Obama’s Solar Alchemy

The president's futile campaign to turn alternative energy failure into green gold.

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.

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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