Solar Singularity Is Near

John Lennon once said that your life is what happens while you're making other plans. So true.

Likewise, is it now safe to say that the solar energy revolution is what's happening while people freak out about oil?  From Kurzweil AI:

Making solar power competitive with coal
By the end of the decade, U.S. manufacturers could make solar panels that are less than half as expensive as the ones they make now.

At 52 cents per watt, that would be cheap enough for solar power to compete with electricity from fossil fuels, according to a new study by MIT researchers in Energy & Environmental Science.

Assuming similar cost reductions for installation and equipment, solar power would cost six cents per kilowatt-hour in sunny areas of the U.S. — less than the 15 cents per kilowatt-hour average cost of electricity in the U.S. today.

Improvements would include an alternative to the wasteful process now used to make silicon wafers, methods of handling thin wafers to avoid breaking,  installation cost-reduction, and improved light absorption, such as using nanostructured layers.
Solar is going to become more cost-effective than oil or coal. No, it is not going to solve all our problems, but the game is going to change in a major way when solar energy costs less than energy from fossil fuels.

Comments

  1. While I think this is certainly true, I think that the nanotechnology revolution will have more affect, sooner, and more dramatically that this advance. With the announcement this year that we are now able to "place" atoms with 100% precision, the implementation of nanotech substrates that allow placing of organic compounds into a matrix, and the growth in research where hydrogen capture in salts...I think we'll see a major advancement like photosynthesis chains imbedded in our roof tiles generating hydrogen all day which is stored for x24 use. Plants already do the other half of the equation and we'll eventually remember to review Krogh's Principle for the solution.

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    1. > "... we are now able to 'place' atoms with 100% precision..."

      Heisenberg disagrees... ;o)

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  2. Good points, Mark. Nanotechnology is another game-changer. But I'm not as convinced as I once was that it's a perquisite for solar to become dominant. Solar seems to be making that happen on its own. Of course if you throw in the possibilities that nano opens up.,,

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  3. We can hope. There are places in the US that need to be pre-determined as acceptable for large-scale solar panel placement. I mean LARGE scale, lots of acreage, near the users. Once the technology comes online to be competitive, if these areas have not been pre-approved, we can expect the earth-worshipper/Luddites to oppose the installation; thereby negating any benefit. If the areas are established and set aside now, when those very same people are busy decrying oil and demanding solar and wind, we may have a chance against the inevitable lawsuits.

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    1. I guess if you don't care about covering every pristine wilderness in my Nebada with your PV crap this works. Since even the most ardent econuts have already noticed they have a problem with wilderness destruction I'd say it's a little late to jam this through.

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  4. Generating is one thing. Storage is another. I will be happy when solar is unsubsidizedly price competitive but it seems that we'd better be working on ways to reliably deliver the power to the consumer over time.

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  5. Come on, you can't be serious . .

    Let's look at Kurzweil's statements: "By the end of the decade, U.S. manufacturers could make solar panels that are less than half as expensive . .". Really? And what concrete facts and figures are used to make this assertion? Please. This meme is always trotted out when energy costs take a jump. Care to make a wager on how many times you can find the terms "solar" and "end of decade" in a Google search? Which decade, though?

    Besides, the price of power has nothing to do with the price of oil. You don't get power from oil.

    And, "Assuming similar cost reductions for installation and equipment . . "? Again, really? What's the basis for this assumption? Are labor costs declining? Regulatory burdens declining? Building codes, land costs, steel? Where are these magical cost reductions coming from?

    Lastly, no one even BEGINS to discuss energy storage, which ALWAYS bites solar in the butt. None of these "studies" considers the storage costs for dark power. They all just assume that good old reliable utility grid power will be there to back you up when the sun don't shine. Well, guess what? No utility is going to build or maintain a power plant just to cover the non-solar demand, without a steep rise in prices. You'll end up paying far more that you do now. Something about that "economies of scale" thing.

    It's okay to dream about solar, and it's ok to do research. But the reality is that it took 50 years for the nation's grid to be built, it will take another 50 before anything about that changes.

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    1. Excellent summary of the key questions that should be answered befor making these optimistic claims. In addition to the points raised by Dave G, there is the issue of maintenance costs. In high sunlight regions such as the Southwest, environmental factors include frequent dust storms and high particulate pollution that settles on solar panels. They need constant cleaning and maintenance and those costs are never included in the otimistic cost projections. Look at the poor reliability of the windmill wonders promoted by the same optimists. One can find U tube videos of massive failures of these giant installations with no attempt made to repair because of excessive repair costs.

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    2. US manufacturers? Really? How many are there now minus Solyndra?

      Look solar is an interesting idea but the thinking that it's going to be something spectacular is frankly silly. Aside from the storage issues, which are extreme, you have the necessity of maintaining actual power generation facilities to support or supplant solar power when it's inoperative. And that pretty much makes solar power utterly worthless. If I put 2,000 megawatts of solar power generation online *and* I have to have 2,000 megawatts of coal/gas/nuclear power generation operating and on standby. How precisely is that supposed to work?

      And if your answer is that customers will just have to share what power is generated and deal with the lack of power when they turn on a light switch. Yeah that will last. I can just see people shrugging their shoulders and throwing out $500 of groceries because there wasn't enough power to keep their freezer going.

      That doesn't even begin to include the enviro-weenie nonsense. They've spent 3 years blocking the building of solar power plants in the -Mojave desert- due to supposed environmental factors. Seriously. Does anybody in America really care that much about the Mojave? And where else are you going to put these things? Seattle? Rains like 300 days out of the year. Wisconsin? Cleaning the snow and accumulated ice off the panels every single day ought to be interesting. Maine? Yeah I can see the enviro-weenies adopting the "Let's cut all the trees down for solar power" schtick.

      There is only one way solar power will ever have any real utility and that is as a geosynch solar power satellites. But then we'll have a nice and acrimonious argument about the microwave power transmission system and that will be interesting too.

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  6. No technological advance will change the basic fact that the sun only shines +/- 12 hours a day. Solar is great for small, local applications but it simply does not scale.

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    1. Solar could be a nice helper for air-conditioning, since there is a lot of sun at the same time you need the most AC. For instance, if I could have a solar panel on top of my car to top up my battery and then run the AC while it's parked in the sun, that would be a great application. For home use, the solar could help take the extreme load off the grid when demand is highest, but it can't replace it altogether.

      But when you think about it, solar energy is really nuclear energy, which is the cleanest energy source of all. And don't anyone give me "what about the waste?". You reprocess most of the waste into more fuel. What's leftover and still radioactive can go out in the middle of the desert miles away from anyone and just sit, or can be encased in concrete blocks and dropped into the Mariana Trench where it will be slowly subducted into the mantle

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  7. Wrong. Solar could get a lot cheaper than coal and it still won't be viable until there is an electricity storage breakthrough because it only works when the sun is shining. That means you still need the same baseload generating capacity, and for that baseload capacity to be economically viable it needs steady use. Otherwise its per/hr costs goes up. All that installing these intermitent generating sources does (wind has the same problem) is make fossil generation inefficient.

    To the extent that solar can reduce maximum electricity demands it is viable. That is in places like CA and TX where peak loads come from sunny-day summer air conditioning use. But beyond reduction of peak loads it is next to worthless. Get that battery breakthrough and it may be a different story. Not until.

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  8. Assume the solar panels are free. Assume they are 30% efficient. Now, do the figures for a 250 Mw facility in, say, Nevada where the insolation is high. Oh, and how much land does it use, how much water for cleaning, etc.

    The panel prices are only a small part of the picture.

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  9. I'll follow-up with one other comment. Phil said: "Solar is going to become more cost-effective than oil or coal." I've already mentioned that no one uses oil for power generation anymore, so that issue is moot. The real question, is will it become cheaper than coal? I can make coal power, cleanly and profitably, for less than three (3) cents per KWh. The fifteen (15) cent cost average quoted is a delivered rate.

    Care to speculate on what decade it will be when solar gets to THAT price point?

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    1. I'll speculate.

      Sadly, I think the answer is "never."

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  10. PV solar was about to take over the world when I was in college ... 40 years ago. At a lecture I attended by Bill Brooks (he has a PV solar design company and wrote the NEC code for PV) he marveled how he and his fellow engineers were just stunned that the engineering they were doing today was little changed from 15 years ago. He noted how no one could believe they would still be working with basicly the same technology today as back then.

    Wake me when your predictions have a real world application without subsidies. Till then we need to drill baby drill if we are to power cars - cars that still run the same basic IC engine as **100** years ago.

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    1. And **100** years ago there were almost as many electric cars on the road as there ICE powered vehicles.

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  11. I will know that this has come to fruition if and only if the funding for manufacture comes from private sources, not the sort of venture socialism that gave us Solyndra.

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  12. As others have said, the thing holding solar back, even today, is a lack of storage technology. The government is already subsidizing solar to make it cheap, but the sun just refuses to shine at night. Current battery technology is too expensive and too bulky to really make solar an option for baseload generation.

    I suspect that battery breakthroughs will follow the same arc as lighting breakthroughs:

    Incandescent: basic physics, Ohm's law
    Florescent: advanced chemistry, electron valences, etc
    LED: quantum physics

    So, as soon as someone goes past chemistry (and you have to figure that the octane molecule is pretty near the limit in terms of efficiency in the storage of chemical energy) and exploits quantum effects for energy storage, there isn't going to be anything in battery technology that really changes the game.

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  13. Let me guess. The MIT "Energy researchers" putting out this press release are funded by government grants associated with solar energy subsidies. And keeping those grants a comin in the middle of numerous solar energy funding scandals requires more of that ol "it's just around the corner" talk.

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  14. Dave G:

    "You don't get power from oil."

    I could get all sarcastic about where cars get their power, but I know you mean electric, so I'll just ask you about this:

    http://www.powerscorecard.org/tech_detail.cfm?resource_id=8

    In fact we do have a few oil fired electric plants.

    "look at Kurzweil's statements: "By the end of the decade, U.S. manufacturers could make solar panels that are less than half as expensive . .". Really? And what concrete facts and figures are used to make this assertion?"

    Check here: http://www.txchnologist.com/2011/declining-cost-per-watt-solar
    and the chart about a third down the page here: http://solarcellcentral.com/cost_page.html

    The concrete fact is that we're on trajectory to beat Kurzweil's prediction. On the path we've been on since at least 1998, we'll hit Kurzweil's prediction with time to spare. Yoda said: "always in motion is the future." Prediction is a tricky business, but Kurzweil has a great track record because he understands how Moore's law affects the price of things other than computers The exponential trends that have been reliably driving down the cost of computing for decades is now delivering cheap solar.

    As for installation going down - here's why that will happen: as the market to install heats up, competition will move in. There won't be one or two installation companies for mid sized towns like mine - as now - there will be many fighting for the business. That, plus climbing the learning curve and the benefits of economies of scale will reliably drive down the price.

    Storage is not an issue for the 95% of the consumers who have no interest in abandoning the grid. The consumer installs the panels, uses solar during the day - and sells excess power back to the grid - and then at night he buys from the grid. No storage cost for him. For that consumer all that matters is that what they pay in power every month just went down.

    If storage cost really matters to you, we are in the midst of a golden age of battery R&D breakthroughs. Here's a big story from yesterday:

    "A startup working on battery technology says it’s developed a key breakthrough that could one day lead to an electric car that has a 300-mile range and could cost around $25,000 to $30,000. Envia Systems, backed by venture capitalists, General Motors, and the Department of Energy, plans to announce on Monday at the ARPA-E conference that the company has created a lithium ion battery that has an energy density of 400 watt-hours per kilogram, which Envia CEO Atul Kapadia told me in an interview could be the tipping point for bringing electric cars to mainstream car owner."

    http://gigaom.com/cleantech/a-battery-breakthrough-that-could-bring-electric-cars-to-the-masses/

    Lastly: the delivered cost is the only cost that matters. Unless you've got a coal powered plant in your back yard, the grid price is the price to beat. And we're on our way. Don't take good news so hard.

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    1. "Moore's law affects the price of things other than computers"

      Don't bogart that joint. Yes, digital circuitry has gotten exponentially cheaper over the last generation, but, little else has. $4/gal gasoline and $5/lbs ground beef sure are not cheaper. Solar cells are cheaper now than they were when Bell labs invented them a few years after they invented the the transistor.

      But they will never be cheap enough to displace much fossil fuel generated electricity, because the sun sets every day and many days are shorter than average. Between storage of electricity costs and the cost of equipment to supply power when the sun does not shine, we will never get to the point where solar power can displace a meaningful potion of other generation. Further, one of the things that has made Moore's law work is the ability to miniaturize circuits. That does not help solar power at all, because the sun is the same size at it has always been.

      "... as the market to install heats up, competition will move in. ... That, plus climbing the learning curve and the benefits of economies of scale will reliably drive down the price."

      Cheaper than asphalt shingles on your roof? I don't think so. Not ever. And that is still $200/100 sq ft. or more. Add what ever materials you need, like steel to hold up your panels and wire to get the electricity to your house.

      "Storage is not an issue for the 95% of the consumers who have no interest in abandoning the grid."

      What are we talking about? A toy of hobbyists and people who want to build cabins in the back country, or something that can provide utility scale power? If is the former, you are correct, if the latter you have just olé'd the issue. If solar is more than a tiny percentage of the power used, the utilities that run the grid will be required to maintain a large spinning reserve of power for sudden clouds and other emergencies like sunset, and their customers (i.e. you and me) will have to pay for it. And if any thing is really expensive, it is paying for something that does not get used.

      "If storage cost really matters to you, we are in the midst of a golden age of battery R&D breakthroughs."

      No, actually. There haven't been any new battery chemistries since LiIon about 30 years ago, not is it likely that there will be any, as inorganic electrochemistry is pretty well plowed ground. What we are now in is the golden age of battery hype when every grifter in Boston thinks to himself: "those guys at Solyndra took the Government for $600 Million, why can't I get in on that gravy train?".

      At any rate, LiIons for cars will not be used for utility scale projects for obvious reasons of cost and durability. Lithium is more common than platinum, but it is a lot rarer than sodium. Similarly, sulfur is much cheaper and more common than the cathode materials used with lithium. So utility scale projects usually use NaS batteries. Even then they are not cheap at more than $2.50/w.

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    2. "many days are shorter than average"

      Let me guess: you're a glass is, on average, half empty kinda guy, right?

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    3. When you have to size the system for the less than average days, yes I am.

      Between optimism and pessimism, optimism is more certain to result in bad planning, and is more often the cause of fatalities.

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  15. If solar stays focused on the niche applications that it really is useful for, such as remote/off grid power, peak use offloading on hot sunny days and as a suppliment for other applications, then there is no argument that improved solar will make a difference.

    The only thing people have gotten wrong is where solar can make a difference and how big that difference really is in the grand scheme of things.

    If Solar is supposed to take over the baseline power generation of the United States, then you are talking mega engineering like solar power satelites the size of Manhattan Island with a combined generation capacity of over three Terrawatts beaming power to Earth. Somehow I doubt we are approaching breakthroughs on that scale...

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  16. Let me join the free is too expensive crowd. One factor that is often overlooked is that while the sun averages 12 hours of shining daily over the year, the measure amounts of insolation vary month to month far more dramatically.

    In the northern part of the US, the ratio of insolation in the summer months when the sun shines high in the sky for 15 hours a day to the winter months where it is much lower in the sky and up for 9 hours, is more than 3 to 1. In those parts of the country, summer is not always the highest use season for electricity, often winter is.

    What this means is that you need about 3 times as much capacity as you would think by using the numbers for average insolation.

    Of course that capacity will it there for much of the year, not producing revenue.

    At this point we should ask ourselves, why are we wasting electrons on this nonsense.

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  17. Great discussion. To summarize the objections to solar:

    1. Storage is a major issue; solar could never work as our primary source of energy.

    --Great argument for anyone claiming that solar will be our primary source of energy, which I never did. The related argument that we don't have a good storage solution now and therefore never will is addressed in item 2.

    2. Solar has been predicted to take off in the past and it didn't; therefore it never will.

    -- Classic misunderstanding of the S-curve.

    3. Subsidies! Solyandra! Drill baby!!

    -- Not really arguments against solar, just knee-jerk stuff. A person can be against subsidies, in favor of drilling, and still see tremendous potential for solar. That's my position.

    For a (serious) exploration of the challenges surrounding making solar affordable, I recommend the article Brian Wang linked, above.

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  18. Without storage, solar is a toy, and certainly should not be subsidized, nor should it be mandated to utilities.

    Not only is it a toy, but, without storage, the fact that a whole separate system must be built to take care of our needs when the sun is down makes the solar system duplicative and therefore unaffordable.

    No workable storage system other than batteries, has been proposed. Battery storage has not happened and it never will because inorganic electrochemistry, from whence batteries stem, is a plowed field. There will be no miracles from that direction.

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