Saturday, March 23, 2013

Solar is Cheaper than Ever

Several CEO's of solar companies were interviewed today in the WSJ to discuss the amazing price decreases of solar technology in the past few years.
First they began by stating that solar went from being among the most expensive energy sources to one of the least expensive.
At the beginning of their presentation they mention prices below one dollar per watt but then one of them corrects this information by stating that once installation, inverters, etc., are included the total price for a residential system is in the range of 4 to 5 US dollars per watt.
What was completely overlooked, however, was that on AVERAGE a solar installation produces power only 20% of the time (in a good and sunny place on Earth).  Thus for 80% of the time OTHER energy sources have to generate the needed electricity.
The above means that solar is always a surplus investment.  No matter how much solar is installed, we cannot remove any conventional generating capacity because aside from the obvious fact that at night there is no sun, a cloudy day can easily reduce the output of a solar installation by 90%.
Sure "if solar could be stored" the situation would be different, but here we have two issues:
1. Storage is extremely expensive and thus would drastically change the economic equation of solar.
2. We have to decide for how long we want to store it?  For a day? For a week? For three months? (Germany, the country with the most installed solar capacity has experienced its darkest winter in 43 years**).  Obviously, storage costs grow exponentially with the number of hours / days required to be stored.

If solar is somewhat viable today it is only because it almost fully depends on the conventional electrical grid to mask its intermittent nature. Furthermore, the costs quoted by the CEO's today do NOT include the additional costs the grid must incur to support the fluctuating nature of solar.

Conclusion: the money invested in solar could be better used, for example, in efficiency improvements and nuclear power.

** Spiegel: February 26, 2013.

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Saturday, March 02, 2013

Fracking: the New Villain

There now seems to be a new villain in the energy scene and it is fracking (hydraulic fracturing) which is mainly used for extracting shale gas (natural gas) that was previously inaccessible.
If there was ever an energy extraction technique that was born to a concerted effort against it from all quarters it is precisely fracking. Hey! There is even a Matt Damon movie out there denouncing the process and the whole industry!
Is fracking that bad? Does it really have so many issues? The short answer is yes, fracking has all sorts of negative consequences: loads of water are required in the process, chemicals are injected into the ground, there has been some drinking water contamination, etc., etc. However, before unanimously condemning fracking we have to ask ourselves what the natural gas produced with this technique is replacing. Once we make this question, and particularly when we answer it, things begin to look better.
So, here is the question: what is the natural gas produced by fracking replacing (mostly)?
Answer: coal.
Coal is the worst fossil fuel in almost any facet we wish to consider:
     Extracting it is not only dangerous for the miners, but often highly destructive for the environment (e.g. "mountaintop removal" in the USA).
     Per unit of energy produced, coal emits more carbon dioxide than any of the other main fossil fuels.
     Coal emits other important pollutants such as mercury, sulfur and even radioactivity (believe it or not, a coal power plant emits more radioactivity to the environment during operation than an equivalent nuclear one).
     Atmospheric visibility can be greatly affected with the soot produced by burning coal.  China is often in the news lately due to its extreme air pollution.
     Loads of ash are left behind after the combustion process and these have to be disposed of (sometimes with catastrophic consequences when a depot bursts into a river).

Through the replacement of coal by shale gas, the USA is actually reducing its carbon emissions faster than almost any other major nation in the world.
So, we SHOULD NOT compare fracking with the "perfect energy source" (which by the way, doesn't exist) and condemn it off the bat.  No, fracking is mostly replacing the dirtiest and most dangerous energy source: coal.
Thus, fracking is cleaner, safer, and consequently better than the alternative.
Conclusion: we should embrace fracking, at least in the short and medium term while we develop an even better and viable energy source.

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