It is interesting to witness all the hype about PV solar energy fields in Vermont, and how these fields will be a panacea for our future energy needs. Even if we put aside the vast land area that solar requires, there is real concern that our energy planners are over-selling Solar Photovoltaic. Excessive investment in solar will cause taxpayers to pay substantially more for their electricity to the detriment of their personal savings.
Over-reliance on solar is an ill-conceived strategy. Our state energy planners seem more concern with hitting the perceived hot buttons of green energy and the subsidies that come with it, than conducting a pragmatic and thorough study of how well PV solar energy fits in our state.
Cost and Efficiency
Here are a few facts about solar, backed up by creditable data:
- Solar panels are not remotely competitive with Coal, Gas, or Nuclear with regards to efficiency, cost, and materials.
- Because of cloud cover; solar radiation reaching Vermont is 40% less per year (8 MJ/m2) than that reaching Montana, at the same latitude, and 59% less than New Mexico. In other words, we pay the same for solar panels, but unlike other states we get less production per panel.
Solar Technologies and Critical Materials
There are two basic solar panel technologies: crystalline silicon and thin film.
Silicon panels are more efficient, but costs more. Silicon semiconductor manufacturing, particularly the cutting of silicon ingots, is an energy-intensive, CO2-producing process. Taking this into account, the total net energy generated during the life (~ 25 years ) of the panels is reduced by as much as 10%. In addition panel output degrades about 0.5% per year due to aging, a significant reduction over 25 years.
Thin film panels use exotic rare earth metals, such as cadmium telluride, gallium arsenide, and indium. Only two nations, China and Mexico, have significant deposits of these materials. So much for being energy independent with PV Solar. Even with these sources, there are not enough of these materials on the planet to satisfy world need. There are no proven substitutes. The 2011 U.S. Department of Energy report Critical Materials Strategy outlines the severity of material limitations not only for PV solar, but wind power as well.
Efficiency, Cost, and Materials: The Three Warning Signs
Efficiency, cost, and materials are three warning signs that should not be ignored by state energy planners,. Planning decisions made now will affect rate payers and taxpayers alike for the next quarter century and beyond. Why jump into a technology that is not suitable for the New England area? In time, household and business electric bills will be much higher due to rolling the expensive solar energy into rate schedules. At that point, it will become abundantly clear to the average Vermonter that we have been misled, whereas the top 1% of households that are part of tax-shelter LLCs will have enjoyed a lucrative 20-year joyride courtesy of Vermont's SPEED program.
About Charles Kelly:
Charles Kelly, BME and MME Villanova University, P.E. Pennsylvania and Vermont, Consulting Engineer to Lithium Battery Industry. Granted two U.S. patents for battery and composite material design. Senior Principal Design Engineer (Ret.) Enersys Advanced Systems. Project Engineer (Ret.) Raytheon Engineers & Constructors for PSC of NH Seabrook Nuclear Station. Supervising Test Engineer (Ret.) for power industry components, Schutte & Koerting Co. Philadelphia, PA.
I'm not sure who argues that Solar is a panacea, but at this stage in its development it is not. PV energy is approximately $.40 a kwh. This cost is down 50% within the last two years. Some products have proven to be unsuccessful including Solyndra and some thin film products. I suspect high efficiency cells will also prove impractical under their current configuration.
Solar likely represents only a part of the equation in satisfying energy needs. Solar thermal, wind, biomass, smart grid applications and other non-nuclear/fossil products must be adapted quickly to replace the current energy producers which are rapidly making our earth uninhabitable. When I started selling solar panels 5 years ago, the wholesale price of a module was $4 per watt. We are now at $1. That is a remarkable cost improvement in a short period.
After having nuclear power plants active for over 40 years, nuclear will always will be susceptible to human error and natural disasters. This risk profile cannot be easily measured in dollars and sense but it is clearly too high a price to pay.
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