Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Big Solar: Not Ready for Prime Time

OECD via Rod Adams

JournoLists from the mainstream media have been credulous cheerleaders for the wind and solar industries -- and for the faux environmental movement in general. Rod Adams takes the New York Times to task for a typical example of atrocious journoLism on solar energy.
...a normally credible news source, the New York Times, apparently did not bother to more fully investigate the credibility of the "study" to find out that it is just a paper that was commissioned by an organization that is dedicated to a well publicized agenda. On July 26, 2010, on the front page of the New York Times business section, there was a Special Report: Energy titled Nuclear Energy Loses Cost Advantage written by Diana S. Powers whose conclusions about electricity cost comparisons between nuclear and solar were entirely based on the Blackburn and Cunningham paper and its sources. The writer did not check on the academic credentials of the paper's authors, check to see if it had been peer reviewed, or question whether or not it was backed up by independent work by anyone else. She quite possibly did not even read the entire paper to understand the calculations used to draw the pretty graph. The editor allotted a good deal of valuable space for this poorly researched work.
The paper is seductively titled Solar and Nuclear Costs — The Historic Crossover: Solar Energy is Now the Better Buy. The paper's cover has a dramatic and colorful graph that shows ever increasing costs for nuclear and ever decreasing costs for solar. The lines cross in 2010. (I will explain my use of the word "seductive".)

For their nuclear power cost projections, the professor emeritus and his grad student relied on a 2009 cost projection paper written by a lone researcher named Mark Cooper, whose current employment is described as "Senior Research Fellow for Economic Analysis" for the Vermont Law School Institute for Energy and the Environment. His brief biography states that he has a "PhD from Yale" but it does not specify his field of study. It indicates he is an "acivist/advocate" with a rather wide range of interest areas including telecommunications regulations and energy consumer issues.

The paper ignores all other cost projections for nuclear. Some of the previous work on this topic that the professor and his graduate student ignored includes the following:

Depleted Cranium takes a careful look at a new solar thermal plant in Sicily, and decides that the plant provides only "piddling" energy for the enormous cost of investment, land, and resources.
The actual plant is enormous. It contains over three miles of primary loop pipeline, occupies over thirty thousand square meters and costs sixty million euro just to build (never mind the operating cost of keeping those mirrors shiny and the pipes free of leaks and clogs.) For this enormous price the plant generates five megawatts.

Of course, that’s not why the plant is there. It makes a perfect window dressing for the much much smaller, yet much much more powerful gas-fired power plant that is located at the same site. Officials like to talk about how the solar collectors are “integrated” into the gas fired power system and allow for less gas usage, as some kind of transition. They don’t mention that the gas fired power plant is 752 megawatts, a lot more than the five megawatts of the solar power station. But hey, with all the glare of those solar collectors, you might not even notice the big gas burner next-door, right?

One other thing that should be noted: the plant is rated at five megawatts, but that doesn’t mean it actually generates that much power.

The “five megawatt” number is a reference to the peak capacity of the power station, which is much much different than its true output. During the mid day, on a perfectly clear sunny summer day, when all systems are functioning at their optimal performance, it may get up to five megawatts. However, it will be lower much more often.

To get a better idea of what this plant is actually supposed to produce, or at least what the estimates of the builder are, we need to figure out what the average power output is. According to one site, the plant is supposed to produce “9 million kilowatt hours a year.” That’s nine thousand megawatt hours. There are 8,760 hours in a year (non leap-year), so as it turns out, the actual output of the plant averages just a little over one megawatt. This is, of course, assuming the estimates are correct and not more rosy than the reality of things. _DepletedCranium

There are plenty of situations where off-grid solar energy makes a great deal of sense. Solar is more predictable than wind, but as an expensive and intermittent source it will not win any prizes from utility grid managers.

The gullibility and ignorance with which solar (and wind) energy projects are pursued by journoLists, public officials, political activists, and faux environmental lobbies is a sad testimony to modern education and child-raising practises. But the world is what it is and we must do with it what we can.

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