That’s a Lot of Solar Insolation

Without a doubt, I am a big fan of solar power. I have very high hopes that thin film companies like Nanosolar will allow us all to drape our homes in cheap solar films. I spend time pondering how much solar power it would take to replace electricity usage or transportation fuel in the U.S.

But I don’t think the U.S. has done nearly enough to foster solar energy. Check out this graphic from a new story in Forbes – Sue OPEC? Congress Should Sue Itself – to appreciate how much potential we have for solar power in the U.S.

Instead of ineffectual and counterproductive OPEC lawsuits, Congress should look at other countries. Germany has reached 14% renewable electricity use–they’re shooting for 27% by 2020–and Denmark is already at 40%.

Check out the map above. With the exception of Seattle, the entire continental U.S. is much sunnier than Germany. Yet Germany has 17 times the installed solar base per capita. The same goes for Japan, where “feed-in tariffs,” or subsidies, have ended yet the solar business is thriving and competitive.

Amazing. Of course some will argue that Germany’s push to solar has been a boondoggle, precisely because they are poorly positioned to take advantage of the sun. But that’s beside the point, which is simply that the U.S. has great potential for transitioning to a solar economy.

On the other hand, as the article points out, the U.S. government has been busy doing something over the past 30 years:

Over the last 30 years, elected U.S. officials blocked nuclear build-out and spent fuel storage construction; impeded the construction of oil refineries; refrained from passing meaningful alternative energy legislation; imposed an import tax on cheaper Brazilian ethanol; prevented offshore drilling in Alaska, California and Florida; delayed tighter auto fuel-efficiency standards for 30 years; blocked the construction of liquefied natural gas ports; killed wind farms in their own backyards (and back bays); and neglected opportunities for public-private sector partnerships on energy research and development.

I suspect things are about to change a bit, though. $130 oil puts a lot of pressure on Congress to do something. However, their history on energy issues does not inspire confidence.

26 thoughts on “That’s a Lot of Solar Insolation”

  1. Hey Robert,

    I have wondered what it would take to get our so called “Leaders in Washington” to actually advance the notion of alternative fuels such as Solar Power. The recent hearings, or as I like to call them dog and pony shows were nothing more that fodder for the newspapers. I seriously doubt that they really intended on getting anything out of them. They were more white wash for the poloticians to use in there normal rhetoric. Also, some of the blame of high gas prices and the slow crawl towards renewable engergy also belongs on us, the consumers. One good thing that could come out of these prices is a strong demand for renewable sources of energy. Let’s face it, most of us don’t care until you start hitting us in the pocket books. However, when you do that, we tend to stand up and take notice.

    I did enjoy the article that you linked to. It would habe been funny if it wasn’t so true.

  2. Germany has very high retail electric prices, something like 0.22 Euros/kWh ($0.345/kWh) and a law that encourages alternatives. Utilities must pay 90% of the retail price for renewables. It is this model, not the amount of solar power that is driving German investment in renewables.

    I update my own estimate for solar power monthly as I get new electric bills. My home address averages 4.9 hours of solar a day. At a 7.5% rate of return, my equivalent cost of solar is about $0.30/kWh vs. $0.17/kWh for a long term power contract. The average US household pays $0.10/kWh.

    Solar panels need to drop to $1-2 per watt in order to make home PV solar affordable.

    Here is a website that keeps track of the cost to produce solar for residential/commercial/large scale: Solar Buzz

    Most homes in Germany have very modest electrical loads by American standards (no AC, small appliances). For $20,000 or so, the average German household can install a system that covers most of their needs.

  3. I happen to being working in communications for architects at this latest stage of my “professional” life…
    we may soon see buildings that export power…already two such power-exporting skyscrapers are being built in Dubai,with horizontal turbines mounted between floors…imagine a skyscraper with solar panels not only on roof, but also with nanosolar on all four sides, plus a few wind turbines here and there….and using abundant LEDs and high-efficiency HVACs…voila, an energy-exporting tower….
    The DOE has estimated the US will need a 17 percent increase in its grid to power an all-electric fleet of cars,but I doubt it…we will be using so much less electricity from the grid going forward….

  4. Clarifying my earlier note. German utilities must pay 90% of the retail electric price to producers of renewable power. This is essentially at 100% dispatch.

    Here in Texas (ERCOT) you would get dispatched but only paid the wholesale price of electricity.

    We may soon be getting time of day metering. If peak summer pricing hits $0.30/kWh that would be a big boost to solar.

    Congress could help by passing a law similar to the Satellite Home Viewer act that prohibited restrictive covenants against home solar installations. My homeonwers association doesn’t allow solar in any form.

  5. Louisiana rebates 50% of the cost of a solar system costing up to $25,000. The Feds kick back another $2000. The state law just became effective in january. Big waiting list. We’ve got a grid-tie law,but it’s just good for a credit,so over-sizing a system won’t help a homeowner. I think Texas pays homeowners the wholesale rate for the extra power they produce.


    Much more important than thin-film processes is this link from Nanosolar on municipal scale installations on flat ground. In individual residential installations, the roof installation, relatively small scale inverters and battery maintenance is the problem, not whether the PV is thick or thin.

    Edison and Tesla had the difference of opinion that power generation should be large scale AC or local DC. Tesla won that fight, but going down to installing and maintaining individual residence PV doesn’t make a lot of sense. Edison wasn’t thinking renewable power, but designing subdivisions and small towns around 1-2 MW grid-tied renewable power moves the aesthetic and maintenance issues from the residence to the municipality.

    Of course, if you have a thin-film PV company saying that it’s easier to install PV on the ground than on a roof and it’s easier to do systems sized for 1000 homes than individual housing, they are shooting themselves in the foot. Municipal scaled solar thermal makes much more sense than proprietary polysilicon based photovoltaics from both an EROEI and maintenance point of view. Any steam engineer can maintain and repair solar thermal. If we are going to be in a world that is going to see globalization die due to expensive crude, we aren’t proving anything by spreading out coal fired Chinese polysilicon across North America and tying something as important as power generation to a company’s Intellectual Property portfolio. Simple, built from common materials, locally maintainable and public domain technology are the key design issues in renewable power generation systems. Nanosolar and First Solar are none of those things.

    Buying into whiz-bang proprietary technology on a grand scale is as fundamentally stupid as tying society to cheap oil.

  7. With such a stark contrast, anyone ever stop to wonder why Germany has such a successful solar market?

    I’ll tell you why.

    Germany does NOT do rebates.
    Germany does NOT do net-metering.

    What Germany does is “Feed-in Tariffs”. FITs.

    Which is a simple concept.
    The utility guaruntees to buy your power from you for 10-20 years, at a price which will continuously be adjusted to be significantly higher than the wholesale price. This additional cost is then spread out across all ratepayers, raising their bills a couple pennies each annually.


    ==Bottom Line==
    1) A Feed-in Tariff completely removes RISK from any sort of investment consideration.

    2) It encourages one to install as much solar capacity as one can possibly afford. (Rather than only the amount you can personally use)

    3) It’s also Revenue Neutral, in a way. (Well atleast no “tax” dollars required. And no need to rely on unreliable spotty legislation to get more funding for it.)

    4) And it also makes it so that the person installing the panels doesn’t have the be the person actually using the panel’s electricity. (Apartment owners versus Apartment tenants for instance)


    Germany certainly is NOT a place you would expect to be wildly successful with solar power.

    However it’s not about the sun availability. And it’s not even about the cost of electricity.

    It’s primarily all about Feed-in Tariffs. FITs make Renewable Energy a simple, and obvious business investment; Because Low Risk is extremely important for High Capital investments.

  8. Delete this comment as soon as possible. Congress should sue OPEC. Rediculous. All I hear from the House floor is drill, drill, drill. Never mind who crushed the electric car. Who tore the solar panels off the White House? Your opinion is that of a blockhead Republican. Aargh. J.C., Sr.


    the electorate must have been in agreement, most executives/legislators were re-elected at least twice. no crowds at the gates with clubs, pitchforks, torches showing anger/dissatisfaction.

    or maybe the electorate were all visiting Ichabod in “sleeping hallow”



  10. There’s a story on the Oil Drum about $4 gasoline revitalizing small towns. So much for the death of rural life.

  11. You should stop writing about stuff you know nothing about. Solar is ridiculously expensive and inefficient. You’ll do your readers a service if you stick to writing about oil and biofuels.

  12. Your opinion is that of a blockhead Republican.

    That’s funny, because I get that from both sides. Democrats think I am a Republican, Republicans think I am a Democrat.

    In fact, I have been highly critical of both sides when the topic is energy. Regarding the excerpts I quoted, Republicans are primarily responsible for several (the Brazilian ethanol tariff, for instance).

    On that basis, someone could accuse me of being a blockhead Democrat. In fact, I am neither. I don’t think either party has a good plan for dealing with our energy problems.


  13. There’s a story on the Oil Drum about $4 gasoline revitalizing small towns. So much for the death of rural life.

    That’s not remotely what I wrote. I said that it is completely dependent upon location. Small towns in dry areas of the Midwest are going to have a tough time. Other areas with good farmland and water resources should fare OK.


  14. Anyone here have the energy in vs. energy out of a solar cell vs. it’s MTBF?

    I was under the impression that solar cells had not cleared this hurtle yet. But when I search google, I just get a bunch of noisey opinions. Anyone have data I can view and decide for myself?

    I’d happily setup PV, but there is absolutely no hard core data *that is easy to find* around on the net.

  15. Anyone here have the energy in vs. energy out of a solar cell vs. it’s MTBF?

    David, see Table 2 in Energy Analysis of Power Systems. It has a rundown of a number of different energy balance studies of solar power. Eye-balling the numbers suggests something like 7/1 or 10/1 EROEI.

    Cheers, Robert

  16. What Germany does is “Feed-in Tariffs”……. This additional cost is then spread out across all ratepayers, raising their bills a couple pennies each annually.

    PBS show (pro-solar) last night said average German customer pays $10-15 extra per month due to FITs. I don’t know how much renewable electricity this $10-15/month buys, I think it’s around 15% but don’t quote me. Most of that is wind.

    Germany’s solar FIT is over 50 cents/kWh. At this rate my electric bill would be almost $1500 in peak summer months and my neighbor’s bills would be even higher. I applaud Germany for advancing solar technology, but they pay a stiff price.

  17. Municipal scaled solar thermal makes much more sense than proprietary polysilicon based photovoltaics from both an EROEI and maintenance point of view.

    Bob, this is not at all clear. As an aside, thin film companies like Nanosolar and First Solar do not use “polysilicon”. Anyway, getting back to EROEI, solar thermal mirrors are similar to recent thin films in terms of energy input. But solar thermal is a lot more than just mirrors. Add in sun-tracking motors, heat exchangers and steam turbines and the EROEI math gets muddy fast.

    What is not muddy at all is maintenance costs. Solar thermal’s numerous moving parts drive maintenance costs MUCH higher than PV. It’s not even close.

    Time will tell how this all washes out. Quite a few thin-film startups talk about $1/W. A couple of trends are setting up to reduce silicon PV prices as well. Meanwhile solar thermal’s equipment costs (motors, turbines, etc.) are inflating. There’s also a new kid in town — CPV. Recent multijunction cells are more efficient than steam turbines, so you get more bang for your motor and mirror buck. But solar thermal still has an ace in the hole — cheap storage.

    It’ll be fun to watch all this play out. The good news is all solar technologies are getting close to undercutting fossil fuel for daytime peaking power in the Southwest US. That’s the trend to watch.

  18. FITs are just another way of subsidizing renewable power. At some point the FIT system becomes unsustainable. There are too few non-renewable kWhs to allocate the FIT price over.

    What happens when renewables make up most of the power? Imagine that EVERYONE in Germany installed a solar system and supply exceeded demand during the afternoon. Then what would happen?

  19. CPV is concentrated photovoltaic. Solar thermal uses mirrors to focus solar energy on a working fluid which drives a 30%-ish efficient turbine. CPV uses mirrors to focus solar energy on a small, 40% efficient multi-junction PV cell.

  20. You should look at nuclear power too RR. I’ve still not seen anything that persuades me we can (with current technology) use solar for baseload, which is the lion’s share of electricity demand (and likely to be more so with EVs charging at night). Also look at the siting and land-footprint issues.

  21. RR:

    Question on the EIEO analysis in the link you posted: what technology is Alsema referring to vs. Kivisto’s amorphous silicon?

    Had amorphous silicon processes improved that much in EO by 2003 at the time of Alsema’s study? Or was Alsema’s study covering a different PV technology?

  22. Repeat after me: oil has nothing to do with electricity. oil has nothing to do with electricity. oil has nothing to do with electricity…

  23. The Hawaiians probably wish right now that their electricity had nothing to do with oil. One was saying how he paid 39 cents/KWH on his 622 KWH February bill. “energy cost adjustments” on top of “interim rate adjustments” on top of “base fuel energy charges” and so on. Solar ought to be competitive with 39 cents/KWH. What percentage of Hawaii would have to be covered in solar panels to replace their oil-powered electricity?

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