Solar power and climate change

Cloth pattern, in sumi-e

This is my last full day in Wales. Hopefully, we will have seen a bit of sunshine so far. One of the best things about climbing mountains is the view from the top. Speaking on illumination…

Intuitively, I have long had the sense that solar power makes a great deal of sense as an alternative power source. There are no greenhouse gas emissions, there is no need to operate any massive industrial processes, other than manufacturing panels, and the technology only needs to become incrementally better to be cost-effective against fossil fuels. This map of solar energy, which was used in C.G. Rapley’s presentation, shows the size of solar collectors of the present efficiency that would be needed to satisfy our present electrical needs.

Cost is the first big problem with solar, though it may be a temporary one. According to The Economist:

Decades of research have improved the efficiency of silicon-based solar cells from 6% to an average of 15% today, whereas improvements in manufacturing have reduced the price of modules from about $200 per watt in the 1950s to $2.70 in 2004. Within three to eight years, many in the industry expect the price of solar power to be cost-competitive with electricity from the grid.

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The other big one is load balancing. Because solar output isn’t constant, there is a need to either store power or redistribute it across long distances. Storage across the daily light-dark cycle is of inescapable importance, and the means for doing so are not terribly clear. Batteries are costly and bulky, as well as of a limited lifetime. Solar energy could be used to electrolyze water into hydrogen and oxygen, which could then be fed to fuel cells, but I expect that would increase costs a lot, while reducing efficiency. As with transportation, I think energy storage is a bigger long term problem than energy generation.

Of course, one technology is unlikely to be the solution, in and of itself. There are lots of places where hydro, wind, and geothermal power make sense. There may even be situations where biodiesel is an appropriate choice, despite the inefficiencies of production.

[Update: 3 May 2007] Antonia sent me an interesting BBC article about a solar thermal plant near Seville.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

12 thoughts on “Solar power and climate change”

  1. All kinds of power produce carbon emmisons until the zero emmisions economy exists, and since that is nonsense, there is no such thing as emmisions free power. The production of solar panels uses energy, and also, inasmuch as they are made from pastic, oil.

    The point is never to negate our impact on the earth, but rather to manage it so that it is reasonable.

  2. Tristan,

    You are right in saying that no kind of energy is entirely carbon neutral. Lifetime carbon emissions are very important to consider – for instance – when engaging in the debate about nuclear power.

    Even with such considerations in mind, however, it seems like solar would be an excellent possibility if the two problems above could be sorted out.

  3. Well, a start would be subsidies to developers of solar technologies to be in the same ballpark as subsidies to coorperations that extract oil from sand.

  4. “It must be considered that there is nothing more difficult to carry out, nor more doubtful of success, nor more dangerous to handle, than to initiate a new order of things. For the reformer has enemies in all those who profit by the old order, and only lukewarm defenders in all those who would profit by the new order, this lukewarmness arising partly from fear of their adversaries, who have the laws in their favour; and partly from the incredulity of mankind, who do not truly believe in anything new until they have had the actual experience of it.”

    Niccolò Machiavelli
    The Prince and The Discourses
    The Modern Library, Random House, Inc., 1950, Page 21, Chapter VI

  5. In 2007 the federal Department of Energy spent $168 million on solar research. On the other hand each year since 1991 the U.S. government has spent 1000 times that amount — $169 billion — subsidizing the flow of oil from the Middle East, according to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, our top military planners. And that figure doesn’t include what consumers paid for the oil itself. If our solar investment remains one-tenth of one percent of our investment in oil, there will be no solar power to speak of in our future.

  6. Solar power’s bright future in Japan
    Land of the rising subsidy

    Aug 27th 2009 | KAWASAKI
    From The Economist print edition
    Japanese makers of solar panels are well placed to endure the present glut

    UNTIL five years ago Japan made around half of the world’s solar cells, thanks to its thirst for native energy and its expertise in the related fields of computer chips and flat screens for televisions. Sharp, which alone has made a quarter of all the solar cells ever produced, dominated the industry. But as solar technology matured and demand grew, new companies emerged, notably in China and Taiwan, eroding Japanese firms’ share of the market to around 20%. Sharp slipped to fourth place among manufacturers in 2008, after Q-Cells of Germany, First Solar of America and Suntech of China.

    Factories have mushroomed all over the world in recent years, on the assumption that subsidies and loans for solar power would continue to grow, along with the world economy. Chinese manufacturers’ share grew sixfold from 2004 to 2008, capturing more than one-third of the global market. This prompted fears that Japan’s strength in solar would go the way of computer chips and television screens, in which Japanese firms have lost their dominance over rivals from elsewhere in Asia.

  7. Ontario bets big with Arnprior solar project
    Massive site to feed into energy grid

    By Robert Sibley , The Ottawa CitizenOctober 15, 2009

    OTTAWA — From the road, it appears as if the sky has fallen to earth. But the enormity of the reflection of cloud and sky spreading across thousands of shining solar panels in a West Carleton farm field quickly disappears as the Arnprior Solar Project comes into view.

    The construction site, along Galetta Side Road, houses 312,000 glossy solar panels on 13,000 racks that run row after row after row the length and breadth of the 200-acre field. Some of those rows are a kilometre long. Walking between racks of sloping solar modules that look like an alien crop of machinery is, well, a walk into the future.

    But then as far as the Ontario government is concerned, this is the future.

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