Friday, August 15, 2008

The Headlong Rush to Solar

The NY Times reports California is planning two large solar plants:
The plants will cover 12.5 square miles of central California with solar panels, and in the middle of a sunny day will generate about 800 megawatts of power, roughly equal to the size of a large coal-burning power plant or a small nuclear plant.

Sounds great. Except there's a catch.
Though the California installations will generate 800 megawatts at times when the sun is shining brightly, they will operate for fewer hours of the year than a coal or nuclear plant would and so will produce a third or less as much total electricity.

"Or less." Oh, and there's another catch as well.
Neither approaches the economy of fossil-fuel burning plants, said Ms. Zerwer, the spokeswoman for Pacific Gas & Electric. But they will be competitive with wind power and with power from solar thermal plants, which are equipped with mirrors that use the sun’s heat to boil water into steam. And prices will fall, she predicted.

It's great that California is willing to experiment with large-scale solar deployment. This project can only help to improve solar as an alternative to fossil fuels. But the article clearly points up the number one biggest problem with solar (and wind): by it's nature, it can never replace traditional power plants on a one-for-one basis. Which means even after you've developed hyper-efficient batteries, or hyper-efficient transmission, you're still building solar plants that are less cost-efficient than hydrocarbon or nuclear plants that can run 24/7.

Missing from the story is any mention of the life expectancy of the solar cells. Also no mention of transmission costs from what must be a fairly rural site.
(h/t Jonathan Adler at VC)