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On Solar and Solyndra

Reports of the death of the solar industry are greatly exaggerated. Yes, there have been some high profile bankruptcies of US solar companies -- Solyndra, Evergreen, Spectrawatt -- in 2011. But the solar industry as a whole is on a boom that is only going to increase in coming years. We are in the elbow of an exponential solar growth curve that is going to transform how we produce and use energy.

This is great news for all energy users and the planet.

Solar has reached scale as a global industry, growing from its first gigawatt of annual installations in 2005 (enough to provide power for about 200,000 California homes) to over 28 gigawatts in 2011 (enough for almost 6 million homes), according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance projections. Cumulative installations will reach about 40 gigawatts by the end of 2011 -- power for 8 million homes.



Global solar power has grown an average of 68 percent each year over the last five years. This is a doubling literally every 1.3 years. So today's 40 gigawatts of capacity becomes, under the same growth rate, an astronomical 1.3 million gigawatts by 2030. Obviously, the recent rate of growth won't continue because, among other reasons, this is far more power than we need for the entire globe! But even if solar power's rate of growth drops in half to 35 percent over the next two decades, this produces a doubling every 2.3 years and we get 16,000 gigawatts (16 terawatts) by 2030 -- almost as much as the entire world will need by then.

Is this realistic? This rate of growth will surely slow, for a variety of reasons, but the interconnection queue data from an indicative microcosm of the global market, California, suggests that we will see very robust growth for years to come. California's interconnection queue has far more than 50 gigawatts of solar projects waiting for interconnection (studies take some time and then upgrades must be built so the interconnection process can take many years sometimes). Many of these projects won't be built, for various reasons, but even if 1/3 to ½ of them get built we will see a dramatic increase in solar power in our state.

What about cost? A large part of why solar growth has been so strong in recent years is because prices have been declining dramatically in recent years. Lawrence Berkeley National Lab (LBNL) issues a solar power market report on the US market each year. Their latest report, released this month, shows that behind-the-meter solar project prices dropped almost by half from 1998 to 2010. The first half of 2011 saw yet another 11% drop in averages in California, the biggest market in the US, from $6.4 per watt to $5.7 per watt.



Behind-the-meter solar is important but is dwarfed globally by utility-scale solar, and this emphasis on utility-scale solar will probably increase in coming years due to the dramatic price declines we've seen for solar. The public data for utility-scale solar is much less comprehensive but prices are far lower for this segment due to economies of scale. Utility-scale solar projects can be from one megawatt to many hundreds of megawatts, compared to a couple of kilowatts up to one or two megawatts for behind-the-meter projects. Average U.S. installed costs for utility-scale solar in 2010 were between $3.8 per watt and $4.4 per watt, according to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. LBNL data show slightly higher costs in its limited data set (figure 3). I have reliable anecdotal data that suggest pricing for new projects to be completed in 2012 will be below $3 per watt, reflecting panel prices as low as $1.15 per watt! Time will tell if these last figures are accurate but the established declining cost trends over the last ten years suggest they are.



What about grid parity? With all of these cost declines are we there yet? It depends. Grid parity depends, of course, on what grid is being considered. With federal tax benefits for solar (which apply also to nuclear, for those who think commercial solar gets a leg up), utility-scale solar projects may be at grid parity now in California. I write "may be" because we have public data from very few completed utility-scale projects in California, so we can't yet compare price forecasts to actual prices. Such data will be available in the coming year or so for a number of new projects.

Many utility-scale solar contracts have been approved by the California Public Utilities Commission at prices below grid parity (the "Market Price Referent"), when the federal tax benefits are included, but these projects haven't been built yet. Again, we'll have to wait and see if these contracts result in real projects.

The trend is very clear, however: we are, if not already there, well on our way to solar grid parity in California and other areas of the country that have high electricity rates. While tax benefits are a substantial factor in the viability of solar projects today, this will change quickly as prices diminish further. And this trend will expand geographically very quickly because solar production is ramping up so quickly around the world -- with the declining prices I've mentioned as the main benefit. My feeling is that by 2015-2020 solar projects in most western states, Hawaii and New England, will be at grid parity even without any subsidies.

The Solyndra debacle is unfortunate and I look forward to learning more about what went wrong, including whether there was any wrongdoing by Solyndra or the White House. But the Solyndra story is a small part of the global solar story, which is one of the few extremely encouraging trends in the U.S. and world today. Massive solar growth will grow domestic jobs, increase energy independence, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and, as we transition to electricity as a fuel for transportation, allow for the de-carbonization of our transportation sector also.

Discussions

I'm sure that there are places where solar fits in, and fits in well. The same is true with wind. But not to the extent that certain influential people think. Every intelligent person who deals with this issue understands that solar, wind, and all the rest favored by Angela and her flunkies cannot replace nuclear.

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Renewable energy technologies, such as wind and solar, are expensive compared to their fossil fuel counterparts, and are therefore supported out of necessity by numerous federal, state and local incentives. Policy analyst might ask, “When will these subsidies cease so that renewable energy technologies can stand on their own in the market place?” An answer to that question can be framed in terms of levelized cost of electricity (LCOE). At current time, that metric for solar greatly exceeds those for electricity from fossil fuel generation sources and probalby will for at least several years,

For further information, please see my blog post

http://www.jheversonconsulting.com/blog/2011/09/08/when-can-renewable-en...

Dr. Jeffrey Everson

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Ugh.

If you want to shill your blog, you should at least take the time to add the link: Everson blog

(assuming I got it right.....)

I strongly disagree they are more expensive, when externalities of oil (and even coal) are added in. Nuclear has its own issue w.r.t. public comfort and necessary economies of scale.

Oil is peaking or has peaked, and most reserves are held people largely hostile to Western interests. It really can't get much worse than that. The expense of weaning ourselves from fossil fuels is very high, but the alternative is even worse. Rome "outsourced" until it became a weakened shell and collapsed. Long term, a country as big as the U.S. can't outsource it's energy needs.

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Jeffrey, I discuss the price issue in my piece. Did you see that? As I mentioned, we are now at the point where contracts are being signed for below market prices (on a levelized cost basis), and time will tell whether these contracts result in real projects. Surely some will, at which point we will have proof that solar can compete with fossil fuels - with federal tax benefits. As I also mentioned, I believe solar will be able to compete with fossil fuels even without tax benefits in the 2015-2020 timeframe.

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Agreed on costs, Tam. Actually, since solar largely competes with the peak market, its probably near to or at competitive right now.

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Len, that's a good debate. Some studies do show that solar is already considerably cheaper on a levelized cost basis with natural gas peakers.

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Regular consumers can buy cells for about $1 per Watt, now. I'm sure a big company could get them in quantity for less than that. So however you want to do it, you can extrapolate that back to some kind of levelized cost, and it isn't 32 cents per kW-hr. Probably more in the high teens. That wouldn't include backup storage, but if you are peaking for a hot summer everyone's-using-A/C/ event, then that's not an issue.

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At $1 per Watt and falling, Malcolm's predictions of consumers jumping on the bandwagon to attempt to get off the grid will only accelerate over time. Many consumers will become or are already very unhappy at ever increasing utility billing rates, let alone the prospects for big-brother monitoring and control being considered for consumer demand responses in their homes via smart grids.

Here in Ontario some new home builders are already offering roof-top solar systems as an option when buying a new house. They still keep the grid connection to the house of course but when the day comes that in-home storage or a dual-generation in-home system like adding SOFCs become viable and practical, consumers who invest in rooftop solar today will be poised to unplug from the grid completely in the future.

Many farmers today have already invested in their own ground-based solar generation to power their own barn operations. Lighted highway signs with battery storage are slowly appearing everywhere. As electric vehicles appear in increasing numbers down the road, I can picture commercial and industrial businesses installing rooftop solar to give employees the option of recharging all day in the parking lot while they work.

Looking for a breakthrough in storage technology guys?

Check out today’s Product Development and Design news headlines at the link below. University of Singapore researchers have developed a new “energy-storage membrane” for super-capacitors - reported to have an order-of-magnitude lower cost of energy storage compared with typical liquid electrolytes used in normal super-caps, and can store 4 to 8 times the watt-hours of energy than Lithium batteries per dollar in cost.

here is your link

My, my, my, isn’t it wonderful what R&D can do when serious amounts of money is poured into it around the world. Like they say, more heads employed are better than one in solving tough problems.

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On the article here Tam, it’s good information and great timing especially. I'll bet you were just waiting for the day to publish this when solar was reaching near or is finally at grid parity.

I feel sorry for the nuclear industry in North American markets. Such talented engineering people and sophisticated technology behind large nuclear reactors are likely going to be faced with refurbishment jobs only of existing aging plants for near-term and mid-term future business. I doubt we'll see many if any new large central plants added to the existing fleet in North America before the long-term future in the face of all the emerging solar today, unless of course they somehow magically reduce their up-front capital costs and construction times, AND pacify the public w.r.t. comfort as Jim says.

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Thanks Bob. For others who commented on panel prices, consumer prices are still quite a lot higher than $1/watt, even for panels. Markets vary but consumers prices are generally $5-8/watt as a total cost still, but falling rapidly, and panels are still in the $3/watt range for consumers. For utility-scale projects, panel prices are approach $1/watt quickly and all-in costs are around $3-4/watt for larger projects. This kind of pricing does get us to grid parity in pricey electricity markets when federal tax benefits are included.

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Wow $3.80/watt, that is at parity with combined cycle nat gas? Let’s try a little math $1.40/watt will be build a Cadillac nat gas plant $2.40 cent will buy enough gas to produce 125,000 watthours that is one watt per hour continuously for 14.27 years. At a more probable 60% capacity factor that is 23 years of fuel, essentially the life of the plant and most likely longer than the life of a solar panel.

Using the 20% solar capacity factor for the southwest desert. Solar would become more attractive than nat gas when gas moves above $12/mmbtu. Twelve dollar gas would be close to parity with solar unless you consider that the nat gas generation is dispatchable on an as needed basis and then ignore the cost of the money for investing another $2.40 per now compared spending the money on fuel over the next two decades.

I do not think there is a area in the US that when the 20% capacity factor is figured in that solar is at parity with $4.00 nat gas. Even if storage were free and available it takes 3 to 4 times the panel area to equal a nat gas plant with the same rating. Multiplying $3.80 by 3 yields $11.4/watt and is a more realistic comparison. Solar looks more comparable to Nuclear than Combined Cycle Natural Gas. SOCO says they can build a 1000 MW nuc for 11.4 billion and I believe them.

I find the skewing of information to support an agenda irritating but it appears to be the American way. One can wear a green coat if they want but adjusting or misrepresenting the numbers to fits one’s own interest seems ethically questionable. When it was discovered that Eron had cooked its books everyone was shocked but I guess it is ok for the solar folks.

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Jerry, I wouldn't hold your breath waiting for NG to compete aggressively with solar for large electricity generation. Here in Ontario the NIMBYs are very strongly opposing deploying new large NG plants. Two big ones were planned in the last few years to built in Ontario, one to be located in Toronto and the other in one of Toronto's neighbors the City of Oakville. The Ontario provincial government caved into massive public opposition and cancelled both of them, Toronto’s earlier this year and Oakville’s just days ago.

I agree with Malcolm on NG - it will probably be a great transition fuel to get us off oil for use in cars as electric vehicles gradually take over, and potentially for small micro generation if SOFCs become practical to compliment residential solar rooftop systems.

The price for NG fuel has a history of volatility, and we're not even at peak NG like we are with oil. Investors usually prefer price stability and a long-term stable future supply, which solar fuel has in spades for instance. Furthermore, even if NG supply is vastly expanded with the emerging shale gas industry, there is strong opposition steadily growing from evidence of the environmental damage it leaves behind.

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I will leave others to question the numbers with respect to the viability of Solar electric except to add of course that any discussion of price comparison MUST be preceded by where you are on the planet. Tam of course lives in sunny California and clearly has no conception of operating solar electric in cold climates such as Canada. In these locations and many in the heavily populated US North East snow on roof tops can easily reach several feet in the winter and we are often plagued by ice storms that would cover solar panels in opaque ice sheets.

If you become dependent upon the weather to that extent please do expect the grid to shutdown or suffer from diminished availability on bad weather days - you know the very time when you really need it.

To expect solar electric to be anything but a fairweather contributor to the grid is bordering on stupidity in this climate and it really does not matter whether it is economic - only that it works.

To make such expensive investments that work only 20% of the time is foolish.

Bob, I would add a little bit of information to the business about gas plants in Ontario. There has been a massive expansion of gas plants in Ontario over the last 8 years or so. Take a look at the IESO website for a listing of them. Yes the one planned for Oakville was cancelled however the Halton Hills plant just up the road from there is operating extremely well and was built on time and on budget. Also it must be mentioned that there is a very large 500kV line being constructed as we speak to carry nuclear power from the Bruce site down to the Oakville area which is the REAL reason why Oakville could be canned. The grid to the west of Toronto needed beefing up due to the Ontario Governments planned closure of the coal burning plant at Nanticoke on Lake Erie. The additional 1500MW from the refurbished nuclear Units at Bruce will assist in stabilizing and reinforcing the grid in this area.

In order to replace a single nuclear unit thousands of acres of land would need to be covered in solar panels and (as noted above) in winter they just do not work - and that to anyone with an ounce of common sense should be the end of the debate.

Nuclear of course cannot and will not be replaced any time soon in Ontario or anywhere else in the world for that matter. The only viable alternative is natural gas or coal.

Malcolm

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Malcolm,

Solar could never “replace” a nuclear plant, I totally agree. The existing nuclear fleet will be kept running by refurbishing them over time, but sadly no new ones are likely to be added to the fleet for quite some time in North America. Instead, solar plants and more widespread distributed consumer roof-top systems will grow to help expand the grid's total capacity, and so too will wind farms, particularly in Ontario if the current deal with Samsung stays in place. Having said this, I don't envy the grid system operators if they don't build back-up generation for when the sun doesn't shine or the wind doesn't blow.

In Ontario for backup generation, I think our government is counting on more capacity to come on line at the Bruce nuclear plant, and at Niagara Falls in light of the new water tunnel just built. I grant you there has been several more NG plants built in Ontario in recent years, but these and any new ones are being located more so in rural areas because city dwellers are filled with massive numbers of NIMBYs with lots of political influence.

Now, if there are significant breakthroughs in storage over time, then all that back-up generation won’t be needed as much to support solar and wind farms, even the ones that are already in place since storage could be added to them later. This has a very good chance of happening over the next ten years with the amount of storage R&D going on all over the world, and it’s growing.

It promises to be a fascinating future for the electric grid Malcolm. Personally I can hardly wait myself to see the day when you can add a dual generation system to your house with sufficient storage to unplug from the grid permanently. Virtually everyone I talk to has a keen personal interest in exploring this. Who would have thought that there is so much loathing of our utility companies out there. So in conclusion, the utility industry better get ready for big challenges to keep all their customers if technology advances a lot as it often historically has.

Cheers! Bob

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I think solar (and other forms of renewable energy) are essentially a bubble in the process of popping, as driven by global economics and a building public backlash.

The first element is pretty obvious. Governments have borrowed themselves into a perilous state and will have to jettison superfluous and non-essential spending of all sorts. That includes subsidies for renewable energy.

The second element is perhaps more nuanced but is related to: (1) the public become more convinced the entire "global warming" theatrics are vastly over hyped; (2) ever increasing realization by the public that renewable energy has no meaningful impact on CO2 emissions; (3) ever increasing irritation with massive overspending by governments. These pieces will and are playing off each other and the net result is that folks are becoming ever more incensed. That leads to emotionally driven overreaction, with renewable energy being hammered more than it probably should be.

Please note, I do not believe renewable energy is going to disappear. However, events will cause it to nearly collapse, with the survivors being those who can deliver a product comparable in price to competing forms of electrical generation. That is exactly as it should be.

In a broader historical sense, the popping of the renewable bubble is just one of many "boom-and-bust" cycles that characterized the energy business.

PS Jerry Watson's analysis of solar cost is pretty much spot on. My firm's financial Pro Forma show similar results relative to the break-even price of natural gas. The long term duration of today's low-cost natural gas is clearly uncertain, but I think low-cost natural gas in the US will be around for many years. Also, one should note that if the cost of natural gas does rise significantly in the future, then solar can be installed at that time (not now), as installation is relatively quick, with the future panels being nothing more than commodities. Bottom line, it is just plain dumb to install solar in the US, as we have ample supplies of low-cost natural gas.

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Jerry, your numbers are way off. Here's why.

Let's use NREL's levelized cost of energy calculator, which you can access and use to confirm my numbers.

http://www.nrel.gov/analysis/tech_lcoe.html

At $3/watt (the figure I cited for today's prices approaching grid parity, not the $3.80 figure you used, which is from 2010), 25% capacity factor (with single-axis tracking, which adds about 25% to the capacity factor), 20 year facility life, and ignoring O&M cots for both solar and natural gas, 9.5 c/kWh wholesale natural gas power price, and 3% utility rate escalation due to other factors, solar can produce power for 11.9 c/kWh versus 12.4 cents, wholesale to wholesale.

The 9.5 c/kWh figure is from the 2011 Market Price Referent, which is going to be 15% below the currently active 2009 MPR.

My analysis assumes that the solar project is interconnected to the distribution grid rather than the transmission grid, saving significant costs to ratepayers because it's far more expensive to interconnect to the transmission grid. Moreover, distribution-interconnected solar has been found in a very recent analysis by E3 for the CA PUC to avoid distribution grid, transmission grid and line losses equivalent to 4-8 c/kWh, depending on location.

And of course solar is a reliable peak power provider, which benefit is not captured in the above comparison with a baseload natural gas power plant.

So the bottomline is that solar is arguably at grid parity today with baseload power sources and is already far cheaper than fossil fuel peak power resources.

As for integrating into the grid, many studies around the country have found that variable renewables like wind and solar can be integated up to 20% or more of the grid for a 10% or lower premium on top of the cost of power. This is the case for a variety of reasons, not least of which is that all grids now require a planning reserve margin to be maintained, as well as things like geographic dispersion and locating closer to load.

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Tam, While I am familiar with the NREL's tool, I believe your analysis is overly optimistic. The actual incidence of solar energy over the year is not linear; using a simple average for “capacity” is not accurate. Given the typical desert location of solar fields, the transmission system must be used. Also, the time-varying seasonal nature of the wholesale price of power needs to be considered in any profitability analysis. Further, all subsides associated with solar should be scrubbed out so as to allow a good apples-to-apples comparison. With the "all-in" costs determined, then a comparison can be made to a simple-cycle peaking gas turbine using $4/mmBTU, including recognizing that the gas turbine can supply power at any and all parts of the peak demand period. The preceding is a relatively straightforward exercise and allows for an unvarnished honest investment comparison.

I would be hesitant to use the NREL tool, as it is not necessarily apparent what is actually inside the model. Drawing conclusions from such models can be misleading and risky; better to figure it out yourself and be certain. Personally, I do not believe anything the California PUC spews out because left-wing politics drive the agenda, not hard-nosed financials.

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Michael,

Solar does indeed avoid some or all of the line losses DEPENDING ON LOCATION as Tam pointed out. For example solar avoids them entirely for all practical purposes in rooftop systems powering the owners' own house, and similarly avoids a lot of it feeding into the local urban grid to power his nearby neighbors.

I agree with you the CA PUC's agenda is (likely) very much politically driven, but so what else is new about government influence over our electricity system. Right now there is a big political push here in Ontario also to get investors to buy into solar. Even if their advertised line-loss cost savings figures are exaggerated or inaccurate, it helps to sell it to new investors. It’s known as “salesman’s puffery” in other businesses. The actual savings numbers being talked about won't matter over time because the continued buy-in and adoption of solar will drive its capital costs lower, which is precisely what our politicians want to happen.

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I could have a lot more faith in the cost estimates of the renewables if I saw a real intent to compete with a level playing field. Instead, in addition to the subsidies that we all pay for, we see the same environmental groups filing litigation and lobbying heavily against development of conventional energy sources. Natural gas is often mentioned as being a key component of the bridge to renewables, but there are very few areas of the country where the environmental movement does not try to block drilling and all conventional energy development, including gas generation units. It is obvious that a strategic part of their strategy is to drive up the costs of their competition. And yes, you can talk about the pollution generated from producing activities, but let's not forget the pollution generated from the mining and refining and fabricating of solar panel materials.

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"Behind-the-meter solar is important but is dwarfed globally by utility-scale solar, and this emphasis on utility-scale solar will probably increase in coming years due to the dramatic price declines we've seen for solar. The public data for utility-scale solar is much less comprehensive but prices are far lower for this segment due to economies of scale."

Solyndra was about crony capitalism as is utility-scale solar. Billions of dollars in taxpayer stimulus loan guarantees given out by Obamabushca for industrial scale solar hot water heaters [solar-thermal] and utility scale PV purportedly to be built in the middle of no where on sacred Native American lands located in the Southern California desert are all just like Solyndra the wrong technology in the wrong location at the wrong time, because that's their plan to swindle us all. It's not about what you know but who you blow instead. I'm for breaking up these large monopoly utility holding companies and giving power back to the people instead. The way I give the power back is one roof at a time, starting with mine.

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Capacity Factor (sub solar plant) is a quite different animal than Capacity Factor (sub nuclear plant). The solar plant output rises from zero, spends but a few hours near maximum and decreases to zero where it stays overnight. Everything is just a bit different the next and every day because of geometry alone (unless the plant is on the equator). I presume everything, including the grid connection. Is sized for noon conditions. Precipitation, clouds, sand storms, volcano clouds during daytime hours might result in no output for a day, or days with zero capacity factor. But that’s just when we want most want solar energy.

A nuclear plant might very well run at rated output for a couple years, that is, capacity factor of 100% until a planned shutdown.

It looks to me that as long as we have only a small percentage of solar supply its practical to have enough base load capacity to take up the slack from solar outages, but I see a large problem as solar generation increases. How much non-backed-up solar can we have without risk of cascading outages at peaking conditions?

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Michael Keller, my analysis considers all of the factors you mention. I didn't mention any subsidies b/c I didn't include any subsidies. As for capacity factor, it's standard practice to assign an average annual capacity factor for each technology. Natural gas CCGTs are typically 50-60%. Solar fixed tilt 18-20%. Solar single-axis tracking 23-30%, etc. As I mentioned, solar PV is a reliable peak power provider in CA and other sunny locations, with an availability factor over 90%, based on recent studies. For times when it's not available normal Planning Reserve Margins are generally sufficient for low level penetration. It's only when penetration exceeds 15% or so that additional facilities start to be required. And as I mentioned going to 20% or higher has been found to require no more than a 10% premium on top of the cost of power, which is entirely manageable given the economics I already demonstrated.

As for the CPUC and its consultants' analyses being politically driven, check out E3's latest analysis yourself and tell me where you think they go wrong in calculating the locational benefits of commercial-scale distributed generation (including solar, wind and baseload renewables):

http://www.google.com/url?sa=t&source=web&cd=2&ved=0CCYQFjAB&url=http%3A...

You'll find it's rather rigorous, to say the least.

The bottomline is that we have now a very promising confluence of dramatic price reductions for solar and other renewables, increasing public awareness, and an increased awareness at the policy maker level of the significant benefits of wholesale distributed generation. This is the market I've long advocated for as being the most promising. Small-scale residential, etc., will always be far more expensive and not very scaleable. Mega-scale solar and wind can do a lot but they often have substantial impacts that may be avoided with minimal costs by looking to medium-scale ("community scale") DG, also known as "wholesale DG," which are generally defined as 20 MW and below, generally connected to the distribution grid rather than the transmission grid. This is the sweet spot that many jurisdictions are now starting to emphasize for the various reasons I've listed here.

If you're interested in learning more, see my many earlier columns here and at www.renewableenergyworld.com or see the Clean Coalition's website (one of my clients) at www.clean-coalition.org.

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Don Hirschberg, I think my previous comment addresses your concerns.

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Tam Hunt: On the contrary, I believe you completely missed my points. Actually I think you mucked up an issue that deserves much more study. While I don’t think 2% solar capacity would cause problems:. How about 10%, 20 %? Without a very great breakthrough in energy storage which might not ever come how high can this percentage be? Remember about 130 years of efforts to improve on the lead –acid battery have been disappointing if not failures. Your 2012 car will come with a lead-acid battery. We know how to convert sunlight to electricity – we don’t know how to store electricity.

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Subsidies? Good grief, I cannot think of an energy source or system that has not been subsidized and I wrote on this topic on these very pages pages in 2003. See http://www.energypulse.net/centers/article/article_display.cfm?a_id=315 titled "The Gas Turbine Diatribe" which was well-received and with help on clarifications by Septimus van der Linden. I will also note there is no larger subsidy than being made into a monopoly which was actually essential at that point in technological development but a subsidy no less. I think Tam did an admirable job on this.

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I agree with Tam that small-scale residential will always be more expensive than medium- or large-scale plants, and agreed the medium-scale community solar generators have great potential within distribution-grid utility companies. However in spite of small-scale residential higher costs, I believe this won't deter increasing numbers of residential consumers from investing in them for the following reasons;

1)As solar equipment costs continue to come down, they come down for all types of installations, small or medium or large. 2)A residential site can power the owner's own house (when active) effectively at a zero energy billing rate for the owner. 3)A residential site usually can sell excess capacity back into the grid, which helps to pay over time for their higher up-front capital costs. 4)In large densely populated urban areas there are fewer sites available for the medium-scale utility-owned sites, but there are lots of residential rooftops available. 5)There will be increasing numbers of consumers wanting to unplug from the grid permanently when dual small-scale generation systems that include solar and storage systems become practical for residential

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Tam, "Average" is ok as long as it is derived from the time varying curves that model solar output (really nothing more than a curve fit, and then calculate the "average" function for the curve - easy Excel spreadsheet exercise).

The general approach I'm suggesting is to see how close the options are to each, in terms of fundamental financials. If solar is within (or better than), the alternatives, then the investment may really have merit.

The problem I have with most information from government entities is that politically driven bias is often overtly (or covertly) introduced and such actions can badly skew subsequent conclusions. The CPUC is unquestionably introducing bias. Simple calculations serve as a sanity check.

While the cost of solar is clearly gong down, so is the cost of the primary competitor - simple-cycle and combined-cycle power plants using natural gas. With fuel for such plants roughly 70% of costs, the impact of $4/mmBTU fuel is very dramatic. The machine's efficiencies (as well as capital cost) also continue to get ever better. The machines can also supply power whenever needed. Will this huge advantage exist long-term? Hard to say, but in the near and mid term very likely. Does solar make sense now? Depends are where you put it. Will solar make more sense in the future? Yes, as long as costs continue downward, with more-and-more locations becoming economically viable.

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PS I would stay well away from using "global warming" as the reason for deploying renewable energy, for a variety of reasons. First of all, renewable energy's impact on global emissions is really insignificant. Second, the whole climate modeling enterprise is fiendishly complex and becoming ever more politically charged.

Simply beating the competition on price always works.

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Michael, as I mentioned I considered your previous points in my first response. The 9.5 c/kWh figure I gave for the levelized cost of electricity from a natural CCGT reflects $4 gas (and the associated current NYMEX forward contract pricing for the 20 year levelized cost analysis). I also considered in my comparison the ability of natural gas plants to deliver baseload power versus solar's peak power when I discussed the cost of integrating variable renewables like solar into the grid at maximum premium of 10% of the cost of power.

As for the long-term price of natural gas I'll bet you $4 gas doesn't last that long and that we'll see over $10 as soon as the global economy starts to recover in a serious way.

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Don, I've addressed your point twice now in my discussion of integration of variable renewables up to 20% or higher for no more than a 10% premium over the cost of power. Here's a recent report from Lawrence Berkeley National Lab summarizing many recent US studies on integration of wind (which is actually more expensive to integrate than solar b/c it's not a reliable peak power resource). See page 55:

http://eetd.lbl.gov/ea/emp/reports/lbnl-3716e-ppt.pdf.

And here's another good study on the variability of solar:

http://eetd.lbl.gov/ea/emp/reports/lbnl-2855e.pdf

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PS. We don't need energy storage for mitigation of variability. It will help and it's being analyzed seriously by many parties but mitigation with existing generation is the current choice in CA. CAISO recently found in its analysis of the integration needs for reaching 33% renewables by 2020 that CA would need literally zero new power capacity to integrate this dramatic increase of renewables (we're currently at about 14%) because we have so much surplus natural gas power on the grid now.

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Fred and Tam. I don’t understand why I seem to be lectured about California’s renewables targets. I don’t see the relevance to California’s present renewable percentage for example. What is the CA PV solar percentage? Worldwide PV is at a just barely visible 0.06%. I say there is a great difference between a capacity factor as applied to a nuclear plant that might be near 100% one year and 90% the next year because of scheduled maintaince and the capacity factor of a solar plant that shuts down at least 365 times a year.

When I mentioned the lead/acid battery I was NOT talking about batteries – I WAS talking about the intractability of the problem of storing energy. And I was NOT talking about batteries being the only avenue to storage. I have never complained about the Lead/acid battery. The response spins me as sorta pigheaded or a Luddite.

Denmark, Sweden and Norway are very lucky. Blessed with the Gulf Stream, great hydro, and wind potential and small homogeneous populations. They don’t have to do much dirty work, rather buy stuff from those who do the mining, coking, etc. (“Dirty” in one sense. Curiously some years ago I saw that one of Denmark’s principle exports was pornography. I’m not picking on the Danes – my maternal grandparents were Danes.)

Denmark, Sweden and Norway together do not have the population of Mexico City. Let’s hear it, “If the Scandinavians can do it so can the people of Mexico City.” How many agree? There are literally dozens of cities in China with large populations that I must admit I have not even heard of! Yet we hear of Oslo, Copenhagen and Stockholm as if they were important. When the Danes need electricity from Germany (at premium prices) they don’t balk at using electricity generated 45% from coal.

I have just looked up the percentages of world electricity generated by source. Coal 41%, gas 21%, hydro 16 %, nuclear 13%, oil 5%,” other” 3%. As world population is still growing at about 1.3 %, and there is a backlog of billions of people who do not have electric service today, the demand for electricity far exceeds the “other” category for as far as the eye can see. Electric service? - Hell, we can’t even supply food and good water for today’s 7 billion people. Next year a hundred million more.

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Looking at the bigger picture, solar (or wind) electricity generation may not be new technology, and neither is electricity storage, but this should not deter the companies who engineer and manufacture them from striving to improve on their efficiencies and lower their costs. And more importantly it should not deter society, including the utility industry, from adopting much more of them or from being persuaded through clever marketing to do so.

Take a look at what others have successfully done and are capable of doing in America's high-tech industries, like for instance the late Steve Jobs and his company Apple. My message here is evident in my comments below that I posted on another website today in memory of him - solar and electricity storage could use a guy like Steve Jobs. His legacy is also a good lesson on the power of mass marketing and how it can shape technology and lower its costs.......

Icon of America High-Tech It is a tragedy Steve has been cruelly taken from life during the prime of his career and of Apple's history. Steve was the ideal design engineer and product architect who intuitively knew how to marry technology design with consumer marketing and social trends, and sell it all at an affordable price. He was an expert on how to take existing technologies and perfect them in his products that were hit after hit in the marketplace, with each new one building on the design and marketing hooks from the previous one, very much like the Japanese did with their automobiles in the 80s and 90s. Steve was perhaps the model icon of America's high-technology industry who made the dream of every entrepreneur in that industry come true. Everyone in America's high-tech industry should take a long hard look at what he accomplished and hopefully learn from him. His legacy will live on for generations to come. Rest in peace Steve and condolences to his family and close friends.

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Tam, Am puzzled why your analysis is based on a combined-cycle plant, which is normally used for intermediate load generation. The simple cycle gas turbine is a more accurate comparison, as it provides "peaking" power just like solar.

However, if the comparison is with a new heavy frame combined-cycle plant, then today's “all-in” price for power would be around $55/MWh (~60% capacity factor, $4/mmBTU gas). My work suggests solar is more like 3 or 4 times that price.

The cost of power from the simple-cycle machine would be much higher (as a peaker, the capacity factor would be something less than 20%). Best rough guess is the simple-cycle machine would deliver power at around $125/MWh. However, the simple-cycle machines are becoming ever more efficient with installed $/MW prices dropping due to economies of scale of the ever large aero-derivative designs.

As to the longer-range price of natural gas, based on financial future’s markets the price of natural gas is expected to be low for the next several years. I would not be overly concerned with the longer range price of natural gas prices as I believe technology and the markets can adequately deal with future perturbations in price here in the US. Other places not as blessed with fuel resources we have are another matter, however.

In closing, comparing installed costs of various types of plants is not proper as the hours of operation need to be considered as well.

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"comparing installed costs of various types of plants is not proper as the hours of operation need to be considered as well."

Very good point Michael, at least it is today. The smart engineers who work on advances in state-of-the-art NG plant design also deserve recognition here. It's great to hear they continue to increase efficiencies and lower their costs through greater numbers of units sold, which will only help NG stay competitive even if NG prices spike unexpectedly in the distant future.

More economical large-scale storage, if it ever comes to fruition, however could diminish the importance of hours of operation. Another factor not considered in any of the above analyses is the environmental costs of operating any given type of plant. This is a prominent consideration today, and is likely to continue to grow in importance over time.

For example, here in Ontario our provincial government decided several years ago to shutter all of Ontario's coal plants entirely by 2014 or so because of their environmental footprint and associated health costs to people. The latter they estimated cost our publicly funded health-care system hundreds of millions of dollars each year from substantial numbers of respiratory illnesses and many premature deaths due to coal plant air pollution. Their cost estimates didn't even consider any effects of CO2 on global climate change back then either.

I will admit solar equipment manufacturing is not squeaky clean or green either, but once built their operating environmental footprint is far smaller than other types of plants.

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in spite of news media hype and generous federal/state level support for solar technologies, solar energy consumption growth was not impressive when viewed from a national perspective from 2006 to 2010. During 2010, total renewable energy consumption in the United States was aproximately 8 percent of the total. Of that 8 percent, solar was 1 percent and wind 11 percent. Previously in 2006, solar was 1 percent of the total energy consumption, while wind was only 4 percent. In terms of the total national energy consumption, both wind and solar are only small contributions. Please see my blog post on this subject:

http://www.jheversonconsulting.com/blog/2011/09/01/national-perspective-...

Dr. Jeffrey Everson www.jheversonconsullting.com

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Fred Linn, I think you need embrace a more practical viewpoint. We need to wisely use our resources and not go to extremes. That also means recognizing that "zero" impacts on the environment and health are simply not possible while spending massive amounts of money to achieve insignificant gains is unwise. Further, the extreme positions of large swaths of the “green” movement actually help impoverish the common man as reasonably priced energy is made unavailable.

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Michael,

I appreciate your sentiment, but unfortunately the human animal is not so rational to simply make wise choices all the time. For some reason, it's particularly true of energy. Given our current situation (yes, including the threat of climate change) it's not wise to steer away from nuclear power. But we are. It's not wise to not have a nuclear waste disposal plant. But we still don't have one. It's not wise to remain dependent on foreign oil, but we still are. It's probably not wise to waste the amount of precious oil that we do on personal transportation. But that's what we want to do.

So, given that we've been making some unwise decisions about energy quite a bit lately, the notion of a panel I can put on my own roof, and with a few electronic gizmos (inverters) allow it to perhaps run my fridge or some lights; that doesn't seem so bad to me. But that's somewhat beside the point; grid electricity will remain pretty cheap for awhile, as long as the economy is as depressed as it is right now. Overall demand is down.

Our singular unwise decision has been to avoid the reality of peak oil. In theory, PHEVs could mitigate that, but a more practical solution would be to use more NG in our vehicles. But we didn't want to do that, either. Remember ethanol? That was touted by lots of corporate folks (not just the greens) so you can accuse the green movement of having a monopoly on stupidity. Plenty of that to go around.

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"plant" should've been PLAN "can accuse" should've been CAN'T ACCUSE

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If folks want to install and use renewable energy, that's fine. However, forcing everybody else to subsidize such efforts is not reasonable.

As for new nuclear power plants, they're way too expensive to build in the US and we have much lower-cost options available in any case. The older "nukes" that have paid off their debt, however, provide very low-cost energy.

As for oil, there are several ways to break-up OPEC, including: (1) drill and use our own resources; get more oil from Canada (build pipelines); get rid of the EPA's dopey boutique fuel requirements (only one "regular" fuel used); use more hybrid vehicles; increase the efficiency of our vehicle fleet (as driven by the marketplace, as opposed to government edicts); zero out all tariffs on importing ethanol from off-shore. A common thread that thwarts these common sense approaches is the federal bureaucracy and their allies, the Democratic Party. That is where stupidity lies; the problem is not the “average man” who has remarkably high common sense.

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Gotta say, Micheal, your pretty much wrong on every point in that last post. You're making the error of thinking, in terms of timeframe, like modern corporations instead of like concerned educated grandparents.

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The groovy Fred Linn is back in action with his fictions about Scandinavian energy. Listen Fred, I am going to give a pro-nuclear talk in Singapore soon during Singapore's Energy Week, and you should come there to tell the large audience how dumb Fred Banks is where this topic is concerned.

But Listen, don't tell them about Sweden importing electricity from Denmark. That is a deep, dark secret - so secret that I dont know anything about it. Of course if I were told that this is true by every clergyman and economist between the North Pole and the Capetown Navy Yard I still wouldn't believe it, although it may be true.

Does anybody in this forum want to know in what country you can find the cheapest electric power. Well, the answer is Sweden if the export of electricity was forbidden. You see, in my new textbook I claim that energy should be regarded as a public good - like streetlights and police protection. This idea was also advanced in the book 'Security of Energy Supply in Europe: Natural gas, Nuclear and Hydrogen'. If all the electricity generated in Sweden stayed in Sweden, the utility executives who have become rich selling this country out could become even richer, and the prosperity of everybody else - on average - would increase.

Then why not forbit the export of electricity?. The Russians and the Chinese are almost certainly going to do this if they feel that it makes economic sense, because they don't want to be called stupid. Having a magnificent comparative advantage like intrinsically inespensive electricity, and giving it away to satisfy geniuses like Fred Linn makes a guy wonder what surprises will appear further down the line.

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Don, review what I wrote again. I've addressed your points about integration more than once.

As for current solar capacity versus future demand growth, my first chart shows the average 68% annual growth rate and the 1.3 year doubling time this rate of growth produces. Isn't it clear, as I discuss, that if solar continues to grow at even half this rate we'll have more solar power than we use very soon? Exponential growth is ... exponential.

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Michael Keller, you are right that the more accurate comparison between solar and natural gas is to a peaker natural gas plant rather than combined cycle (CCGT). However, California has chosen as a matter of policy to compare renewables to a new 500 MW CCGT as a cost benchmark. This is the "Market Price Referent" (MPR) and it has diminished in importance recently, due to legislative changes, but it's still widely known as the status quo cost of power. It also includes some modest environmental compliance costs, which a new CCGT would also have to pay, such as GHG and criteria pollutant compliance costs. For projects coming online in 2012 the price is, under the current MPR, about 10.5 c/kWh. However, the MPR is about to be adjusted downward to reflect much lower NG prices (about $4), to about 9-9.5 c/kWh. This is the figure I used in my previous analysis in these comments.

As for levelized costs more generally, the CA Energy Commission puts out a good report every couple of years on this topic. Their most recent report is here:

http://www.google.com/url?sa=t&source=web&cd=3&ved=0CCsQFjAC&url=http%3A...

Their figures are quite a bit higher than the new MPR: about 12 c/kWh for a new CCGT and 80 c/kWh for a peaker (largely due to the very low capacity factor of NG peakers in CA).

I addressed this point in my original analysis, however, stating that my analysis did not fully consider the peak power benefits of solar. It's a bit more complex, however, in CA, than this because of the "time of delivery" adjustment that power producers receive for wholesale power. This is supposed to represent the time value of power, including peak. But it arguably isn't fair b/c of the large disparity between costs of power from CCGT vs. peaker plants. And that's a longer discussion.

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Fred Linn, and certain others, one of the great American torch songs is THE MAN WHO GOT AWAY, especially as sung by Judy Garland. My favorite line in that is FOOLS WILL BE FOOLED.

Siemens is NOT going out of the nuclear business. I wont even try to explain it because you and certain others wouldn't understand the explanation. By the way Tam, having more solar than we can use is not quite right: I think that you mean solar production capacity, because only a fool would try to make something important out of solar and wind in Sweden.

And Michael, nuclear is NOT too expensive to build in the US or anywhere else. What is the issue here. The issue is making the right kind of calculation, and there are many people in this forum who can make that calculation. I'm not going to make it unless I'm paid to however. No sir and no mam.

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I agree Professor Fred that nuclear is not too expensive to build because it depends where you are in the world. The Chinese clearly do not think it is too expensive and are building (as we speak) dozens of nuclear installations. So too is the United Arab Emirates, the United Kingdom France and many other states. I refer you to accurate data published by the World Nuclear Association website which shows the number under construction. Clearly the statement that "nuclear is too expensive" depends on where you are in the world. I note that Tam has studiously avoided answering my post because his calculations only work in climates like Southern California and therefore are not applicable to most populated locations in the world. Of course there is a case for solar in climates where it is sunny for prolonged periods. The same is quite obviously not true for large areas of the Northern US where significant populations live and is ridiculously inappropriate for climates like Canada. Solar is (of course) touted as the great Carbon Dioxide savior however while indeed the "fuel" may be carbon dioxide free the manufacturing process to produce the materials need to make them most certainly is not. Simple calculations show that thousands of square miles of land would need to be covered in solar panels to replace even a small fraction of the base load capacity provided by nuclear. But there is little point in stating the obvious flaws in the deployment of this technology. As Fred notes above Fools will be Fooled so learn the hard way.

Nuclear power plants will be there to keep the lights on....whether the sun shines or it does not.

Malcolm

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Malcolm, it becomes tedious to have to repeatedly refute your constant trashing of solar, but for another example, if you were to study the EROIE graph presented here by Ratio of Energy Returned on Energy Invested, Murphy & Hall (2010) Ann NY Acad Sci 1185:102-118. , you'll see that Solar PV and Nuclear are at practically indistinguishable separations. Most other placements look very rational, eg. ethanol very low (nearly negative), coal and Saudi Oil very high.

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Without practicable large scale energy storage I don’t see either solar generation method amounting to more than some low percentage of total generation. It is difficult to estimate but as a rather wild guesstimate attempt not over 20% in the most favorable solar-milieu to perhaps 5 % to 10% in a solar-favorable situation and far less in most locations.

The latest number I can find tonight is that 0.06 % of the world’s actual generation (not to be confused with capacity) is from solar. At this range increasing doubling capacity doesn’t amount to much, it’s even small compared to one year’s increase in demand.

Tonight I also dug out my slide rule and my Keenan and Keys and made a simple but quite rigorous calculation assuming we would store sensible solar thermal energy during the day to keep generating electricity during 24 hours per day. I didn’t know what conditions so I so I chose storing liquid water at 544.37 F which requires 1000 psia at saturation conditions. And I chose a turbine operating at 600 psia. (liquid water has a high specific heat, 1 BTU/ degree F per pound, or 1 calorie per degree C per gram) and a very high latent heat of vaporization.)

A pound of saturated water at 1000 psia (544.37 F) expanded to 600 psia (486.21 F) would go to 0.09677 pounds of steam and 0.90323 pounds of water. The small steam flow would go to the turbine and the large water stream (together with the condensate from the turbine exhaust condenser) would go to get reheated by the sun, likely the next day.

But wait. To get reasonable efficiency we would need to condense the steam turbine exhaust at less than 100 F (.94 psia, .06 atmo, i.e. a vacuum) While this is a standard operation when there is a river or lake available for cooling the best solar locations frequently do not have quantities of cooling water.

Solar voltaic presents unique energy storage problems. The prospect of batteries and capacitors looks rather bleak. I live in the midst of dams. Pumping water back above power dams is a method of storing energy. But it gets complicated. The Army Corps of Engineers is tasked to release water to satisfy flood control considerations, electricity generation, oxygen content for trout and bass, levels for resorts and boating, tourism, water supply for agriculture, domestic water systems, and manufacturing is a daunting task usually not satisfying anyone. In fact enraging “environmentalists.”

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In the US, we have a lot of natural gas and combined-cycle plants cost about 1/5th of a nuclear plant. From our notoriously short-sighted viewpoint, there is no financial reason to build nuclear plants. Like the grasshopper in Aesop's fable, I expect we will pay a price in the future for our shortsighted way of life.

Tam,

The price of power from a combined-cycle plant is unusually high so I took a look at the report you referenced. It appears the CEC lads are assuming pretty stiff escalations in the price of natural gas, starting at around $6/mmBTU. When that is included in the “levelized” model, the $/MWh becomes unusually high. IMO, the CEC is skewing the analysis. Putting $4/mmBTU gas in their model with little if any increases in price of gas yields entirely different results. They do show solar at somewhere north of $200 MWh, which is consistent with out Pro Formas.

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Follow-up: I did some more review of the CEC document when I noticed they were purporting the price of power for simple-cycle machines at somewhere north of $800/MWH, which is an astounding price. Turns out they are assuming a 5% capacity factor. Nobody in their right mind would install a machine that only ran 5% of the time; your investment would never be profitable.

Without a doubt, the CEC is guilty of deliberately skewing data for political purposes. They purport that the solar & wind options have the lowest cost, which is utter nonsense.

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