Friday, December 04, 2009

Some additional thoughts on renewable energy and rationality

While taking a look back at some of the presentations from the Solar Power 2009 Conference in Anaheim last October, I started thinking about solar industry consolidation, recent issues with transmission, Climategate, and other matters. Overwhelmingly, there is far too much whining over who is getting what subsidy. If you get your costs down and become competitive, this issue goes away. As I've noted elsewhere, this is a matter of technology and economics, not religion. And, if nothing else, the recent issues with Climategate point out the dangers of turning it into a matter of religion. Certainly the revelations from the East Anglia emails demonstrate how the global warming theocracy and its ecclesiastical followers have subverted scientific inquiry and discourse.

Driven partly by the recession and partly by the competitive pressures that virtually all industries eventually experience, the solar industry is now experiencing significant consolidation. Thin film, which seemed destined to be the clear cost leader not so long ago, is now being challenged by cost reductions in crystalline silicon that threaten its growth. And, though it seemed unlikely only a short time ago, some PV manufacturers and suppliers are actually laying off workers. Others are moving production from the US offshore. This competition is precisely what is needed to make solar energy competitive and we should welcome it. Increase the value and everything else will follow.

Transmission is another area that has succumbed to a dogmatic theology. The argument that transmission is a limiting factor on renewable generation is simply a red herring. Virtually all states have some renewable energy potential, whether it be wind or solar or biomass, etc. -- some in more than sufficient quantities. But, do we really need to power the entire U.S. from a 75-mile square portion of the Mojave Desert or from mega wind farms in North Dakota? We need to analyze the trade off between the cost of high capacity factor resources that are dependent on transmission to move the energy and lower capacity factor local resources that don't require it. Moreover, we are now beginning to see resistance from some environmental groups and land owners who do not believe that high voltage transmission lines are necessarily the highest use of pristine land. Thank you.

But, while distributed generation (DG) has its place, it too is not the solution to all of our energy needs. There are tremendous opportunities for the creative and more efficient use of space to deploy renewables -- unused roof tops and awnings over parking lots to name just two. And these don't need to be unattractive if designed well. But the notion that we must deploy black panels along every highway right of way or wherever there are a few square feet of vacant land is also nonsense. The line of thought that if some is good, more is better has unfortunately become the canon of the solar theocracy. I am looking forward to more creative uses of thin films and new technologies in BIPV designs.

If nothing else, consolidation in the solar industry, the turmoil over Climategate, and debates over transmission lines and land use promise to return some balance and rationality to discussions of energy and climate change. That will be a welcome change.


  1. Hi Rich, I understand that this was posted some time ago, and I wanted to offer some thoughts and bring this discussion current. When it comes to who is getting what subsidy, there has been considerable debate in recent years about which technologies should be subsidized and which should stand on their own. But what I would like to add to your discussion regarding the consolidation of the solar industry and the idea that if you get your costs down than issues around subsidies go away; this is generally true however, specifically in PV, it has taken extensive policy measures and subsidies in Europe and North America to get PV to a point where there is a large enough economy of scale to where substantial subsidies are not as critical to the success of PV. Thin-film was poised to be a cost leader but now is having difficulty competing with crystalline due to the global demand necessitating increased production, more competition, and as a result, lower prices. Is this not the goal of subsidies?

    You bring up an interesting point about transmission and the concept of locating renewable resources in the areas that would yield the highest capacity factors (i.e. desert southwest for PV and Wyoming for wind). I agree with your general view that sustainability and renewable energy development in particular should not be based on unsustainable economics. It has been shown by entities such as the California Independent System Operator (CAISO) and the Western Electricity Coordinating Council that although transmission is not currenty a limiting factor on renewable integration, certain upgrades are necessary to maintain reliablity and ensure that RPS goals are met. I bring up California because in the western interconnection ("WI") that Colorado is a part of, California will account for approxiamately 31% of the load in the WI, and with 33% of California load coming from (mostly) variable renewable generation, transmission upgrades are key to ensuring the reliability of the larger system. With respect to allocating resources in high capacity factor states, a recent study by WECC found that it would actually be more cost effective to achieve the same energy goals of the California RPS with out of state resources and long distance High voltage transmission lines. Sure there are environmental impacts, but as more states move towards RPS programs, we all have to look at the pros and cons of transmission and renewable generation versus conventional technologies.

    Sean M.

    WECC 10-year Regional Transmission Plan Summary, September 2011

  2. Sean,

    Thanks for your comment... and three years of hindsight is always welcome. The one place where I would disagree with you is with regard to the diminishing cost of PV. Your suggestion that the rapid decline in the cost of PV is due to subsidies and economies of scale is wishful thinking if not just plain wrong. The (continuing) decline in PV costs is primarily due to (continuing) over capacity, mostly in China.
    In fact, the necessary decline in subsidies is having difficulty keeping pace with the decline in costs so as not to over compensate generators, not the other way around. This is especially problematic in the case of European FiTs. -- Rich


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