Obama’s Solar Alchemy

Rich Trzupek is a veteran environmental consultant and senior advisor to the Heartland Institute. He is the author of the new book Regulators Gone Wild: How the EPA is Ruining American Industry (Encounter Books).


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Once one understands that, then the question becomes: what is the most efficient way to access that energy? The answer is largely a matter of energy density, or how much power is contained in a given unit of a fuel. In providing us with coal, oil and natural gas, mother nature has been very kind to us. Fossil fuels have a very high energy density. A lump of coal is nothing more that the power of the sun, concentrated into a handy, compact and easily accessible form.

As we cross the line into forms of “green energy” we steadily sacrifice more and more energy density and thus efficiency in terms of both economic and power generation. While fossil fuels represent millions of years of solar power collection and consolidation, bio-fuels represent mere decades  at best (when wood is the fuel) to about half a year at worst (in the case of ethanol). Wind is an even less efficient way to access solar power, because it doesn’t concentrate solar energy directly at all, but rather takes advantages of the diurnal (day-night) cycle that creates the weather systems that create the wind.  That’s why windmills have to be so large and why there are so many of them in your average wind farm. When energy density is low, the collection and generation mechanisms have to be proportionally larger to make up for it. Still, wind does better efficiency-wise than solar. The average wind turbine generates almost twenty percent of the power it is capable of generating, on an annual basis. That’s not even close to what fossil plants and nuclear plants do, but it’s something.

At the bottom of the energy efficiency barrel there lies solar – the most inefficient, least reliable and expensive form of power we have. Directly converting the sun’s rays into electricity is a horribly inefficient way to generate power simply because the energy – in that form – is so disperse. The energy density, in other words, is very, very low. There is no way to change that fact, or the fact that the sun doesn’t shine all the time. Solar power is not and cannot be a major player in the direct generation of electric power. That is the simple, scientific reality. In claiming that solar power is the energy of the future, the President is rolling the clock back to the times of the medieval alchemists who were certain that they’d eventually find the Philosopher’s Stone that magically turned lead into gold. Relying on solar power to fuel the nation is about as unscientific a proposition as there can be.

The President is spewing nonsense, responding to rising gas prices and our energy woes with promises of pixie dust. It didn’t work in Spain and it won’t work here. Everyone who actually understands science and power generation knows that, but this Harvard-educated President apparently forgot to take General Science 101.

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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.
        http://www.greenlivingonline.com/article/rare-ear

        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

    List_of_countries_by_oil_proven_reserves
    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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