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Cheap solar power! — Is this it, finally?

A discussion of the relative merits of alternative energy sources

Page Index

Cheap solar power!

Is this it, finally?

2003 10 06

If STMicroelectronics, Europe's largest semiconductor maker, delivers what it hopes for, things will soon become very interesting in the energy market.

Unless I misinterpret what is being stated in the forwarded article, the capital investment for solar cells to provide power for a 7.5 kVA service would be in the order of $1,500. Mind you, then there would still be costs for converters and energy storage and the energy losses incurred in energy storage and conversion. However, there would no longer be any billing and steadily escalating energy and service charges.

It will not be Utopia, but it appears to be more than just a pipe dream.  It may be feasible and economically attractive, even if not for everybody.  It certainly would create realistic competition for energy producers and -distributors.

Prototypes should be in operation at the end of 2004, after which "...ST and others would need to develop production technologies to make solar cells and panels in large quantities to achieve the $0.20 per watt target...."

"Our target is fixed at $0.20," said Coffa, who expects no major technological difficulties in going from prototypes to mass-produced commercial products.

I suppose that those news will not be promoted very heavily by the investor-owned utilities operating in Alberta.

STMicroelectronics, Europe's largest semiconductor maker, said that by the end of next year it expected to have made the first stable prototypes of the new cells, which could then be put into production.

Most of today's solar cells, which convert sunlight into electricity, are produced with expensive silicon, the same material used in most semiconductors.

The French-Italian company expects cheaper organic materials such as plastics to bring down the price of producing energy. Over a typical 20-year life span of a solar cell, a single produced watt should cost as little as $0.20, compared with the current $4.

The new solar cells would even be able to compete with electricity generated by burning fossil fuels such as oil and gas, which costs about $0.40 per watt, said Salvo Coffa, who heads ST's research group that is developing the technology.

(Full story)
(Story at STMicroelectronics)


Solar radiation received in Alberta ranges from about 1.4MJ (MJ: Mega Joule) per square meter per year in southern Alberta to about 1.1MJ per square meter per year in northern Alberta.

Joule: Unit of work or energy equal to the work done by a force of one Newton acting through a distance of one meter.

Newton: Force required to impart an acceleration of one meter per second per second to a mass of one kilogram.

Various energy conversion factors

  • 1.0 joule (J) = one Newton applied over a distance of one meter (= 1 kg m2/s2).
  • 1.0 joule = 0.239 calories (cal)
  • 1.0 calorie = 4.187 J
  • 1.0 gigajoule (GJ) = 109 joules = 0.948 million Btu = 239 million calories = 278 kWh
  • 1.0 British thermal unit (Btu) = 1055 joules (1.055 kJ)
  • 1.0 Quad = One quadrillion Btu (1015 Btu) = 1.055 exajoules (EJ), or approximately 172 million barrels of oil equivalent (boe)
  • 1000 Btu/lb = 2.33 gigajoules per tonne (GJ/t)
  • 1000 Btu/US gallon = 0.279 megajoules per liter (MJ/l)

Source: Bio-energy Conversion Factors (refer to source for more conversion factors)

Watt: Power equal to the work done at the rate of one Joule per second (1/746 horse power).

kilo: One-thousand

Mega: One million

One MJ is equal to 278 Wh or 0.278kWh

With an average solar radiation in Alberta of 1.25MJ per square meter per year, and with an efficiency of 10 percent for the solar cells, the total area for solar cells to be produced by STMicroelectronics required to satisfy a steady demand of 1kWh would be about 29 square meters.

Theoretically, assuming that energy storage capacity could be designed and installed to store energy during hours of sunlight at an efficiency of 100 percent and to guarantee availability of energy at 100 percent efficiency when sunlight is at low levels or not available, a collection area of 29 square meters (312 square feet) would be sufficient to supply one kWh per hour or 720kWh per month.

Mind you, solar cells generate no power during the night and will on dark and gloomy days generate considerably less than what one may wish to have available.  That requires storage capacity, most commonly by means of batteries.

Update, 2003 10 10 & 2003 10 11

The losses incurred through charging and discharging the batteries and through converters will require that the size of the collection area be increased by a considerable amount.  The area required could easily double on account of that.  That would increase the effective cost of energy required to be produced to satisfy consumption to 40 cents per Watt, comparable but still somewhat cheaper than the end-user cost of energy from conventional sources.  Those costs would be stable, virtually fixed, except perhaps for the portion of the cost contributed by the replacement and maintenance costs of energy storage.  Those are subject to change, but with a growing market and maturing research the replacement cost for components of energy storage may decrease a little over time.

On the other hand, the price for electric energy produced from conventional sources is steadily and at times rapidly increasing.  On January 1st 2001, Alberta consumers saw the costs of electric energy consumed more than triple over night.  On top of that there were substantially increased service charges due to the alleged advantages to consumers that deregulation was to bring, as promised by Ralph Klein, the Alberta Premier.  As it turned out, predictably, the only ones who benefited from deregulation were the utility companies and the Alberta Government (through energy royalties and production taxes, hidden taxes paid by the end consumers of energy).  Moreover, the utility companies benefited substantially more than just from the increased bottom lines on consumer bills.  Billions of dollars were handed over to them by Ralph Klein in the form of taxpayer-funded subsidies.  All of that although there was no corresponding amount of capital investment or operating costs that would have justified those expenses to Alberta citizens. 

Right now, almost three years after deregulation came into effect, the bottom line on Alberta power bills is roughly twice of what it was prior to January 2001.  That is not all.  Indications are that consumer prices for electric energy and services will keep on increasing.  There is a new charge for transmission losses.  Alberta consumers are being charged for transmission losses at the rate of about 3.17 percent of energy used.  The utility companies are trying to get that increased to eight percent of energy used.  Increases in the rates charged per kWh are in the making as well.

Would it be unreasonable to expect that the trend will continue, and that,  for as long as people buy their power from investor-owned utility corporations in a deregulated market, our power bills will continue to double every three years?

Solar power would provide some savings or break even at present prices for commercial electric energy only if electric energy can be produced by solar cells at the place of consumption and if a given consumer of electric energy could thereby become totally independent from the commercial electric power distribution network. 

The cost of energy produced when delivered into the distribution network (about 2.3 cents per kWh) comprises roughly 20 percent of the cost of electric energy, distribution, delivery, service and billing charged to the average home owner.  If the average home owner can make himself independent from the distribution network, and if his amortization of capital investment and operating costs of his very own, stand-alone solar power generating equipment (including storage and related costs) is in the order of $100 per month, he will break even.  It will be a while before enough information is available to permit anybody to decide whether a stand-alone solar power plant provides an economic advantage.  However, the biggest advantage would be the ability to escape from rapidly escalating commercial energy prices.

By the way, on the day CNN broke the story, a search on Google News showed that CNN was the one bringing it into the news.  As of 2003 10 10  01:11hrs RMT, Google News provided 307 search returns.  Such a rapidly escalating spreading of technological news is fairly rare, indicating that the issue addressed is an important one.  Given that the news connect the name of STMicroelectronics with ground-breaking research and development in solar-cell technology, there will most certainly be a large upward swing in the price of STM shares.

An interesting aspect of that rapidly escalating spreading of the news is not so much that some of the pundits obviously based their comments on what CNN had posted without giving CNN any credit, but that some of them dated their articles to before the publication date of the CNN article from which they gleaned their information.

At any rate, upon checking today other news items relating to the Sep. 30, 2003 announcement by STMicroelectronics upon which CNN had based their story, I came across one at FuturePundit.com that explores the context of solar-cell research and that provides some of the background that CNN and even STMicroelectronics (understandably in the case of the latter and due to shoddy journalism in the case of the former) neglected to address in their articles, that is that solar panels won't be of much use to anyone unless the electric energy they generate is stored in batteries, and that those batteries are quite expensive for energy-intensive applications such as those involved in the operation of the average household. 

My comments, above, merely point to the need to exercise caution.  The cost per Watt of solar-cell generating capacity must be added to the cost of batteries per Watt used.  Batteries are an important consideration for any consumer of electric energy that is generated via solar cells or other intermittent energy sources at the place of consumption.  The article at FuturePundit.com explores that a little.  Just as importantly, it identifies that other companies are pursuing research that is similar to that pursued by STMicroelectronics. (See related news)

As of now it seems that it would be foolish to bet one's money on just one horse in the race to cheap solar power.   What may provide an even greater investment opportunity would be successful research done in energy storage.  Even there, batteries are not all that offers opportunities for that.  For generating companies there would be an opportunity to pump water, for instance.  That is not very likely a viable alternative for individual energy storage by most home owners.  Heat storage in a thermal mass (e.g.: water) is more feasible for home owners, although heating any storage medium would be far cheaper by means of passive or forced solar heating than is possible through electricity even at the low cost per Watt predicted by STMicroelectronics.

At first glance, home owners seem to have no other alternative than to make a large investment in batteries for the storage of electric energy that can be used on demand as electric energy.  There are other alternatives.  Energy can be stored in the rotating mass of a flywheel, from hence it can be relatively easily extracted and converted back to electric energy when required.  Some companies have researchers exploring energy storage by means of flywheel technology.

Whether energy will be stored by charging batteries or by using any other means of energy storage, it is clear that cheap energy storage is at least as important as cheap solar cells. 

One aspect of both, energy generation and -storage, may ultimately determine what will develop into the industry with the most promise.  With respect to solar power the question will ultimately be whether the waste comprised of debris from worn-out components will pollute the environment or not, and not even so much that.  No matter what technology will be used, they all will pollute the environment to varying extents.  The biggest concern will be which technology will pollute the environment the least and whether, if taking that into account, it will be the cheapest to operate in the long run.

That is a consideration even for hydro-electric plants.  Water reservoirs have a limited and shrinking capacity over time.  They do silt up and need to be re-built or expanded.  For example, the water storage capacity of the TVA reservoirs is gradually decreasing and is now only approximately less than 75 percent of what it was when those reservoirs went into operation.

Compared to hydro- and nuclear power generating plants, which are absolutely non-polluting (except for the local environmental changes they cause) or at least nearly so in the case of nuclear power, coal–fired power plants are perceived to be the worst polluters, mainly because of the large amount of CO2 and the large amount of fly-ash they produce.  However, there are compelling reasons for disregarding the climate alarmists' exaggerated  claims of the detrimental impact of the "pollution" caused by coal-fired or nuclear power plants.

  1. Ash can be scrubbed from the exhaust gases of coal-fired power plants, although it would be prohibitively expensive if one wanted that to be perfect and totally effective.  Ash is relatively inert and of relatively little harm to the environment.  Not even the most extremist climate alarmists claim that fly-ash from coal-fired power plants poses a threat with respect to global warming.

  2. Contrary to what climate alarmists claim, CO2 is not a pollutant that harms the environment.  It is a natural fertilizer without which life as we know it would not exist on Earth.

  3. There is no scientifically valid proof that the global warming trend, which climate alarmist who have their knickers in a knot say is immediate and catastrophic, is anything of the sort.  The global climate was as warm or warmer in the 1930s than it is now, while in the intervening interval it cooled off quite considerably for some time.  It was much warmer yet in the recent and not-so-recent past (e.g.: the prolonged periods of warming during the medieval- and Roman climate optima).

  4. There is absolutely no or at best only extremely marginal proof that any activities by man cause global warming to an appreciable extent.  There is, however, solid evidence that urban heat islands are very local problems but not on account of fossil-fuel-fired power plants.

  5. The dangers of operating nuclear power plants are being unfairly hyped up by the media and special interest groups.*  Overall, nuclear power plants are far safer to people and the environment than fossil-fuel power plants.  More than a hundred thousand men died during the last century in the mining and extracting of conventional fossil fuels.  Of those, 18,400 died during the 1969-1986 interval.  In contrast, 31 died in the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, apparently the only known and published industrial nuclear disaster that ever claimed any lives.

* The Real Chernobyl Folly (off-site, 232 kB PDF file), by Zbigniew Jaworowski; 21st Century Science & Technology, Spring-Summer 2006

  1. Hydro-electric dams pose a very real and large risk to people and property.  There have been many catastrophic failures of hydro-electric dams, causing deaths ranging from none through tens, hundreds and thousands to hundreds of thousands of people in each instant.  The worst of those man-made catastrophes was the 1975 collapse of the Banqiao dam on the Ru River in China.  It caused 230,000 fatalities and enormous devastation of property over a very large area. (See: Recorded dam failures since 1860 that killed more than ten people each
       In relative numbers, that means that,

Calculating by unit of energy produced, the Chernobyl catastrophe caused 0.86 deaths per gigawatt-year of electricity produced, which is 47 times less than for hydroelectric power stations (40 deaths per GWe-year), including the 230,000 fatalities caused by the 1975 collapse of the dam on the Banqiao river in China.  (See: Belarus to Repopulate Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, by Dr. Zbigniew Jaworowski, July 28, 2010 — PDF file, 83 kB)

If a choice is to be made for massive installations of solar cells, the controlling issue may not be that electricity generated through solar cells is cheaper for the average consumer, but that it may be the only feasible alternative available for remote locations at which access to energy from conventional sources is presently far too expensive.  To satisfy all of the electric energy demand in the USA through solar power would require that about one seventh of the land area of the USA be covered with solar cells; and that estimate is based on current technology, not the less efficient (although cheaper) cells announced by STMicroelectronics.

Compared to the generally beneficial impact of coal-fired power generating plants per capita, electricity generated through solar cells may well present a far greater danger to the environment until someone figures out how to safely dispose of thousands of square miles of solar cells that disintegrated through years of direct exposure to sunlight and how to dispose of the debris from millions of tons of worn-out, even though perhaps reconditioned, batteries each year.

We must not forget the environmental disaster of the pollution and increasing temperatures in the local heat islands that large cities must now cope with on account of another ground-breaking technology, the advent of the automobile powered by the internal combustion engine.  If today's environmental standards would have been applied then to just its environmental impact, the automobile would never have gone into production.  On the other hand, maybe it would have been considered a cleaner alternative, compared to the environmental impact of the status quo, horses and the manure, carcasses, and injuries and fatalities they generated.

That is what we must consider now, not just the impact of any given technology or of a particular method for generating electric energy but the relative impact of every alternative available to us. Wise choices must be based on continuous objective evaluations of all available alternatives — considering their total costs to society — for energy production and not on propagandistic, unsubstantiated hype produced by extremist climate alarmists that opportunistic, unscrupulous and gullible journalists in the mass media are eager to exploit.

Update 2006 08 12

 SA solar research eclipses rest of the world

Willem Steenkamp; 2006 02 11

In a scientific breakthrough that has stunned the world, a team of South African scientists has developed a revolutionary new, highly efficient solar power technology that will enable homes to obtain all their electricity from the sun. (Full Story — off-site)

The article mentions: "The South African technology has now been patented across the world." Here is a link to the patent.  Other than that, the South-African technological developments are remarkable but not necessarily revolutionary with respect to developments and discoveries by others active in the field of solar research.  However, the somewhat enthusiastic claims about the South-African developments fall short of those developments being competitive in comparison to traditional methods of energy generation.

In an article in the Nov. 4, 2004 issue of Science in Africa it is stated that,

Work done over the last two years indicates that panels can be produced in commercial volumes at a cost of about R 500 for a 50 Watt panel. This is much cheaper than existing solar panels available on the market. CIGS is a remarkably stable material and conversion efficiencies should be sustainable for 15-20 years in any given panel.

That works out to about $1.66/W; and that is an optimistic estimate of the costs of the panels.  Those costs are considerably higher than the capital investment (~ $0.40 to $0.60 per Watt) for conventional energy production (coal-fired or nuclear energy generation).  Over and above that, the panels would have to be used in conjunction with storage batteries.  The batteries would require an additional large capital investment per Watt.  For a more in-depth discussion on that issue see the Energy Blog.

Keep in mind that the South-African panels will have to be replaced after an estimated interval of 15 to 18 years, and that batteries as well need replacement after a comparable time frame.  Moreover, there are the costs of disposal methods for deteriorated panels and batteries, so as to avoid or minimize environmental pollution.

See also:

Nuclear Power — Comparisons and Perspective

Caution: Reading this article may prove dangerous to your perceptions about nuclear power, energy in general, and low-grade but well-heeled environmental activism.
(Note that the discussion assumes that global warming is a man-made threat that can be alleviated through nuclear power generation.  Still, the discussion presents very educational statistics regarding the risks of the various alternatives for electric energy production. What is even more revealing is the discussion of distorted and misrepresented statistics produced through advocacy research by extremist climate alarmists, environmentalists and other people who have an axe to grind. —WHS)

Energy from Thorium

A website and discussion forum devoted to the discussion of thorium as a future energy resource, and the machine to extract that energy–the liquid-fluoride thorium reactor.

This is about liquid-fuel thorium reactors, a means of producing nuclear energy without weapons proliferation, producing it in an inherently safe manner, from fuel that is fairly abundant and cheap, without having to worry about long-term radioactive waste disposal and storage, at a cost per MW that is an estimated 30 to 40 percent lower than that of energy produced from conventional nuclear sources.  (You may wish to comment on this at Energy from Thorium)

Power Revolution in Bharat: A blue-print for action (An assessment and comparison of the costs of conventional, renewable and nuclear sources of power)

...A wind farm equivalent in output and capacity to a 1,000-MWe fossil-fuel or nuclear plant would occupy 2,000 square miles of land and, even with substantial subsidies and ignoring hidden pollution costs, would produce electricity at double or triple the cost of fossil fuels…

Barriers to the Use of Renewable Energy Technologies
By [USA] Union of Concerned Scientists

Farming the Wind: Wind Power and Agriculture
By [USA] Union of Concerned Scientists

From the article:

Typical Expenses for a Wind Turbine

Assumes a retail electricity cost of 7.5 cents per kilowatt-hour, increasing three percent per year, and annual average wind speeds of 15 mph to 17.4 mph at 50 meters above the ground. Source: Based on data from wind turbine manufacturers and estimates from Thomas A. Wind, Wind Utility Consulting.

Note: The costs identified in the preceding table appear to be based on the assumption that a wind turbine installation would deliver excess power into the power grid, while drawing from the grid when demand exceeds supply for a given installation.  In essence, a given farm would not be independent and a cost estimate would have to take into account delivery charges for electric energy used from and delivered to the grid.  To make a location truly independent from the power grid, capital and operating costs would increase considerably if capital investment and operating costs for energy storage (batteries) for that location are taken into account. --WHS

5M Proven Technology in new Dimensions, is a presentation on the specification, manufacturing and construction of a 5 MW wind turbine, by REpower Systems AG, Hamburg.

The complexities of the design, manufacturing and construction of the wind turbine of that size described and illustrated in the document are mind boggling.  Still, given that the document is in effect a sales brochure, there are implications that the document does not mention.  Just to bring up a few:

  • The practical capacity of a wind turbine in about one quarter of its rated capacity at optimum wind speed.  That means that if using a wind turbine of the massive size promoted in the document practical power output would be 1.24 MW.  That would require the construction of 1,200 such wind turbines to replace a single thermo-electric power plant with 1.5 GW (average size).
  • To locate that many wind turbines would require a total land area of about 286 square kilometers.
  • A thermo-electric power plant produces electric power about 95% of the time, with maintenance shutdowns requiring to fire up large scale standby power generation that requires about three days to be put on line and therefore needs scheduling well in advance.  In contrast, when the wind stops blowing below the speed where a wind farm can produce even only a quarter of its optimum rated capacity (or if it need to shut down if the wind speed is too excessive), the demand for energy and the sudden lack of 1.5 GW of energy that the wind farm should be producing will bring the distribution network to its knees.  1.5 GW standby capacity cannot instantly be brought on line.  Even gas-turbine-generated energy requires as much as three hours to be brought on line.  However, even though that source of replacement or standby energy is feasible, natural gas is the most expensive conventional energy source.
  • Wind farms are not cheap, nor is the power they produce.  On account of the expensive nature of the absolutely necessary standby power generation required by wind farms during so much of their operating time, the power generated by wind farms is just about the most expensive electric power imaginable that is on the market.

    A more detailed discussion of those issues is contained in Windmills for Suckers: Pickens' Genocidal Plan (PDF file), by 21st Century Science & Technology.
  • A suggestion for meeting the UK Government’s renewable energy target because the adopted use of windfarms cannot meet it, by Richard S. Courtney, Thursday 26th October 2006

    Source: The 2006 Annual Prestigious Lecture to
    The North of England Institute of Mining and Mechanical Engineers
    The Institute of Materials, Minerals and Mining (North East)

    On 2010 06 18, Richard S. Courtney posted an excellent and easy-to-understand illustration of the uselessness of windfarms to the blog of Anthony Watts, the most popular science blog in the world.  In that posting, Richard Courtney compared the reasons for constructing windfarms to the reasons for construction the Wall of China: Useless, impractical and extremely costly for meeting the ostensible purposes but very, very effective as widely-visible propaganda efforts.

See also: Solar Energy Advantages Disadvantages (Off-site)

Posted 2003 10 06
2003 10 10 (added more comments and made minor edits and additions to initial article)
2003 10 11 (added link to article on Nuclear Power and edits to the comments published previously)
2005 12 26 (added links to information on barriers to the use of renewable energy, and to information on wind turbine costs
2006 02 14 (added link to article on Power Revolution in Bharat (India))
2006 08 12 (added links to news and comments on solar panel technological developments in South Africa)
2007 02 11 (added link to web page with information on Solar Energy Advantages Disadvantages)
2008 11 01 (added information on wind turbines)
2010 06 18 (added link to Richard S. Courtney's evaluation of comparative alternative energy production)
2010 08 01 (added comparison of relative numbers of deaths caused per unit of energy production via hydro and nuclear generation)
2011 01 02 (added link to Energy from Thorium)