Startup: The Power of Sunbeams

Aussies don't do anything half-assed.

There have now been quite a large number of solar panel arrays installed around the world. This particular one above is from New South Wales in Australia, and in the sun-baked desert, it does seem like a perfect place for it.

I can’t help but think, however, that there is an extraordinary amount of space being wasted all over the world on the roofs of buildings, even in uncovered parking lots, that could easily be used by solar panels, if we’d scale the technology up to the point where the panels became affordable. But once again, we find a chicken-and-egg scenario. There needs to be a market before the Powers That Be will scale it up, and until it gets scaled up, there is no market for it.

Solar power, if we can improve its effectiveness and scale it up, seems to be the most obvious solution to our energy needs in the future. But there are many hurdles in the way. What do you think is the greatest obstacle to the widescale adoption of solar power, and how do we overcome that?

  • The problem with solar, and any nature-driven power source, is that nature is fickle. The sun doesn't always shine and the wind doesn't always blow as expected. Texas, with the largest number of wind turbines in the US, had a problem in 2008 when the wind suddenly stopped at the same time the state faced a major cold snap. The utility companies had to institute rolling blackouts to maintain their power reserves. I face the same thing in my job when we look at alternative energy sources. We have to make sure the system has enough capacity from traditional sources (steam, natural gas, etc.) to make up for unforeseen weather events. This more than doubles the cost of installation and means the return on investment for the alternative source is less appealing.

    The other problem with large solar and wind farms is there is a huge loss from the generation point (out in the middle of nowhere) to the point of use. Estimates for the Mojave solar farms is they lose about 50% of the power generated just in transmission losses (line losses, transformer losses, etc.).

    I agree that having solar and wind to augment traditional power and energy sources is a good thing. Germany for a long time gave people credit on the electric bills for installing solar panels. Add on to it that solar panel technology, in particular, is coming down in price. However, relying on these forms of power generation to increase our generation capacity without having more traditional backup sources is a dangerous game.

    • Deartháir

      The inevitable counter-argument to that — and I'm not disagreeing for a moment that these should be supplements to traditional power generation like hydro and geothermal — is that weather is not going to be fickle everywhere. If only we had some sort of… I don't know… grid system that would allow us to link all the various alternative energy sources together.

      Basically, with the electrical grid we have today, (uh… at least in Canada… I assume it's the same down there) we can generate power at any point in the grid, draw power out at any point in the grid, and even transfer power from one region to another. When Enron was scamming their customers, one of the lucky few who benefited from their dishonesty was West Kootenay Power, a tiny power company in the southeast corner of BC. They produced, at the time, something like four times more power than they needed, so they sold the surplus to California.

      So the larger point is this: all these can be perfectly viable alternatives, if enough of them are brought online that we're not relying on a particular solar farm, or wind farm, or what have you.

      Personally, I think the biggest hurdle will be the absence of an effective way of storing any surplus power.

      • ademrudin

        You raise a good point, the issue that Engineerd bring up with Texas was particularly bad because of the lack of a real national grid. the USA really has three grids: West of the Rockies, East of the Rockies, and Texas. I'd suggest checking this link out for some neat visualizations.

  • tonyola
    • Deartháir

      Not gonna be cloudy everywhere. Build enough of them, and clouds become a non-issue.

      Unless, you know, the whole planet becomes covered in clouds, but I think that would be a Nuclear Winter, and if that happens, we've probably got larger things to worry about.

  • SSurfer321

    Tax credits and LEED initiatives are helping to increase widespread adoption of alternative energy. The easiest way to adopt it would be to write it into the local building code, as Chicago is doing.

  • Jim-Bob

    The biggest obstacle has to be the availability of raw materials to make the silicon cells or the CIGSS cells-depending on the installation in question. Ultimately, all resources are scarce at some level. This is not to say I don’t agree with you on the use of rooftops for power generation. I think it is a far better idea than using dedicated land just for solar farms. However, we need to start working on the consumption end of things as well. Too many of us are dependent on inefficient technologies to live which drives up our personal energy consumption. The houses we live in require too much energy to heat and cool mainly because we choose to put them out in the open instead of using more radical designs that are built partially under ground (like most of Coober Pedy Australia). Doing that would cut most of the heating and cooling bills due to better insulation from dirt and thus would reduce the need for energy production. These houses could then be easily powered by smaller solar installations with solar hot water and small geothermal heating and cooling units instead of heat pumps. If people would start driving smaller vehicles that are more realistically matched to their needs rather than big, inefficient SUVs then we could cut our dependence on oil. We need to start using technologies with a natural tendency towards low energy use rather than crutching inefficient technologies to try and make them more efficient.

  • skitter

    The greatest obstacle to any new-school alternative energy is nuclear power, and we will overcome that by continuing to panic over tiny amounts of obsessively secluded waste and Russian reactor designs that were outdated thirty years ago.

  • coupeZ600

    Ahh! Throw another log on the fire that stokes my ongoing love/hate relationship with my home state of Arizona. In the Desert the Sun is your mortal enemy, and why almost every native critter is nocturnal, because that is where the highest quality "shade" is. Even up where I live, at 7000 ft., in summer while the ambient air temp is quite civilized, the Sun will just microwave any exposed skin and is why almost everybody that actually works all day outside wears long-sleeved shirts and big hats and is always on the lookout for "shade".

    So Arizona spends a huge amount of money building "shade" as a protector for it's citizens, animals, and cars, and why every single one of those doesn't have solar panels all over them (even just to power a security lamp or two at night) is something that has pissed me off since I was a kid. F*ck, we have a massive development complex for old folks called "Sun City" and what do you think they have there?…. Yup, you guessed it, "Shade!"

  • ademrudin

    The biggest barrier to cost is the material availability and manufacturing cost.

    Monocrystaline silicon is up to 24% efficient in commercially available quantities, but the production process is pretty nasty and yields are low. The efficiency of these cells hasn't gone up in almost a decade, all progress has been in getting the higher grade cells out of the lab and into production in commercially viable yields. And as the world becomes increasingly digitized, the cost of silicon has nowhere to go but up…

    Multi-junction Gallium-Arsenide based cells are available in commercial quantities at upwards of 35% (!!!), but you'll pay ~$300,000 per square meter; it's really only practical for satellites where spending $$$ to drop mass may actually save $$$$$ in the long term. And the manufacturing process makes silicon cells look positively soft and cuddly.

    And there there's a whole host of newer stuff like "Thin Film" (Copper-Selenium, Cadmium-Telurium, Stabilized Amphorous Silicon…) and "Organic Cells" that may be cheaper, but are much less efficient, and therefore are still inferior to monocrystaline silicon in terms of $/Watt.

  • When the weather turned in central Texas, I decided to open this Coleman solar powered battery charger I bought 2-3 years ago. Basically, you plug in this panel to your cigarette lighter, and it harnesses the magic from the sun and charges the battery to its optimum. So far, so good, and I am surprised I didn't break it out earlier.