Article Post

Achieving the Environmental Benefits of Solar Energy

Solar Energy

The conversation surrounding how solar energy can benefit the environment has been a transformational one over the last 10 years. One of the focal points of that discussion centers on solar energy reliability and cost efficiency to promote widespread adoption. The methods poised for achieving this goal include conducting more up-front research and developing new and improved standards and testing methodologies for solar products.

Photovoltaic (PV) energy, the conversion of sunlight to electricity, has gained interest in the United States as a result of energy price volatility from other sources and the appeal of its minimal environmental impact. Global estimates for 2020 show a projected 400 to 600 additional gigawatts of PV capacity as the costs of PV energy are expected to drop by almost 10 percent per year, according to a study from McKinsey & Company. Increasing solar energy demand necessitates progressive reliability standards. Testing solar PV modules for PID (potential induced degradation) susceptibility helps to ensure solar is more reliable and less costly.

PV systems are often planned for a service life of more than two decades, so product reliability plays a critical role in the upfront cost and return on the initial investment. The PID of crystalline silicon PV modules can result in a power loss of nearly 100 percent in modules at the end of a system string (the number of PV panels aligned in series) in just one month.

With limitations of some PV products on the market today, it is important for the PV industry to have a proven PID testing method to identify the susceptibility of PV modules to potential degradation of material that may be introduced through its continuous use. Conducting PID testing with appropriate standards helps ensure more objective and reproducible results from subsequent PV module testing.

The latest PID testing methodology is the most state-of-the-art, simple, and cost-effective process available today. It begins by identifying any initial degradation from the test samples. Simple materials such as aluminum foil and water are used to create the test environment. Unlike older methods, no climate chamber is needed for temperature conditioning, which reduces costs. Through such testing, manufacturers will better understand the performance of their modules. For the consumer or business owner, fewer repairs mean lower cost and a higher return on investment, making the idea of solar more attractive to potential users. Simply, more solar energy users mean less environmental impact.

In the United States, there is greater demand for innovative energy generation, distribution, management and usage. The use of solar energy can create a more efficient and productive world, but this cannot occur without putting safety, performance and reliability in the spotlight. Instilling a highly scientific, multi-faceted engineering discipline into research, development, design and manufacturing of products encourages safer and higher performance PV systems. With a reliable testing method for PID, solar energy will continue to push forward as a clean, renewable source of energy utilized widely by consumers and businesses.

Discussions

Solar is wonderful, and in his book on energy (Out of Gas) David Goodstein at Cal Tech says that nuclear + solar can deal will our future energy issues. I see no reason to deny that. The problem arrives when the claim is made that solar can replace nuclear. There are people associated with this forum who sing that tune, which makes me wonder just what kind of educations are they passing out in the industrial World these Days.

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It does not matter very much how reliable the panels are Evelyn - it is the reliability of the sunshine that is the big question when it comes to large scale power generation. I have seen many posts here from folks who live in California promoting solar as THE solution to the worlds energy problems. While I can agree that there is a case to be made for solar PV in locations when the sunshine is guaranteed but in places like Canada and most of the Northern US that would be a poor decision.

And of course however good you make solar panels and however cheaply they can be made you cannot make electricity when the Sun does not shine and that means zero megawatts at night. The only way to overcome that is to build twice the capacity required and install a storage system. One set of panels charges the battery during the day for use overnight while the other produces power for daytime use. That means a much higher capital cost OR you must be using oil, coal, gas or nuclear to fill the gaps when the sun does not shine.

After enduring a bleak winter in Canada when the solar panels installed in most locations here were covered in snow and ice for several months I can only assume that nuclear or gas fires power plants were providing those homeowners with their electricity as their solar panels certainly were not.

Further on cloudy days the drastic reductions and increases in power as clouds pass over the solar panel array will make a nightmare of grid operation should we be foolish enough to install more than one or two percent of installed capacity as solar.

In a climate like ours it is just plain stupid - however reliable the electronics are.

Malcolm

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Just what the world needs; another cheerleader article about how great solar PV is. Let's keep it real folks. Solar PV is not yet cost competitive and the amount that can be absorbed by the grid is limited by its production characteristics, i.e., a rapid ramp up in output in the morning and a rapid fall off in output in the late afternoon, giving rise to the "Duck Curve" identified by the California ISO. Now we have articles coming out about how the Duck Curve can be flattened, none of which attempt to account for the costs involved in doing so. We even have former CPUC commissioner, Mark Ferron, running his mouth about going "duck hunting." This from a guy, who knows little to nothing about the technical aspects of running a wholesale power market or the economics of solar energy, throwing red meat to the Vote Solar advocates.

Just to be clear, I support the development of solar PV but it is not yet cheap enough to be cost-competitve with utility scale generation and it is unlikely to get us off fossil generation any time soon.

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A breath of fresh air Robert. We need some realism in the debate and proponents must understand how environmentally damaging the initial production of solar panels is.

It just is not right for western nations to have these things made in China and pollute that country while in the same breath say that these are "carbon free" emissions. Solar panels are nothing of the sort. The production of these panels (in China mostly) consumes large amounts of energy and that nation produces most of its energy from coal. You may be saving a little bit of CO2 here but you are producing tons of it in China to make them. Pure hypocrisy in my book.

I would go as far as to say that solar panel manufacturing is getting us more hooked on fossil fuels not less. But as long as the CO2 is produced by China and the rest of the pollutants dealt with in someone else's back yard we can call ourselves "Green".

Solar panels are not green and they will never be able to supply the quantities of electricity needed let alone the minor problem that they don't produce anything at night.

Malcolm

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The Chinese have arrived where I knew they would arrive after they stopped the advance of our army in Korea. If they were smart enough to do that, then I suspect that they are smart enough to figure out how to get the energy they need to manufacture things like solar panels. As for expecting realism from our politicians and their advisers, forget it, unless it involves votes. For instance, Ms Merkel is no rocket scientist, but she understood that turning off those nuclear facilities and talking about solar would win her Another term at the head of the German government, and maybe something almost as good when German voters Wake up and send her packing.

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"The use of solar energy can create a more efficient and productive world, ..." Really, how so? Solar energy is lucky to reach single digits in terms of efficiency. Intermittent solar energy causes fossil power plants to periodically back-down, which makes them more inefficient (Power Engineering 101).

Solar energy does NOT create a more efficient world.

Furthermore, building intermittent & unreliable power production devices that are not needed in the first place is not productive as the money is siphoned-off and frivolously wasted as a transfer payment to those whose products simply cannot compete. No possible way that can be construed as "productive", except in the bizarre world of green energy.

If someone wishes to advocate for solar energy, try using the language to properly to identify the virtues (if any) of the technology.

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The extent to which solar or any other renewable technology makes economic sense is highly dependent on the circumstances. California can't meet its entire demand for electricity with solar and wind alone, or at least not at a price consumers would tolerate when the required amount of storage alone would add at least 10 cents to the retail price. However when fuel oil (diesel fuel) has to be flown in or transported long distances, the economics change quite a bit. In places like Hawaii and rural Alaska, energy charges alone run north of 25 cents per kWh. At those prices, solar+wind+storage at today's prices isn't an unreasonable value proposition.

As for hunting ducks,

Jack Ellis, Tahoe City, CA

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Well said Jack,

That is exactly right. I am all for solar panels where they make sense - such as powering portable road side signage so that gas driven generators need not be used. Those applications make complete sense to me.

What does not make any sense to me is suggesting that solar panel farms can replace base load generation from nuclear or coal or gas. It cannot. Simple arithmetic tells you that vast areas of the nation would need to be covered in solar panels to do that. Do we really want to obliterate our countryside and reduce available productive farmland by tempting farmers with unsustainable subsidies. That does not seem very green to me. The areas required are vast.

Let us say for example that we can get can get 100 watts per square meter (average) of electricity from a panel.

To get 1 Megawatt we need 1000 kW or 10000 square meters of solar. A typical base load unit produces 1000 MW day and night. To produce the same amount of electricity we therefore need 1000MW x 10000 square meters which is one million square meters. BUT the solar panels can only produce for (and I am being VERY generous here) 12 hours a day. For the remaining 12 hours nothing is produced. So In order to provide 1000MW 24 hours per day you need not one but TWO solar farms. One to produce power and one to produce power for the overnight period. So now we need twenty million square meters of land covered in solar panels and that assumes the storage facility occupies no land at all.

So 20 million square meters of land to replace one 1000MW plant is around 8 square miles.

The impact on our farms and our country side would be devastating. In Ontario Canada where we do not get the nice sunny weather that Californians enjoy we are looking at vastly higher numbers. Probably on average production rates 10 times worse than the ideal example above. So 80 square miles to do the same job as a 1000MW nuclear plant. Base load in Ontario is around 12000 MW. To replace it would take 96 square miles of solar panels.

That makes no sense from an engineering perspective, from an economic perspective or an environmental perspective. Such policies are already sending Germany to the poorhouse with companies leaving in droves to places where common sense prevails.

Yes indeed Jack - solar where it makes sense - I am all for that. Solar to replace base load - only and idiot or politician would advocate that. Malcolm

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Good post. But Solar PV efficiency now is poor and as such requires huge area to operate large plants besides expensive from developing countries point of view. Also dust accumulation on the panels is a serious problem which reduces the efficiency of solar PV further. Dr.A.Jagadeesh Nellore(AP),India

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Very well put Anumakonda. All of the calculations assume that the solar installation is working as if it were brand new. When you add in the operational factors such as cloudy days, dust in dry areas such as some parts of India, sand in the Sahara and other deserts, snow and ice in places like Canada you quickly realise that even if PV efficiency does dramatically improve the operational difficulties of this technology make it unsuitable for large scale power generation.

I am not for or against solar electricity. I just look at the numbers and the numbers just do not make any sense. Unfortunately for some "alternative" technologies are almost a religion and those that point out the faults are branded as "climate deniers" or other such names eerily similar to the name calling of the witch hunts of yesteryear.

As an environmentalist who cares as much about this planet and its inhabitants as anyone in Greenpeace I cannot support covering large swathes of much needed farmland to produce base load electricity which is better produced with nuclear power than with millions of solar panels.

I would not support the use of nuclear energy to power a roadside sign as it is impractical and not cost effective (this can be done by the way). Solar panels are the wisest and most sensible choice there. Similarly I do not support the use of solar energy for large scale electricity production. Nuclear is clearly the better choice in that case.

Unfortunately politicians jumping on the alternatives bandwagon are giving out huge amounts of public subsidy money which skews the marketplace from making the sensible decisions necessary.

The hype surrounding the use of solar panels is out of sync with the reality.

Malcolm

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Bit of an arithmetical error there. It should be 960 square miles for 12000 MW. Nuclear power uses but a tiny fraction of that land area. Apologies in advance for any errors in my arithmetic - brain going too fast for my very inadequate typing skills.

Malcolm

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Solar panels are destroying turtle habitats and now the Los Angeles PBS station KCET reports:

A report just made public by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service documents a disturbing amount of bird injuries at three large California desert solar power plants, and says that there are no easy fixes to the issue.

The report, compiled by the USFWS’s National Fish and Wildlife Forensics Laboratory, describes the results of examinations of 233 carcasses of birds found at the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System (ISEGS) south of Las Vegas, the Desert Sunlight facility near Joshua Tree National Park, and the Genesis Solar project west of Blythe in Riverside County. OLE [USFWS Office of Law Enforcement staff] observed large numbers of insect carcasses throughout the Ivanpah site during their visit. In some places there were hundreds upon hundreds of butterflies (including monarchs, Danaus plexippus) and dragonfly carcasses. Some showed singeing, and many appeared to have just fallen from the sky.

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