– Guest post by Benjamin Gatti from our Solar Turbine Google Group.
This post features an eye-opening perspective on photovoltaic (PV) panels. The claim is: it is very unlikely that PV will ever be cheap. Personally, I’ve been following PV since 1995. I’ve heard predictions to the tune of “$1/watt PV panels coming out next year” since then. This has not yet materialized. My recent personal experience in self-made solar panels is that it cost us $2/watt in materials just to turn donated solar cells into panels – which is the same cost as we are aiming for in our complete Solar Turbine concentrator solar power (CSP)project. Moreover, my bottom line statement is: if it costs $2/square foot for mirrors, and $40/square foot for silicon PV material – I do not see any chance that solar cells will compete with concentrator solar power, if both yield approximately 10% efficiencies. This thinking stems from our discussions within, and motivation behind, the solar turbine project. Read the following guest post, discussion, and see if you can poke any holes in the arguments presented. We don’t have any final words here – just thoughtful perspective for worshippers of PV.
(PS. I must add that while I presently don’t believe that ‘solar panels will ever be cheap,’ this applies only to the ‘pure capitalist’ mode of production. I do believe that innovative, participatory, open source, community-supported manufacturing scenarios – supported by a mindset that values clean energy over war – can succeed in making affordable PV a reality.)
The Bell Tolls for PV
by Benjamin Gatti
Many governments, Germany Spain, the US etc… are holding out hope, in
the form of a technology-specific-subsidies, that Solar PV panels are
the world’s only best chance of energy independence. Too strongly stated
you argue, but then tell me – why are the subsidies for a watt of PV
electricity three times higher than the subsidies for a watt of wind
energy, or geothermal energy – if it isn’t because the governments have
placed a disproportionate emphasis on their importance?
Have a listen to the clanging dissonance. The price of PV will fall, we
are told, when the Silicon shortage is resolved. If you believe that
then answer this report:
current price of Silicon, there are some new plants going forward, and
some planned plants being canceled. This would suggest that the
viability of a new silicon plant – in the current price environment –
rests on a knife edge. The current price is way too high for economic
viability of PV, and yet too low for the viability of new silicon
production. That my friends is a dead end. Like any non-product, PV can
be kept artificially alive as long as it is kept on governmental
life-support, but it will never leave the ICU.
The kindest choice for PV is to let it pass in peace. What you ask – is
wrong with endless government socialism? after all, every other form of
energy is socialized energy – so why not PV? That is true of course,
when it comes to energy, we are all Maoists, we all genuflect at the
grave of Lenin, and worship at the feet of Stalin. The government has
been choosing winners in this field, and imposing Monopolies for
generation and distribution for years, and this is principally why the
energy infrastructure in the US is about as anachronistic and decrepit
as the power grids of Eastern Europe. So why not socialize PV? The
reason is that the benefits of PV are privatized – exclusively for the
richest – while the costs are not merely socialized, which would spread
them fairly, instead, they are regressively-socialized. The extra costs
of supporting net-metering are borne by everyone /other than/ those who
can afford to net-meter. Those costs include all the building and
operating costs of the grid and generator, all the costs of driving
around after storms and fixing broken power lines. Without the income
from net-metering subscribers, those costs must be borne by those who
can least afford to purchase PV panels. The poor have enough challenges,
we cannot morally justify raising the costs of their electricity and
food even if the ends have the appearance of “green energy”.
Surely we can agree that sustainable energy must satisfy a requirement
that its widespread use will not threaten the ability of the least
fortunate to sustain themselves. Corn ethanol does not pass this test,
neither unfortunately does PV. Wind appears to shine in this contest,
and it looks as though Solar thermal energy is an attractive candidate.