striking collectors

= [8.6 kWh/ (m2-day)] [one day/24 h]

= 358 watts/m2, say 360 watts/m2

Scaling up this power for the entire plant, average daily solar power striking all collectors

= (360 W/m2) (3.8 million m2)

= 1,370 megawatts

6. Assume 15% Conversion of Insolation to Useful Electricity

The solar thermal plant at Kramer Junction converts about 15% of insolation striking the collectors into electricity. Therefore, a decent assumption for the Arizona plant that would be consistent with our other assumptions is 15% conversion.

Average electrical power generated by the plant over the entire year

= (0.15) (1,370 MW)

= 205 MW

This power output is, of course, highly variable, depending on time of day, season, and cloud cover. To get an idea for seasonal changes, the NREL data tells us that plant output would average 257 MW for an average day in June, to 138 MW for an average day in December.

7. Maximum Electrical Power Output

What might be the maximum electrical power output of the plant? It would correspond to maximum insolation, which is roughly 1,000 watts/m2. Fifteen percent conversion gives a plant output of 150 W/m2, times 3.8 million m2, so maximum electricity generation = 570 MW.

According to NREL data for the desert, maximum insolation duration is about two hours a day under cloudless skies from late spring through early summer. The duration of maximum shortens with increasing time away from June 21. In early spring and late summer, maximum insolation slips below 1,000 W/m2.

Clouds have a widely variable effect, from a 10 or 15% reduction from thin cirrus clouds, to a 50-70% reduction from dense cumulus clouds (thunderheads). At Kramer Junction, operators adjust flows of the heat transfer fluid whenever a cloud drifts over the array. I seem to remember that operators engage small electric pumps to keep the fluid flowing in portions of the array that experience cooling. The Arizona array, with three times more area, will experience more frequent effects of cloud shadows.

8. Annual Energy Generated

One final simple calculation gives us the average annual electrical energy that the Arizona plant will generate. It is the product of four factors:

Insolation, average day (NREL data) = 8.6 kWh/ (m2-day)

15% conversion of insolation to electricity

Area of solar collectors = 3.8 million m2

365 days/year

Thus the 1,900-acre Arizona plant will generate roughly 1.8 billion kWh per year.

Let’s give this quantity some perspective. EIA statistics for renewable energy in 2007 show that wind-generated energy in Texas was 8.1 billion kWh. Thus it would take four and one-half plants the size of the Arizona plant to match Texas wind energy for 2007.

A more telling comparison is with the recent growth of electrical consumption in the U.S. EIA statistics show that the U.S. consumed 2,885 billion kWh of electricity in 1992; in 2002 consumption was 3,660 kWh. Average growth, then, was 77 billion kWh per year over the 10 years. Thus the electrical energy that would be generated by the Arizona plant would supply only 2.3% (1.8/77) of one year’s growth of U.S. electrical consumption. I do not have electrical consumption broken down by state, but I would guess that Arizona could build a solar plant of equal size every year, and they would barely cover their own growth in electrical consumption.

PV Potential

I have not touched on PV, but there is much to discuss. NREL data is so extensive that there is almost no limit to analyses that could be done. For now, I should only refer you to an article that I published in the Oil and Gas Journal, June 25, 2001 issue. I graphically displayed annual insolation curves for a wide range of locations. At a glance the reader can see how insolation varies with latitude, longitude, and collector orientations. I also ran through sample calculations to see how much energy can be generated. An important finding is that insolation for most of the eastern half of the U.S. stays within a narrow range: 4.6 to 5.2 kWh/ (m2-day), with fixed collectors facing south, tilted at latitude for maximal exposure.

The above calculations are purely rational, using insolation data and general assumptions in design. Actual practice shows that solar installations typically generate 10 to 15% less energy than what the calculations show.

December 20, 2008 Posted by | Arizona, reader submission, solar power, solar thermal | 36 Comments

Solar Rickshaws

During my trip to India back in March, I got to experience a variety of transportation options. One of those was the auto rickshaw. I commented at the time that the efficiency of the thing had to be incredible (the previous link says 82 mpg), as it was essentially an enclosed motorcycle. That’s me sitting in one below:

Sitting in an Auto Rickshaw

Having previously converted to natural gas, this already highly efficient mode of transportation is now going solar:

India’s humble rickshaw goes solar

NEW DELHI (AFP) – It’s been touted as a solution to urban India’s traffic woes, chronic pollution and fossil fuel dependence, as well as an escape from backbreaking human toil.

A state-of-the-art, solar powered version of the humble cycle-rickshaw promises to deliver on all this and more.

The “soleckshaw,” unveiled this month in New Delhi, is a motorised cycle rickshaw that can be pedalled normally or run on a 36-volt solar battery.

Three obvious questions come to mind: How far can it travel on a charge, how many miles a day do these guys typically drive, and how long does it take to fully recharge? Or, if I want to combine them, “If I started the day fully recharged, what percentage of my day is spent pedaling?” But I only saw the answer to one of these questions:

The fully-charged solar battery will power the rickshaw for 50 to 70 kilometres (30 to 42 miles). Used batteries can be deposited at a centralised solar-powered charging station and replaced for a nominal fee.

I suppose if they are changing batteries out as needed, then it is merely a question of cost and frequency of changing the batteries.

This seems to be a very good transportation option for short trips in densely populated areas.

October 15, 2008 Posted by | India, solar power | 54 Comments