Obama’s Solar Alchemy

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The President, speaking at the world’s largest solar power plant of its kind in Boulder City, Nevada on Wednesday, said that solar energy represents the future and chided Republicans for being backward rubes, unwilling to embrace the exciting “new” discoveries that he assures us are just around the corner.  There was all kinds of irony in the performance, including the remarkable inefficiency of solar energy that the massive Copper Mountain Solar 1 plant represents and the Obama administration’s inability or unwillingness to grasp the basic scientific principles that govern energy generation.

Let’s start with efficiency. It was widely reported in the press that the 58 megawatt Copper Mountain Solar 1 plant and expansion powers 17,000 homes. This figure was arrived at by using the generally accepted formula of 1 megawatt powering 300 homes. Multiply 58 by 300 and you get 17,400 homes. However, that’s capacity – what the plant is capable of generating in other words – not what it actually generates. To figure that out, we need to dive down into Department of Energy data.

According to the DOE’s Energy Information Administration, the state of Nevada is host to three solar plants: Copper Mountain’s 58 megawatt plant, 14 megawatts at Nellis Air Force Base and a 1 megawatt unit operated by Barrick Goldstrike Mines, for a grand total of 73 megawatts. Using our 300 homes per megawatt figure, all of the solar plants in Nevada could power nearly 22,000 homes.

How much power did solar plants in Nevada actually deliver? According to EIA data, solar plants in the state of Nevada delivered an average of 33 megawatts in any given hour in 2011 – less than 50% of capacity! Or, to put it another way, if 22,000 Nevada households were solely dependent on solar power last year, they wouldn’t have had any electricity at all for about half of the year. As points of comparison, an efficient coal-fired power plant typically generates 70 to 85 percent of the power it is capable of producing, on an annual basis, while nuclear plants operate at about 95 percent of capacity.

By operating at less than 50% of capacity in 2011, the solar industry in Nevada pretty much mirrored the national average for this unreliable energy source. According to the EIA, there were 166 solar and photovoltaic power plants hooked to the power grid in 2011, with the capacity to generate 421 megawatts. (By way of comparison, total US electric generation capacity is about 1,000,000 megawatts.) In reality, these 166 facilities generated an average of 207 megawatts in any given hour, a tad over 49% of their capacity. In any private industry, making a huge capital investment for an asset that sits idle more than 50% of the time would be grounds for dismissal, if not criminal prosecution for misuse of company funds. But, in Obama’s mind, this is progress.

The President doesn’t seem to understand that all forms of energy (except for nuclear energy and geo-thermal power) are ultimately solar. It was energy from the sun that allowed ancient flora and fauna to grow, which ultimately decayed to give us coal, oil and natural gas. It is fluctuations in solar energy that drive the winds. The sun is the engine behind the water cycle that we utilize to generate hydroelectric power. There are no secrets here, no magical discoveries await that will redefine how we look at the way energy is created. The vast majority of what we use is ultimately solar in origin.

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  • Bamaguje

    How is it that the most technology advanced nation today is led by an ignorant nitwit like Obama?
    Doesn't he have science/technology advisers to guide him as to what is real and pragmatic, as opposed to his delusional green fantasies?

    • Ralph Woods

      Obama is newcomer to science and technology as he most likely was never exposed to much if any in his early educational experiences. If you remember he was fascinated by the kid's demonstration of the marshmallow gun at the White House. I am surprised he did not ask the Pentagon to investigate further development of this new weapons system.

      • kentatwater

        Can #Nerf barbed wire around Gitmo be close behind?

    • http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nLNn2YflwNs Roger

      This is the guy who doesn't hesitate to fly around in a huge 747 and have his two busses flown to meet him at his destination since his 'beast' limo isn't big enough evidently.

      There is a word for hypocrisy like this.

  • jacob

    But hold it :

    Now he claims that SOLYNDRA "failure" (to me more of a SCAM than anything else) went under due
    to Chinese unfair competition…

    Thank GOD he didn't blame BUSH for this also, as seemingly he has been running out of reasons
    for blaming him…

    He won't blame the world's whipping boy for his failures, at least not now when he needs not as
    much their votes as their money which, according to polls, at least 60% 0f them still think of him as
    the cat's pajamas and will reelect him ….

  • davarino

    You could blanket the US with solar panels and you still wouldnt generate 1,000,000 megawatts. Plus thier pricey, but a convenient way to shuffle money to corporations that will turn around and give it to the O man for his re-election as king of the world. His advisors are not that stupid, its all part of a huge shell game and we are the marks. Unfortunately most people dont pay attention when they took General Science 101, or know how to apply it. They really do believe the O man is an alchemist.

    • SuicidePrevention

      Covering only 0.5% of land area with 15% efficient PV panels provides the annual energy needs of our society, qualifying solar PV as abundant. It’s not terribly difficult to produce; silicon is the most abundant element in Earth’s crust, and PV panels are being produced globally at 25 GW peak capacity per year (translating to 5 GW of average power added per year). Intermittency is the Achilles Heel of solar PV, requiring storage solutions if adopted at large scale.
      (Source is Tom Murphy, associate professor of physics at the University of California, San Diego "Do the Math")
      (PV = photovoltaic)

      • kentatwater

        The problem with physicists, is that they're not engineers.

        Let us assume that the numbers you offer are accurate. 0.5% of the earth's land mass would be about 744,700 square miles.

        One square mile of silicon solar cells would be 27,878,400 square feet of cells. One square foot will yield 12 Watts under ideal conditions. The going price for silicon solar cells is about $1.20 per 1 Watt of productive capacity, again, under ideal conditions. So, one square foot of silicon solar panels (henceforth, "SSP"), would cost $14.40.

        So, one square mile of SSPs would cost a little over $400 million dollars, and deliver 334.5 MW. This price, of course, neglects the tens, if not hundred of millions required for support structures, copper cables, inverter stations every hundred yards or so (SSPs deliver low voltage DC, so this needs to be stepped up to high voltage AC at the site, otherwise resistive losses in the cables will be huge…or the cables themselves will have to be huge. Then, of course, this hypothetical square mile plant will require fencing and security, as the materials cataloged above are valuable, and attractive to thieves. Also consider, that while silicon may be abundant, copper is relatively scarce, and you will need a huge quantity of it. This cannot be neglected. Nor can you neglect the maintenance cost. For top efficiency, very little, if anything, can be between the panels' faces, and the sun. One hail storm could easily cause a million dollars worth of damage, over this one square mile.

        So, for a back-of-the-envelope calculation, neglecting maintenance and security costs, let's add a very conservative 30% premium to the square mile price. That's $520 million per square mile, for 335 MW. This also neglects the cost of the energy needed to make the SSPs and to fabricate all the ancillary components, and the labor required to construct the one square mile array. Also neglected is the relative scarcity of the backing material (a metal) for the cells.

        Oh, and I forgot the cost of the land.

        And for your trouble, you’ll have to replace the SSPs after 25 years, assuming they’ve remained undamaged during a quarter century.

        Now, multiply everything above three quarter of a million times. I don’t have the numbers handy, and I’ve already spent too much time on this as it is, but I doubt the quantity of metals necessary to accomplish such a thing even exist in the earth’s crust. The price of such an array, neglecting all the mentioned consideration above, which could increase the cost by an order of magnitude, is 387,244,000,000,000 dollars, or roughly 387 million million dollars.

        • Chris C

          So 387 trillion dollars?

          • kentatwater

            Since "SuicidePrevention's" cut-and-paste assertion proposed a solution for the entire planet's energy needs, I opted to avoid the whole long scale and short scale ambiguity issue .

            Just trying to be sensitive to global considerations.

        • Old-Curmudgeon

          Great post! But why confuse the argument with engineering facts? Their under-educated fantasy-land provides all the support that they need.

      • http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nLNn2YflwNs Roger

        You simply don't know what you're talking about.

        Aside from the fallacy of your statements, do you realize that the sun is harsh and solar panels deteriorate quickly? It's not just building them and setting them up, it's replacing them as necessary.

  • SuicidePrevention

    It's true that nothing beats oil for convenience, especially as a transportation fuel. But US
    oil production has declined from about 9.5 million barrels per day in the early 1970's to about 5.7 in 2011.
    This despite vast improvements in seismic technology, drilling techniques, and offshore
    drilling. Do you actually believe that we will never run out of oil, natural gas and coal? Should we
    pretend that a post-fossil fuel world will never happen? Fossil fuels are a finite resource. Should
    we extract them and use them up as soon as possible? Or should we conserve them to cushion the shock
    of their eventual scarcity. Try contemplating a planet earth where total oil production is half the current level.
    Then imagine a quarter the current level. This will happen. What do you propose to do about it. Alternatives
    like solar and wind are intermittent and expensive (though getting less expensive all the time). They have real
    drawbacks compared to fossil fuels. But they beat sticking our heads in the sand.

    • reader

      " But US oil production has declined from about 9.5 million barrels per day in the early 1970's to about 5.7 in 2011.This despite vast improvements in seismic technology, drilling techniques, and offshore
      drilling. Do you actually believe that we will never run out of oil, natural gas and coal?"

      Are you taking a page from Obama to treat people as idiots? Or you are trying to sincerely conflate the fall in production with the lack of reserves? The US has more oil reserves than Saudi Arabia, we know this much by now, genius.

    • ruby2ssday

      Oil and gas are still being produced by good old mother earth. We are just using it faster than it is being made, but being made it is. Coal, not so much, but some.

    • http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nLNn2YflwNs Roger

      Doesn't convenience and ease of shipping and storage count for anything?

  • DrillBabyDrill

    Yep, Obama just wants to destroy the lifestyle which God almighty intends for Americans.
    Let's all drive Hummers!

    • ruby2ssday

      Nothing is "FAIR" until the misery is shared by all (except the ruling elite of course).

  • SuicidePrevention

    1 Venezuela (more information) (2010) [1] 296,500,000,000
    2 Saudi Arabia (more information) (2011)[2]264,600,000,000
    3 Canada [3] (more information) (2008) 175,200,000,000
    4 Iran (more information) [1] 150,600,000,000
    5 Iraq (more information) (2010) 143,500,000,000
    6 Mexico (more information)[4] 139,020,000,000
    7 Kuwait (more information) (2010) 104,000,000,000

    15 United States (more information) 19,120,000,000

    • ruby2ssday

      That appears to be old data. US and Canada have increased due to the development of the technology to pull oil that previously was unattainable.

  • SuicidePrevention

    Oil reserve estimates are controversial and subject to change.
    Also, these estimates do not distinguish between
    easy, cheap, conventional oil and oil that is difficult, expensive and dirty to extract – like
    tar sands and shale oil. Since the U.S. has long since depleted much of its easy oil, what's
    left is increasingly the difficult,expensive,dirty kind.

    • reader

      This tripe is easy to deconstruct by pointing out a simple fact. The production on federal land is way down. The production on privately owned land is up – under the permits approved before Obama could come and stop them. Canada is producing more oil than ever, and we could have gotten some of it, but Obama refused to allow it. None of this have anything to do with the alleged lack of reserves.

  • ruby2ssday

    Remember back in the 1400's when all the ship captains, map makers, Scott Templars, and Icelandic fishermen (who accompanied Columbus on his first voyage) knew the earth was a sphere, but the church and popular press kept pushing that the earth was flat? Reminds me of Obama and the MSM.

  • JakeTobias

    Liberals act like people do not want alternatives to work.

    Yes we do. I hope there finally is a worthwhile breakthrough in solar, or wind power. I just hope I get wind of it, and can get on the ground floor of something big, before everyone else does. Then I will do my damnedest to hide my profits from liberals, as they knock themselves out, setting a land speed record in finding problems with solar, and wind power. And don't think that will not happen. There will be a breakthrough. And liberals will find a problem. And become activists against them. Just watch. Liberals do not want answers.

  • Chuck

    Will solar power become economically viable…..? Maybe…. but not in the present or near future. It is the same for all other alternative energy sources. It is not a Fossil Fuel conspiracy but the reality of economics and current technology.

    For those who have not searched the Energy Information Administration website, this is the best information source they concentrate on basic information (a lot of it) and do not delve into reasons.

  • Chuck

    First Solar, the company that made the solar panels for Copper Mountain 1, has manufacturing plants in Germany and Malaysia.

  • Schlomotion

    Coal is solar! Lies are truth! Up is down! War is Peace!

  • Ferret

    The land area of the US is 7,700,000 km2 (source Wiki). If the entire area was covered in PV panels this would be roughly 7,700,000,000,000 panels times around 150 watts per panel = 1,155,000,000 megawatts. I own 1000 m2 of land which has 20 solar panels which generate on average enough power for my house. Some of those panels are nearly thirty years old and still generating around 90 % of their initial output. Cars are the big energy problem. Not houses.

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