Good News, I Hope

I have to take this with a grain of salt, because it is coming from GE, the current American poster-child for rent-seeking, particularly in attempting to be a magnet for green energy subsidies.   But since the statement can be seen as under-cutting the subsidy argument, I have to take it more seriously:

Solar power may be cheaper than electricity generated by fossil fuels and nuclear reactors within three to five years because of innovations, said Mark M. Little, the global research director for General Electric Co.

“If we can get solar at 15 cents a kilowatt-hour or lower, which I’m hopeful that we will do, you’re going to have a lot of people that are going to want to have solar at home,” Little said yesterday in an interview in Bloomberg’s Washington office.

....GE, based in Fairfield, Connecticut, announced in April that it had boosted the efficiency of thin-film solar panels to a record 12.8 percent....The cost of solar cells, the main component in standard panels, has fallen 21 percent so far this year, and the cost of solar power is now about the same as the rate utilities charge for conventional power in the sunniest parts of California, Italy and Turkey.

I am all for that.  I have always had faith that solar would make sense someday, and that we would be ranking out cheap solar conversion surfaces like carpet out of Dalton, Georgia, but every time I have priced it to date on my house, even with huge government subsidies, it has not made sense.    In Europe, it requires 50-60 cent feed in tariffs (basically a subsidy in the form of above-market electricity prices paid by the utility for solar-sourced electricity) to get solar capacity installed, so 15-cents would be great and is approaching the cost of electricity in some high cost areas.

Here in Phoenix, FirstSolar does a ton of thin film.  I have always had mixed feelings about FirstSolar.  On the one hand, they live off subsidies and would basically not be in business if it were not for huge European subsidies of various forms.  On the other, though, they have been one of the few solar companies that actively have talked for years of a development path to a cost position that does not require subsidies.

  • rxc

    Hmmmm... "sunniest places in California, Italy, and Turkey" Where would these places be? Maybe Death Valley, the deep southeast part of Italy, and the heart of Cappadocia, Turkey, perhaps? Places where it is mind-bogglingly expensive to string wires because no one lives there, so if you wanted to live there with grid power, the utility would charge an arm and a leg?

    Having worked for quite a while as a regulator of GEs nuclear business, I can say that you have to parse everything they say very carefully, and ask exactly what every word is intended to mean before you can understand what they are saying. Including "is", "the", and "a".

    GE is a company that is focused entirely on making money, and they are very good at it. They see green in green, and they are going to go after it, and they will use all the propaganda that the enviros can dream up if it helps them make a buck.

  • perlhaqr

    The question is still "how long do the panels last". I hope their $0.15/kWh price takes replacement cost amortization into account.

  • davidr

    Well, that's good news for peak load.

    It doesn't make a damn bit of difference for base load and demand load.

    Time for another refresher course in power generation: http://www.capitalistlion.com/article.cgi?1805

  • Bob Smith

    I've always wondered by environmental activists, nearly all of whom hate "sprawl", are so gung ho for solar and wind power generation, which have terribly low power density and thus require far, far more land than competing means of power generation. Is land wasted on solar cells or wind not "sprawl"?

  • Dr. T

    My BS detector went off the scale. The press release contains too many unfounded assumptions and uses too many weasel-words and disclaimers. Solar-generated electricity today (without subsidies and without hiding sunk costs and maintenance and replacement costs) is 2-5 times more expensive than fossil fuel-generated electricity. It would take at least a 100% improvement in solar film technology to bring solar electricity costs down to fossil fuel levels, and that would only be in locations with few cloudy days. Otherwise, electric power storage costs would overwhelm any savings from better solar films.

    I believe that solar-generated electricity never will be cost effective for widespread use because the process of converting light photons to electricity can never be made efficient enough. The chemical processes involved lose much energy as waste heat, and there is no way around that fact. The sun only shines for half a day, on average, and doesn't provide much energy before mid-morning and after late afternoon, and there is no way around those facts.

    We should focus our efforts on solar heating (which is very efficient in sunny regions) and stop wasting money trying to develop "economical" solar-generated electricity (the chemistry equivalent of a perpetual motion machine).

    Note: I was a chemist before I became a pathologist.

  • Philip

    It's hard to imagine any solar photo-voltaic panel being cheaper than a simple mirror, isn't it? We already have solar thermal systems which use a field of mirrors to heat a fluid and run a turbine. For example:

    http://ivanpahsolar.com/ and
    http://www.tonopahsolar.com/

    This guy thinks 66% efficiency is a reasonable maximum:
    http://www.inference.phy.cam.ac.uk/sustainable/solar/thermal.html

    These devices achieve a real 60% efficiency:
    http://www.ecomagination.com/technologies/h-syste-turbine-combined-cycle-system/

  • DrTorch

    Solar power already makes sense: solar thermal.

    And I question whether the laboratory idealized efficiencies will translate to the mass produced and installed home solar panels. Plus, the $.15/kWh price is due to gov't restrictions on production by more conventional means.

    Maybe we're headed in the right direction, but w/o some radical breakthrough
    http://www.fastcompany.com/1753846/solar-superpower
    alluded to but conveniently not described, I don't think PV will ever be cost effective for widespread use.

  • SolarKitty

    One of the primary problems with thin films is the lifetime and temperature loss coefficient (hot cells are significantly less efficient and in Phoenix they will get hot). So you have a system with performance that degrades overtime and is not efficient under the prime operating conditions; bright clear days. This means that you think you are installing 3kW on your rooftop but you will not get it since the 3kW is under standard conditions and you'll be lucky anything near that so your $/watt goes up. And let's do a really quick reality check, a 3kW system (that will take up a nice large section of southern roof), average 8 hours/day production *365 perfectly sunny days =8760kW-hr *0.15$/kW-hr*20years (typical amortization)=$39K - do you really think they will be flying onto roof tops at that price without Gov't subsidies?

  • http://frankania@yahoo.com frankania

    I like photo-electric panels precisely because they are off-the-grid and beyond the control of govt. or power-lines or accounting problems.
    I have a large house here in Mexico that has LED lights, stereo, small TV etc. and never pay any electric bills.
    Of course the climate here at 6000 feet is perfect and neither heat nor a/c is needed.

  • GoneWithTheWind

    Solar (PV) will not ever be a viable alternative to traditional sources of energy. It exists commercially only because of subsidies and mandates. All of the hype about PV is intended to continue the subsidy gravy train. The comment that 15 cent kilowatt solar is right around the corner or even possible is just more hype. Give us money and I'm sure we can make PV more efficient etc.