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A solar future?

Written By: - Date published: 1:30 pm, September 18th, 2009 - 34 comments
Categories: climate change - Tags: ,


You can read more about it here.


34 comments on “A solar future?”

  1. We better start building!

    For those wanting base load wind turbines can contribute and battery storage is a must.

    It is rare during the day for it to be dull and still.

    • jagilby 1.1

      “battery storage”

      Prey tell… what’s the electricity price path going to be once all this is said and done? Who’s going to pay? How are the poorest people ever going to afford the power generated by this fantastic scheme?

      For those wanting to read something devoid of any sense read this:

      “For those wanting base load wind turbines can contribute”

      Wind… base load???? Exactly how will that work?

  2. Lanthanide 2

    Right, so is this to completely replace all fossil fuel use universally, or just that used in current eletricity generation?

    Furthermore the additional land space required for the infrastructure to actually collect and distribute the power is probably at least a good 100% of what is listed here (roads and warehouse to carry spare parts for maintenance, etc).

    • Clarke 2.1

      So are you suggesting that these are insurmountable problems that can’t be addressed?

      • Lanthanide 2.1.1

        No, just that it’s extremely unlikely we could simply manufacture and install that many solar panels within 30 years, because you have to build all the roads and buildings to go with it, train all the people etc.

        Also, saying “zero carbon emissions” is rather a big gloss – what about all the carbon that goes into pouring all the concrete for the buildings, roads, and simply manufacturing and installing the panels themselves? 0 (or negligible) ongoing emissions possibly, but just stating it as “zero carbon emissions” is misleading.

        • Clarke

          No, just that it’s extremely unlikely we could simply manufacture and install that many solar panels within 30 years, because you have to build all the roads and buildings to go with it, train all the people etc

          Building all the infrastructure necessary to support this amount of solar in NZ would be a relatively trivial exercise – certainly smaller and less invasive than the effort needed to construct the chain of hydro dams and supporting roads, towns and electricity distribution in the Mackenzie Basin in Central Otago in a similar amount of time back in the 1960’s and 70’s. So scale certainly isn’t the problem.

          Also, saying “zero carbon emissions’ is rather a big gloss what about all the carbon that goes into pouring all the concrete for the buildings, roads, and simply manufacturing and installing the panels themselves? 0 (or negligible) ongoing emissions possibly, but just stating it as “zero carbon emissions’ is misleading.

          The same applies to any new electricity generation, so what’s your point? Unless we ration power consumption to the capacity of the current system, any new generation will require carbon emissions to construct. The difference is that solar PV has zero emissions in operation, in stark contrast to the expedient thermal generation that Contact et al have been so keen on over the last few years.

          • Lanthanide

            I was talking about globally building enough solar panels by 2030, rather than just New Zealand. If everyone rushes to build and install solar panels at once, the price will rise such that demand will meet supply. More supply will be brought on line to lower prices and increase demand, but I doubt the required area of solar panels could be built by 2030.

            “The same applies to any new electricity generation, so what’s your point?”
            My point is that while yes, it is of course true that any form of electricity generation will require CO2 output in order to initially construct, the statement cannot be taken at face value, which is precisely what the creator of that graphic is trying to get the reader to do.

            I’ve read various things about geothermal power, such as America being able to meet 5x it’s current total annual energy consumption purely from geothermal if they simply had the willpower to actually go and do it. NZ also has a great abundance of geothermal resource that we simply aren’t taking advantage of.

            captcha: timing

            • Clarke

              I was talking about globally building enough solar panels by 2030, rather than just New Zealand.

              Fair enough – although the reason I gave the NZ example is because it puts the required build-out in a local context. If we can terraform the entire Mackenzie Basin in the cause of hydro power, we can certainly put up enough aluminium framing to build a multi-megawatt solar facility.

              But the comparison is also a bit spurious – we could much more easily get to 100% renewables with geothermal (“welcome to the Shaky Isles!”), wind and tidal, probably at lower cost, and probably with lower embedded energy and carbon. Solar looks like a bit of an indulgence for little old Enzed, IMHO.

            • Ari

              This is why a mixed-renewable solution is crucial, as it spreads the resource-intensity and geographic loading of cleaner power. 🙂

        • Rob A

          Ever heard of the Manhatten project, or the Apollo project? Personally I have yet to give up all hope that humanity can pull our finger out of our arse when it matters

          • Clarke

            So where’s the equivalent Manhattan Project in fusion? Currently we’re building the experimental fusion reactor that will precede the prototype of the first commercial reactor. Even the most ardent advocates of fusion are predicting timelines measured in decades, not years – the ITER project is slated to cost around 10 billion euro and last for 35 years.

            I’m a big supporter of fusion. But believing it’s going to solve our climate change problems is akin to believing in fairies at the bottom of the garden.

            • lprent

              Besides widespread cheap fusion has an inherent problem as well – excessive waste heat would be a major cumulative problem within a relatively short time. Instead of trapping extra heat in the atmosphere, cheap fusion is effectively generating it. But that is probably a easier problem to solve.

              It is the hassle of being in a finite and rather small biosphere.

            • Rob A

              I was talking more of this solar panel idea, its technology we already largely have. Yes it has problems but nothing that would be impossible to overcome.

    • Con 2.2

      Right, so is this to completely replace all fossil fuel use universally, or just that used in current eletricity generation?

      In future, let me recommend clicking on the link that says “You can read more about it here.” – it works wonders!

      To save you the bother this time, the figure appears to include not just all fossil fuel, but the consumption of energy in all its forms.

      • Lanthanide 2.2.1

        Yeah, I didn’t have time to click it when I posted that comment, but I followed it and read it later.

        I was mainly skeptical based on another graphic I’ve seen around the net showing “1 cubic mile of oil =” and it has like 91,000,000 solar panels generating electricity for 50 years to be the equivalent. However that graphic has been debunked as being the energy value of the oil, but not what we actually manage to extract from it (because refining oil and cars etc are very inefficient).

  3. ieuan 3

    Ummm, what about the storage needed because solar cells, like, don’t work too well at night? The storage issue is probably a bigger problem (and cost) than building large arrays of solar cells.

    My personal 2c worth. I think the ‘solution’ is a lot more small scale power generation from various sources – solar, wind, small gas turbines etc rather than mega schemes.

    • lprent 3.1

      Yep it is an issue.

      The solution has been known for a while. Store it as potential mechanical energy. Use excess power during the day to pump water uphill. You get get a loss of energy converting back into electricity as hydro power at night but if the variable cost of the power was ‘free’, then this is a good way to store energy.

      The actual trick is to get so much power on the grid that it becomes worth while investing the infrastructure to take power off the grid during the day to do that.

      • snoozer 3.1.1

        It doesn’t even have to be water that you store the potential energy in, but that’s obviously the cheapest and most abundant fluid around. Not much water in the Sahara.

        You could use blocks from the pyramids instead – winch them up during the day, release the brake in the evening and turn the winch motor into a generator. 🙂

        captcha: simplest

        • Clarke

          The sodium-sulphur battery seems to be a good candidate for grid connection, as it’s large-scale, made from commonly available elements, and doesn’t seem to have the same memory issues as some other battery types. It’s being trialled for grid support in Japan.

  4. pentwig 4

    Nuclear is the only way to go!!

    • Lanthanide 4.2

      Fusion, yes. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Polywell

      Fission probably can’t ramp up in time and has problems with waste disposal, and a limited amount of uranium – 100-200 years at current usage rates becomes 10-20 years if you build 10x as many nuke plants as there are today. Breeder reactors etc are feasible, but AFAIK no one has even started building one yet, let alone has them up and running.

      • Clarke 4.2.1

        I agree with your assessment of fission, but practical fusion has the minor problem of having been 10-20 years away for at least the last 40 years. So betting the farm on a technology that isn’t yet ready for prime time looks kinda risky.

        • Lanthanide

          Have a read up on polywell, which is why I linked it.

          They just got an additional $8m in funding from the US Navy. If everything goes well with their next prototype which is 8x more powerful than the previous one and aimed at being energy-positive, they plan to have a commercial plant up and running by 2020. The rebuttal is, of course, “they’ve been saying that for years”, but polywell actually looks very promising and is orders of magnitude cheaper than tokamak reactors. Not the least because it can use boron as a fuel source and using boron gives a nuclear reaction which has no radioactive inputs -or- outputs.

    • lprent 4.3

      Not if you know anything about it. Which I suspect you don’t. Prove me wrong – explain why you think it is the only way to go. I’m sure there are people here who will pick apart your arguments to educate you why that is such a stupid attitude.

    • Draco T Bastard 4.4


      The Future of Nuclear Energy: Facts and Fiction
      Part 1
      Part 2
      Part 3

      Nuclear power was always only a short term option and its short term has run out.

  5. SjS 5

    What about the transmission? Seems like a really good idea to build a giant solar panel in the Sahara to power all of europe and north africa, but how do you get that power to europe?

    Those massive power lines they want to build through the Waitako to help power auckland would be tiny and insignificant compared to what you would need to build to get the power to/through europe …

    Good idea though! Interesting seeing it relative to the world’s totaly land area.

    • snoozer 5.1

      of course, for a project like that, the scales make it viable to use better transmission equipment than the crappy cheap stuff we have.

      superconducting wires – one day, hopefully 🙂

  6. Strathen 6

    I remember one of my Teachers telling us about this concept all those years ago at school. Although he did say that with a big enough structure in the Sahara, you could power the whole world.

    The issue we discussed in class was around who would hold the ‘power’. Who would control each of these facilities, and in the modern world, how susceptible would they be to an attack?

    I can see the above approach has reduced the risk of our theoretical discussion by spreading the structures around the world which makes sense. However with an organised attack (yes, very Hollywood) you could take down the entire worlds power system.

    Ignoring the attack angle, it is still interesting to consider who would hold the governance over these power supplies, more for places like Africa etc where one station is providing power to many countries. Whilst this can be worked out, I forsee it taking many times longer than it will take to build it.

    I like the idea and would love to see it implemented in my lifetime.

  7. wtl 7

    Re all those comments about transmission and dangers of attack. I think the point of the graph isn’t that we would use specific areas of that size and thus centralise power generation in those areas, but that the area we would need is rather small compared to the area of the world.

  8. Quoth the Raven 8

    There’s another possibility: Space-based solar power.

  9. Zaphod Beeblebrox 9

    Would have thought best place to collect solar energy is your roof. No transmission infrastructure, low construction costs, don’t have to pay any money grubbing power company and their executive bonuses.
    Just a thought.

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