Friday, September 2, 2016

How we are still missing life-or-death trillion dollar profit opportunities in renewable energy

Do you support the great efforts of your government and of the private sector to develop solar energy? Well, I still remember in 1970 when the issue of CO2 started to come out, when people supported efforts to pick up tin cans from the side of the road as a "way of making a difference to the environment." Moral support helps, but if we don't add REAL ACTION to our commitments, we all die anyway. (Search on "H2S" in this blog to see that I am dead serious about this being an issue of life or death.) The world still urgently needs new action on renewables, far beyond what anyone is doing yet -- and some of it could make money. Lots of money. (World electricity generation has been growing past 20,000 terawatt-hours per year; at 20 cents per kwh, that multiples out to $4 trillion per year. Consider how much money you could make if you captured just 0.1%  of the value added which comes from cutting that cost in half!! Large enough to save the EU economy in this decade.)

Here I will give you a crude overview of the issues and opportunities -- what I posted this morning to the energy policy discussion list of  IEEE, the world's largest engineering society. But first ..
here is an important post on the great achievements of recent years, citing one of those solar farms I am about to visit:

From another IEEE committee member:

"Solar power recently sold for the lowest price ever, in Chile.
The Spanish developer Solarpack Corp. Tecnologica won contracts to sell power from a 120-MW solar plant for $29.10 a MWh at an energy auction this month...
A key part of the low price is the ever-declining price for solar panels. The average price on the spot market declined this week to 44.7 cents a watt for standard polysilicon panels, a record low...
Renewable-energy developers won more than half the contracts. The lowest price for wind power awarded in the auction was $38.10 a MWh, power from natural gas-fired plants sold for $47, coal came in at $57, hydroelectricity at $60 and geothermal at $66.  In Chile’s power auctions, developers offer to provide a certain amount of capacity at a specific price, without saying what type of power plant they’re planning to build. Bids are listed from cheapest to most expensive, and distribution companies select the lowest-cost proposals available until reaching their target capacity
The Solarpack contract is cheaper than a solar project in Dubai, that sold for $29.90 a MWh in May, and for a March auction in Mexico that awarded solar contracts for $35.50 a MWh, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance..."


My reply:

Thank you for this story.

The cost of solar generation is an extremely important variable in determining what our future will be (or if there will be one at all!), but one which needs to be approached very carefully. For example, at:

I give a link to a recent talk by the head of the World Bank where he expresses puzzlement at the very inconsistent stories he has heard about the cost of solar energy from very credible sources. Why the differences?

I have the impression that solar farms based on today's PV technology still basically have long-term marginal cost of generation in the range 16-20 cents per kwh in favorable sites in the US, if one strips away the many incentive effects and marketing effects which have led to PPAs at lower prices. I do not dispute the arguments which say that the incentives represent real social costs and benefits, and so on -- but I am
very, very sad that we may be missing opportunities to develop solar farm technologies for which the naked economic cost in the US would be much less than what we see in these much-praised PPAs. The very low cost PPA you mention here is actually for the Atacama desert, in a project exploiting Bulgarian labor (and exploiting how Chinese companies are responding to overcapacity in producing panels); it is a great achievement, and a promising beginning which should be expanded, but it would be a huge tragedy if excessive optimism keeps us from working hard to develop much deeper cuts in cost especially important to the US and EU. 

In fact, there are huge unmet opportunities, which current funding systems are simply not capturing, not only in advanced technology in the PV space but in solar dish
technology, like what Sandia demoed in the late twentieth century, which would not require imports of PVs and other exotic materials. (The main cost is labor -- i.e. it would create jobs in the US -- and then engines and panels which can be brought up to mass production quickly in retooled auto industry factories which have excess capacity. There is some need for high-temperature parts for the next generation Stirling engine, but the Finns are licensing the foundry design which already produces such things in many locations.) 

And so, I agree with the folks who say that "the valley of death" and translational RD&D are what we need most to get out of the hole, and vastly expand the use of solar without warping politics or markets... but I don't see the present
"innovation army" approach (or the usual take-the-money-and-run versions of IPO) as having any net value at all to solving the problem. 

In fact, this is part of a general problem. In space policy and in climate change, I don't know which is killing us more -- the feet-in-the-mud people, or the euphoric folks who distort the issues in ways that block any real hope of doing what needs to be done. (For example, competition is essential, but folks who count on the divinity of Elon Musk to solve all technical problems really get in the way.) IEEE has a special role in trying to bring people to reality here, but even at IEEE some folks at the top would love to be part of the Washington psychology euphoric team.

BUT NO -- I do not mean to cast aspersions on the folks who send us this good news from Chile. It is important good news. I just want to call attention to other aspects of solar energy issues which I hope someone on this list can help with, somehow. I keep trying my best myself, but it clearly needs more than what I can do, in my retirement. 

Best regards,


P.S. On the positive side -- I am grateful to have had a chance to visit Antofagosta in Chile where this new solar farm is, and to hear the great vision for solar energy they want to contribute to. Antofagosta has much better solar resources than any other site on earth, and I do hope they will export electricity as soon as possible to other nations in Latin America. Back when I first ran grid research at NSF, I arranged a joint workshop with EPRI at EPRI on new transmission technology, with Chen-Ching Liu as PI, which met a month after 9/11; at least back then, Brazil's own transmission technology was actually better than ours, for the kind of thousand-mile line I would like to see built from Chile to Uruguay, linking in to Brazil from there,
and allowing Brazil to save its oil and gas resources for more lucrative export markets. The world oil market was not so great between the economic crash of 2008
and a year ago, but the industry sees it recovering strongly now, and the industry makes more profit if it holds a bit to sell at a higher price. 

There are still people who for legitimate ideological reasons wish that distributed rooftop solar could meet all our needs and free us from the need for massive transmission systems. But for me, it was almost a life-changing experience when Harold Adams told me it would cost about 1.8 cents per kwh to ship electricity
from Lubbock Texas to PJM, if it were reliable noon-to-8PM (EST) gigawatts
of solar. Here we are, in a world where people pay more than 20 cents per kwh for generation from offshore east coast, while the midwest could get 7 cents or less for wind, if only we could EXPAND transmission. Favorable sites also mean a factor of two or more in the cost of solar electricity, and also mean a lot more reliability, which we here know is also essential. We shouldn't be wasting time and effort nibbling at the edges when there are such huge unmet opportunities out there -- but does IEEEUSA really have the stomach and the will to capture them? Even if it gets in the way of being part of the iron triangle cheering squads for the status quo?

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