I Like to Hear This

In the past I have been critical of First Solar, like I have most solar companies, for having business models that were almost entirely dependent on huge government subsidies, particularly in Europe.  When these go away, the businesses start to crash.

I have not had time to dig into their financials to look for shenanigans, and to parse out how much is still dependent in some way on either direct subsidies of solar projects or incentives that cause utilities to buy solar electricity at above market rates, but First Solar reversed their large losses to a profit in the last quarter.  I am not sure if this is BS or not, but I like this attitude if true:

The company's cost per watt is the lowest in the industry, but it increased slightly during the quarter, to 72 cents per watt, because of the under utilization of its factories. If the factories had run more, the cost would have gone down, officials said.

Hughes said First Solar is making headway on its plan to target regions of the world with ample sunshine and a need for electricity, where solar power can compete without subsidies that make it cost-effective when compared with traditional energy sources.

Those places include Australia, India, the Middle East and other regions, he said.

That would be terrific.  I would love to see a solar boom driven by real economics and not taxpayer largess.

  • GoneWithTheWind

    I got ahold of a couple of small solar (PV) modules in the mid 50's. I have been breathlessly waiting for the predicted much lower prices and higher efficiences ever since. I have been disappointed for over 50 years. Every year the industry claims a new "breakthrough" on the horizon; lower prices/watt or higher efficiency, etc. And yet commercially it is still a disaster only possible thanks to massive subsidies. Pundits talk about oil subsidies or farm subsidies but these pale in comparison to the massive subsidy necessary to simply make it possible to have a commercial solar generation facility. And once the facility with it's 95% subsidies is up and running it produces expensive power that must be subsidized by rate payers until the facility closes. The simple fact is that power required to create a PV panel from birth to death exceeds the power the panel will ever produce in it's lifetime. Maybe someday PV will be commercially practical but given the physics and reality of the science I don't think it will. In the meantime a lot of money will be wasted/stolen by PV manufacturers and a lot of promised breakthroughs will be made. Sooner or later we the tax payers will wake up.

  • Ted Rado

    Even if solar power costs were to become competitive, they need backup. That problem appears to be insoluble. Quick-starting standby (gas turbines) have a lower efficiency than conventional thermal power plants, so that the fuel savings when the sun shines is lost when the gas turbines run. Trying to chase the ups and downs with conventional thermal power plants has been demonstrated not to be workable, or to save fuel. No net gain, at huge expense. This same problem exists for wind power.

    Unless someone can think of a way to run factories, home electricity, etc. only when the sun shines, it will never be feasible.

    The proponents of solar/wind need to explain a TOTAL system, incliuding backup and/or energy storage, showing capital costs, energy balance, etc. Just showing the solar system in isolation is a fraud.

  • Roy

    What GWTW and Ted said makes crystal clear cents to me. But I have the skill set (thinking thru a project and trying to justify it to managers who will OK paying the bill) and/or the skinflint bent (I'm cheap, know how to count costs, weigh tradeoffs) that make it clear. How do folks with those (or similar) abilities/flavors make others not like them understand?

    GWTW correctly observed, "The simple fact is that power required to create a PV panel from birth to death exceeds the power the panel will ever produce in it’s lifetime." The uninitiate point to, eg, solar powered devices one can find along any highway and think GWTW speaks lies. But those examples are cases where the user is willing to pay the premium (of power into construction of the solar module) because they have: 1) relatively low power demand coupled with 2) need for power without spending lots of money to get it there (no infrastructure, no power lines to something rural, or high mobility with, eg, construction signage along a highway).

  • Roy

    ps: As GWTW, I, too, for half a century have intently anticipated and carefully monitored solar module technology. Several times I had thought a breakthru approached. Either of two approaches might produce that breakthru. First, efficiency, although that approach runs into the problem that even very high efficiency does not bypass the reality that the solar energy per unit of area is not very big. (One would have to cover an area bigger than that of all the road surface in the U.S. to supply U.S. electric utility demands.) Second, unit production costs (if the modules are inexpensive enough and, as GWTW pointed out, have long enough life, then one can consider covering a lot of area with them. But neither the efficiency nor the cost has had enough progress to change the usage of solar power from small, mobile units to large, commercial utility size.

  • MingoV

    Solar electric power is not and will not be economical except in remote places that lack access to hydrocarbon fuels (natural gas, propane, gasoline, diesel, etc.) and where the population density is too low to support a fuel-driven power generating plant. That fact, based on physics and chemistry and astronomy, is unchangeable.

    In the few places where solar electric power has cost less than a dollar per watt (ten times more than goal or natural gas), the cost did not include maintenance and repair or the reductions in efficiency (from dust, dirt, bird droppings, scuffs, scratches, etc.) as panels age. The most efficient panels (that adjust position to follow the sun) also have the most frequent and costly maintenance and repair problems. These costs will be highest in the remote areas where solar electric power can be of most benefit.

  • streetfighter

    $.72 per Watt do the math. Kilo + 1000.

  • IGotBupkis, Legally Defined Cyberbully in All 57 States

    >>>> where solar power can compete without subsidies that make it cost-effective when compared with traditional energy sources.

    This is at best a temporary thing -- as those nations develop economically, the usability-functionality-cost-effectiveness of solar panels drops rapidly.

    Solar power is @$#@%%$ too ephing diffuse to ever work as anything but a niche market

  • Smock Puppet, 10th Dan Snark Master and CRIS Diagnostic Expert

    >>> Unless someone can think of a way to run factories, home electricity, etc. only when the sun shines, it will never be feasible.

    The real problem here is that proponents seem to have their heads in places where the sun NEVER shines...

  • IGotBupkis, Legally Defined Cyberbully in All 57 States

    Roy, GWTW, and Warren: Solar power will NEVER EVER have ANY kind of "breakthrough". The PHYSICS just isn't there...

    The solar constant (the approximate energy actually reaching the Earth's surface) under perfect conditions is roughly 1k/m^2 -- That means for every kW you want to produce, you're going to need to cover a WHOLE METER with little blue cells (or mirrors, if you're going solar-thermal). That doesn't sound like a lot until you grasp that we generate GIGAWATTS a day. So you're going to have to cover MILLIONS of square meters in order to get the power required. That's with 100% solar cells, which you won't have (so x2 for really really spectacularly good-currently not available 50% cells). And another x2 (50% for the day/night cycle) for four meters-square per 1kW. Add another meter for storage and transmission losses -- so 5m^2 per 1kW produced, being VERY VERY GENEROUS with the presumptions.

    It just DOESN'T WORK unless, as with certain situations, you need power in the far Outback, where it's not worth running electrical lines to remote places, or, say, rural India where they will no doubt RUN power lines, but haven't YET done so.

    It's a niche market, and will ALWAYS be nothing else. The Laws of Physics say this is so, and violating those will be a matter of Einstein level utter scientific miracles, not Edison level easily developed perseverance based engineering tricks.

  • IGotBupkis, Legally Defined Cyberbully in All 57 States

    P.S., the direct fact you're searching for is "Solar Insolation" -- this defines the real world power potential anywhere in the world. It's downright pitiful, go hunt up the numbers for yourself.

  • DK

    Clarification: 1000 watts/sq. meter is the best possible; solar noon at the equator (sun directly overhead), clear skies, and 100% efficient PV! And don't forget to derate for every other condition.

  • caseyboy

    How often do you have to Windex the panels???

  • http://www.azecon.blogspot.com Scott

    For actual real time data here in the Phoenix area, go to the Scottsdale Community College web page and hit the weather target at the bottom left. They have a continuously updated graph of soar intensity/m2. It tops out at around 1000 watts - sometimes a bit more, sometimes a bit less.

    http://www.scottsdalecc.edu/about-scottsdale/scc-weather

  • Harry

    Coyote, it is a minor point, but I am used to prices quoted in kilowatt hours, and $7.50 per kilowatt hour makes relative sense along with roughly $2.50 per mcf of natural gas, etc.

    Regardless of where the decimal point is, your point is correct.

    Meanwhile, the US Navy has committed to run our non-nuclear ships on moonshine at $26 and something per gallon. This stimulates the legal denatured moonshine industry; as they say at the USDA, no farmers, no future.

  • Smock Puppet, 10th Dan Snark Master

    >>> Clarification: 1000 watts/sq. meter is the best possible; solar noon at the equator (sun directly overhead), clear skies, and 100% efficient PV! And don’t forget to derate for every other condition.

    Actually, DK, it's above that for the conditions you spec, the 1k/m^2 is the more average, typical number in really, really good conditions at reasonable USA latitudes... like Scottsdale, AZ.

    It's what you can expect AT BEST. That's why I noted the Solar Insolation term to search the internet for area-related specifics. In many US locales it's commonly .6kW/m^2, for example.

    And you'll note that I listed off a number of other considerations that defacto derate it, like conversion rate, day/night, and so forth.

    I'm sure we're pretty much in agreement regarding the value of solar in all but a limited set of circumstances.

  • NL_

    Are energy costs really low in the Middle East? Aside from massive nearby oil generation, they also have massive social subsidies for everything (funded by oil rents). A number of gulf countries have welfare that would make a Scandinavian blush. An old professor said he visited Kuwait and the public payphones were free. I wonder how much of a market there would be for solar energy there, even though they probably have great weather for it.

  • me