As the American humorist Will Rogers said: “It’s not what we don’t know that gives us trouble, it’s what we know that ain’t so.”
The solar power industry only exists because deluded governments all over the world believe that it will make a significant difference to carbon dioxide emissions that, they believe, cause dangerous global warming. As a result they have been conned into providing subsidies of 3 to 5 times the cost of conventional power.
Solar power is available only when the sun shines. In New Zealand and in many other countries its maximum output is in the summertime and zero during critical winter evenings when peak demands occur. Solar power does not reduce the amount of conventional generating capacity the system needs.
The capacity factor of solar power (the average amount of power delivered compared to what the same sized power station running continuously at full output would deliver) varies between about 20% in tropical desert areas to less than 9% in Germany and the UK. It is about 15% in New Zealand.
A solar power installation costs about $3000/kW and the solar cells cost about $1000/kW. If solar cells cost nothing, solar power would still be expensive. 4000 kW of solar cells will generate as much energy as a 1000 kW conventional hydro power station. On the basis of equal energy $12 million worth of solar cells will produce the same energy as a $3 million 1000 kW hydro power station.
Providing alternative generation when the sun is not shining is expensive. Alternative generation is needed every night when the sun does not shine and if a large cloud suddenly obscures the sun. Much of the alternative generation has to be provided by rapid response open cycle gas turbines that are inefficient and run on expensive fuel and the rest by conventional thermal stations ramping up and down and incur high maintenance costs and high losses because they were designed to run steadily at maximum output. The cost of all this is imposed on the consumers rather than the solar developers.
It is often claimed that storing the solar energy will provide all the power we need at night. But energy storage is expensive and imposes even more costs on the consumer. But what is really needed is energy storage that will store solar electricity during the summer and deliver it during the winter. There is no technology available – or even on the horizon – that could do this.
In spite of all this, organisations like Vector in Auckland offer subsidised solar power installations. The end result is that rich consumers who can afford to buy solar cells rip off the poor consumers who cannot. I think this is disgraceful in the extreme.
Sadly, the Green Party, Greenpeace and other environmentalists continue to tell us that solar power will soon be economic and wind power (which is a bit better than solar but still seriously uneconomic) is already competitive. They bitterly oppose any new large hydropower scheme and will not even contemplate the safer and more environmentally friendly nuclear power option.
So poor consumers are impoverished and, worldwide, trillions of dollars get squandered on ineffective renewable energy. Carbon dioxide emissions hardly change.
When will we see a return to reason?