Vinod Khosla in a Solar Fight

Thanks to Bob Rohatensky for bringing this story to my attention. I got a real chuckle out of reading the response of Khosla’s opponent in this debate, PV solar advocate Herman Scheer, because I am all too familiar with some of his observations.

First, I want to make it clear that I am a big, big fan of solar energy. I don’t write much about it, because it isn’t an area of expertise, and I do know my limits. But solar power is #1 on my list of sustainable alternative energy technologies. In fact, when I talked with Mr. Khosla on the phone, I made that argument. He was not nearly as enthusiastic, suggesting that solar could not compete with cheap coal. Lately, it seems that he has come around, suggesting that thermal solar can indeed compete with cheap coal.

Anyway, here is Vinod Khosla’s side of his disagreement with Scheer:

“Scheer Nonsense” — The Damage Idealistic Environmentalists Can Do

He has a real way with words, doesn’t he? I will let Khosla’s essay speak for itself, but it was certainly ironic to hear him talk about Scheer’s idealism. I have said the same about Khosla with respect to cellulosic ethanol.

Now, for some of the comments from Scheer that had me chuckling. First, who is Herman Scheer? According to the story I am about to discuss:

A fight over the future of solar

Herman Scheer is a member of Germany’s parliament, general chairman of the World Council for Renewable Energy and president of the International Parliamentary Forum on Renewable Energies.

Scheer and Khosla debated the merits of various solar technologies earlier this year in a debate which, according to CNET News, was won by Scheer. So, Vinod Khosla responded with “Scheer Nonsense”, and now Mr. Scheer has responded. From his response:

My new book, Energy Autonomy has been one of the topics of the panel discussion with Vinod Khosla and Michael Peevey in February in San Francisco.

During this discussion, Khosla did not respond to the book and its theses. That was understandable at that time. He might not have had enough time to read the book beforehand. But what really surprises me is that he now discusses my opinions and concepts at length, obviously without having read a single line since. His comments thus are a little spooky to me.

Now for the good stuff:

Khosla is not only misquoting some of my contributions during the panel–violating one of the basic principles of scientific discourse. He is voicing opinions and assumptions that are often lacking any statistical or scientific basis. They can be refuted easily, and I will try to do so with some of them.

That line made me chuckle, because I said the exact same thing when he was promoting the virtues of ethanol. He was saying things that were on very shaky scientific footing. But to someone unfamiliar with the science, it probably sounded convincing.

I won’t go through his entire response, which delved into their disagreements over nuclear power. Scheer also pointed out that Khosla is arguing for something he has invested money into, similar to his ethanol positions. (This doesn’t necessarily make his arguments suspect, only his motives. Arguments still have to be addressed).

There was one more paragraph that was especially apt considering the conversations I had with Khosla:

The approaches I argued for have resulted in a total of 60,000 MW installed capacity of renewable energy in the electricity sector during the last years, alone 25,000 MW thereof in Germany. The approach Khosla is supporting led only to 400 MW of installed concentrated solar power in California during the beginning of the 1980s. The figures did not rise since. It amazes me that he does not ask himself why the concept that I advocate has developed dynamically, although it is supposed to be more expensive than the technologies he is supporting. Surely he must ask himself why his approach did not experience a breakthrough yet. Is that realism?

This is the same kind of approach he took toward cellulosic ethanol. Khosla believes that it is going to scale up and power the entire country, suggesting that cellulosic ethanol can be produced for less than $1.00 a gallon. In reality, it is 3 or 4 times that, and scientists have been working on it for decades.

Scheer’s conclusion really resonated with me, because I argued to Khosla that moving toward electric transport made far more sense than relying on the inefficient internal combustion engine. Khosla’s response was that a switch would be too expensive. As Scheer concluded:

These problems cannot be solved with the approach Khosla favors because it aims at conserving the existing conventional energy structures. Khosla’s approach is part of the problem–not the solution.

Jerry Unruh Responds

I sent my friend Jerry Unruh (who lives in a solar house) these links, and he responded. I asked for and received permission to post his reply. Jerry said if there are any errors in his argument, he would appreciate the feedback:

Mostly, I see a bias that certainly has some merit, but also what I consider some falsehoods. I will just mention a few so let me know what you think. First, nuclear power is killed less by environmentalists and more by NIMBY. As I have said many times, when those who want the advantages of nuclear electricity accept the risks, my opposition will go down. However, I simply don’t accept the idea of moving nuclear waste across the country on our vulnerable road and rail systems (witness the gasoline truck explosion in CA) to store it in Nevada where they don’t have the votes to keep it out.

When he talks of using his own money, I am sure he would not turn down all the subsidies, direct and indirect that go into nuclear. He also seems to ignore the fact that, as nuclear plants are currently configured, the uranium resource is no larger than oil and gas. The usual answers to this are extracting U from sea water, breeder reactors, or some yet undeveloped technology. And then there is always fusion which has been 25 years away as long as I have been following the issue. Of course, all of these options are costly and may not be viable.

When discussing thermal solar (which I think is generally a great idea), he mentions storage, but assumes you can’t do the same with wind or solar. We are discussing water pumped storage with the energy costs being about 1.5 kWh in to 1 kWh out. Xcel is looking at compressed air storage and there is always hydrogen. I don’t know the energy balance for his methods for thermal solar, but it is probably in the same range as the others (?). My understanding of thermal solar is that you do need clear skies to make it work efficiently. The only place in CO being considered for thermal solar (and a plant is already scheduled to be built there) is the San Luis valley where the solar insolation is about the same as the Mohave desert.

Spectrolab has just announced a concentrating solar PV efficiency of 40% which I think is approaching solar-thermal’s efficiency. They argue that an electrical cost of $0.03/kWh may be possible with this system. It is odd to me that people like Khosla casually assume that the technology for nuclear storage, CO2 sequestration, etc will be there, but manage to ignore the technology advances that are occurring in PV, wind, etc.

The most recent information I have seen is that “one sun” PV systems like ours has a probable limit of 30% efficiency (ours are 15%). However, they produce under most weather conditions. Of course storage is a problem. Another solution besides the ones above, may be the Vanadium oxidation technology from VRB (Corp, Ltd?), but I don’t know enough to be sure. Again, the tacit assumption seems to be that there are no potential technology fixes out there to deal with the problem. If manufacturers are concentrating on lower efficiency panels at the moment, it is probably because that is where the market is. He should understand that as a free market advocate. Ultimately, I suspect the cost of PV will be less than $1/peak watt.

The two most bothersome implications of what he writes, and ones that many seem to make are the following. The first is that we have to keep providing for ever increasing consumption/capita. As you know, I think that conservation must go hand in hand with renewables or there is no way out of the trap. Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute makes this his mantra.

The second is that, implicit in his discussion is that countries like India and China will make the decisions to have a country wide grid like the U.S. My understanding is that one of the reasons for pushing PV in many rural areas of these countries is that building the grid is economically out of reach for these countries. If you have an established grid like the U.S., his arguments make more sense. In mountainous country like we live in, the costs to extend electricity a house is in excess of $20,000/mile. High voltage lines would undoubtedly be more than this even in more favorable terrain. One of the big issues in the Western U.S. right now is the cost of expanding the grid; CO has just passed a law to help solve the problem. So the rural Indian, or Chinese family may be better off with a few panels and a small amount of storage than waiting for the grid that may never come.

I am interested in what you think.


26 thoughts on “Vinod Khosla in a Solar Fight”

  1. From Scheer’s comments:
    “The approach Khosla is supporting led only to 400 MW of installed concentrated solar power in California during the beginning of the 1980s.”

    Nevada Solar One is 64MW of solar thermal (3rd largest solar plant) and set to come online this year.

    Stirling Energy Systems has a CPUC approved contract with SCE for a 500MW parabolic stirling solar thermal plant.

    SHPEGS is our not-for-profit attempt at adapting solar thermal to moderate climates by combining it with geothermal and heat pump/upgrader technology. The design has some new ideas and efficiency improvements that have the potential to provide a scalable, base-load solar power system that takes advantage of moderate to colder climates with high summer insolation and cold winters like Canada and the Northern US and Europe.

  2. Forgetting startup costs, if I set out today to make a liquid fuel (gasoline, methanol, whatever) with CSP solar (or wind) providing the conversion energy, and CO or CO2 or whatever feedstock magically delivered to my “refinery” (at market price) then roughly speaking what would be the cost per gallon?

  3. I think Khosla makes a few good points though.

    The environmental community has been pushing a renewables-only agenda for some time now, and opposes all other sources of power, despite
    the high costs and unsolved intermittency problems. Opposition to nuclear in particular has kept us on coal for decades, and opposition to coal has force us to deplete natural gas more rapidly as well.

    Before we completely rule out nuclear power and embark on a renewables-only course, it would be prudent to see a scalable solution to intermittency that would enable wind and solar to serve as baseload sources. It would also be advisable to have some understanding of what a renewables-only strategy is going to cost.

    This is where a lot of people, such as Khosla and myself, part company with the environmental community. I’m a skeptical engineer, and I want to understand what I’m getting into before dropping proven technologies. What is proven at this point is that solar and wind technologies can provide some fraction of grid power without stability problems, albeit it at high cost. What is not demonstrated is that we could run 100% of the grid on renewables, nor that people would be willing to pay for it if we could.

    It would be great if someone like yourself (RR) would dig into these technologies with your usual objective, engineer’s mindset. Too much of the information out there comes from sources (on either side of the debate) whose motives are open to question.

  4. Someone I know and trust recently prepared a ‘renewables’ paper. She ranked wind first, solar thermal second, photovoltaic third.

    That’s what I would have expected based my my 2-3 years of energy surfing. The personalities of the conflict seem to distract from that well known ‘state of the art.’

    (Another reason to kill the subsidies and let the market sort it out.)

    – odograph

  5. I am as blistering a critic on Khosla’s biofuels initiative as anyone, but Khosla is right in this debate. Photovoltaic just cannot compete on cost and likely never will unless the storage issue is resolved – and it will not be in the foreseeable future. Thermal solar is more promising, though not there yet.

  6. You know, I live in an area of coastal California that is blessed with a very mild climate. I’ve actually gone without heating or A/C for the last couple years. (I turned off the former, and don’t own the later.)

    Now the interesting thing to me is that while I suffer only mild discomfort on the coldest and hottest days … the system seems prepared to subsidize photovoltaics for my roof.

    That is the State of California’s preferred solution.

    I suppose if I lived someplace more extreme, or if I was a bigger consumer here that might at first sight make sense.

    But think about it … _coastal_ California. The land of “June Gloom” every spring and fall. The land where haze burns off by 11 am ever day.

    And yet, there are those beautiful clear valleys, just made for solar thermal, 100 miles inland.

    Dollars to donuts we are going to make the wrong choice, the bad engineering choice. We are going to subsidize photovoltiacs on my neighbor’s homes, in the gloom, in preference to better tech in a better environment.

    It becomes, pardon me, a little like that old “offsets” argument. Do I, like Al Gore, have to have solar cells on my personal roof to be a good guy?

    Even if that is stupid from an engineering standpoint?

    – odograph

  7. “Too much of the information out there comes from sources (on either side of the debate) whose motives are open to question.”

    Prof. David J.C.MacKay at the Department of Physics at Cambridge has been working on a book entitled Sustainable Energy – Without the Hot Air. The rough draft in .pdf is available online. I found the even the draft worth reading and either he is objective or he agrees with me. (I can never tell the difference). grin

    He also has a presentation that is a bit older base for the book. It’s a little sparse without the vocal presentation, but the title says it all.

  8. These guys both BS at a world class level. Scheer’s 25,000 MW of renewables created by feed-in tariffs cost more like $200/year per household than $20, and that’s just the direct costs. ($200 may not show up on consumer’s bills, but they pay it one way or the other). His “gridophobia” makes no economic sense and his cell phone comments are indeed screwy.

    That said, Khosla’s solar thermal (CSP) is no holy grail. Heat storage is a great feature, but it’s certainly possible to scale other renewables well beyond the arbitrary 10% figure he pulled out of his ass.

    CSP can play a role, but upfront costs need to drop from $4/W below $2 and maintenance costs must drop similarly. Even then, if thin film companies deliver on their $1/W claims CSP will have an uphill battle. Wind is already that cheap and dispatchable renewables such as geothermal, hydro and biomass gasification are also in the mix. Dispatchability won’t be an issue for many years , by then we’ll have other tools such as demand management (and plug-in hybrids) to address it.


  9. I am as blistering a critic on Khosla’s biofuels initiative as anyone, but Khosla is right in this debate.

    Yeah, I want to make it clear that I am not objecting to Khosla’s argument. I just don’t know enough about solar to know what the potential of solar thermal is. My impression is favorable.

    My reasons for posting this were two-fold. First, I wanted to read through the feedback so I could get a general feeling for the pros and cons. But mainly I couldn’t help but note just how similar Scheers comments about Khosla in this debate came to my own during the solar debate.

    Scheer suggested that Khosla played fast and loose with the facts, and was very casual about misquoting him. Yet this is the guy that so many – including the powers that be – are trusting to influence our energy policy. Is it any wonder that I come out so strongly against him?

    Cheers, Robert

  10. Someone I know and trust recently prepared a ‘renewables’ paper. She ranked wind first, solar thermal second, photovoltaic third.

    My friend Nate Hagens also ranks wind first and solar second. He didn’t specify PV versus thermal. I put wind in 2nd place, behind solar, because it just isn’t as predictable. If a good storage system for wind power is developed, then wind could easily be my #1. Such systems do exist, but they are not common.

    Cheers, Robert

  11. Even then, if thin film companies deliver on their $1/W claims…

    Solar PV will probably accomplish this, there is a lot of effort going into the field. The current cost with Solar PV is mostly electricity for semiconductor grade silicon refining and factory construction. The question is whether they lower the cost by lowering EROEI or just getting the silicon and panels made in China with power from a coal plant.

    The usual rebuttal that I get on this comment is that the power for the arc furnaces will come from hydroelectric. There is a lot of similarity between “The Hype on Hydrogen” and Solar PV. Water exhaust? cool! No moving parts? cool! Natural source of hydrogen or silicon without high energy input? D’uh! If it takes a long period of time to reclaim the EROEI of Solar PV and it is degrading in the sun, it doesn’t matter what the subsidized $/W is.

    Using power from coal or hydroelectric in Asia to create a intermittent power source that is “space age nifty” for the developed world is a little questionable. There would be better ways to transport the energy and not have it shut off whenever the sun went behind the clouds. Solar PV has been a great solution for satellites and calculators. It’s a long way off from being a commercial power source.

    The Bushel and Rod is my essay on basic renewable systems evaluation.

  12. Solar first as a _needed_ or as a _practical_ technology, Robert?

    I’d agree that better solar is needed, and I support increased research.

    But I don’t support production subsidies at all, much less for today’s solar that does not beat today’s wind.

    Today we have many, many, opportunities for wind to supplement our current grid, without storage.

    Energy storage and intermittentcy will certainly become an issue some decades from now … but those issues will properly discussed with the technologies available then, not the technologies available now.

    Wind is the biggest winner now, which is why it is being installed fastest, now.

    – odograph

  13. “Don’t need a weatherman to tell which way the wind blows” – Some other Bob

    Wind farms and solar thermal are compatable land use. No one wants to live under a 100′ propeller, but it is suitable for a CSP farm.

  14. First, I wanted to read through the feedback so I could get a general feeling for the pros and cons.

    IMO the main issues renewables need to address are intermittency, cost, land use, and construction materials.

  15. Odograph,

    You said

    But I don’t support production subsidies at all, much less for today’s solar that does not beat today’s wind.

    Don’t forget that wind energy is highly subsidized and very, very, few wind projects would be built if it were not for the subsidies.

    I also oppose subsidies. They tend to reward good rent seeking and lobbying skills not technology that makes engineering or economic sense.



  16. OK, I’ll stick to my guns. Zero out the production subsidies and see what happens.

    I’d keep things like the “green option” on power bills to fund such things voluntarily. I’d also keep the idea that semi-public (monopoly) power companies have an interest in diversified, and yes, green power.

    So strip the outright subsidies, and let the power companies decide how far they should go to diversify their sources.

    (BTW, I really really hope that the Stirling Energy Systems plants survive their build out and testing … and that operation and maintenance costs stay withing bounds. If those prove themselves, I’d think a lot of southwestern power companies would be heading there, without subsidies.)

    – odograph

  17. I like solar, but I worry that the silicone cells can’t be scaled up enough because of the cost/difficulty in producing them and the availability of suitable raw materials. That’s why I have a bit more hope for thin film technology. I like CSP for the same reason, as well as it’s ability to continue producing power after the sun goes down (does anyone know how long they can continue producing power, is it 24 hrs? I haven’t found any info on this).

    I watched a program on PBS a few weeks ago on solar power. They described what Germany was doing and how much progress had been made. They had a guy from the Economist on there who didn’t like Germany’s approach because it wasn’t a “free market” solution. They then showed a few clips of an American company who was installing solar systems on the roofs of businesses and then contracting to sell the power to them. He liked this way of doing things much better and said something like, “That’s how it’s done in America”. What he didn’t address was the fact that Germany’s way was far more effective. Some people seem to worship the idea of a “free market” beyond all reason. Khosla seemed to be using the same sort of logic.

  18. I put wind in 2nd place, behind solar, because it just isn’t as predictable.

    I think that depends very much on where you live… I’d’ve thought you’d’ve noticed that, living in Scotland. 😉

    It also depends on whether you’re talking about onshore or offshore wind…

  19. The reason coal can compare to photovoltaics is that its costs are all back-loaded, whereas solar is the exact opposite. Coal doesn’t have to pay for any of the massive liabilities they are accumulating with regards to tailing ponds, acid rain, climate change, etc. They’ll just go bankrupt as they exhaust their individual resources and leave the commons with the bill. Look at what happened to the asbestos industry as an illuminating example.

    The comparison of solar-thermal to photovoltaic is amusing. Factor in the maintenance costs and PV will kick solar-thermal’s butt every time. How much growth has solar-thermal electricity seen since 1980? Roughly in the same order of magnitude. Doubled, at best.

    PV? Growing at 27 – 35 % per annum. That’s 1000x growth every 20 years. At current rates, the total energy contribution of PV will exceed that which we get from oil today in 20-25 years. Unlike say wind, there’s no real limits to the growth of PV. It has no NIMBY problem, the resource isn’t geographically constrained, the main fabrication material is the largest component of the planet’s crust, it can be installed in small increments, it requires minimal maintenance due to the total absence of moving parts and has tremendous longevity as a result, EROEI is 15-20 after 40 years.

  20. Robert McLeod:

    Solar PV has a growing market and has seen some recent improvements. Jeff Vail makes some points on calculation the true EROEI of Solar PV.

    The Toronto Exibition Place 100kW Solar PV demonstration project cost $1.1 million.

    They estimated 22 years to reclaim the investment at $0.42/kWh under Ontario’s Standard Offer Program. Which is allowing $0.42/kWh for PV and $0.11 for all other renewable systems.

    You can watch the live output stats (requires flash) of the Exibition Palace 100kWh installation in Toronto.

    There is only data since last August and they should have a much better month this June, but the 100kW Solar PV installation worst functional month was 1.8MWh (January) and best was 9MWh so far. At the $0.42/kWh this translates to $756-$3780 per month or 24-121 years to reclaim the investment. At $0.11/kWh this is $198-$990/month or 92-462 years to break even on the investment.

    I would think the real annual output will land in the center and at the $0.42/kWh rate, they will reclaim the $1.1 million in around 40 years if the panels output doesn’t degrade severely through that period.

    So, if PV cost drops, the efficiency improves and the panels don’t degrade for at least 20 years and you are willing to pay 4x the Canadian average retail price for electricity, have no power at night or for 3 months of the winter, things are looking good for Solar PV in Canada.

  21. TJIT

    In point of fact, a new wind fired station is competitive with a new combined cycle gas turbine, in the Irish market.

    The reason wind is subsidised is because the CO2 emissions of coal and gas fired stations are not taxed. They are allowed to inflict that damage on future generations, without cost. This is what economists call an ‘externality’.

    The same problem applies to the nuclear industry. The nuclear industry has been the recipient of 10s of billions of dollars of government subsidy. The Price Anderson Act provides insurance that the industry could not otherwise obtain.

    In addition, the costs of decontamination and long term storage of nuclear waste are not reflected in the costs of electric power from nukes.

    The UK liability for decontamination, for scale, is £65bn in current value (ie $130bn). However a number of people close to that industry have told me it could be twice as much. We don’t know.

    Wind power doesn’t look bad on an economic basis, when you contrast it to the full cost of other power generation technologies.


  22. I think PV will go down in cost under $1/w. If plug-in hybrids get larger share and new generation batteries will be mass prduce, storage cost can go down significally. PV without storage can be used to charge plug in cars. I think pv and wind can be scaled up way further than concentraed solar. Concentrated solar will have its share it can produce a relilable base power. I think all of these technologies will play some role. I think transportation will eventully be based on electricit, the question is how fast will it happen. If it takes like 20 years, ethanol and biofuels will play a major role in transportation. A lot deppends on how battery technolgoy will advance.

  23. Take China as an example, the most popular renewable energy application is solar water heater! China is the largest producer and consumer of solar water heater in the world. The cheap solar water heater for 100 liter water only costs about Euro 200.00.

    While solar electricity is still too expensive compared with the conventional electricity, but the solar electricity cost will be largely reduced in the next 3 to 5 years driven by the new advanced technologies.

    I am quite optimistic about the solar energy. It should be the No. one renewable energy.

    Welcome to my blog to see more information about the solar energy industry in China.

  24. Solar extraction, as an ‘Industrial-based’ Technology, is over 120 years old. Solar-to-Steam was demonstrated at an Exposition, in France, and California had Solar-Power Installations, as well. Steam is a big pain to use properly, requiring well-trained, sober folk, to look after it. Once you get North, or South, of the 0° nightime temperature line [in either High Latitude, or High Altiude, or _both_, care & feeding of Steam Power requires an extra level of care, eh?

    Now, Photo-Voltaic Technology, to _this_ Seismic Surveyor, gets weaker & weaker, the Higher your Latitude gets. After all, the Summer-long Daylight is balanced-out by the Winter-long Night, eh? A very big, well insulated Lead-acid Battery Barn will be needed to keep your Electric House, Car, Boat, Quad, and Skimachine lit up!

    Wind Power, in the High Latitudes? Ever see wind-hoar collected on walls, poles, antennae, and bracing-wires? The stuff collects on rotating thingys, too. Now, the olden DC-3 Tech, oozing liquid De-icer out of little holes in the blades, _does_ work. Wonder how big a tank of de-icer is needed for an Arctic Winter, tho?

    My personal dives thru the Alternative Energy infofall have gotten some interesting ‘long-trough’ solar concentrator ideas, using fluids other than water. Darn stuffs are more expensive than water.

    The ‘Solar Tower’, proven by a Pilot Plant in Spain, is the only concept that looks to provide Day and Night Power from the Wind and the Sun. It combines a tall Chimney, and a very large ‘collecting area’, under a transparency, which feeds the Sun-warmed Air to the Wind Turbines, ere it goes up the Chimney. At night, the sun-warmed rocks keep heating the air, keeping up a ‘Turbo-Boost’ to the natural Chimney-effect Updraft that all tall chimneys share. My personal term for this is Using the Tame Wind! Grin.

    Neil Frandsen
    Lethbridge, Alberta, Canada

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