06 March 2008

Clean Tech: Will Solar Thermal Finally Get Its Day in the Sun?

Michael Parekh, in my view, one of the smartest thinkers on Internet and Technology trends, posted this piece on solar thermal tonight, which I am thankful for because I haven't seen the Times in about two weeks!

I'm reblogging this piece from India on a Friday morning (hope you don't mind, Mukesh):

The New York Times has a piece worth reading on how Solar power may finally be ready for it's close-up. Titled "Turning glare into watts", it lays out the base case:

"After a decade of no activity, two prototype solar thermal plants were recently opened in the United States, with a capacity that could power several big hotels, neon included, on the Las Vegas Strip, about 20 miles north of here. Another 10 power plants are in advanced planning in California, Arizona and Nevada.

On sunny afternoons, those 10 plants would produce as much electricity as three nuclear reactors, but they can be built in as little as two years, compared with a decade or longer for a nuclear plant. Some of the new plants will feature systems that allow them to store heat and generate electricity for hours after sunset."

The economics, while getting competitive with sky-high fossil fuel and coal alternatives, still require subsidies:

"The power they produce is still relatively expensive. Industry experts say the plant here produces power at a cost per kilowatt- hour of 15 to 20 cents.

With a little more experience and some economies of scale, that could fall to about 10 cents, according to a recent report by Emerging Energy Research, a consulting firm in Cambridge, Mass.

Newly built coal-fired plants are expected to produce power at about 7 cents per kilowatt-hour or more if carbon is taxed.

The solar plants receive a federal tax subsidy, like other types of renewable energy, which makes the economics work for builders but also feeds skepticism about the technology’s long-term potential.

"Unless there's a subsidy involved, it doesn't seem like a very attractive technology," said Revis James, a renewables expert at the Electric Power Research Institute, a utility industry consortium."

The whole piece is worth reading, especially if you've been wondering about what all the recent hoop la around solar is all about. Along with wind, geo-thermal and wave energy, it's a critical part of the global renewable energy crusade. It's going to be a long, bumpy road, but the journey may be worth it in the long run.

And my comments:

Thanks for sharing this, Michael. Indeed, it's going to be a bumpy road for all renewables, but the two solar plays to watch are thermal and thin film.

As for subsidies,the oil and gas industry in the US receives subsidies estimated at $15-35 billion/year, depending upon who is counting (and whether you include things like highway construction/maintenance, which I don't think is fair), and the coal industry is propped up by $60 billion in tax breaks since 1932, including $8 billion included in the Energy Policy Act of 2005.

By contrast, the Production Tax Credit, which is supported by the Senate Finance Committee's own Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), amounts to a whopping $5.5 billion. Woot!

Sure, alternative energy needs to compete on a level playing field with fossil fuels. But that means either clean tech alternatives should be given equal access to subsidies or subsidies should be removed for all and let 'em duke it out.

Aren't subsidies generally considered pro-business? Bring on the New Green Economy!


Timothy B. Hurst said...

Scott - Thanks for putting emphasis on the inequities of energy subsidies. Too often, this is clouded by those who say we've got to let the market play out which energy we use.

I have been looking for data on how much the coal industry gets in subsidies, and in what form. Where did you get those numbers you cited in your post about fossil-fuel subsidies?



The Green Skeptic said...

Elaine Hsieh (via twitter) offered the following comments, which I thought were very useful addition to the dialogue:

"std polycrystalline and thin film technologies are still expensive, even w/rebates. one trend- nanosolar, it's much cheaper."


"other trends are new lithium ion batteries and better storage technology. add cost-effective solar and you get RE < C."