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.

26 thoughts on “Solar Stories”

  1. This is a story about a upstate New York town installing a flywheel-energy storage facility. Imagine 200 seven-foot-in-diameter flywheels, on magnetic bearings, in vacuums.

    In theory, this is a great way to store energy from a solar plant.
    In an different life, I was obsessed with and even tried to arrange financing for a flywheel car. The guys who started Compaq computers actually tried it, and flopped. This was back in the 1980s.

    I hope the New Yorkers have luck with their flywheel plant. Flywheels are tough to get to work.

    And, given the glut of natural gas ahead, I have to wonder if simple NG plants, or mini-nuke plants, are not a cheaper way to go.

    Still, as I always say, flywheel plants and other technologies prove there is no doom ahead. Man is endlessly creative and innovative.

    If we had to, we could build many solar and wind power plants, and flywheel plants. It would be less expensive than our Middle East wars, which drag on through the decades. Then we could drive PHEVs. Still for less money than we blow on Iraq, etc.

  2. whatever the source, fresh water is likely to be our major obstacle for process and people to run the process. it merits some of your focus and thoughts.


  3. June 3, 2009, 9:24 am
    Clean Energy Funding Trumps Fossil Fuels
    By James Kanter

    "Global investors spent about $250 billion building new power capacity in 2008, and for the first time the lion’s share of that money went to renewable sources, according to the United Nations Environment Program.

    Renewable sources accounted for 56 percent of investment dollars, worth $140 billion, while investment in fossil fuel technologies was $110 billion, the U.N. program said in a report, Global Trends in Sustainable Energy Investment 2009, released on Wednesday and produced in collaboration with New Energy Finance, a research company based in London.

    Large hydropower projects, wind, solar and geothermal were among renewable sources covered by the report. Fossil fuels included projects like building new coal plants in China.

    Even so, the long life of power plants meant it would be “some time” before renewable energy dominated the generation mix. Renewable energy still only accounted for 6.2 percent of total power sector capacity in 2008, the U.N. program said, and even after earning more than half of overall investments last year, renewables accounted for just 41 percent of total added capacity."

    In the U.S. last year 42% of all new capacity came from wind installations. (AWEA website – Denise Bode)


  4. "A reader sent me a link to show that yes, someone has started to build a hybrid plant incorporating the elements I mentioned above."

    The SEGS plants built in the 1980s have natural gas back-up built-in for day time dispatchability but don't try to run at night when demand is lower.
    SEGS schematic at:

    FPL advertises the new 75 MW plant as "The first hybrid solar facility in the world to connect to an existing combined-cycle power plant" That should be an improvement over the lower efficiency steam-only natural gas back-up of the SEGS. However, FPL's video at
    of how the hybrid facility works doesn't seem to show show combined-cycle gas. I see only a steam turbine, no gas turbine. It makes me wonder if it really is just a single cycle steam turbine and this talk of being connected to an existing combined -cycle power plant is as meaningless as saying it's connected to a PV power plant.

  5. CLEE–

    suggest you ask FPL for clarification of your questions. share with us what you find.


  6. Ho hum. Same old, same old. All we are seeing here is the power of subsidies & mandates — unsustainable subsidies & mandates.

    It is unfortunate that solar promoters still go on about running the planet for a year with the power that falls on the earth in an hour. Either such people are knowingly trying to fool us (shame on them!), or they are actually fooling themselves (shame on them again!).

    There are certainly technical solutions to our energy needs. But let's start with those solutions we can do 24/7 on a very large scale with existing technology.

  7. Anonymous Anonymous said…

    whatever the source, fresh water is likely to be our major obstacle for process and people to run the process. it merits some of your focus and thoughts.


    I was reading a book by Lester Brown last nite where he discusses water problema, As I an sure tou know this is a problem in the Western States.

    It's a free on-line book. The chapter on water is number Chapt. 3 I think.

    You don't have to read the whole book but can just click on the chapter you are interested in..

    I don't agree with Brown on everything but he brings up a number of subjects of interest to anyone interested in the future of our current civilization.

    Click on chapter 3 for discussion on water.


  8. I have somewhere heard of plans to use molten salts to buffer interruptions in sunlight, bridging interruptions of days using the energy stored in phase changes.

  9. "I have somewhere heard of plans to use molten salts to buffer interruptions in sunlight"

    That's what I mean when I say "If you have enough thermal mass…" You could do it with molten salts, but you could also do it with superheated water or steam. It will decrease your efficiency during the day, because some of the solar power will go into heating up the salt/water, but then you can let the temperature come back down overnight as you extract energy.


  10. Scientific American, Jan, 2008
    had a lengthy article entitled A Solar Grand Plan.

    Here;s a brief excerpt:

    Pressurized Caverns

    "The great limiting factor of solar power, of course, is that it generates little electricity when skies are cloudy and none at night. Excess power must therefore be produced during sunny hours and stored for use during dark hours. Most energy storage systems such as batteries are expensive or inefficient.

    Compressed-air energy storage has emerged as a successful alternative. Electricity from photovoltaic plants compresses air and pumps it into vacant underground caverns, abandoned mines, aquifers and depleted natural gas wells. The pressurized air is released on demand to turn a turbine that generates electricity, aided by burning small amounts of natural gas. Compressed-air energy storage plants have been operating reliably in Huntorf, Germany, since 1978 and in McIntosh, Ala., since 1991. The turbines burn only 40 percent of the natural gas they would if they were fueled by natural gas alone, and better heat recovery technology would lower that figure to 30 percent.

    Studies by the Electric Power Research Institute in Palo Alto, Calif., indicate that the cost of compressed-air energy storage today is about half that of lead-acid batteries. The research indicates that these facilities would add three or four cents per kWh to photovoltaic generation, bringing the total 2020 cost to eight or nine cents per kWh.

    Electricity from photovoltaic farms in the Southwest would be sent over high-voltage DC transmission lines to compressed-air storage facilities throughout the country, where turbines would generate electricity year-round. The key is to find adequate sites. Mapping by the natural gas industry and the Electric Power Research Institute shows that suitable geologic formations exist in 75 percent of the country, often close to metropolitan areas. Indeed, a compressed-air energy storage system would look similar to the U.S. natural gas storage system. The industry stores eight trillion cubic feet of gas in 400 underground reservoirs. By 2050 our plan would require 535 billion cubic feet of storage, with air pressurized at 1,100 pounds per square inch. Although development will be a challenge, plenty of reservoirs are available, and it would be reasonable for the natural gas industry to invest in such a network.

    Hot Salt

    "Another technology that would supply perhaps one fifth of the solar energy in our vision is known as concentrated solar power. In this design, long, metallic mirrors focus sunlight onto a pipe filled with fluid, heating the fluid like a huge magnifying glass might. The hot fluid runs through a heat exchanger, producing steam that turns a turbine"………..

    (and so on as the article continues)

  11. "Electricity from photovoltaic plants compresses air … pressurized air is released on demand to turn a turbine that generates electricity, aided by burning small amounts of natural gas. … The turbines burn only 40 percent of the natural gas they would if they were fueled by natural gas alone …"

    Plan A — Build a natural gas fueled electric turbine.

    Plan B — Build a photovoltaic array, inverters/transformers, air compressor, underground cavern, natural gas fueled electric turbine.

    Hey, I am as happy as the next person to have fun dreaming up all kinds of Rube Goldberg schemes to provide power. But let's recognize the huge energy input to manufacture all the extra bits & pieces for Plan B. Throw in all the energy losses in conversion, and a 40% reduction in gas fuel requirement is probably not going to be a bargain.

    Yes, there may be some places where this makes sense because of local factors — some limited cases. But don't lose sight of the 3 cubic miles of oil equivalent that the human race is using right now every year. We need huge-scale 24/7 non-fossil power sources.

  12. We have been depending on fossil fuel for far too long. It's about time we change for a new form of energy.

    Renewable energy such as home solar system or wind power will be an excellent option for our home power needs.

    Thanks for the post.


  13. For years I've been reading how CAES is the cheapest way to store electricity on a utility scale; cheaper than pumped hydro. Then I found out that there's only two in the whole world. Anyone know why there aren't more, if they are so cheap?

  14. "I have somewhere heard of plans to use molten salts to buffer interruptions in sunlight"

    Solar Two demonstration plant apparently once ran continuously for 153 hours, though at a fraction of it's capacity. It was not really meant to run like that regularly.

    Solar Tres is supposed to have 16 hours of molten salt energy storage. I haven't heard much lately from them. Vague rumors that they may have started construction in Spain, and an announcement from Siemens last year that they'll supply some turbines for the project.

  15. RR said:

    (it is going to be a while before coal usage is substantially impacted


    Where I live here in central Texas between Bryan-College Station and Waco, they are building two new coal fired plants. One is twelve miles from my house an the other 18 miles away.

    They are strip mining shallow seam coal with drag-lines and adding some anthracite from the north-east.


  16. John-

    Well, I went online and found out more about CNG cars, since you asked. (or somebody did, I remember you).
    You can buy a Honda Civic CNG, for 25k, but some people say you get a 4k tax credit.
    There are 1,500 NG filling stations in America, about half you can use.
    There are five to seven million CNG vehicles globally.

    So, CNG cars are a proven technology, and you can buy one today.

    The big problem is getting more stations. I think there are 200k gasoline stations in America. The nice thing about that fact is that the location and land and land use is taken care of. You are not building from scratch.

    That means the build out just is not that hard. From what I saw in Los Angeles, a station can build out quickly. (BTW, you can go online and see where are the CNG stations are).

    Really, I just don't see a problem here, other that the chicken-and-egg problem. Who buys cars w/o stations, and why do stations install without cars?

    The solution? The NG industry might want to consider financing CNG installation nationally. I smell a job opportunity here. Probably somebody is already doing it. With fanfare, start adding CNG to a few thousand stations a year. There is already a CNG Club website, and give it a boost.

    The important reality: No doom scenario makes sense. It assumes we run out of oil, while we have abundant NG and cars that can run on NG. You can even convert a car to run on NG for $3k.

    So, you buy a used car for $12k and spend $3k to convert it, instead of buying a new car. You are ahead $5k at the start, and you save at the pump.

    really, this is doom?

  17. Or, buy a 2008 Flexfuel Impala for about $12,000.00. You have about 3 times as many places to fuel (this is surging, now,) and you're driving for about $0.10/mile (no conversion fees,) and if you DO find you are some place that doesn't have E85 you simply fill up with gasoline.

    Oh, and it's renewable.

  18. "So, CNG cars are a proven technology, and you can buy one today."

    Benny, since I paid for my education in this area, let pass on a few thoughts.

    It is quite easy/cheap to convert a spark ignition gasoline engine to run on natural gas. However, dual-fuel vehicle range on natural gas typically sucks — 100 miles or so. Vehicles that are designed to run solely on natural gas can have higher compression/smaller/lighter engines, gas bottles integrated into the vehicle, and hence can have an acceptable range between fill-ups — 300 miles or more.

    Refueling is a big issue. Not just the lack of stations, the act of refueling. There are reasons why so many natural gas filling stations are not open to the public. It is a tough balance between handling seriously-high gas pressures and needing an uncomfortably long time to refuel.

    There is an issue with getting sufficient quantities of gas to filling stations — existing city gas pipelines may not cut it, and rural filling stations can be a long way from a pipeline anyway. New Zealand used to have jumbo compressed gas carriers which they would fill centrally, then drive many miles to the filling station & park, tieing up lots of expensive capital.

    Despite having signficant delivered fuel cost advantages all along, natural gas has had real problems competing against liquid transportation fuels — in many parts of the world, over many decades. NGVs have been used where gas was the main fuel available, but when the customers could switch to liquid fuels, they generally did.

    Of course, natural gas can be a liquid fuel too, but only at cryogenic temperatures. That opens a whole other can of worms.

    On one level, of course, you are entirely right, Benny. We certainly will use natural gas vehicles after the current administration has killed the dollar and the domestic oil industry. We will get by — but we will look back fondly on the days of gasoline & diesel.

  19. the near term and intermediate term application of CNG/LNG in USA transportation will be auto fleet/truck base multi-use. if and when gov't support strategy is clarified for individual/private use, that market may also grow. solution to our economic woes must happen first, before private auto growth of any fuel platform will become healthy.


  20. "… if and when gov't support strategy is clarified for individual/private use …"

    Haven't you got the memo yet? The days of "gov't support strategy" are rapidly coming to a close.

    The laws are already so complex that Obama's man in charge of the IRS is a tax cheat, as apparently are many senators & congressmen. Making the laws even more complex to support yet another loser is becoming impractical.

    Congress is already spending money they don't have, and hoping nobody notices. Where are they going to get funds to support new programs?

    Obama promised hope & change. Don't know about the hope, but the change is definitely coming. Maybe not the change he had in mind, but it is unstoppable.

  21. Solar is Mickey Mouse. Like the character at the theme park, it is great for children to stand by and have a picture taken. Solar is not good for much else except a photo op. I have read all the technical data. Solar just does not work.

    I just drove through WV and Ohio. All I saw was clean energy being produced. Also saw some Amish and their horse carts. There is a proven lifestyle that does not depend on fossil fuel.

    In particular, last time I lived on the western end of Lake Erie there were 5 large power plants and 3 yellow/brown streaks. Now there are none. It looks like one of the coal plants is boarded up but the other two were still operating with no visible pollution.

    Two facts here. Over the last 30 years the US coal industry has learned to produce electricity cleanly. The solar industry has only built demonstration plants that only demonstrate failure.

  22. $3K to convert a car from gasoline to natural gas? Where did you get that number, Benny? I don't know how accurate this site is, but it claims
    "The cost to convert to CNG can range from about $12,500 to $22,500 depending on the vehicle, engine, size of CNG tanks needed, and who does the converting."
    What is an accurate number, Kinuachdrach?

    If a conversion can be done for a mere $3K, then its amazing that Honda sells the Civic CNG for nearly $8K more than gasoline version Civic LS (nearly $4K after more the $4K CNG credit). estimates a $390 annual fuel savings with the Civic CNG vs the gasoline Civic, so it would take nearly 10 years for the fuel savings to make up for the extra cost of car. If the "oil glut has legs", CNG cars won't become popular in the US any time soon.

  23. It's not the thermal mass, with molten salts – the temperature doesn't change, the phase does, so the energy is stored as latent heat of freezing/melting. Of course, more mass (and more energy to store) does help store more energy because of cube/square law issues that cut down the proportion being lost through the insulation.

  24. There are CNG conversion kits on the market for $2-3k, plus another $2-3k for the tank. Maybe with labor it runs to $10k to convert. I confess, that is prohibitively expensive, unless you drive a lot, and gasoline is $6 a gallon.
    There are probably cheaper ways to do it, if you get involved. I am always impressed with the innovative skills of mechanical engineers on a budget.
    Still, the Honda CNG is on the market for $20k after the federal tax break. Brand new car; treat it right and you can get 300k miles on it.
    The station I drive by advertises 3600 psi for its gas. It is the middle of L.A., so I assume it is safe.
    I readily concede liquid fuel is a better option–if you have it. The PHEV might be a better option too.
    My point is that doom scenarios are for snivelers.
    We have centuries of NG underfoot. We have stations at every good corner in America. We will not all starve to death without oil.
    Indeed, with some inconveniences, I expect life to be even better is we can just decide to bury the oil industry and move on.
    Cleaner air, quieter streets.
    Sure, part of me will miss the 7 mpg V8. But I won't miss the smog, the noise.
    It is too bad that thug states and incompetent wackos control the world's oil supplies. But they do. We can give them money, or we can keep it at home, putting Louisiana gas-drillers to work.
    I prefer the latter.

  25. Why not build our own solar panels and solar arrays in our yards, on our roofs? Even if the good ones cost $50 bucks or so (or even a hundred) buying one when you can afford it and connecting them in series could help power your home. I'm seeing more of that every, it seems, but my neighborhood….grr…

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