Discrete solar technology

Written By: - Date published: 4:29 pm, December 26th, 2010 - 19 comments
Categories: climate change, Economy, energy, sustainability, telecommunications - Tags:

The New York Times has an article about a continuing trend in technology. That of discrete stand alone solar and bio power – “African Huts Far From the Grid Glow With Renewable Power”. This article is focused on the use where existing networks don’t exist. However the same type of technology is likely to become more widespread even in the developed nations.

That wearying routine ended in February when the family sold some animals to buy a small Chinese-made solar power system for about $80. Now balanced precariously atop their tin roof, a lone solar panel provides enough electricity to charge the phone and run four bright overhead lights with switches.

The significiant element in this statement is the way that China has been directly supporting via state intervention, and therefore driving down the cost of production of solar technology, making these technologies available at acceptable prices. In the New York Times summary on solar power:-

China has leapfrogged the West to emerge as the world’s largest manufacturer of solar panels. China’s efforts to dominate renewable energy technologies raise the prospect that the West may someday trade its dependence on oil from the Mideast for a reliance on solar panels, wind turbines and other gear manufactured in China.

The Chinese government charges a renewable energy fee to all electricity users. The fee revenue goes to companies that operate the electricity grid, to make up the cost difference between renewable energy and coal-fired power.

In the United States, power companies frequently face a choice between buying renewable energy equipment or continuing to operate fossil-fuel-fired power plants that have already been built and paid for. In China, power companies have to buy lots of new equipment anyway, and alternative energy is increasingly priced competitively.

But China’s commitment to renewable energy is expensive. Although costs are falling steeply through mass production, solar power is still at least twice as expensive as coal.

Silicon Valley has been complaining about this type of support earlier this year and has been steadily losing ground. But there is less of a need for this type of support from countries with established generation and transmission systems.

But as the companies finally begin mass production — Solyndra just flipped the switch on a $733 million factory here last month — they are finding that the economics of the industry have already been transformed, by the Chinese. Chinese manufacturers, heavily subsidized by their own government and relying on vast economies of scale, have helped send the price of conventional solar panels plunging and grabbed market share far more quickly than anyone anticipated.

As a result, the California companies, once so confident that they could outmaneuver the competition, are scrambling to retool their strategies and find niches in which they can thrive.

But in the end, the world needs cheaper discrete solar power systems in the developing world and lower cost network generators in the developed world as a viable alternative to hydrocarbon based generation.

The Chinese are providing these sooner rather than later by pushing the available technologies into mass production, usually in joint ventures with the developers (usually from the US). The supports are close to the bounds of the WTO rules, and at some point I’d anticipate a WTO challenge of the Chinese support. But even if it was to succeed, the worldwide demand for cheap implementations of these technologies is such that costs of tariffs is more likely to harm the economies that put them in place after a WTO decision than it is likely to harm the Chinese.

In the meantime, the low installation costs are probably going to help the developing world more than any other initiative of the last half-century. Especially in the way that it supports the already widespread mobile communications technology infrastructure.

19 comments on “Discrete solar technology”

  1. Ho Hum
    Robert Newman explains it well here http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BaOTh_0LICE He starts @ 2:45 “no way out” and from 4:00 to 4:51 he covers how futile technology and our expectations of it is.
    Then in part nine he starts with the somewhat trivial question “how are we going to feed ourselves?”
    Not with solar powered tractors that is for sure 😉

  2. ak 2

    Thanks Lynn – uplifting article and tremendous boost to optimism and progression. 1.5 billion still living without electricity – and now for peanuts a self-sufficient means to night-light and communication. After centuries of ravage and rapacious colonisation yeilding vastly less than nothing, technological succour – from a benign socialist power.
    Next step the ‘net for that 1.5b – then watch the global axis itself tilt heavenwards.

  3. Colonial Viper 3

    If previous history is anything to go by, China will legally stonewall the WTO for 3, 4, 5, 6 years if a complaint is raised. By the time it is eventually resolved China’s market dominance will be even more deeply entrenched.

  4. Obama, China and climate policy:
    http://www.jossgarman.com/?p=694
    “we have seen the US Government begin to act to oppose what they see as Chinese domination of the clean energy market: for example, backing a landmark complaint at the WTO against Chinese subsidies of their renewables sector. Arguably, America’s position is a reflection of their deep anxiety, not that the Chinese will get away without making emissions cuts – but that the US will be left behind, as the world builds its new economy through investment in smart, low-carbon technologies. Meanwhile, the stranglehold over US politics held by coal and oil companies will have ensured America could not compete….”

  5. Bored 5

    Jeez, I hate to be a Cassandra but please please please when talking about “salvational” technologies ask a few basic physics questions such as “to produce these solar devices how much energy is needed?” and “how much energy is inbedded in the manufacturing plant and other infrastructure?'” AND perhaps “where does this energy come from?”

    If these questions are asked you might I suspect find that to produce these devices requires as much energy as they can produce in a lifetime. They might be considered batteries.

    • Colonial Viper 5.1

      Same questions should be asked of the Prius and the Chevy Volt.

    • Watch Robert Neman
      Also this is worth a watch http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=glY6gR026hQ

      The Myths of Biofuels is a video production by “Sutro Tower Video” of a presentation made by David Fridley (of Lawrence Berkeley Labs, and San Francisco Oil Awareness) given to the public by Post Carbon Santa Clara Valley on June 7, 2007. Mr. Fridley has been concerned about the potential effects of petroleum depletion (peak oil) for a number of years and has done extensive work in this area. This presentation concerning biofuels has been given to numerous interested groups. More information and how to acuire a copy here http://sfbayoil.org/sfoa/myths/index….

      Just like Easter Island stone masons humans can’t understand limits to growth

    • lprent 5.3

      That is a question based on the amount of energy required to produce the panels vs the amount of energy produced by them over their lifetime. The italics indicate the real question you’re really asking, because there is a lot of energy required to produce them, but the question is if they return more than that energy while in use. There are ancillary questions related to the production failure rates, ie how many cells have to be discarded because of defects. These are the main factors in looking at the energy budget for solar cells.

      The standard life of silicon based PV’s has been rated traditionally at about 20 years. But testing over the past few years has indicated the modern cells are likely to last well over 30 years. I can’t be bothered digging out (slow links here *sigh*) the references that I read a few years ago. But this link should give you a good start point for one of the studies (even if it is poorly linked). Non-one really knows how long they’ll last because they simply haven’t been used for long enough. There are many cases of the first generation of PV’s from the 80’s still staying in operation where they have been maintained past their rated lifespan.

      One of the main reasons that the cost of solar cells has been reducing is because the methods used to create them strongly resemble those used for LCD screens. Both technologies have markedly reduced their wastage rates on larger sizes over the last decade.

      There is no evidence that I have seen that solar cells can be considered to be batteries (even the older ones) unless they are not maintained correctly.

      • burt 5.3.1

        The question is of energy input vs energy output is also a question of relative available at place of production and place of deployment. Then you also need to factor in the costs associated with any other form of energy delivery to the same location.

        A solar powered cell tower for emergency aid workers.. the energy input/output equation also looks a bit petty in that environment as well.

      • Bored 5.3.2

        lprent, what I am questioning with regard to solar cells is not their utility, usefulness etc but more fundamental issues such as their ability to replace the highly concentrated energy output of fossil fuels. Have no doubt I am in favour of them as a technology but if you wan to run the world as it is on solar power, well forget it. Burt asks some questions below that are very pertinent to the issue, the where how and concentration of energy.

        My fear is that people will see solar power as a panacea without ever doing the maths and working out what the real whole of life energy input is versus output. What ratio are we getting from swapping one energy source in manufacturing another? How much oil / coal was burned in the mining of materials, the building of the facilities etc etc?

  6. swimmer 6

    I think it’s great, may solar power spread throughout the land. 🙂

  7. Draco T Bastard 7

    The question is, and I’ve obliquely asked it before, Why isn’t our government doing the same?

    • Because there is no one wanting to invest in an energy/money losing venture. duh

      Spam word – learning, it is way past time we all got some.

    • Because they are unable to look past the next 6 months and to understand the urgency you need to be able to look into the future at least 12 months ahead.

  8. Carol 8

    As I understand it, there’s a major rural/urban wealth divide in China. So my question is: is the China government providing such cheap (to the user) & renewable resources to rural Chinese, or is it just something they are giving to rural Africans?

    • Colonial Viper 8.1

      The Chinese Government has struck a reasonably simple social bargain with its rural people. That is, the Government has promised them that will see very gradual, but noticeable, improvements in their living standards – even in the most desolate of rural areas – over time. And that citizens can safely expect that the prospects for their children, and their grand children, will be better tomorrow than it is today. Access to education, scholarships to uni, etc.

      In the same vein, the Chinese Government is funding massive infrastructure expansion through virtually every area of its territory. Everything from universities to highways to bullet trains. Not only are these tangible signs of progress from both a material and a PR perspective, the projects help soak up the massive labour force that the Chinese Government must keep occupied if it is to prevent widespread unrest.

      I don’t have any specific detail, but providing solar 12V power to remote villages far off the grid would be a relatively easy and cheap thing to do, and I imagine it is being done. Telephones, radios, lights could all be run off solar and batteries. However, the Chinese Government is just as likely to build a train station for a 320 km/h bullet train through the county as do any of those things.

      No doubt though you are correct, there is massive income inequality in China. There are more people living in poverty there then the entire population of the US put together, yet there are 60-70 people in China who are classed as USD billionaires.

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