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Solar and Wind Energy: Value in Restating the Obvious about Renewables

George Orwell once said “Sometimes the first duty of intelligent men is the restatement of the obvious.”

In this vein, here is Kevin Bullis in today’s MIT Technology Review:

Siemens says it would make sense to build solar power plants in sunny countries in Europe rather than in cloudy ones. And wind turbines should be built in windy places.

These blindingly obvious suggestions run contrary to what’s actually happening. For example, a solar panel in Spain generates about twice as much electricity as the same-size solar panel in Germany

This graph makes it rather clear that some European countries simply aren’t well suited to solar, while some are:

Siemens study: Europe can save EUR 45 billion in its pursuit of renewables

This idea, that you build wind farms where it is windy and solar panels where it is sunny is a curiously controversial one. Some would even lobby accusations of you being “anti-renewables” if you put it forward. However it seems a rather obvious and hard to argue you with point of view. The “success” of solar power in Germany however has succeeded in convincing many that we can simply ignore these fundamental issues. And this is a serious problem.

Robert Wilson's picture

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Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on May 21, 2013

A not-so-obvious disadvantage of putting solar power production in cloudy (low capacity factor) places is that the difficulty of reaching high penetration increases even faster than the cost.  The maximum amount of solar power that a grid can accept without costly energy storage is determined by the peak solar output; with lower capacity factor, that limit is reached at a lower average solar output.

Worse yet, in these cloudy locations, concentrating solar power (CSP) works much worse than fixed PV (due to hazy days).  Lack of suitability of CSP means that energy storage (hence high capacity factor and high potential penetration) will be much more expensive:  thermal energy storage for tower CSP plants is around $0.5/Watt, but pumped-hydro (the cheapest method for PV) tends to be more like $2/Watt and batteries are even more. 


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