Dwindling Excuses for False Solutions

With industry and government still pushing false solutions like “clean” dirty coal and nuclear power, ignoring the consequences for the health of our planet and our bodies, the news yesterday spells the beginning of the end for arguments that there are no other “economically viable” alternatives.

Yesterday, Nanosolar, a California solar-tech company, announced that they have shipped the first of their ultra-cheap solar panels. How cheap? Well, estimates put the installed cost of these panels at just around $2 per watt, which is pretty seductive when compared with the approximate $2.10 per watt in initial costs for constructing new coal plants. Not only is the initial monetary cost now comparable (and possibly less) than new coal, but there’s also the added bonus of having no ongoing fuel expenditures. So, monetarily cheap in both the short- and long-run. I think that’s a language even politicians and businessfolk should be able to understand.

Nanosolar isn’t the only company working on inexpensive solar technologies. Another California based company, Cool Earth Solar, has designed some snazzy inflatable solar collectors, which they hope to be able to market for an initial cost of $0.29 per watt by 2010. Pretty sweet, right?

While the availability of these new solar technologies is still limited (Nanosolar has already sold out the first of their 430 megawatt per year production capacity), no longer can government and industry try to tell us that solar power is too costly and economically out of reach…

…Of course, any photosynthesizing plant could have told us that ;-).

in good heart,

10 Responses to “Dwindling Excuses for False Solutions”

  1. 1 Peter Dec 19th, 2007 at 6:33 pm

    Where did you get the production numbers for Nanosolar?

  2. 2 R Margolis Dec 20th, 2007 at 1:03 am

    Actually, the issue with PV has been more with inverter technology (i.e., converting DC to AC power) and energy storage (when the sun is not shining). It certainly will get interesting once cheaper energy storage becomes available.

  3. 3 Evan Webb Dec 20th, 2007 at 1:46 am

    R Margolis,

    yeah, i know storage is always another big deal (though i kinda love the idea that when the sun doesn’t shine, you have to do without, but i know that probably wouldn’t fly with most!). i’ve heard suggestions that maybe it would be best, at least in terms of individual home and business solar systems, it might be possible and advantageous to be able to hook appliances directly into the DC current, rather than doing the DC->AC switch and then immediately switch it back for appliances (both processes losing electricity). My understanding is that AC is largely used on transmission lines to reduce the loss of electricity as it’s sent long distances, which becomes moot when the source of power is right there… but I’m not a tech guy, maybe you know more (or maybe I’m wrong)?


    Sorry, I read these things and then forget where I’ve found them.

    This article mentions the capacity of their San Jose plant, but if you google “nanosolar 430 megawatt” you can get a lot of hits. It’s fairly impressive, since I believe that plant now increases solar panel producing capacity in the country by something like a factor of 3 (?!)


  4. 4 R Margolis Dec 20th, 2007 at 2:50 am

    Yes, it is much easier to step up the voltage for AC and send it over wires than DC. With newer technologies, there is now work on high voltage DC (HVDC). We’ll see if they run into the Qwerty problem (i.e., everybody has AC, what is the transition cost?).

    American Superconductor has some pilot projects as well. If anyone were to come up with an ultra-cheap superconductor, that would certainly change the game. Right now we need the base-load plants and they are the ones with the controversy (i.e., coal and nuclear).

  5. 5 Orion Dec 20th, 2007 at 9:52 pm

    Even if Nanosolar produces the full 430MW worth of panels a year a single nuclear power plant would produce 3 – 4 times as much at about the same cost/KW. Until we can put solar power satellites in orbit nuclear is still a better overall solution, sorry.

  6. 6 Evan Webb Dec 21st, 2007 at 1:50 am

    Anyone who advocates nuclear is ignoring the obvious injustice this creates. Where is nuclear waste dumped, predominantly? Would you volunteer to have it buried in your backyard?

  7. 7 Richard Graves Dec 21st, 2007 at 1:50 am


    Nuclear costs are still being estimated and have always overrun stated rates by huge margins. It also shows no sign of getting cheaper. Solar, however, continues to get cheaper, more available, and less damaging. There is a reason we haven’t built a nuclear plant in 30 years in the US. There is also a reason we are excited about the potential for solar as a massive solution. If Nanosolar has made their panels at their stated speed and cost…430 MW will be nothing but a small downpayment on what they will be producing.

    Also, it takes like 12 years to build a nuclear plant. Nanosolar’s one plant could pump out gigawatts by then – oh and almost no line loss.

  8. 8 R Margolis Dec 21st, 2007 at 4:07 am

    Until you have an economic way to store electricity, you cannot use solar for baseload. The plants in South Korea were standardized and their prices went down and construction times dropped as they were built. As for the waste, I personally would rather live next to a nuclear waste repository than a chemical plant, a coal boiler, or even an airport. Just as new technologies have made oil easier to extract and solar less expensive, you can drill deeper boreholes (~5 km according to MIT) to isolate the high level waste.

    If energy storage and renewables work out, that’s fine. However, I think people’s perceptions of nuclear risks are exaggerated. We can use nuclear and other low carbon technologies while we research better ones.

  9. 9 Alex Krogh-Grabbe Dec 23rd, 2007 at 5:16 am

    People’s perceptions of nuclear risk ARE exaggerated, but there are other problems that “the public” doesn’t even think about: the environmental problems of mining the fuel, the logistical and transmission status quo of centralized power, the stagnancy of the industry’s innovation compared to that of renewables, the actual price of the plants compared to that of renewables. All these comparisons between nuclear and renewables favor renewables. You’re right, R Margolis, that the risks of nuclear aren’t as catastrophic anymore as people think, but to advocate nuclear overlooks other more realistic problems.

  10. 10 R Margolis Dec 23rd, 2007 at 1:57 pm

    Yes the prices of wind and solar conversion devices have rapidly declined, but the one comparison where they fall short is they need energy storage to function like coal and nuclear plants. solar and wind and energy storage is currently more expensive. As for mining, uranium poses less problems than coal and oil. For a 24/7 electricity source, it is relatively not that bad. When energy storage gets cheap enough, we will see a greater expansion of solar and wind just as gas turbines expanded in the 90’s when Canadian gas became cheaper.

    As for centralized power, it also gives an economy of scale (i.e., I don’t have to maintain a power system at my house, specialists can do it far from my home and send the electricity to my home or business).

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