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A Sunny Future for Utility-Scale Solar

By John Finnigan

512px-Nellis_AFB_Solar_panelsUtility-scale solar and distributed solar both have an important role to play in reducing greenhouse emissions, and both have made great strides in the past year.

Utility-scale solar, the focus of this article, is reaching “grid parity” (i.e., cost equivalency) with traditional generation in more areas across the country.  And solar received a major boost when the federal tax incentive was recently extended through 2021. The amount of the incentive decreases over time, but the solar industry may be able to offset the lower tax incentive if costs continue to decline.  New changes in policy and technology may further boost its prospects.

Record year for utility-scale solar

Some of the world’s largest solar plants came on-line in the U.S. during the past year, such as the 550-megawatt (MW) Topaz Solar plant in San Luis Obispo County, California and the 550MW Desert Sunlight plant in Desert Center, California. Last year saw a record increase in the amount of new utility-scale solar photovoltaic generation installed – about four gigawatts (GW), a whopping 38 percent increase over 2013, and enough solar power to supply electricity to 1.2 million homes.  This number is expected to increase in 2015 when the final numbers are in.

The first reported contract for solar power under five cents per kilowatt-hour (kWh) occurred in 2014: Austin Energy’s 25-year power purchase agreement (PPA) with SunEdison for 150 MW of solar power.  The trend continued in 2015, when Nevada Energy secured a 4.6 cent per kWh PPA with SunPower.

But perhaps the most impressive milestone for utility-scale solar in the past year is that it is increasingly reaching grid parity with traditional generation.

The industry uses a “levelized-cost analysis” to compare the cost of different power sources. The analysis reviews all the costs needed to produce power for each type of plant – such as construction costs, operation and maintenance expenses, and fuel costs – as well as the amount of power generated by each type of plant. Then the “levelized” cost to produce a single megawatt-hour (MWh) of power for each plant is calculated. This allows for an apples-to-apples comparison of how much it costs to produce a single unit of power.


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A natural gas combined cycle plant has the lowest levelized cost for traditional power plants (including coal and nuclear), at $61/MWh to $87/MWh. The levelized cost for large solar, when including the federal tax incentive, has been reported as low as the $46/MW (see the Nevada Energy and SunPower PPA examples above).  When the cost of environmental externalities, including air pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, or water withdrawals, are fully accounted for, utility-scale solar provides even greater benefits.

Solar owes its gains to several factors. The cost for PV solar panels has decreased over 60 percent since 2010. A flurry of projects is coming on line now, before the tax incentive decrease takes effect. State policy is also a major driver of the increase in solar installations. But this growth is really expected to explode in the coming years.

Future outlook is bright

Future decreases in the tax incentive present a challenge. In addition, falling natural gas prices will make it more difficult for large solar plants to remain competitive with combined cycle plants unless policies can be put in place to recognize the cost of environmental externalities. But a number of factors point to a bright, long-term future for utility-scale solar plants:

  • Changes to state and federal energy policy: We saw two historic advancements in 2015 that could result in big gains for utility-scale solar in coming years: the Paris climate accord, signed by 195 nations this month, and the Clean Power Plan, finalized this summer to limit carbon emissions from existing fossil-fuel power plants for the first time in history. As a result, many older, fossil-fueled plants will likely close and electricity from traditional power plants will become more costly. This will help large-scale solar plants remain cost-competitive. On the state level, policymakers are ratcheting up their renewables goals. For example, California passed SB 350 in September, raising the California renewable portfolio standard from 30 percent to 50 percent by 2030. This will create additional demand for solar over natural gas or other fossil fuel generation.
  • Continuing price declines: The price for solar panels has decreased significantly during the past five years. To the extent that manufacturers can continue to decrease their price, this will lower the cost to build solar plants. The Topaz Solar and Desert Sunlight plants each have nine million solar panels, so even a small decrease in panel cost can result in major savings in the cost to build a plant. While natural gas prices appear to have bottomed out, the price decreases for PV solar panels have not shown any signs of stopping. This cost decline will also make solar an easier choice for utilities to include in their integrated resource plans.
  • Technology improvements: Researchers have steadily increased the amount of electricity solar panels can generate. Crystalline silicon solar panels, the most prevalent type of panels, have become much more efficient in recent years and manufacturers keep reporting new efficiency records. Thin-film solar panels, which have a smaller market share, have increased their efficiency by over 20 percent in recent years. If these technology gains continue, the output from large solar plants will increase, making these plants more cost competitive with traditional generating plants.
  • Advancements in energy storage: If energy storage can be developed on a commercial scale, this would increase the value of solar because it would allow grid operators to dispatch power when the grid needs it. This future may be sooner than we think. California has established an energy storage standard, requiring utilities to implement 1.325 GW of energy storage by 2020.  And earlier this year, Oregon passed HB 2193, establishing an energy storage standard. Finally, the largest U.S. battery storage project was announced earlier this year – a 200 MW project by Alveo Group for Customized Energy Solutions, an energy storage service provider.

Utility-scale solar has seen tremendous gains during the past few years. Achieving grid parity with traditional generation is a remarkable achievement. This resource will face headwinds when the federal tax incentive decreases in 2017, but a number of factors point to a sunny outlook for large-scale solar.

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Discussions

Engineer- Poet's picture
Engineer- Poet on December 29, 2015

PV primarily displaces fuel; it cannot provide firm capacity.  5¢/kWh out of a 60% efficient CCGT corresponds to a fuel cost of 3¢/kWh, or $8.78/mmBTU.  This is probably around the delivered price of NG in many areas during a historic low price period for NG.

We’ll see if PV plus storage can compete.  My suspicion is that, even with a carbon fee, it can’t; it needs a fast-responding grid to work with, meaning gas-fired turbines.

Robert Bernal's picture
Robert Bernal on December 29, 2015

It would seem that intercontinental powerlines would be cheaper than the massive amounts of electrical storage needed to power the night and wintertime WITH solar.  Say, a deal with  South America using HVDC. I hear China is installing HVDC. Eventually, such lines from other continents could completely power the night (and charge electric cars). I believe there would be less energy costs and about the same amount of efficiency losses, as with bulk storage. 

Engineer- Poet's picture
Engineer- Poet on December 29, 2015

South America has night at about the same time North America does.

This is a general problem with all “the X is Ying somewhere” schemes:  what if it isn’t, or if those the X is Ying for don’t have enough extra for you?  Like Peterson’s soon-to-be-infamous all-renewables study, failing to account for bad and worst cases means disaster:  either you plan to handle these things, or you won’t be able to.

Robert Bernal's picture
Robert Bernal on December 29, 2015

Summer sun in the south for the U.S.’s wintertime, and vice versa. Panels are going to get cheap. Too bad we can’t lay cables (and solar) from Africa, too. Those desserts could power the whole world. 

I’m thinking that there are too many security issues concerning other, possibly rouge, countries doing any kind of advanced nuclear. Would rather them obtain the low enriched fuel that’s harder to enrich but i understand that the whole clean energy deal is not worth it if all the other large countries opt out. So, whatever is the safest nuclear with regards to security, despite waste issues. We can handle that.

Perhaps, since “nobody” likes nuclear, and “everybody” likes the idea of placing little wind spinners at sea, it would be far more “acceptable” to simply place nuclear at sea, as nobody in the western world can really doubt the safety record of nuclear powered aircraft carriers (i imagine impossible to meltdown). The extra costs of laying cables should be easily offset by the lesser amount of liability costs. 

Joe Deely's picture
Joe Deely on December 29, 2015

 “We’ll see if PV plus storage can compete.  My suspicion is that, even with a carbon fee, it can’t; it needs a fast-responding grid to work with, meaning gas-fired turbines.”

Obviously depends on how big the carbon fee is…

Either way, California will be about 70-75% carbon-free by 2030.  10% Hydro, 10% Nuclear, 10% Wind/Geo/Other and 40-45% Solar with some storage…I’m guessing about 10GW/40GWh. 

After that, it will depend on what’s new with nuclear, how cheap storage is and/or the size of that carbon fee.

Bruce McFarling's picture
Bruce McFarling on December 29, 2015

The continiguous United States spans four times zones … there are substantial opportunities for long haul HVDC east/west to both smooth demand and smooth supply, as sunrise is ~3hrs earlier in the East and sunset ~3hrs later in the West.

But just as it would be a mistake to try to allocate storage variable-source by variable-source, it would be a mistake to allocate cross-haul transmission capacity variable-source by variable-source. There is also smoothing of wind supply, and because weather systems in North America tend to run West to East, connecting distinct wind supply regions along East/West lines also substantially reduces the variability of windpower availability.

And variability of solar power and windpower are negatively correlated, since wind speeds are on average higher at night and often low during the hottest of summer days, so aggregating wind and solar at the outset reduces aggregate variability, and cross-connecting on an East-West axis reduces variability further.

And it would also be a mistake to try to allocate cross-haul capacity just for net-load smoothing. Dispatchable firming capacity is required, and a proportion of that will be higher frequency firming that is best served by reservoir hydro resources. But reservoir hydro capacity is not uniformly distributed, and so it is likely to be more efficient to distribute some of the higher frequency firming capacity through transmission, with lower frequency firming capacity more often distributed through dispersion of the generating plants.

 

Engineer- Poet's picture
Engineer- Poet on December 29, 2015

Obviously depends on how big the carbon fee is…

Well, let’s see.  Guessing 40% efficiency OCGT (based on LHV) means 1 kg of methane yields 20 MJ output (6.67 kWh) for 2.75 kg CO2.  $100 per metric ton CO2 costs 10¢/kg or 4.1¢/kWh.  You need the plant anyway (because wind and solar do just go off-line when they feel like it) so only the marginal cost matters.  Fuel at $10/mmBTU delivered costs 8.54¢/kWh.

An Eos Energy zinc-air battery at $160/kWh amortized at 7.5% over 20 years costs $15.47/kWh/yr; cycled 75% daily, storage costs 5.7¢/kWh.  That will do you for overnight, but longer cycles cannot be handled with battery storage; weekly cycling to 75% costs about 40¢/kWh.  I’m too tired ATM to double-check figures or go through the implications.

Either way, California will be about 70-75% carbon-free by 2030. 10% Hydro, 10% Nuclear, 10% Wind/Geo/Other and 40-45% Solar with some storage…

California has more than 10% of the US population.  While its high electric rates have kept per-capita consumption down, 30 GW average seems ballpark.  Meeting 45% of that with PV at 20% capacity factor, you need 68 GW of PV and on the order of 13.5 GW and 230 GWh of storage.

California is doing everything possible to wipe out its nuclear generation.  Unless there is a political sea change there, Diablo Canyon will be gone by 2020 and there will be no new builds even started by 2030.

Robert Bernal's picture
Robert Bernal on December 29, 2015

Solar will be cheaper than wind, since no moving parts. The best U.S solar is only in about 2 of those timezones.  None of which will do good enough in the winter unless backed substantially with NG. By that time, it’ll probably cost more (plus any carbon tax). Instead, we could have lines from other continents, along with the smart grid and some storage for overall smoothing. If the WORLD wants to deal with excess co2, then powerlines offer a way beyond energy intensive bulk storage. 

Admittedly, the political issues would be the problem, however, almost 200 countries signed on to commit to deal with global warming. If that can be done, then i believe a robust global grid would trump over expensive, economy destroying carbon taxes.

Bruce McFarling's picture
Bruce McFarling on December 29, 2015

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Bruce McFarling's picture
Bruce McFarling on December 29, 2015

But with windpower, in the highest value sites, the solar energy comes to you and in a more concentrated form. Just as with hydropower, the terrain collects solar energy from over a wide area, in a form that is much more readily stored than solar PV.

Robert Bernal's picture
Robert Bernal on December 29, 2015

In 20 years, solar will be the cheapest source by virtue of solid state, and it’s connections. No moving parts, electricity brought to you at the speed of light and partitioned according to planetary means.

Yep, i have faith in the machine automation of that which everybody likes – and powerlines, well, people are already learning the ropes concerning HVDC. Now, i might be wrong, perhaps NG will still be cheaper. We can’t really afford a carbon tax.

In the meantime, countries should be considering the global distribution of distributed renewable energy sources as at least another powerful option. If there is to be a carbon tax, then it should pay mostly for renewable energy and efficiency research and development (and be capped at only being only a small amount of overall energy costs). We already have a myriad of solutions. Now we can make them better – and more connected. 

About wind and batteries, i think i was wrong to say they’ll be to expensive compared to solar and lines. There is still lots of material science discoveries that can improve both, such as solid state batteries and turbines made out of graphene.

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on December 30, 2015

An important feature of solar is that it works well alongside baseload nuclear, especially in warm climates.  

But don’t bother adding local or regional solar in northern areas like the northern US, Canada, or UK; that just locks-in fossil fuel use.  These area have peak electricity demand in the wintertime, when solar is feeble and unreliable.  It basically makes zero-carbon grids impractical.

Bruce McFarling's picture
Bruce McFarling on December 30, 2015

I guess the question of whether any advanced nuclear would be acceptable for those concerned about the risk of rogue nations or actors depends on how worried people are about the risk of U233 bombs.

AFAIU, by reputation U233 is not the most useful of isotopes of uranium to work with for a fission bomb, and if the country with Th232/U233 fuel cycle reactors has the capacity to reprocess the U233/U232 on site, they may not need the capacity to separate the U233 and U232, which could make for even greater difficulties in developing fission bombs that are effective triggers for a fusion bomb.

If it was the case that a separate process to develop a more conventional fusion bomb is lesser technological challenge than developing a fusion bomb with U233 based fission triggers, then it might be judged that it is no greater proliferation risk for a country to have Th232/U233 fuel cycle rectors than otherwise. In that case, the facilities to generate the original fueling of U233 could be located in countries in the nuclear club, and if that included the source of the reactor design, the builder could include the initial seeding with U233 with the sale of the reactor.

Now, a rogue actor could make a “dirty” bomb of a sort if Th228 is seperated from the U233/U232, but then again there are lots of ways to make bombs that have nasty effects if exploded … I would be very surprised if the genie was not already out of the bottle regarding proliferation of the ability to make bombs that nasty or worse.

(BTW: rouge is French for red, rogue is the scoundrel or the solitary animal, which by metaphor gives rogue nations, originally mid-1500’s hard g “roger”, possibly from Latin rogare, to ask, for beggers who would pretend to be poor scholars.)

Bruce McFarling's picture
Bruce McFarling on December 30, 2015

It seems likely that if “40%-45% solar” is solar PV, it is not average energy supply but rather nameplate capacity, which at a CF of 25 to, maybe, 30 (if allowing for technological progress of performance in lower light conditions) would be 10%-13% of supply, which would amount to more like 40%-45% carbon free unless the “wind/geo/other” is cranked up.

Over the longer term nuclear might also be cranked up, but given the present political climate, I’d agree with EP that getting that done in advance of 2030 does not seem all that likely, and simply retaining any substantial share of the nuclear that California has will be a challenge unless there is a shift in the current national politics of nuclear. I actually have some hopes in that regard as we get past 2020, but that would also imply more for possibilities in the 2030-2050 frame.

 

Bruce McFarling's picture
Bruce McFarling on December 30, 2015

The devil is always in the details, though. Much of the Dakotas have a fairly high solar incidence. Now, that resource would be almost entirely for export, primarily for summer peak demands in more humid Great Lakes climates laying to the East, and ordinarily you would not expect solar PV to fund the required transmission. However, if Dakota wind is already being connected to Great Lakes consumers, it could be that there is commonly available spare transmission capacity during summer demand peaks that would make a reasonable business case.

From growing up in exurban Ohio, I suspect a more promising use of distributed solar energy may be over-provision of solar hot water capacity in suburban separated residences, to provide a surplus of hot water in the summertime for dessicant dehumidifier. Effective dehumidifcation can substantially increase the summer temperature comfort range and allow for substantially less AC power consumption.

 

Bruce McFarling's picture
Bruce McFarling on December 30, 2015

“We can’t really afford a carbon tax.”

If we can afford to emit the carbon, then we can afford the carbon tax … just because the market prices are lying about the costs do not mean that the costs do not exist. And if the carbon tax proceeds are all redistributed through a social dividend, then as an economy we can afford as high a carbon tax as we choose to impose.

Robert Bernal's picture
Robert Bernal on December 30, 2015

I have to agree only if redistributed and if capped up to a certain amount. Past that, there might be social chaos caused by anti-socialist movements. Also, if too much money went to a particular technology, there would be no need for further innovation in that field. And if the entrepreneurs are taxed too much, the republican argument becomes true. However, it might also help to pay down debts as long as there is more economic activity. Does taxes really create more activity than without? At the minimal level, we need them but can a society absorb that much wealth redistribution when dependent on industry? 

What makes me have to agree with you even more, though, is the fact that eventually, machines will be doing all the labor and logistical work. They already make web pages and can soon flip a burger, and can already take orders for that burger. There’s going to have to be A LOT of wealth redistribution just so that people could survive. 

Now, the other republican argument holds: if other countries exempt themselves, then we pay more (at first) for all clean energy and they get the exports. I believe there is no way around this until clean energy is cheaper than coal or unless all countries commit. 

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on December 30, 2015

There is absolutely no reason to believe that avoiding civilian nuclear power will prevent (or has prevented) any nation from chosing to deploy nuclear weapons.  While access to appropriate fissile materials is a big issue for construction of the first prototype, it is a relatively small part of a national weapons program.  

Any nation that wants nuclear weapons will always be able to build them from the uranium that is available in essentially all rocks and seawater; and as India and Pakistan have shown, no amount of pressure from other countries (especially pressure that is specific to the civilian nuclear industry) can stop them.

This weapons proliferation argument is yet another distraction designed to turn turn out attention away from fossil fuels, which are the real danger to our well-being.

Joe Deely's picture
Joe Deely on December 30, 2015

Agree with most of what you say… Hope that Diablo Canyon does not close. Definitely no new nuclear builds started by 2030. Only hope for nuclear in CA during the 30’s will be if we have some successful implementations of modular nuclear(100MW) elsewhere in the 20s. (Maybe Utah/Idaho?)

Your capacity factor number is low…but 68GW would not be a problem. I think your 230GWh of storage is way high. I’m guessing it assumes no sharing/trading of resources within the rapidly evolving CAISO system. Can you share how you calculated that? 

The western states(CA,OR,WA,MT,ID,WY,CO,UT,NM,AZ,NV) are rapidly integrating. CA already gets a lot of imports from these states(Hydro from OR,WA , coal from UT, AZ,NM, nuclear from AZ, Solar from NV and AZ, wind from OR and MX) There will be more sharing by 2030.

Joe Deely's picture
Joe Deely on December 30, 2015

Definitely not capacity… I am talking about energy supply. CA is already at 10% over last two quarters. 

See here. 

Large number of plants completing this next year. This will bring number to 13-14 %. Should be 20% by 2020. Easily.

 

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on December 30, 2015

Below is a couple of curves; note in both cases that a nuclear-solar mix which is rich in nuclear can greatly reduce the need for energy storage (and thus environmental impact of pumped-hydro and chemical waste from batteries).

Colorado (source):

 

 The UK (source):

 

As noted in the linked article on the UK, much of the electricity demand is actually for hot water.  In addition to displacing fossil fuel use in commercial and domestic space heating, district heat networks powered by waste heat from nuclear plants can also supply heat for domestic hot water (thus helping to suppress the winter electricity demand peak).

The following curve has interesting implications for the question of where distributed solar generation should be located to minimize transmission loss based on noon-peaking: just like for minimizing cost, commercial solar beats residential.

California summer demand 1999 (source):

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on December 30, 2015

EP, your ballparks seem accurate (Wrigley-size). Total capex, 2015 prices:

68GW of utility PV (1,360 square miles) @ $2 billion/450 MW = $302 billion +

230 GWh storage @ $160/kWh (EOS zinc-air, projected) = $36.8 billion or

230 GWh storage @ $500/kWh (Li-Ion) = $115 billion

Looks like we’re not getting out of the woods for under $300 billion, in the most optimistic scenario. And we still have to maintain an entire dispatchable infrastructure, for the simple reason that running out of electricity is not an option.

Or…

we could build 20 San Onofres for two-thirds the cost, eliminate carbon emissions from electricity production in California, cart all the useless solar panels/wind & gas turbines to a spot in the desert, and erect a rusting monument to our antinuclear folly. With 1,300 square miles of virgin California wilderness left over.

Robert Bernal's picture
Robert Bernal on December 30, 2015

I now feel safer with conventional, even though less efficient because it’s just low enriched. Advanced reprocessing, it would seem, opens the door for easier than from the ground up obtainment of highly enriched via illegal means.

Perhaps the SMR designs are best for security reasons and because of easier manufacture. 

Joe Deely's picture
Joe Deely on December 30, 2015

Chances of over 50GW of solar being built in CA/NV/AZ/UT/NM over next 15 years >90%

Chances of ANY new nuclear being built in CA over the next 15 years <0.1%.

Chances of ANY new nuclear being built in Western 11 states over next 15 years <1% 

 

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on December 30, 2015

Bruce, thanks for that interesting background on the word “rogue”.

I suppose you’re now going to suggest African desserts can’t power the whole world?

How disappointing.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on December 30, 2015

Joe, chances of hyperbole at work in any post using capitals for emphasis are WELL over 100%.

Robert Bernal's picture
Robert Bernal on December 30, 2015

Yes, i appreciate his note and i noticed i misspelled desert, because of my phone. I’m kinda reluctant to edit for spelling grammar since it notifies everyone. As long as biofuels don’t enter, I’ll leave it alone, lol.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on December 30, 2015

Robert, I wouldn’t poke fun if I didn’t do it all the time myself.

Joe Deely's picture
Joe Deely on December 30, 2015

Bob,

Just wanted to emphasize the >0% for nuclear builds. Seems like it worked.  I would be happy with even a 100MW nuclear plant being built in Idaho… but I see no indication that we will see that before 2030. 

If you think my nuclear estimates are hyperbole – I assume you think otherwise. So tell me – how am I exaggerating? 

Can you tell me where we will see nuclear in CA before 2030?

How about in the Western states?  What are the names of these projects? Which utilities are funding these projects? SCE?,APS?,Xcel?,PG&E?,PacificCorp?  

Will take 5-6 years to get approved and another 8-10 to get built, so somebody better start building the project plan and getting the funding for these soon. 

Any answers? I didn’t think so. 

 

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on December 30, 2015

Joe, I don’t know anyone who can accurately estimate odds of something like that happening in California to within one-tenth of one percent.

I have to admit, I’m kind of proud of being able to resist the temptation to try.

Joe Deely's picture
Joe Deely on December 30, 2015

“I have to admit, I’m kind of proud of being able to resist the temptation to try.”

Just like I thought – no answer. Cop-out.

You give no answer, so that you don’t have to expose how ridiculous your logic actually is.  You have no plausible project. You have no plausible funding. You have no plausible utility that might want this plant.

Southern Company started talking about Vogtle in 2004/2005. Latest estimate for completon is 2019/2020. That is for a plant in Georgia not California. In CA, we recently shut down one nuclear plant and there is a good chance we will shutdown another. If Vegas were to put odds on a nuclear power plant being built in CA by 2030 they would be a lot higher than my 1000/1.

You know all of this but still you say – “We could build 20 San Onofre’s. “ . Give me a break.

Maybe you should give in to the temptation and try thinking a little. 

In the meantime, I’ll vote for the sure bet that will provide zero-carbon energy for CA.

 

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on December 30, 2015

EP, question: any idea of how the internal resistance of grid-scale zinc-air batteries compares to that of Li-Ion? Not much info online, but I found this:

The chief drawback of zinc-air batteries is, however, a high internal resistance which means zinc air batteries must be huge to satisfy high current needs–for notebook PCs that means an auxiliary battery pack about the size of the PC itself.

Other sources suggest it’s less than Li-Ion. Hard to tell whether they’re talking about the hearing-aid type or rechargeable ones, however.

Engineer- Poet's picture
Engineer- Poet on December 31, 2015

68 GW * 4.8 hr/day = 326 GWh

70% stored (to serve evening and overnight demand) = 228 GWh

Bruce McFarling's picture
Bruce McFarling on December 31, 2015

Ah, I thought you had an actual worked out scenario that had a 40% solar number. But instead you are projecting from current roll-out rates.

It’s your projection from 20% on to 40% that is problematic. The incremental value of additional solar PV will drop rapidly in the 20% to 25% range, while the incremental value of any complementary source of energy will increase dramatically, as you start hitting the “duck’s belly” issues. 

Bruce McFarling's picture
Bruce McFarling on December 31, 2015

Also, if too much money went to a particular technology, there would be no need for further innovation in that field.”

First, carbon pricing reduce the requirement for technology-specific incentives … instead of, as we are doing now, putting subsidies in place to offset a fraction of the subsidy of allowing free CO2 dumping (and often a rather small fraction), pricing the carbon allows no/low carbon energy generators to chase market share through their cost relative to suicide power generation with fossil fuels.

And second, innovation is more driven by opportunities available than by need, and carbon pricing increases the opportunities available to generate a profit through the production and sale of no/low carbon. It seems likely to generate more innovation, since for each technology, the lower its cost of power relative to other no/low carbon sources, the higher its market share is likely to be.

Bruce McFarling's picture
Bruce McFarling on December 31, 2015

First, the more solar you have, the more valuable the windpower becomes, because it’s negatively correlated with solar.

And, second, only the panels are solid state. Installation of the panels is not. It’s simple proportional arithmetic that as the cost of the panels drops, the importance of the cost of the panels for total system costs also drops. If you minimize installation cost with a ground level installation taking over the solar farm area, you increase the cost of land for solar versus wind, since the footprint of a wind turbine is much smaller than the area of the moving wind column that it harvests energy from. And if you minimize land costs for a solar farm by using roof top area, that increases installation cost.

So the argument that solar will be “the winner”, “because its solid state” is oversimplified. The least cost source of power from variable renewables is likely to continue to be a portfolio of different sources, because unless you have a least cost source with supply very closely correlated with load, there will be a portfolio of supplies that have a better fit to load than any single source.

Note also, regarding “The best U.S solar is only in about 2 of those timezones,” that this does not imply that it makes sense to only obtain solar from the areas with the highest solar incidence … the same process where an increasing supply of solar increases the value of complementary sources of energy also works when some other source of energy is a larger source and solar is the complementary source.

Bruce McFarling's picture
Bruce McFarling on January 1, 2016

They can power some part of the world … after dinner walks, for instance … since some of them are quite rich. Quite a bit nicer than what passes for dessert here in Beijing.

But as far as the North African desert powering the world, first it has to power the North African countries. Morocco, as reliant as it is on diesel power, and with such a high quality solar resource, is even building solar CSP, and as far as I understand, after the first stage is complete, the plan is to add thermal storage to increase the share of energy supply that can be provided by CSP.

If they hit energy self-sufficiency, perhaps they can string an HVDC under the Straits to Spain and continue the roll-out, allowing them to sell solar energy to Spain after the sun sets on all that Spanish PV.

Bruce McFarling's picture
Bruce McFarling on January 1, 2016

This is a general problem with all “the X is Ying somewhere” schemes:  what if it isn’t, or if those the X is Ying for don’t have enough extra for you?”

We kind of know the answers to those questions already … after all, its not as if humans are new at harvesting variable renewable resources, its just that we do not have much experience in harvesting so much of them directly as electricity. What if all of the farms everywhere fail to produce … then we have a universal famine. What if all of the farms here fail to produce and those where the farms did not fail to produce do not have any incentive to deliver any to us? Then we have a local famine, which is the kind of famine that is normally experienced, where the hunger and starvation is due to the inability of those who are hungry to offer a sufficient incentive to those who have food (which is not always overseas … an extreme case is the Irish Potato Famine, where Ireland was exporting food to Great Britain even as millions were dying due to the failure of the potato crop).

If the X’s in aggregate are Y’ing somewhere in the country, then the capacity credit they can be given entails studying the minimum available supply during maximum net-load.

If there is enough in aggregate, but not enough of the X’s are Y’ing over here to offer that capacity, the question of whether the X’s that are Y’ing over there will make that power available to us over here is primarily a question of how the incentives are structured.

Joe Deely's picture
Joe Deely on January 1, 2016

Bruce,

Actually I do have a scenario that has a 40% solar number and I am projecting.  I think it makes sense to work both forward and backward.

I agree on duck belly issues but I don’t this coming into play until 30%-40%.

CA already has a pretty flexible grid and it will become more so in the next 15 years.

CAISO is working to integrate many neighboring states into a large, more flexible market.

CAISO has been operating since November 2014 in parts of California, Oregon, Washington, Utah, Idaho, and Wyoming. It now includes the active participation of the Warren Buffett-owned PacifiCorp utilities, and will soon include NV Energy, Puget Sound Energy (PSE), and Arizona Public Service (APS).

Exports of solar to neighboring states and some storage will get CA to 30% without too many issues. CA already has some pumped hydro storage and has plans for more and there will defiinitely be a decent amount of battery storage by 2030.

In sample day below… imports during midday will time-shift to early evening and CA will trade/export during midday. Some in-state Hydro which was almost non-existent in 2015 would also be time-shifted. (assuming drought is not perpetual).

Current coal imports(UT,NM,AZ) which are pretty rigid will be replaced with a combination of more flexible Nat Gas, solar, wind and GeoThermal.

Also, sun will come into picture a little earlier than shown in below chart as CA will import some solar from NM,UT,AZ and NV.

Finally, TOU pricing will starting coming into play more in 2018.

 

Engineer- Poet's picture
Engineer- Poet on January 1, 2016

The British solved the local famine problem in India by introducing railroads. Before railroads, it wasn’t possible to move enough food fast enough.

You need more than incentives to move energy around, as the electric price difference between NYC and upstate proves. Among other things, you need permission.  You can get it through eminent domain but that is a long and expensive process.  Then you have to install the infrastructure, which does not itself generate any energy.  Only THEN can you move energy along that corridor… and if it doesn’t happen to be going in the right direction for the current pattern of shortage vs. surplus it doesn’t help at all.

How much incentive do you have to pay someone to e.g. shut down all but their barest survival activities in order to share with you?  Sending people home from work is expensive.  If you have to do that very much because of shortages, you’re quickly going to go broke.  You may go broke paying for the infrastructure to shuffle energy around before you lay out a nickle in fees for actual energy.

Bruce McFarling's picture
Bruce McFarling on January 2, 2016

How much incentive do you have to pay someone to e.g. shut down all but their barest survival activities in order to share with you?”

If they have to do that, then their yield at their current load is less than their current load, and if yours is as well, then the capacity credit to the variable renewables should be equal to or less than the share of power coming from the variable renewables, and so you’d turn on some of the balance of the generating capacity that took up the rest of the capacity market.

You need more than incentives to move energy around, as the electric price difference between NYC and upstate proves. Among other things, you need permission.  You can get it through eminent domain but that is a long and expensive process.”

Or, even more efficiently, institutions to provide the capacity to move it around along existing rights of way. But in either case, a key factor in establishing those institutions is providing incentives for those investments.

But its not enough for the benefit on full economic costs from moving the energy around be the most economic cost-effective solution … it’s necessary that the benefit on commercial costs is the most commercially cost-effective solution, and that requires seeing to it that the commercial costs and benefits and the economic costs and benefits are more or less lined up.

And effective incentives have to be incentives to take effective action … if long term capital investment is required, a modest assured return often trumps a potentially large but variable return.

Mark Heslep's picture
Mark Heslep on January 4, 2016

“UAMPS (Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems), NuScale and Energy Northwest have entered into a Teaming Agreement that outlines the parties’ intent to investigate the viability of developing a Small Modular Reactor (SMR) project in the State of Idaho…

UAMPS intends to construct and operate a 570 MWe (net, nominal) nuclear power plant for the CFPP, based on NuScale’s technology and plant designs.”

http://www.uamps.com/index.php/38-items/24-carbon-free-power-project


“In June 2013, NuScale Power launched the Western Initiative for Nuclear (Program WIN), a broad, multi-western state collaboration, to study the demonstration and deployment of a series of NuScale Small Modular Reactor power plants in six Western United States. A NuScale SMR built as part of Program WIN is projected to be operational by 2024″

http://www.nuscalepower.com/our-technology/technology-validation/program...


Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on January 4, 2016

Mark, you just beat the big odds – 100:1.

Any picks for Super Bowl 50, old buddy?

Joe Deely's picture
Joe Deely on January 5, 2016

Mark,

Thanks fo the info. This is the project(Utah/Idaho) I was talking about in my Dec 30th comment.

The coal-powered InterMountain Power(1800MW) project will be shutdown – at least partially – by 2025 and part of the power from InterMountain goes to UAMPS members. To read about power share – go here. By the way, 75% of the share goes to SoCal utilities – including Bob’s own Burbank Muni. About 14%(~250MW) is assigned to the Utah muni utilities.

Most of what I have seen – shows a smaller Nat Gas plant being built and complemented with Solar/Wind to replace the coal.The main player in this is LADWP – and you can see their thinking here.

However, it would be great if some modular nuclear was built. Plus there is already that huge transmission corridor to LA – so potentially some of the electricity could get down to SoCal.

 

Here is another good read on UAMPS.  They are an interesting group and I think they have a good chance of getting the first modular nuke built in US. But I don’t think they will do it by 2030.  

Maybe my 1% odds for new nuclear in Western US is low – maybe Vegas would go with 2-3%. However, my 0.1% for CA is way high.

Robert Bernal's picture
Robert Bernal on January 5, 2016

Wind is not always negatively correlated. Right now, it’s cloudy but there’s no wind. Not to say that its that way all the time, but to say that not always is there wind when there is no sun. Other times, there would be too much.

It would be nice to be able to ship that extra wind and solar around the planet via longer powerlines, and to decrease poverty from still underdeveloped areas.

I believe the solid state argument to become the truth by 2050 or so. Solar and solid state batteries will continue their cost declines and exponential growth (well, I admit, I’m just being wildly enthusiastic concerning actual solid state batteries). Perhaps, it will be nanotube based ultra capacitors. However, by then, such material should be made very cheap as simply part of the panels themselves in an advanced continuous extrusion type process. It will last as long as the panels, thus no moving parts for storage, just a requirement to ration the solar panel output per global smart grid requirements. Homes will have better versions of the Powerwall, in order to take advantage of extra wind, and “old” solar, too, for their nightly car charging requirements.

I guess, I underestimate the need for multiple different generating sources, especially, if wind also improves to almost same ratio as solid state. I believe there is not as good of sunlight in the Eastern U.S., thus the reason I should agree with you about the ability for wind turbines to also continue to improve! If wind turbines do not quite improve at the same ratio as solar, it will still offset the long distance line loss from southwestern (and even “other continent”) solar and save extra on storage.

Competing “solar storage” panel companies (making for utility scale) might not have to add so much storage material, being that they know the inputs from wind will be available, (and to sell home batteries for cheaper instead?). Perhaps, the home “Powerwall” will simply be battery material under solar panels made so cheap that even in less sunny areas, there would be a market to have every roof covered.

Thanks!

Engineer- Poet's picture
Engineer- Poet on January 7, 2016

If they have to do that, then their yield at their current load is less than their current load, and if yours is as well, then the capacity credit to the variable renewables should be equal to or less than the share of power coming from the variable renewables, and so you’d turn on some of the balance of the generating capacity that took up the rest of the capacity market.

Turn what on?  In a 100% RE case there is a small amount of biomass and waste for dispatchable power, but when it’s gone, it’s gone.  This is a recipe for permanent dependence on the “natural gas bridge” (to nowhere), as the oil-financed Precourt Institute knew when they paid for the propaganda of Mark Z. Jacobson.

even more efficiently, institutions to provide the capacity to move it around along existing rights of way. But in either case, a key factor in establishing those institutions is providing incentives for those investments.

So a hypothetical institution to provide a solution for a problem that is created by your proposed solution to another problem?  And there’s not just transport issues, there’s also grid stability.  Grains, oils and even meat travel well enough to ship them around the world, but electricity is hard enough to ship that we would rather transport coal and gas instead.  You’ll have to subsidize your way around the cost issue and there is NO financial fix for stability; that comes down to physics.  And you are still hand-waving about supply; it comes down to this apocryphal “somewhere” (over the rainbow, perhaps).

Betting the planet, or even a country, on this is foolhardy to the point of suicidal.  No.  Just… no.

if long term capital investment is required, a modest assured return often trumps a potentially large but variable return.

This is why most wind farms today are using the investment tax credit, which pays out most of the project’s expected return upon completion.  The investment is divided into tranches, with the “hot money” banksters taking theirs and running while sticking the operating company and its owners with the possibility of bankruptcy.  Graft on a massive scale.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on January 7, 2016

EP, I wasn’t aware of the “Precourt Institute” and Mark Jacobson’s fossil funding. I guess that fills in some blanks.

You’ve probably seen this, I hadn’t:

Who’s Funding Stanford’s Natural Gas Initiative

Plays well with the story of the purchase of California energy politics.

Regarding

The investment is divided into tranches, with the “hot money” banksters taking theirs and running while sticking the operating company and its owners with the possibility of bankruptcy.  Graft on a massive scale.

Very much the M.O. featured in The Big Short, which you also might have seen (if not – recommended).

Engineer- Poet's picture
Engineer- Poet on January 7, 2016

If it’s on Atomic Insights and was posted more than a day and less than 2 years ago, you can assume that I’ve read it.

donough shanahan's picture
donough shanahan on January 14, 2016

And variability of solar power and windpower are negatively correlated,

And this is a completely unproven idea so it is dishonest to repeat it without proof.

Buyt we do have proof. The Fraunhofer data set for germany shows many times when wind is at zero, solar is at zero or both are at or near zero. 

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