TCS Daily

Solar's Cloudy Future

By Howard C. Hayden - April 29, 2002 12:00 AM

For over a century, the world has faced a continuing energy crisis. We would run out of oil in 20 years, the alarmists clamored. Maybe some time the predictions will come true: just because somebody has been crying, "Wolf!" for a long time doesn't mean that there is no wolf. The real crisis hasn't happened, but it most likely will happen eventually.

Fortunately, during the century, we have learned how to harness nuclear energy, of which the supply is, to all intents and purposes, infinite. In case we actually run out of fossil fuels, we will still have plenty of energy. That is, we do not have an energy crisis and we will never have an energy crisis unless we go out of our way to manufacture one.

Among those crying, "Wolf!" are many utopians who want to impose their solar theocracy on other people, and have been beating their drum for decades. For example, Ralph Nader said in 1978, "Everything will be solar in 30 years." In that same year, Denis Hayes, appointed by Jimmy Carter to be the first head of the Solar Energy Research Institute (now the national Renewable Energy Laboratory) predicted "... 50% solar by the end of the century." In 1977, Hayes predicted, "By 2025, humanity could obtain 75% of its energy from solar resources ..."

The benighted White House Council on Environmental Quality of the Carter administration expected (in 1979) that we would get a quarter of our energy from solar sources by the turn of the century. They beamed, "For the year 2020 and beyond, it is now possible to speak hopefully, and unblushingly, of the United States becoming a solar society."

Even as late as 1990, the misnamed Union of Concerned Scientists predicted that by 2000, renewable energy's fraction of the U.S. energy budget would double.

Reality has not been kind to these folks. The fraction of our energy from renewable sources has steadily declined from 8.47% in 1979 to 7.3% at the present. But that figure itself is misleading, because the overwhelming majority of it comes from two venerable sources - biomass (mostly firewood) and hydropower. The contribution from the highly promoted "solar solutions to the energy problem" - direct solar heat, photovoltaics, solar-thermal electrical production, and wind - amounts to a trifling one part out of about 850.

With that history as background, let us discuss one highly promoted example from the recent news. Green Mountain Energyhas announced that construction on Houston's largest solar facility has begun. The power plant, if that's not an overstatement, will consist of 440 solar panels and will produce 43 kilowatts of electrical power - in bright sunlight, that is.

Minuscule as it is, the 43-kW figure is a vast overestimate. Actual experience with solar power plants of all types shows that the average output is between 15% and 20% of the nameplate power. That is, we can expect the Green Mountain project to produce about 8 kW on the average. In the course of a year, the solar power station should produce about 70,000 kilowatt-hours.

To put that figure in perspective, it would take over 110,000 such PV stations to produce as many kilowatt-hours in a year as one run-of-the-mill nuke or large coal-fired (1-billion watt) power station with a 90% capacity factor.

Building 110,000 of those PV stations would be a great boon to newspapers, because they could have a front-page article on the subject every day for the next 300 years. By that time, maybe the Israeli-Palestinian crisis will no longer be front-page news.
But if the Mideast crisis is still vying for space on Page 1, build another 110,000 of "Houston's largest" to generate another billion watts.

Keep it up until all 400 billion watts are solar, and a mere 44 million of them later - enough for daily front-page news for 120,000 years -- and there will be enough electricity to run the United States of today. Providing, that is, there is a way to store and recover the energy those plants generate for use at night, not to mention on rainy and cloudy days.

Howard C. Hayden is professor emeritus of physics at the University of Connecticut, author of The Solar Fraud: Why Solar Energy Won't Run the World and editor of The Energy Advocate.

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