TODAY’S STUDY: THE CASE FOR SOLAR
Investing in the Power of the Sun: The Capitalist Case for Solar Energy
Michael Gorton and Dan Bedell, September 2012 (Principal Solar Institute)
The U.S. Solar Energy Industry is fast approaching grid parity… making this a fertile time to invest in solar projects.
PARITY,or the ability for solar to compete on an even playing field with mainstream generation (coal, nuclear, and natural gas) could happen as early as 2014.
WITH SOLAR COSTS ON A STRONG DECLINE, this clean, renewable energy has emerged as a viable “power partner” for generating cost-effective peak generation energy.
This is important given that in 2010 the U.S. electricity generation was 4,361 billion kWh gross, with annual electricity demand projected to increase to 5,000 billion kWh by 2030.
—46 percent of the nation’s electricity is generated from coal-fired plants,
—23 percent from gas,
—19 percent nuclear and
—6.5 percent from hydro.
This paper examines the recent past and potential future of photovoltaic (PV) solar in terms of how it has compared with traditional generation and how, even without government subsidies, solar utility scale projects will reach a price per KWh that will be at—or less than—traditional generation, possibly as soon as 2014.
Now is the time for traditional conservative thinking to re-examine the facts about solar energy and explore its potential for not only delivering more efficient and less costly power, but also for creating jobs and opportunities that jump-start economic growth.
This jump-start would be possible because electricity drives almost every part of the economy, and cheap abundant electricity helps keep industry competitive.
PHOTOVOLTAIC (PV) SOLAR ENERGY: Clean, Abundant, Renewable and Approaching Grid Parity
Photovoltaic solar essentially is made from one of the Earth’s most abundant resources: silicon. It has no moving parts, and (provided the sun rises) THE FUEL IS FREE.
Of the 92 elements found on the periodic table, silicon (Si) is the Earth’s most prevalent semiconductor—AND second most common element of any kind, after oxygen. Appearing in silicon oxides such as sand (silica), quartz, rock crystal, amethyst, agate, flint, jasper and opal, silicon makes up about a quarter, by weight, of the Earth’s crust.
It is clean, renewable and abundant.
As for cost, in response to growing demand for renewable energy sources, the manufacturing of solar cells and photovoltaic arrays has advanced considerably in recent years.
WITH CONTINUED ADVANCES IN TECHNOLOGY and increases in manufacturing scale and sophistication, the cost of PV will continue to decline steadily, resulting in competitive electricity in a growing number of regions.
The annual exponential drops in the cost of solar will not only result in competitive electricity, but also in cheaper electricity coupled with higher profit margins for the industry.
THE POWER INDUSTRY: A Comparison
Nuclear Power: Clean, Reliable & Cost-Prohibitive
The nuclear power industry in the U.S. grew rapidly in the 1960s, giving utility companies a new form of electricity production that was economical, environmentally clean and safe.
In the 1970s and 1980s, however, concern grew over nuclear issues, such as reactor safety, waste disposal, and other environmental issues.
In the early 1990s, the U.S. had twice as many operating nuclear pow¬er plants as any other country, representing more than one-fourth of the world’s operating plants and supplying almost 22 percent of the electric¬ity produced in the U.S.
In terms of safety, THREE NOTEWORTHY ACCIDENTS have occurred in the history of nuclear power:
1-In 1986, operator error caused two explosions at the Chernobyl No. 4 nuclear power plant in the former Soviet Union. The reactor had an inadequate containment building, and large amounts of radiation escape. A plant of this design would not have been licensed in the U.S.4
2-In 1979, the worst accident in U.S. commercial reactor history occurred at the Three Mile Island nuclear power station near Harrisburg, Penn. The accident was caused by a loss of coolant from the reactor core resulting from a combination of mechanical malfunction and human error. No one was injured, and no overexposure to radiation resulted from the accident.5 Still, many believe the accident was a turning point in US nuclear plant construction and cleanup is estimated to have cost nearly a billion dollars.
3-In 2011, a series of equipment failures, nuclear meltdowns and releases of radioactive materials occurred at the Fukushima Dai-1 nuclear power plant, following the Tōhoku earth¬quake and tsunami, making it the largest nuclear disaster since Chernobyl.
THREE MILE ISLAND demonstrated that the safety features were effective; CHERNOBYL demonstrated that U.S. nuclear designs and safety features are far superior to those in Russia; and JAPAN demonstrated that they had stored too much fuel that could not be kept cool—and in a way that would have not been allowed in the U.S.
NUCLEAR POWER IS AN EXTREMELY RELIABLE FORM OF POWER GENERATION throughout the US. This makes nuclear power an important piece of base load. In addition, it is estimated that the world-wide supply of uranium ore is sufficient to fuel the deployment of 1,000 reactors over the next half century.8 Even if one stipulates that nuclear power is a safe, clean and reliable source of energy with no spent fuel storage issues, one of the critical problems with nuclear is the enormous upfront cost—nuclear power plants are extremely expensive to build, maintain and adequately staff.
While the returns may be very significant, it can sometimes take decades to recoup initial costs.
In fact, the country's 104 nuclear reactors produced 807 billion kWh in 20107, producing most of the income for power companies from May to September when most energy is consumed in order to air condition homes and buildings throughout the US. This makes nuclear power an important piece of base load. In addition, it is estimated that the world-wide supply of uranium ore is sufficient to fuel the deployment of 1,000 reactors over the next half century.
Even if one stipulates that nuclear power is a safe, clean and reliable source of energy with no spent fuel storage issues, one of the critical problems with nuclear is the enormous upfront cost—nuclear power plants are extremely expensive to build, maintain and adequately staff.
While the returns may be very significant, it can sometimes take decades to recoup initial costs.
Coal: Cheap, Abundant and “Dirty”
U.S. utilities buy more than 90 percent of the coal mined in the United States.
Coal plants are mostly base-load and account for about 32 percent of the peak electricity production in the summer, when the electricity demand is the highest and the auxiliary (mostly non-coal) plants are added to the grid.
Dangerous Work & Air Pollution
Historically, however, coal power has been recognized for not only creating a dangerous work environment, but for also generating huge amounts of air pollution in the form of hydrochloric, sulfuric acids and mercury air emissions, mainly from coal combustion.11
The U.S. possesses coal in great abundance, with estimates projecting a 250-year supply.
Coal is much cheaper per BTU than oil and natural gas, and it is simple and safe to transport and store. Furthermore, coal generators are inexpensive to build, but political barriers and pol¬lution concerns have escalated exponentially in the past 10 years, which is likely to damage plans for new generation and put pressure on older plants.13 In 2007, 59 proposed coal plants were cancelled, abandoned, or placed on hold by sponsors as a result of financing obstacles, regulatory decisions, judicial rulings and new global warm¬ing legislation.
Solar PV vs Concentrated Solar
Concentrated photovoltaic (CPV) technology uses optics such as lenses to concentrate a large amount of sunlight onto a small area of solar photovoltaic materials to generate electricity— comparable to a magnifying glass concentrat¬ing light onto a leaf and causing it to catch fire.
Essentially, CPV works on the same principles as Nuclear, coal and natural gas. It simply uses concentrated sunlight to heat steam which drives a turbine. At one point in time, CPV was less expensive than PV. This has not been the case for several years. Not only does CPV have all of the moving parts of traditional generation, thousands of mirrors must also track the sun accurately on a daily basis. The expense of these components alone, coupled with the failure rates, defeats the value of potential saving from heat storage and CPV’s ability to generate for a period after the sun has set. The Principal Solar Institute is developing a full White Paper addressing these issues and expects to publish this paper in Q4 of 2012.
Natural Gas: Clean, Abundant and Non-Renewable
In fact, the Energy Information Administration (EIA) estimates that of the 96.65 gigawatts (GW) of new electricity capacity that will be added in the U.S. through 2015, over 20 percent, or 21.2 GW, will be natural gas additions, and will account for 80 percent of all added electricity generation capacity by 2035.
There is an abundance of natural gas in North America, but it is a non-renewable resource, having formed over thousands and possibly millions of years.
The EIA, estimates that there are 2,543 TRILLION CUBIC FEET of technically recoverable natural gas in the U.S., including undiscovered, unproved & unconventional natural gas.
A number of experts project that the country has a natural gas supply good for up to 200 years.
While the price of natural gas has been volatile over the years, today it hovers between $2 and $3, making natural gas power plants very efficient. In fact many developers are not building new plants because they believe the price is too low and currently too volatile.
RISING COST of ELECTRICITY
The cost of electricity has been rising year after year since 1980.
According to available research, no one is predicting this trend line to change directions, even though the rate has significantly flattened as a result of cheap and abundant natural gas. For many years, solar power was not a viable alternative source of energy, but the cost of PV went down year after year (see graph below), just as electricity rose.
As a rule, we do not like negative exponential curves, unless they depict cost. NOTE THAT FROM 2005 TO 2008: The cost of PV rose and maintained this level in response to a significant transition in the industry when a sub¬stantial volume of solar parks were being constructed in response to the 2004 revisions to the feed-in tariffs in Germany. This created demand for materials on a large scale to meet de¬mands of solar farms.
During this time the silicon industry, which had previously produced materials for the micro-chip manufacturers, adapted and began refinements which would ultimately drive a new trend line in decreasing PV costs.
To understand this, one need only to realize that SOLAR FARMS ARE HUGE.
FOR THE PAST 8 YEARS SILICON MANUFACTURERS HAVE BEEN DEVELOPING NEW METHODS OF MASS PRODUCTION on a scale which is (potentially) orders of magnitude greater than historical demand, WHILE SIMULTANEOUSLY DEVELOPING EFFICIENCIES TO DRAMATICALLY LOWER COSTS.
For this paper, it is assumed that that grid parity will occur when solar panels can be produced for under $0.70/watt with a total system cost under $2.00
This number is based on the total cost of a system and financing a large-scale project using the same methods for financing a new combined cycle gas powered generating facility. Referring to the previous chart, we can see that in 2010 PV was approaching $2/ watt. The next section, will examine how solar has fared in the past two years, and predict where it will go in the near future.
2012-2014: Solar PV’s Big Leap Forward
In early 2012, solar PV began to approach grid parity, and it is almost there. In looking at the spot market price for PV from 2009-2012, note the same downward trend in cost for PV in Germany, China and Japan. (see graph below) Because China has cheaper labor, it’s understandable that this labor-intensive industry produces lower cost product in China than in Japan and Germany.
The chart above shows the May 2012 spot price of (Chinese) PV to be $0.91 per watt. From this trend line it can be extrapolated that in the next two years, assuming a continuing trend, solar PV may reach $0.70/kWh by 2013, and could be as low as $0.50/kWh by 2014. These numbers are supported by many of the largest solar cell and PV manufacturers. The projected 2014 price will make solar PV not only competitive with, but less expensive than nuclear, coal and natural gas.
IN AN APPLES-TO-APPLES COMPARISON: A look at the 2009 MIT study18 that evaluated the resulting cost per kWh (blue) of new plants that would be constructed in 2009. For this analysis the cost per kWh (green) of solar built in the same period has been added to the chart.
For 2009, clearly the cost of electricity from a new construction nuclear, coal and natural gas plant produces lower electricity rates than solar PV.
January of 2012, solar had begun to approach grid parity, with nuclear being somewhat less expensive, and coal and gas still cheaper.
In 2014, solar and natural gas are level, and coal costs less, although a coal plant will probably cost more to build than it did five years earlier in 2009. From these projections, it can be concluded that 2014 is the year that solar may reach parity with the Big Three.
In 2020, SOLAR COULD COST HALF AGAINST ITS COMPETITORS.
PERFECT ENERGY PARTNERS: Solar & Natural Gas
Rooftop solar is unlikely to become a truly viable form of energy for individual homeowners. It’s similar to making bread. A wheat farmer in Kansas grows, harvests, and sells the wheat to a co-op. The co-op sells it to a transportation company that takes it to a flour grinder. A baker buys the flour from a middle man, bakes bread, and sells the bread to a grocery store. Consumers buy it and get more consistent and less expensive bread than if they grew wheat in their back yard.
Most people will agree that ELECTRICITY PRODUCTION IS MORE COMPLICATED than bringing bread to the market.
Even though consumers can grow a garden, it doesn’t compare to producing energy via rooftop solar panels. The sun sets. Some days are cloudy. Mother Nature and the elements conspire to destroy panels and their inversion or mounting equipment. Everyone needs a reliable source of back-up energy from a power company.
Too much roof-top solar will change the economics of grid power. Put simply: if everyone had solar, the power companies would sell a lot less. When they sell a lot less, the price will go up. Today, the world relies upon the power companies to provide reliable power at a reasonable price.
One more important point is that solar only generates when the sun is shining. Backup is critical for any solar installation.
Nuclear and coal produce base load power. They need to run 24 hours a day. When a nuclear or coal plant is shut down, it takes hours and even days to restart. Natural gas, on the other hand can start in minutes.
For this reason, solar and natural gas work well together compared with nuclear power and coal. Many calcula¬tions and approximations have been made on how many years supply of natural gas we currently have. Clearly, utiliz¬ing solar as a supplement to natural gas will extend that supply. On the other hand, the Achilles heel of earth based solar will always be access to sunlight. Because of this, many experts have suggested battery and storage methods. The best backup system is already on the grid in the form of natural gas and combined cycle generation.
IN THE FINAL ANALYSIS, SOLAR MUST BE ABLE TO COMPETE, ON AN EVEN PLAYING FIELD, WITHOUT SUBSIDIES.
Based on the projections shown in this paper, that should happen in the coming years. A solid capitalist foundation will be the primary factor driving the coming “gold rush” in solar development. It is simply icing on the cake that solar energy is a carbon-free domestic energy source that is widely available.
Unused land throughout the desert southwest represents an abundant natural resource of energy.
MORE PRECISELY, ONE COUNTY IN WEST TEXAS SEES ENOUGH SUNSHINE TO PROVIDE THE ENTIRE NEEDS OF THE US FOR THE NEXT 50 YEARS. Still, it is not likely that solar will provide much more than 15% of the total grid power. There are many reasons for this, almost all of which relate to the reliability of the grid. Solar PV has experienced exponential cost drops year-after-year for over 30 years, with projections putting PV module costs at $0.50/watt, total system costs under $2.00 per watt and output electricity at just under 6 cents per kWh - grid parity in 2014. In the next three years, this nation will see a dramatic explosion in utility-scale solar production that will support the existing infrastructure. Many will compare the next few years to a gold rush, as billions of dollars are made from converting sunlight to electricity.
If America continues or expands a carbon-regulated market, solar will fill the bill with no fuel costs, low mainte¬nance, and carbon credits rather than carbon costs when compared to coal, nuclear, and gas-fired power plants.
Again, it is important to note that solar will not replace the Big Three, but it will add to the diversity of the nation’s power grid, easing congestion in energy-stressed grids and providing affordable power. Most importantly, it should produce electricity at a price that is equal to or lower than its competitors.
This is Peter Sinclair at his best. From greenman3610 via YouTube