By Carlo Maragliano, Ph.D., Head of R&D.
Given worldwide solar cell overproduction and consequent drops in solar energy prices, solar manufacturing companies are struggling to survive due to sensible profit reductions. In this scenario, a revision in solar module technology is required to achieve lower production costs and therefore securing continuity of the global solar market. Solar Bankers developed and patented a solar panel that achieves 50% cost savings compared to standard modules and produces up to 30% more power output, even at high operative temperatures. Such technology represents the ultimate solution to guarantee large profits for PV manufacturers in the present market.
According to technology experts and policy makers, solar energy is the future of the global energy market. Solar is a renewable source of energy that produces little to no pollution and can be used to power small machineries as well as entire cities. The cost of solar energy has decreased tremendously in the last years and today we read more and more of solar parks being installed all over the world. Although solar energy demand is increasing yearly at an unprecedented rate, the situation that the solar energy market is experiencing is anything but positive.
Since the beginning of 2016, the solar energy market has been in standoff due to an overly crowded pool of manufacturers. The worldwide production capacity of solar cells has increased exponentially in the last 2 to 3 years, with most of the new manufacturing facilities being installed in China and South East Asia, and production has by far overpassed solar cell demand. In effect, the sole production capacity in South East Asia, not including China, is roughly enough to meet the joint demand of the two biggest solar markets, USA and Europe. As a natural consequence of production overcapacity, the price of solar energy (in $/W) has been monotonically decreasing, reducing gross margins of manufacturing companies to low single-digits and thus undermining their economical stability. Although most of the small-to-medium size manufacturers have been able to survive so far, the recent cuts in governmental subsidies, particularly in China, will probably lead to their bankruptcy. The world has just entered the era of solar company die-off: companies that were able to effectively minimize their production costs, without heavily relying on subsidies, will survive. The rest will perish.
Low production costs represent a key factor in guaranteeing the survival of solar manufacturers. While in the past the solar market has succeeded in drastically reducing production costs by optimizing and/or scaling up manufacturing processes, it seems that the current solar module technology has reached a bottleneck. Today manufacturing costs are indeed mainly constituted by the cost of raw materials, which are less susceptible to price variation, and this makes it difficult for solar manufacturers to further reduce their expenses. Thus, in order to guarantee the solar market a florid future, a revision in solar module technology is needed, something that the market has not undergone since its early days.
Solar Bankers has the solution for the next generation of photovoltaics. We have developed and patented an innovative solar module that guarantees high performance at the lowest production cost in the market, enabling high profits even at the current solar module prices. Solar Bankers module looks exactly like a standard panel, but it hides a secret: a revolutionary optical film that manages the light and allows achieving unprecedented performance. The film, installed on the bottom surface of the solar module front glass, acts like a lens and a prism combined together: light rays hitting the panel are concentrated along one axis and separated according to their spectral properties (i.e. colors) into two separate beams. The part of the spectrum suitable for PV conversion (wavelengths from 300 to 1200 nm) are concentrated on silicon solar cell stripes, while the remaining wavelengths, which only cause panel overheating, are bended away from the active converter. Solar Bankers module requires only a fraction of silicon compared to standard modules, enabling up to 50% production cost savings. In addition, it also generates up to 30% more power output as the film reduces heat losses that are the consequence of being exposed to high temperatures. Solar Bankers module, certified and tested by the Fraunhofer Institute, enables thus consistent cost savings compared to standard modules and guarantees large profits at the present solar energy price.
Equatorial and sub-equatorial regions have a great potential when it comes to solar energy generation. As such areas are characterized by very high annual solar irradiances, it was estimated that solar modules installed in these regions could potentially produce 50% more energy compared to what they would otherwise generate if placed in Europe or North America. This should be enough encouragement to move all solar power generation businesses to these regions. However good these numbers, solar power growth in the equatorial and sub-equatorial regions has not yet lived up to global expectations.
So, what is hindering the great potential of solar PV in these areas? One point is the heat. Sub-equatorial and equatorial regions are characterized by very high temperatures, which during the summer can even reach 50C. Why is that negative for solar PV? Solar panels loose a % of their efficiency as their operative temperature rises above 25C, which is the standard temperature at which they are tested to determine their “nominal” efficiency. Standard Si modules (which represent over 90% of the market) loose in average 0.6 % in power conversion efficiency for every C increase in their working temperature. To put this in an example, a solar module with a proven efficiency of 20% at 25C, has at a working temperature of 60C an efficiency of only 15.8%, meaning that it loses more than 20% of its original capability of producing electricity. It is also important to note that the outside temperature is not the only factor that determines the operative temperature of a solar module. Under standard operation, a solar module, other than producing electricity, generates a lot of heat. Imagine that in a 20%-efficient solar module, almost 60% of the incoming energy is turned into heat. As this heat is not converted into electricity, it raises the temperature of the solar panel, thus negatively affecting its capability to produce electrical power. It is not unusual then that solar panels in the equatorial regions reach, during the summertime, temperatures above 75C. Under this condition, solar modules can loose over 30% of their original power conversion efficiency.
The PV community has embarked on different paths to reduce heat-related losses and thus maximise the performances of solar panels in high-temperature regions. The first path consists in improving material quality with the scope of bringing down the temperature coefficient of a solar module. This has produced Si solar modules with temperature coefficients as low as 0.3-0.35 %/C, with the caveat of being more expensive due to higher manufacturing costs. The second path consists in using alternative materials with lower temperature coefficients. Thin-film materials (like CIGS and CdTe) exhibits temperature coefficients as low as 0.2 %/C, which are considerably lower than that of Si modules. Although thin-film modules have also a competitive price, their low efficiencies and reduced durability represent today strong limiting factors, which are ultimately discouraging their use.
We at Solar Bankers undertook a different path, focusing on the source of the problem, the light, rather than solar cell materials. The sunlight is made of different colors, also called wavelengths, which together compose the sunlight spectrum. Among these wavelengths there are visible and invisible, infrared (IR) colors. Silicon solar modules can convert the visible spectrum and only a small portion of the IR light. The remaining wavelengths pass undisturbed trough silicon, but are turned into heat at the electrodes, which cover the back surface of solar cells. As a result, not only these wavelengths are not converted into useful electricity, but they also reduce the performance of the module, as they increase its operative temperature. Solar Bankers developed and patented a high-tech solution to get rid of unwanted, efficiency-lowering wavelengths, thus achieving better performance than standard modules even in high-temperature environments. The product consists in a nanostructured optical film that efficiently selects the light colors suitable for photovoltaic conversion and bends away those that only produce heat. The film, produced in large scales and at a very low cost, can be installed on existing modules or can be in alternative integrated on stand-alone panels. Field tests have confirmed that Solar Bankers film can reduce the difference between the module operating temperature and that of the ambient by almost 35%, leading to the recovery of the previously lost power output of up to 30% depending on solar cell quality.
By Carlo Maragliano, Ph.D., Head of R&D.
The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region has become, in the last few years, the favorite target for solar renewable energy companies all over the world. The reason is straightforward: the region has the highest access to sunlight throughout the year when compared to any other region around the globe. To understand this point and its implications, let’s make a simple comparison between one of the sunniest cities in Europe, Madrid, and the capital of the United Arab Emirates, Abu Dhabi. If we look at the annual sunshine hours, which measure the amount of hours that the sun shines during one-year time, Madrid has approximately 2750 sun-hours, while Abu Dhabi has over 4100. Imagine now that you have a solar panel, and are asked where to install it to obtain the maximum power output. Where would you put it? In Abu Dhabi, off course! In the capital of the UAE, indeed, the same module could potentially produce up to 150% of the power that it would generate in Madrid. This should be enough encouragement to move all solar power generation businesses to the MENA region, right? However good these numbers, solar power growth in the MENA region has not yet lived up to global expectations.
So, what is hindering the great potential of solar PV in this region? One point is the heat. The MENA region is characterized by very high temperatures, which during the summer can even reach 50C. Why is that negative for solar PV? Solar panels loose a % of their efficiency as their operative temperature rises above 25C, which is the standard temperature at which they are tested to determine their “nominal” efficiency. Standard Si modules (which represent over 90% of the market) loose in average 0.6 % in power conversion efficiency for every C increase in their working temperature. This figure is widely known by the PV community as the temperature coefficient of the solar module. To put this in an example, a solar module with a proven efficiency of 20% at 25C, has at a working temperature of 60C an efficiency of only 15.8%, meaning that it loses more than 20% of its original capability of producing electricity. It is also important to note that the outside temperature is not the only factor that determines the operative temperature of a solar module. Under standard operation, a solar module, other than producing electricity, generates a lot of heat. Imagine that in a 20%-efficient solar module, almost 60% of the incoming energy is turned into heat. As this heat is not converted into electricity, it raises the temperature of the solar panel, thus negatively affecting its capability to produce electrical power. It is not unusual then that solar panels in the MENA region reach, during the summertime, temperatures above 75C. Under this condition, solar modules can loose over 30% of their original power conversion efficiency.
Can we work around this problem? The PV community has embarked on different paths to reduce heat-related losses. The first path consists in improving material quality with the scope of bringing down the temperature coefficient of a solar module. This has produced Si solar modules with temperature coefficients as low as 0.3-0.35 %/C, with the caveat of being more expensive due to higher manufacturing costs. The second path consists in using alternative materials with lower temperature coefficients. Thin-film materials (like CIGS and CdTe) exhibits temperature coefficients as low as 0.2 %/C, which are considerably lower than that of Si modules. Although thin-film modules have also a competitive price, their low efficiencies and reduced durability represent today strong limiting factors, which are ultimately discouraging their use.
Are we then, out of options? No! We at Solar Bankers undertook a different path, focusing on the source of the problem, the light, rather than solar cell materials. The sunlight is made of different colors, also called wavelengths, which together compose the sunlight spectrum. Among these wavelengths there are visible and invisible, infrared (IR) colors. Silicon solar modules can convert the visible spectrum and only a small portion of the IR light. The remaining wavelengths pass undisturbed trough silicon, but are turned into heat at the electrodes, which cover the back surface of solar cells. As a result, not only these wavelengths are not converted into useful electricity, but they also reduce the performance of the module, as they increase its operative temperature. Solar Bankers developed and patented a high-tech solution to get rid of unwanted, efficiency-lowering wavelengths, thus achieving better performance than standard modules even in high-temperature environments. The product consists in a nanostructured optical film that efficiently selects the light colors suitable for photovoltaic conversion and bends away those that only produce heat. Field test have confirmed that Solar Bankers film can reduce the difference between the module operating temperature and that of the ambient by almost 35%, leading to the recovery of the previously lost power output of up to 30% depending on solar cell quality.
Now you might be thinking, “Great news, but I have already installed many MW and I am still paying for them!” Our patented technology can be added to existing solar panels, making it easier for you to upgrade your solar farm. Read more about how our technology can help you in www.solarbankers.com/technology.html or contact us! Stay tuned for more tips on how to increase the performance of your solar panels! And don’t forget to follow us on Twitter!
“Low cost solar energy for all”, Mr. Ban Ki-Moon, Secretary General of the UN
Solar Bankers’ new generation of solar modules employ a nano-structured polymer foil on their cover glass which refracts and concentrates specific wavelengths of light to improve module performance. The polymer device’s refractive abilities allow it to separate absorbable, or “desirable”, wavelengths of solar radiation from efficiency-lowering wavelengths, such as infrared and other short-wave light. The foil then also acts as a lens and concentrates the separated spectra of light onto different areas on the module.
Long wavelengths of light, like infrared, are usually dispersed on the solar cell in the form of heat energy, which significantly reduces cell efficiency. Our nano-structured foil’s “light-splitting” effect allows efficiency-lowering radiation to be concentrated away from the actual cell, so that cell efficiency remains unaffected by incoming heat energy.
In parallel, the foil is able to concentrate “desirable” wavelengths directly onto the cell. This concentration – regardless of the efficiency of the cell used – increases the amount of absorbable solar radiation received by the cell per unit area by up to 40%.
Hence our foil significantly improves cell/module performance with the double-effect of A) protecting cells from efficiency-lowering light while B) increasing the amount of convertible solar energy arriving at the cell per unit area.
Our second-generation module can even use the heat energy refracted away from the cell to also produce electricity, further improving module efficiency.
This means modules using the foil can reduce the size of the cell – and the amount of silicon! – they employ by up to 90% while producing the same output as before. Given silicon is a module’s most expensive component, the described effect can reduce module unit production costs to an unprecedented degree.
Algeria’s experience in reforming its energy policy to emphasise feed-in tariffs, as well as its strong macroeconomic position, are likely to create a profitable environment for RE investments. Its technology being both more efficient and considerably more cost-effective than regular silicon-based PV, Solar Bankers is negotiating with local partners and regulators in countries like Algeria to take part in the region’s vigorous PV development.
It hardly is a secret that North Africa has a unique suitability and hence a unique potential for the development of solar energy. Throughout the region governments are reforming their energy policies, launching procurement initiatives to diversify their energy mix using foreign know-how and technology. Achieving this requires in turn trade policies tailored to attracting international developers of renewable energies based on a system of financial incentives, usually feed-in tariffs, and backed by a strong regulatory framework. And it is the latter aspect which is of crucial importance to developers assessing the investment risk associated with North Africa’s emerging RE markets. Profitability and true investment security can only be guaranteed to developers if an accountable set of institutions manages the costs of subsidising the novel technology in a transparent and consistent manner. Indeed, over the past decades, local institutional and political barriers have been the greatest obstacle to the promotion of a more sustainable energy mix in North African countries. Algeria is a useful example of this.
Until recently, the Algerian government’s dominant political need to provide not only stable but affordable electricity conflicted with calls for the integration of more sustainable yet less reliable energy sources. The political unpopularity of loading off the cost of RE subsidies on final consumers coincided with the reluctance of state grid operators to adjust their feed-in patterns and possibly face redundancy costs. Meanwhile heavy subsidies to dirty energies continued to drive down electricity prices. The result was the completion of half-hearted PPAs lacking rigorous legislative backing and commitment from key state players, eroding investment security for developers. Recent reforms have produced more favourable circumstances.
Tracing the evolution of Algeria’s feed-in tariff schemes will elucidate the frequently political origins of investment risk in North Africa’s PV markets.
Algeria is probably North Africa’s FiT pioneer. It became the first country in the region to introduce FiTs in March 2004, later updating the program’s aims with the “Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Program” in March 2011. Despite setting ambitious targets, the 2004 and 2011 constitute mere experimental efforts. As indicated above, regulatory mechanisms were far from managing the essential trade-off between consumer protection and investment security well.
According to an article by M. Meyer-Renschhausen in the Journal of Energy in Southern Africa, “the Algerian energy policy [of 2004], characterised by insufficient FITs and regulatory obstacles, obviously attempts to promote renewable energies without increasing power prices and without endangering the financial stability of the national grid company” (J. Energy South. Afr. vol. 24 n. 1, Cape Town, Jan 2013). The 2004 FiT scheme’s contradictory design demonstrates this. Instead of a fixed tariff associated with a particular capacity, RE developers were paid a bonus on the current, general market price of electricity depending on the type of technology used. Consequently revenue streams for RE developers and investors became uncertain as they were made to fluctuate with the prevailing electricity market price. Meanwhile the Algerian government continued to subsidise natural gas power stations on a large scale, causing “a decrease of retail prices for power and thus [reducing] the profitability of renewable energy technologies.” The seeming lack of communication between government, hydrocarbon producers, and regulatory authorities severely hurt the country’s RE investment climate. In 2005, the government eventually committed to fixing electricity prices at 0.03 USD/kWh, which produced not unremunerative circumstances to PV developers receiving a 300% bonus – by comparison to international tariff levels at the time. However, more immediate institutional factors neutralised any profitability presented on paper.
Algeria’s early FiT scheme did not obligate the state grid operator, Sonelgaz, to give the promoted green energy priority in feeding the grid. According to Meyer-Renschhausen, “authorization of new power plants and lacking provisions to avoid bottlenecks in the grid is protecting the incumbent power generator against stranded cost and the grid company against rising costs.” The scheme’s general cost-allocation regime was unclear and unaccountable; state utilities’ resistance against engaging at all in purchasing contracts with RE developers was both tolerated and facilitated. Due to the scheme’s legislative deficiencies with respect to priority rules and cost-distribution, the FiT’s details were essentially “left to negotiations” between developers and the state energy company, Sonelgaz, which the latter effectively controlled and tailored to its own interests. Investors were offered a highly unfavourable environment.
Algeria’s new feed-in tariff scheme, introduced in February 2015, is likely to rectify many of the institutional and regulatory deficiencies described above. With the remodelled scheme the country is able to combine a more effective cost-distribution regime with a tighter regulatory framework to provide investors and developers with greater security. The RE development aims associated with the scheme involve an increase of the total targeted installed capacity from 12 GW set out in 2004 to 22 GW now. Additionally, the current 13.5 GW target for photovoltaic development constitutes a 400% increase to the installed capacity envisaged initially by the program in 2011.
PV and other RE projects now receive a guaranteed fixed tariff, relative to their capacity, over the 20-year term of their PPA with one of the four subsidiaries of the state-owned grid operator. Improvements in accountability have also been achieved: the details of the PPAs are now legally enforced and largely standardised, no longer at the discretion of Sonelgaz.
In its financial set-up, the scheme is not only generous by regional comparison, it also adjusts to the effective productivity of projects over time. Initially, for the first five years of the 20-year subsidy period, solar projects with capacities between 1 MW and 5 MW receive a fixed tariff of DZD 15.94/kWh. For projects larger than 5 MW, tariffs stand at DZD 12.75/kWh. After the initial five-year period, tariffs are individually revised for each project according to its effective operating hours. Tariffs to projects with low productivity are increased up to 15%, rates received by more productive plants are decreased in the same manner. This adjustment measure may require a bureaucratic effort, but it renders the cost-allocation regime more flexible.
Although PV magazine has raised the issue that the FiT applies only for a fixed number of hours every year, in excess of which the electricity is apparently sold at the unsubsidised price, the current tariff structure shows significant improvement in investment security compared to the bonus-system of the past. Other institutional reforms confirm this picture. The state grid company, Sonelgaz, is now also legally bound to give RE priority grid access, further giving developers security concerning the consistent deployment of their energy. Furthermore, the distribution of the FiT scheme’s cost has been clearly set out by the Algerian government. According to law firm Jones Day, “The subsidized feed-in tariffs will be financed through a National Fund for Renewable Energies and Cogeneration (Fonds National pour les Energies Renouvelables et la Cogénération), established by a 1 percent tax levy on the state’s oil revenues, and through other resources or contributions, including a premium paid by end-users.” One could go on to question the long-term viability of the principle of linking the funding of RE development to the health of Algeria’s oil trade. Growing demand could turn Algeria into a net importer of oil or insurgent exploitation methods in North America could hold down oil prices and, therefore, the country’s oil revenues.
But, beside the fact that Algeria controls substantial alternative sources of finance (having larger foreign exchange reserves than France, Germany, or Britain), the improvement in cost-allocation is of a more fundamental, structural nature. It is not the lack of finance, as in many sub-Saharan African countries, that has obstructed RE promotion in the past, but the administration thereof. Current reforms will ensure that the conflicts produced by the government’s insistence on protecting the grid operator’s financial health are resolved. Similarly, with the introduction of consumers into the cost management of RE subsidies, consumer protection is diminishing as a significant political barrier to a fair and effective FiT scheme.
Projects are run on an IPP basis and foreign developers will usually have to partner with a local, state-owned power company, such as a branch of Sonelgaz’ power generation subsidiary. Land ownership for development by foreign investors requires state authorisation; the majority of projects have to settle on state-owned land under a concession regime.
A vital aspect of the developer’s investment appraisal yet outstanding is the exchange rate risk associated with Algeria. The Algerian government does not appear to be assuming exchange rate risk directly, implied by the fact that tariffs are listed in the national currency, the dinar. Egypt’s FiT scheme, by comparison, also pays developers in its national currency, but explicitly assumes at least part of the exchange risk by allowing investors to convert a portion of the Egyptian pounds they receive with every invoice into US dollars at a fixed rate. Despite having a very tightly managed floating exchange policy, the Egyptian pound’s relative volatility makes the government’s assumption of exchange rate risk in its FiT scheme an essential security offered as part of the deal. Yet from what can be surmised from commentators, Algeria’s government is not making similar explicit provisions.
Closer analysis will reveal an ambivalent picture. On one hand, according to the IMF, the Algerian dinar has a composite soft peg, largely guided by the US dollar (mainly due to Algeria’s specialisation on hydrocarbon exports). Thus Algeria’s exchange rate policy is designed to ensure that at regular intervals the dinar returns to a specific benchmark exchange rate with a variety of international currencies. More importantly, Algeria has comparatively large foreign exchange reserves (the 12th largest in the world), giving the government flexibility in the control of exchange rates and unexpected inflationary/deflationary events. And it is probably these reserves – greater control over the value and volatility of its currency, as compared to other North African countries – which allows Algeria to provide at least a certain degree of exchange rate security without directly and formally assuming currency risk through legislation.
Yet the Algerian dinar’s inherent volatility must be acknowledged. With oil and natural gas exports forming the country’s economic base, its currency remains very sensitive to commodity markets and vulnerable to domestic inflationary pressures. Oil prices usually determine the strength of the dinar: the recent fall in oil markets caused its value to depreciate from 78.6 DZD per USD in spring 2014 to 98.8 DZD per USD in April 2015. BMI Research expects the currency to stabilise over 2015; but even with the deployment of its extensive for-ex reserves, the Algerian government will only be able to return the currency’s value to around 95 DZD per USD. A poor harvest season in 2014-15, entailing large-scale imports of grain due to Algeria’s limited production base, contributed to this trend and pushed inflation up to over 5.7% in early 2015.
Yet, in any case, a comparatively high exchange rate risk is an inherent feature of most investment in emerging economies. It has been our thesis that rather institutional and political issues have been the primary obstacle to the advance of FiTs and sustainable energy production. As North Africa’s strongest economy, Algeria is leading the way in overcoming these structural problems.
In the economics of energy production, the eventual value of a unit of electricity – the figure most interesting to consumers and governments – is influenced by a complex array of interconnected factors, ranging from the generating unit’s ability to produce at peak demand to how much of its capacity it can effectively use. To take all these factors into account, and thus make the economic performance of different energy sources comparable, economists prevalently use the measurement of “levelised costs”. This quantity is synonymous with the net present value of all capital and operating costs of a generating unit over its lifetime, divided by the amount of electricity (in megawatt-hours) it is expected to produce. This intends to provide an indication of the economic effort required to produce a unit of electricity. Levelised costs have thus become the dominant parameter in comparing economic efficiencies, influencing energy policy.
Yet already in a 2011 paper, economist Paul Joskow of MIT noticed that this method of standardization inaccurately represents the value of electricity. It seems levelised costs are less useful for ranking and comparing alternative technologies than previously thought. And this especially applies to sources of renewable energy.
To re-evaluate the standard economic performance of renewable technologies, Joskow analyzes their interaction with the standard electricity. The economic side-effects of this interaction, so his argument, are not adequately represented by levelised costs.
For instance, most non-carbon energy units (take solar and wind technologies) can produce at only a comparatively small fraction of their capacity and have highly variable performance. The fluctuations in their generating capabilities may not concur with daily variations in electricity demand. Especially from countries increasingly emphasizing these technologies in the standard electricity system, this demands an awkward compromise. For stable grid output to be maintained, conventional electricity from fuel-based generation must be injected into the system as a supplement to the renewable energies. Since the fluctuations in non-carbon performance are unpredictable, this supplement must often occur through a process of redundancy production from the traditional energy infrastructure – which implies that conventional power plants are not only kept on stand-by, but are effectively kept running to be ready to supply injections. The costs associated with balancing the electricity system in this way when renewables go offline (what Joskow calls the cost of intermittency), among other factors, is not taken into account by standard levelised costs calculations. Therefore, levelised costs tend to understate the cost of electricity derived from renewable energy sources.
In a paper published in May 2014, Charles Frank of the Brookings Institution presents a more appropriate approach to ranking alternative technologies. He extends the spectrum of phenomena and side-effects taken into account by basing his parameter on a cost-benefit analysis. As formulated by Frank: “rather than using levelised costs to compare alternative technologies, one should compute the annual costs and benefits of each project and then rank those projects by net benefits delivered per megawatt (MW) of new electrical capacity”. Therein, “the benefits of a new electricity project are its avoided carbon dioxide emissions, avoided energy costs and avoided capacity costs [or the value of the fuel that would have been used if a fuel-based plant had produced the same amount of energy]”. The costs include, among others, the unit’s “own carbon dioxide emissions, its own energy cost, and its own capacity cost” as well as the cost of intermittency (which itself encompasses the costs associated with operating the supplement generating units).
It must also be noted that in itself the connection of renewable technology to the system is often an elaborate and expensive exercise, incurring broader costs for the grid. The most suitable sites for large-scale harvesting are often remote from regions of highest demand (urban areas, etc.).
The Economist published a telling chart on the issue:
(from “Sun, wind and drain” by The Economist, Free Exchange column, July 26th 2014 issue)
For instance, comparing the costs and benefits of different non-carbon sources, it must be assumed that renewable technologies do not avoid carbon emissions or capacity costs (intermittency costs) when they are not running. The magnitude of their benefits in this respect consequently depends on their ability to run at a large percentage of their capacity (basically run for the longest). Therefore, within this parameter, nuclear power plants – which on average run at 90% of capacity – show the best economic performance of the zero-carbon technologies (avoiding almost six times as many carbon emissions per unit capacity as solar power plants). Taking intermittency cost into account, furthermore, a 1 MW solar power plant running at 16% of capacity could replace only roughly 0.15 MW of a coal-fired plant running at 90%. A nuclear power plant running at 90% of capacity could replace effectively the entire capacity of fuel-based energy.
Nonetheless, with respect to other cost and benefits, nuclear power plants have comparatively high capital and operating costs (taking into account nuclear waste handling and other associated hazard-management), as well as being uninsurable. Yet due to their high use of capacity, capital and operating costs are only 75% greater per MW for nuclear power plants than for solar plants.
Thus, solar and wind power appear very uncompetitive when compared to nuclear energy and conventional fuel-based production methods. And it must be noted that the avoided energy/capacity costs in Mr Frank’s analysis assume a carbon price of 50 USD per tonne. The economic inefficiency and general expensiveness of wind and solar energy, already shown to be worse than previously assumed by Mr Frank, would be even more pronounced if actual carbon prices (below 10 USD per tonne in Europe) were incorporated in the calculations. Carbon prices would have to surpass 185 USD per tonne for solar energy to show a net benefit with its current rate of emission avoidance.
According to Mr Frank’s analysis, on balance the economically most efficient non-carbon source is nuclear power – the least efficient sources are wind and solar power. This not only implies that the cost of solar and wind generation for the economy is larger than previously assumed, but also that these types of generation constitute the most expensive ways of reducing carbon emissions. Yet governments are spilling billions in subsidies onto solar and wind industries with the justification of helping battle carbon emissions.
The implications of Mr Juskow’s and Mr Frank’s insights are diverse. Artificially building renewable energies that are both economically inefficient and as of now highly variable in their performance is the most expensive and least effective method of reducing carbon emissions. The subsidization and promotion of cost-inefficiency within the energy mixes of developed countries may continue to raise electricity prices. And, if the reliable connection of already highly expensive renewable generating units requires conventional carbon-based plants to be kept running “just-in-case”, then it is in any way questionable whether significant increases in energy spending (and electricity prices) are worth that marginal reduction in carbon emissions they may effect. As The Economist summarizes: “governments should target emissions reductions from any source rather than focus on boosting certain kinds of renewable energy.”
Yet the implications of the above described insights are not satisfying to the solar enthusiast, or the solar industry in general. In a way, they appear to destroy any firm incentive to continue investment in solar technologies. But when departing from the theoretical world of economics and political criticism, the above implied pessimism is more illusory than practically appropriate. The derivation of recommendations from the economists’ statistical game has hitherto ignored public opinion with respect to the promotion of renewable energy, as well the innovation potential of certain technologies.
Furthermore, all the data above shows is that, in political settings, solar technologies are ineffectively instrumentalized in an artificial and overly expensive battle against carbon emissions.
Criticism towards this current mistreatment of renewable energy does not mean a serious, longer-term belief in solar’s contribution to solving the world’s energy problems is in any way unjustified. Moreover, we maintain that a solution to the above described problems requires investment in solar.
Needless to say, the incentive to invest in solar remains as strong as ever. Firstly, nuclear power remains too unpopular (and too hazardous on a large scale) to constitute an ultimate solution. To avoid any potential hazards, after all, the renewable energy industry has developed towards the pursuit of replacing not only hydrocarbon-based power, but nuclear power as well.
The aim remains to achieve stable grid output based only on renewable energy sources. In order for solar to become competitive in this respect, and thus make a powerful contribution to solving the problems described above, it must be able to neutralize the fluctuations in its performance. This will benefit the technology’s economic efficiency by eliminating intermittency costs and, in consequence, its ability to avoid significant quantities of carbon emissions. The development of storing technologies and pv-thermal combinations currently shows the greatest potential for maximizing solar’s capacity utilization. At the heart of this endeavor is a tight cooperation between material research and product development on one hand, and proper entrepreneurial deployment on the other in order to get economic efficiencies under control.
“The Net Benefits of Low and No-carbon Electricity Technologies“, by Charles Frank, Brookings Institution, May 2014
“Comparing the Costs of Intermittent and Dispatchable Electricity-Generating Technologies“, by Paul Joskow, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, September 2011
“Sun, wind, and drain”, by The Economist newspaper, Free Exchange column, July 26th 2014 issue.
“Why is renewable energy so expensive?”, The Economist newspaper, The Economist Explains column, January 5th 2014, http://www.economist.com/blogs/economist-explains/2014/01/economist-explains-0.