Solar Power is so Inefficient that Scientists had to create a Perpetual Heat Machine to make it more Efficient

Posted by PITHOCRATES - April 15th, 2014

Week in Review

There’s a problem with solar power.  Night.  Clouds.  Rain.  Hail.  Snow.  Dust.  Bird poop.  Etc.  Actually that’s a little more than one problem.  There’s at least nine.  But the biggest problem is night.  Because it’s hard for solar panels to produce electricity from sunshine when the sun isn’t shining.  That is, until now (see Scientists Discover How to Generate Solar Power in the Dark by Todd Woody posted 4/15/2014 on The Atlantic).

The next big thing in solar energy could be microscopic.

Scientists at MIT and Harvard University have devised a way to store solar energy in molecules that can then be tapped to heat homes, water or used for cooking.

The best part: The molecules can store the heat forever and be endlessly re-used while emitting absolutely no greenhouse gases.  Scientists remain a way’s off in building this perpetual heat machine but they have succeeded in the laboratory at demonstrating the viability of the phenomenon called photoswitching…

So how would molecular solar storage work if the technology can be commercialized? Timothy Kucharski, the paper’s lead author and a postdoc at MIT and Harvard, told The Atlantic that most likely the storage would take a liquid form, which would be easy to transport.

“It would also enable charging by flowing the material from a storage tank through a window or clear tube exposed to the sun and then to another storage tank, where the material would remain until it’s needed,” Kucharski said in an email.  “That way one could stockpile the charged material for use when the sun’s not shining.”

Of course the takeaway from this is that solar power is so inefficient that Scientists at MIT and Harvard University had to make the impossible possible to make it more efficient.  And create a perpetual heat machine.  A self-sustaining machine.  Requiring no energy input to create energy.  If it works, great.  It would be paradigm changing.  But while we wait we should stop wasting money on solar panels.  Which can only produce energy when the sun shines.  About half of the day.  Unlike a coal-fired power plant.  Which produces power 24/7.  Regardless of night.  Clouds.  Rain.  Hail.  Snow.  Dust.  Or bird poop.

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Even though Solar Panels and Natural Gas Home Generators allow us to Disconnect from the Grid we Shouldn’t

Posted by PITHOCRATES - April 21st, 2013

Week in Review

I remember losing power for a couple of hot and humid days.  The kind where you stick to everything because you’re just covered in sweat.  Making it almost impossible to sleep.  But I was able to borrow my father’s generator.  So I would not have to suffer through that insufferable heat and humidity.  While I was able to run my refrigerator, turn the lights on and even watch television I could not start my central air conditioner.  Even when I shut everything else off.  It was large enough to run the AC.  But it was just not big enough to start it.  I tried.  But as I did that inrush of current (about 40 amps) just stalled the generator.  Which could put out only 30 amps at 240 volts.  So even though I had a 30 amp generator to start an air conditioner that was on a 20 amp circuit breaker it wasn’t big enough.  Because of that momentary inrush of current.  So I suffered through that insufferable heat and humidity until the electric utility restored power.  And I never loved my electric utility more than when they did.

Now suppose I wanted to go to solar power.  How large of a solar array would I need that would start my air conditioner?  If one square inch of solar panel provided 70 milliwatts and you do a little math that comes to approximately a 950 square-foot solar array.  Or an array approximately 20 FT X 50 FT.  Which is a lot of solar panel.  Costly to install.  And if you want to use any electricity at night you’re going to need some kind of battery system.  But you won’t be able to run your air conditioner.  For one start would probably drain down that battery system.  So it’s not feasible to disconnect from the electric grid.  For you’re going to need something else when the sun doesn’t shine.  And because there can be windless nights a windmill won’t be the answer.  Because you’re going to need at least one source of electric power you can rely on to be there for you.  Like your electric utility.  Or, perhaps, your gas utility (see Relentless And Disruptive Innovation Will Shortly Affect US Electric Utilities by Peter Kelly-Detwiler posted 4/18/2013 on Forbes).

NRG’s CEO David Crane is one of the few utility CEO’s in the US who appears to fully appreciate – and publicly articulate – the potential for this coming dynamic.  At recent Wall Street Journal ECO:nomics conference, he indicated that solar power and natural gas are coming on strong, and that some customers may soon decide they do not need the electric utility. “If you have gas into your house and say you want to be as green as possible, maybe you’re anti-fracking or something and you have solar panels on your roof, you don’t need to be connected to the grid at all.”  He predicted that within a short timeframe, we may see technologies that allow for conversion of gas into electricity at the residential level.

If you want carefree and reliable electric power you connect to the electric grid.  Have a natural gas backup generator sized to power the entire house (large enough to even start your central air conditioner).  And a whole-house uninterruptible power supply (UPS).  To provide all your power needs momentarily while you switch from your electric utility to your gas utility.  Well, all but your central air conditioner (and other heavy electrical loads).  Which would have to wait for the natural gas generator to start running.  Because if you connected these to your UPS it might drain the battery down before that generator was up and running.  No problem.  For we can all go a minute or two without air conditioning.

So this combination would work.  With solar panels and a natural gas generator you could disconnect from the electric grid.  But is this something we should really do?  Not everyone will be able to afford solar panels and natural gas generators.  They will have to rely on the electric utility.  Some may only be able to afford the solar panels.  Staying connected to the grid for their nighttime power needs.  But if our electric utilities cut their generation and take it offline permanently it could cause some serious problems.  For what happens when a day of thunderstorms blocks the sun from our solar panels and everyone is still running their air conditioners?  The solar panels can no longer provide the peak power demand that they took from the electric utility (causing the utilities to reduce their generation capacity).  But if they reduced their generation capacity how are they going to be able to take back this peak power demand?  They won’t be able to.  And if they can’t that means rolling brownouts and blackouts.  Not a problem for those with the resources to install a backup generator.  But a big problem for everyone else.

We should study any plans to mothball any baseload electric generation.  For renewable sources of energy may be green but they are not reliable.  And electric power is not just about comfort in our homes.  It’s also about national security.  Imagine the Boston Marathon bombing happening during a time of rolling blackouts.  Imagine all of the things we take for granted not being there.  Like power in our homes to charge our smartphones.  And to power the televisions we saw the two bombers identified on.  We would have been both literally and figuratively in the dark.  Making it a lot easier for the bombers to have made their escape.  There’s a reason why we’re trying to harden our electric grid from cyber attacks.  Because we are simply too dependent on electric power for both the comforts and necessities of life.  Which is why we should be building more coal-fired power plants.  Not fewer.  Because coal is reliable and we have domestic sources of coal.  Ditto for natural gas and nuclear.  The mainstay of baseload power.  Because there is nothing more reliable.  Which comes in handy for national security.

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The President’s Green Initiative would have Worked Better if China didn’t build Better Solar Panels for Less

Posted by PITHOCRATES - October 28th, 2012

Week in Review

President Obama loaned a half billion dollars to Solyndra to create jobs of the future.  Solyndra filed bankruptcy shortly thereafter.  And they are not the only green investment to go belly up.  But the president hasn’t given up on his green energy.  Especially solar power.  Despite China (see Rays of hope for solar firms by Wang Jun and Chen Jia posted 10/26/2012 on China Daily USA).

China’s solar-panel industry has been rocked by recent US duties on its exports to combat alleged dumping and the specter of similar action by European authorities.

At least one company sees the standoff as an opportunity, however…

In the industry’s trade tussle with the United States, Zhou believes, weaker companies will suffer most, and some may fail…

CSG PVTech, a subsidiary of Shenzhen-listed CSG Holding Co, makes panels and modules studded with photovoltaic, or PV, cells that draw on the sun’s rays to produce electricity. Zhou said his confidence in the company is backed by recognition its products have received abroad.

For example, German solar-industry publisher Photon, which tests PV cells and related equipment, since 2010 has ranked CSG-made modules containing monocrystalline-silicon cells among the top three in the world and polycrystalline-silicon modules among the top 10…

Although he oversees both European and US operations for CSG PVTech, it’s clear where Zhou’s focus resides…

“California is a bigger market than Germany,” he said, pointing out that the US state meets the two key requirements – lots of sunshine and a huge demand for electricity.

Jack Pryor, CEO of Access Solar Inc, a Palm Springs installer of panels in homes, said his company is currently outfitting over 110 new townhouses in California with CSG PV panels…

By working with installers like Access Solar, Zhou plans to turn CSG’s focus in the US from business-to-business to business-to-customer, in hopes of making the Chinese company a household name.

He admits, however, that like many Chinese enterprises, a limited understanding of marketing is a hurdle.

“We sell products, but we don’t understand how to sell service,” he said. “As a result, our value chain is too short.”

Zhou aims to sell both.

So not only can the Chinese make solar panels far cheaper than the Americans they make quality stuff.  In fact they make one product that is in the top three in the world.  And another that is in the top 10.  Inexpensive and high quality?  Hard to compete against that.  But it even gets worse for those jobs of the future.  American installers are partnering with China.  And China is working on providing excellent service in addition to low prices and high quality.

So it looks like the president’s green initiative will help create those jobs of the future after all…in China.  But they’re trying to stop that by slapping anti-dumping duties on them.  Of course, that just raises the cost of saving the planet.  Discouraging people from installing solar panels on their houses because of these higher costs.  So the president’s green initiative is basically a lose-lose.  No jobs of the future.  And discouraging people from trying to save the planet.  Oh, and the president’s war on coal is raising the cost of electric power.  So the president’s policies are a triple loser.

Solar power.  It was going to pull America out of the Great Recession by creating jobs of the future.  Instead we get bankruptcies of government subsidized firms.  And higher unemployment than there was four years ago.  Is it me or is solar power not the panacea that the president said it was?

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Silicon, Semiconductor, LED, Photon, Photovoltaic Effect, Photocell, Solar Panel, Converter, Battery and Solar Power Plant

Posted by PITHOCRATES - July 4th, 2012

Technology 101

A Photocell basically works like a Light Emitting Diode (LED) in Reverse

Solar power is based on the same technology that that gave us the electronic world.  Silicon.  That special material in the periodic table that has four electrons in its valence (i.e., outer most) shell.  And four holes that can accept an electron.  Allowing it to form a perfect silicon crystal.  When these silicon atoms come together their four valence electrons form covalent bonds with the holes in neighboring silicon atoms.  These silicon atoms share their valence electrons so that each silicon atom now has a full valence shell of eight electrons (with four of their own electrons and four shared electrons).  Making that perfect crystal structure.  Which is pretty much useless in the world of semiconductors.  Because you need free electrons to conduct electricity.

When we add impurities (called ‘doping’) to silicon is where the magic starts.  If we add a little bit of an element with five electrons in its valence shell we introduce free electrons into the silicon crystal.  Giving it a negative charge.  If we instead add a little bit of an element with 3 electrons in its valence shell we introduce extra holes looking for an electron to fill it.  Giving it a positive charge.  When we bring the positive (P) and the negative (N) materials together they from a P-N junction.  The free electrons cross the junction to fill the nearby holes.  Creating a neutrally charged depletion zone between the P and the N material.  This is a diode.  If we apply a forward biased voltage (positive battery terminal to the P side and the negative battery terminal to the N side) across this junction current will flow.  Like charges repel each other.  The negative charge pushes the free electrons on the N side of the junction towards the junction.  And the positive charge pushes the holes on the P side of the junction towards the junction.  Where they meet.  With free electrons filling available holes causing current to flow.  A reverse bias does the reverse.  Pulls the holes and electrons away from the junction so they can’t combine and cause current to flow.

It takes energy to move an electron out of its ‘hole’.  And when an electron combines with a hole it emits energy.  Typically this energy is not in a visible wavelength so we see nothing.  However, with the proper use of materials we can shift this wave length into the visible spectrum.  So we can see light.  Or photons.  This is the principle behind the light emitting diode.  Or LED.  An electric current through a P-N junction causes electrons to leave their holes and then recombine with holes.  And when they recombine they give off a photon in the visible spectrum of light.  Which is what we see.  A photocell basically works the other way.  Instead of using voltage and current to create photons we use photons from the sun to create voltage and current.

A Solar Array that could Produce 12,000 Watts under Ideal Conditions may only Produce 2,400 Watts in Reality

When we use the sun to bump electrons free from their shells we call this the photovoltaic (PV) effect.  This produces a small direct current (DC) at a low voltage.  A PV cell (or solar cell) then is basically a battery when hit with sunlight.  Electric power is the product of voltage and current.  So a small DC current and a low voltage won’t power much.  So like batteries in a flashlight we have to connect solar cells together to increase the available power.  So we connect solar cells into modules and modules into arrays.  Or what we commonly call solar panels.  Small panels can power small loads.  Like emergency telephones along the highway that are rarely used.  To channel buoys that can charge a battery during the day to power a light at night.  And, of course, the electronics on our spacecraft.  Where PV cells are very useful as there are no utility lines that run into space.

These work well for small loads.  Especially DC loads.  But it gets a little complicated for AC loads.  The kind we have in our homes.  A typical 1,000 square foot home may have a 100 amp electric service at 240 volts.  Let’s assume that at any given time there could be as much as half of that service (50 amps) in use at any one time.  That’s 12,000 watts.  Assuming a solar panel array generates about 10 watts per square foot that means this house would need approximately 1,200 square feet of solar panels (such as a 60 foot by 20 foot array or a 40 foot by 30 foot array).  But it’s not quite that simple.

The sun doesn’t shine all of the time.  The capacity factor (the percentage of actual power produced divided by the total possible it could produce under the ideal conditions) is only about 15-20%.  Meaning that a 1,200 square foot solar array that could produce 12,000 watts under ideal conditions may only produce 2,400 watts (at a 20% capacity factor).  Dividing this by 120 volts gives you 20 amps.  Or approximately the size of a single circuit in your electrical panel.  Which won’t power a lot.  And it sure won’t turn on your air conditioner.  Which means you’re probably not going to be able to disconnect from the electric grid by adding solar panels to your house.  You may reduce the amount of electric power you buy from your utility but it will come at a pretty steep cost.

Solar Power Plants can be Costly to Build and Maintain even if the Fuel is Free 

Everything in your house that uses electricity either plugs into a standard 120V electrical outlet, a special purpose 240V outlet (such as an electric stove) or is hard-wired to a 240V circuit (such as your central air conditioner).  All of these circuits go back to your electrical panel.  Which is wired to a 240V AC electrical service.  A lot of electronic devices actually operate on DC power but even these still plug into an AC outlet.  Inside these devices there is a power supply that converts the AC power into DC power.  So you’ll need to convert all that DC power generated by solar panels into useable AC power with a converter.  Which is costly.  And reduces the efficiency of the solar panels.  Because when you convert energy you always end up with less than you started with.  The electronics in the converters will heat up and dissipate some of that generated electric power as heat.  If you want to use any of this power when the sun isn’t shining you’ll need a battery to store that energy.  Another costly device.  Another place to lose some of that generated electric power.  And something else to fail.

We typically build large scale solar power plants in the middle of nowhere so there is nothing to shade these solar panel arrays.  From sun up to sun down they are in the sunlight.  They even turn and track the sun as it rises overhead, travels across the sky and sets.  To maximize the amount of sunlight hitting these panels.  Of course the larger the installation the larger the maintenance.  And the panels have to be clean.  That means washing these arrays to keep them dirt and bird poop free.  Some of the biggest plants in service today have about 200 MW of installed solar arrays.  One of the largest is in India.  Charanka Solar Park.  When completed it will have 500 MW of PV arrays on approximately 7.7 square miles of land.  With a generous capacity factor of 30% that comes to 150 MW.  Or about 19 MW/square mile.  The coal-fired Robert W. Scherer Electric Generating Plant in Georgia, on the other hand, generates 3,520 MW on approximately 18.75 square miles.  At a capacity factor of about 90% for coal that comes to about 3,168 MW.  Or about 169 MW/square mile.  About 9 times more power generated per square mile of land used.

 So you can see the reason why we use so much coal to generate our electric power.  Because coal is a highly concentrated source of fuel.  The energy it releases creates a lot of reliable electricity.  Day or night.  Summer or winter.  A large coal-fired electric generating facility needs a lot of real estate but the plants themselves don’t.  Unlike a solar plant.  Where the only way to generate more power is to cover more land with PV solar panels.  To generate, convert and store as much electric power as possible.  All with electronic equipment full of semiconductors that don’t operate well in extreme temperatures (which is why our electronics have vents, heat sinks and cooling fans).  So the ideal conditions to produce electricity are not the ideal conditions for the semiconductors making it all work.  Causing performance and maintenance issues.  Which makes these plants very costly.  Even if the fuel is free. 

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Even with Subsidies Electricity produced by Free Sunshine still more costly than that produced by Coal and Natural Gas

Posted by PITHOCRATES - March 18th, 2012

Week in Review

There is no such thing as free electricity.  Even when the fuel source to generate that electricity is free (see Solar power growth jumps to new record by Matt Daily posted 3/14/2012 on Reuters).

The national solar industry installed a record number of panels in 2011, more than double 2010, and is likely to see strong growth again this year, according to a new report…

The growth in U.S. demand comes as the makers of the panels that turn light into electricity have struggled to earn profits amid a glut of supplies on the global market that eroded margins…

Despite declining prices for solar panels in recent years, the sector still relies on government subsidies to make the power projects competitive with coal and natural gas.

They’re struggling to make a profit despite government subsidies?  Interesting.  You would think that utilities would jump to build electrical generating capacity that used free fuel.  But they don’t.  For though sunshine is free the infrastructure to catch it is not.  Which makes the capital costs to build the necessary solar panel arrays to capture that free sunshine so great that it’s cheaper to build a plant where they will pay for fuel.  Despite those subsidies.  Which is why they are building coal-fired and natural gas-fired plants.  Not solar power plants.  And they will build even fewer once those subsidies go bye-bye.

There is a simple reason for this.  The concentration of energy available in the fuel.  Coal and natural gas have a high concentration of energy so a little of it can produce a lot of electricity.  Sunshine doesn’t.  So it takes a lot of it to produce the same amount of electricity.  Requiring huge numbers of solar panel arrays.  To catch enough of that free sunshine to produce a meaningful amount of electricity.  Thus condemning it to be the high-cost alternative to coal and natural gas.  As well as nuclear power and hydropower.  And being the least dependable of the four.  For when the sun doesn’t shine coal, natural gas, nuclear fuel rods and falling water can still convert energy into electricity.

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Competing against China in Solar Panel Manufacturing will only Create more Solyndras and won’t help Save the Planet

Posted by PITHOCRATES - February 5th, 2012

Week in Review

The cheaper solar power equipment is the more people will buy it and hire people to install it.  Because labor is labor.  There’s nothing you can do about that.  But manufacturing can reach economies of scale that can reduce manufacturing costs.  And selling prices.  Much like everything else in the world.  The first televisions were expensive.  Now they’re cheap.  The first VCRs were expensive.  Then they got cheap.  The first personal computers were expensive.  Then they got cheap. 

So all that we need is for someone to make solar power equipment cheap by employing economies of scale and we can ‘save the planet’ by replacing fossil-fueled generated power with clean solar-generated power.   And that’s the whole point of clean solar power, isn’t it?  Saving the planet?  Well, as it turns out, no (see The Coming U.S.-China Solar War by Bryan Walsh posted 1/31/2012 on Time).

Demand for solar power rose eightfold between 2006 and 2011 — from 200 MW to 1,600 MW…

Despite those rosy numbers, many U.S. solar companies — especially those that manufacture solar panels and modules — are struggling to survive. Most notably, the solar start-up Solyndra went under in 2011, taking with it over $500 million in government loan guarantees. The Bloomberg Large Solar Energy Index of 17 top solar companies lost more than two-thirds of its value in 2011.

That’s because solar power is getting much cheaper — prices for modules have dropped 40% over the past five years. According to some U.S. solar-panel manufacturers, that drop in price is due largely to low-cost imports from Chinese panelmakers. It’s not that their manufacturing methods are necessarily better than ours. It’s that government support from Beijing and low-cost labor make it easy for China to undercut its U.S. competitors. The result is more and cheaper solar power for Americans — but perhaps less market share for U.S. manufacturers.

You’re never going to compete against Chinese manufacturing and win.  And it’s not because of government support.  (Or their currency manipulation.)  Because the U.S. is providing government support, too.  Case in point, Solyndra.  It’s the cheap labor.  In a country that builds dormitories in factories.  Where workers work, eat and sleep.  And like it.  Because these are the good jobs.  Unlike being a starving peasant farmer.  Also, China doesn’t allow unions.  Or complaining or disobedience in the workplace.  Only when U.S. workers flood factories under similar conditions will the U.S. manufacturing ever hope to compete against the Chinese.

Of course, the U.S. could make this cheap solar equipment (that can save the planet) less cheap by slapping tariffs on it.  Making people spend more to buy this solar equipment.  So much more that the expensive American manufactured equipment is no longer more costly than the once cheaper Chinese imports.  Which, of course, would greatly discourage people from buying it and hiring people to install it.  Unless they receive massive government subsidies to offset the added tax of the tariffs.

Higher solar equipment costs for installers?  Higher costs for solar power installations for people who want to ‘save the planet’?  Higher taxes for everyone to pay for ever more government subsidies and incentives to save a few manufacturing jobs?  All while discouraging people from ‘saving the planet’?  Seems like some real silly policy.  And one that no one really thought through before getting us on this silly road.

If it’s not about saving the planet then the heck with solar power I say.  Let’s just keep using fossil fuels.  From American sources.  Let’s create good coal jobs.  Good oil jobs.  And good natural gas jobs.  For if we mine it or pump it up in America, all of the jobs will be American jobs.  It doesn’t require massive government subsidies or incentives.  And there will be no more Solyndras.  And the Chinese will be left with a surplus of solar panels that they will have to discount to unload.  Which we could then add to the electrical grid to offset peak demand on those hot summer days.  When the sun is scorching the land beneath it.  Now that would be a practical use.  It would help conserve our precious fossil fuels.  And it will also help to reduce emissions during peak demand.  Which was the whole point of solar power in the first place.  Only this way it wouldn’t require massive government subsidies and incentives.  Or the massive job-killing taxes to pay for those subsidies and incentives.

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