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Solar Power - From the Rooftops to the Oceans and the Sky

Solar Panels

In previous blog postings I have expressed my concerns about the relative return on investment and the economic fairness of roof-top solar panels. But I am also a big fan of solar power which is, after all, the most abundant and the most reliable energy source that we have at our disposal. In this blog I want to draw attention to some encouraging news in the industrial development of solar power. I also want to point out a few very fanciful uses of solar power that I believe demonstrate some of the future potential of this resource.

First, it is an exciting time to be involved with Concentrated Solar Power (CSP). With the commissioning of both the Solana Plant in Arizona and the Ivanpah Plant in Nevada over the next few months the global CSP generating capacity will almost double. The Solana Plant is particularly encouraging because it incorporates molten salt storage allowing the Plant to run for up to 6 hours after sunset. It is not the first plant to incorporate molten salt storage but it is the biggest.

Half a world away CSP developments in North Africa and the Middle East are starting to gain traction. The Noor I CSP Plant broke ground in Morocco in May, 2013 with financial support from the German government. In the same month the Internationally backed Climate Investment Funds approved a revised plan for the rapid development of CSP in North Africa.  This plan aligns with the Desertec Foundation's vision of utilizing solar resources in desert regions to transform local economies while supporting a transition to sustainable energy resources.

This year the government of Saudi Arabia made a massive committment to the development of solar power with the goal of converting most of the oil-fired desalination facilities in the Kingdom to solar power. That would provide some relief for global oil supplies (currently almost 2% of global oil production is used in Middle East desalination plants) as well as representing another very substantial increase in global CSP capacity.

The only negative development in the world of CSP is the 180 degree change to support mechanisms for the development of this technology in Spain.

Prior to 2013 Spain had been a world leader in developing CSP and is home to the two premier CSP engineering firms. However, the elimination of almost all financial supports for CSP developers in August, 2013 has led to a collapse of CSP projects in Spain. Luckily there continue to be many new opportunities in Africa, the Middle East and the U.S.

Photo-Voltaic solar panels have had more of a mixed year in 2013. Module prices seem to have bottomed out and the resulting price competition has led to the bankruptcy of a number of manufacturers. In jurisdictions where the penetration of solar panels has reached double digits as a percentage of normal load incentives are being cut back and in some cases regulatory barriers are being raised, most notably the capacity studies in Hawaii. In Arizona monthly service fees are being added to the utility bills for homeowners with rooftop solar panels. The many challenges facing PV solar represent a serious risk to the further development of this resource.

Although dropping solar cell prices and associated reductions in margins are disrupting the supply side of the PV solar business these developments are making it possible to showcase solar power in ways never before possible.

The team behind the Solar Impulse solar-powered airplane announced that they will attempt an around-the world flight in 2015 entirely on solar power. This well-funded and experienced team has been working for more than 10 years to make solar powered flight a reality.

Solar Impulse is not the only game in town when it comes to harnessing the energy of the sun to power an aircraft. Flying somewhat under the radar is Eric Raymond and the team behind the Sunseeker series of aircraft. The newest member of the family, the Sunseeker Duo (shown above) is currently undergoing flight tests. It will be the speediest solar-powered aircraft ever built. It will also be the first to be able to carry a passenger. I would encourage my readers to visit these sites and if you like what you see consider making a donation which will help these organizations continue their ground-breaking work.

Shifting from the skies to the oceans, the world's largest solar-powered ship, MS Türanor recieved a new life mission as a research vessel after completing the first solar-powered circumnavigation of the earth's oceans. It has set off on a Swiss-sponsored voyage to study the seasonal changes in the behaviour of the Gulf Stream.

 

These innovative applications of solar power demonstrate the potential of an energy source that can meet many of our current needs. Efficient and cost-effective energy storage remains elusive but with a dedicated global effort storage solutions will be developed. In the meantime it is interesting to watch as solar power moves from the hand-held calculator to powering transcontinental flights and beyond.

Discussions

I am puzzled by your statement "the most abundant and the most reliable energy source that we have at our disposal."

If you mean the sun is always present in the solar system, well that is true. But it does not follow that the energy can be routinely and economically harvested when needed on the surface of the planet.

In my opinion, there are applications where solar energy makes economic sense and that list will continue to grow as costs are reduced by clever folks. However, a massive amount of misinformation and outright nonsense is being peddled by certain folks with a clear leftist political agenda who have attached themselves (like parasites) to an otherwise sound energy technology.

Will be interesting to see the evolution of solar energy, particularly when the storage issue is overcome.

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Davis, it's going to be a long time, if ever, before concentrating solar (CSP) makes economic sense. Everyone understands CSP needs tall, expensive towers to house the steam boilers and large, expensive insulated tanks to hold the molten salt. But perhaps the biggest problem with CSP is it's awful storage efficiency - something like half the energy directed into molten salt storage is lost. Short of developing better storage media, I don't see how that problem gets solved and if it doesn't get solved, capital and average busbar costs are going to remain very high.

Jack Ellis, Tahoe City, CA

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I am not averse to the use of solar power where it makes sense. Unfortunately the left wing agenda is forcing its use where it makes no sense at all - such as Canada. The heavy snowfalls we have recently both in Canada and the US North East should hopefully make people realize that a solar roof top upon which Mother Nature has deposited two feet of snow produces no kilowatts day or night. Presumably those folks were wise enough not to disconnect from the electricity grid or purchase a sufficiently large generator for their electricity needs.

I note from the article that Spain has stopped subsidy of CSP and other solar projects....however I will add that it was the pursuit of such ill conceived non-profitable ventures that landed Spain in a large and prolonged economic mess. The same has occurred in Portugal.

On the positive side two things will change in the not too distant future which will make solar a viable option in countries with enough sunlight (that does not include Canada unfortunately).

Firstly, graphene based supercapacitors will make energy storage on a large scale economically viable and secondly graphene based semiconductors will increase dramatically the amount of solar energy collected across the entire energy spectrum.

But these are quite a way off - 10 years maybe. With present technology photvoltaic is not practical and CSP needs a desert which (if you had not noticed) do not occur everywhere - there is not one in Canada.

If the investment in the electricity system keeps getting sidetracked onto nut bar technologies that don't work or are economic non-starters then we will all find ourselves up the creek without the proverbial paddle.

In the meantime our ageing fleet of nuclear and fossil plants will keep on keeping the lights on but asking these units to run for 60-80 or more years is really asking too much.

Sooner or later new plants will need to be constructed.The longer it is deferred the worse the problem will be to fix.

Malcolm

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