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Panels on the Roof

west-wing-1979-solar Good news for solar energy:

President Barack Obama today announced that a US government agency is awarding nearly USD 2 billion from a stimulus package to two solar companies, as part of his drive to build a clean energy economy.

“Today” was July 3. We’re happy to see some of the stimulus money go this way – Obama has said he wants to encourage solar energy – but otherwise only mildly interested.

Solar power has some of the same issues as wind energy – it takes up vast expanses of land for intermittent electricity production – but it does have the capacity for delivering electricity on a very local basis. Think President Jimmy Carter’s solar panels on the White House roof - and the technology is still moving forward.

SoloPower, one of many companies vying to lower the cost of solar energy, introduced on Monday a line of flexible panels for commercial rooftops.

The company makes thin-film solar cells from a combination of copper, indium, gallium, and selenium (CIGS) which is placed on a flexible foil. Its first product line is a set of solar panels designed for the flat roofs of commercial buildings.

It’s light enough not to crumple the roof and although the technology lags behind the use of silicon – it converts about 20 percent of the sunlight that hits it into electricity while silicon can manage 29 percent – it is clearly advancing.

With demand cranking up to an all-time high for solar technology, the two types of panels will likely co-exist for years--especially considering the miniscule role solar plays now in generating electricity, according to various estimates, and that demand is expected to double by 2025. Solar accounts for less than 0.10 percent of the current total.

This isn’t exactly Blu-Ray vs. HD-DVD – the issue of developing a standard hasn’t yet emerged. So the “winner” will be the technology that produces the most capacity at the lowest cost. It’ll make the sales and the other will wither away. Right now, silicon has the edge, but CIGS has a window to surpass it – the window being that solar energy hasn’t gained traction yet.

We admit that when we read about CIGS, we wondered if the business model, at least currently, is different than that of silicon – more about the White House roof than about a broad expanse of the desert. Such a focus has the dual benefits of good optics (nothing cluttering up a pristine landscape) and encouraging green-aware homeowners to adopt solar energy.

Maybe not.

[S]olar panels aren't as ugly as they used to be. PowerLight has come out with roof tiles with embedded silicon solar panels, which get installed when a house is built. A complete system can run around $8,000 to $13,000, according to Grupe Homes, which has included PowerLight panels in some homes in a few relatively new developments.

Looks like both are angling for the home market.


If we had anything negative to say here, it is not about solar power – a clean electricity generator that needs room to grow should have it - but the perception that it and wind power represent an alternative to nuclear energy. They don’t – the intermittency and subsequent loss of capacity ensure that their role is complementary. Nuclear energy doesn’t need wind and solar to backstop it; the reverse is not equally true. But we have a hunch most people get that – if they don’t, they’re being willful.


Like, for example, John O. Blackburn.

By the time any new nuclear power plants could be built, solar energy will be far less expensive, says John O. Blackburn, a retired professor who was a member of {Duke U]niversity's faculty from 1959 to 1980 and is a former chair of the economics department.

The goal of his report - Solar and Nuclear Costs: the Historic Crossover – is to show that nuclear energy is now more expensive that solar power per kilowatt hour. Having “proven” this, he wants to make sure his home state knows about it:

“North Carolina should be leading, not lagging, in the transition to clean energy," Mr. Blackburn said in a news release. "We call on Gov. [Beverly] Perdue and state agencies to see that a very important turning point has been reached, and act accordingly."

We were interested to see Dr. Blackburn has his resume on line. He’s written a couple of books since retirement – one on urban sprawl in Florida and one, published in 1986, called The Renewable Energy Alternative. So he’s been at this for awhile. You can find the whole report here. We found this a little amusing:

When solar generated electricity is added to a power grid with wind, hydroelectric, biomass and natural gas generation, along with existing storage capacity and “smart grid” technology, intermittency becomes a very manageable issue.

Natural gas often gets a pass when one doesn’t like nuclear energy, but Dr. Blackburn hits the daily double by merging that and the Chinese menu approach to electricity. You have to grant him enthusiasm and a futurist nature.

1977: President Jimmy Carter gives a press conference on the roof of the White House to show the solar panels he’s had installed there. President Ronald Reagan later took them down.


Charles Barton said…
Dr. Blackburn is one of those studious researchers who appears to never go out in the daytime, and thus has not noticed that there are cloudy days in North Carolina, or that there is less sunshine in the winter than in the summer. Some of us believe that such factors should go into estimates of solar PV costs.
Anonymous said…
Did you look at the report before slamming it? Blackburn does this. He uses an 18% capacity factor for solar PV in his study.
Anonymous said…
The author makes the following statements:

"The latest price estimates [for new nuclear] are in the $10 billion range per reactor."

The Vogtle project, which doesn't even appear in the author's Appendix B, has a cost estimate of $14 billion for two reactors, or $7 billion each.
"In this analysis we follow the work of Mark Cooper, Senior Fellow for Economic Analysis
at the Vermont Law School’s Institute for Energy and the Environment (Cooper, 2009)."

I haven't read this yet but any critique of the author's nuclear section would necessitate doing so.
"As pointed out in the summary above, solar and nuclear costs given here reflect the costs that would actually be paid by consumers. They are net of a variety of financial incentives for each technology."

So he's including subsidies for solar and subsidies for nuclear. Fair enough, I suppose, although I think on a per-kWh basis this heavily favors solar. Here's the egregious part, under what constitutes subsidies for nuclear:

"The nuclear industry insists on taxpayer insurance against catastrophic accidents. The Price Anderson act caps the liability for an accident at a level that now totals approximately $11 billion, which would be distributed among all reactor owners. Federal studies estimate that the damage from non-worst case accidents could exceed $500 billion."
[Note: I haven't read the federal study but I'd point out that TMI-2 didn't come close to $500 million much less $500 billion]

"Ten billion dollars has been expended over two decades to license the Yucca Mountain repository for used commercial fuel rods, but in 2010 the Obama administration is attempting to cancel the project. That wasted sum was accumulated through utility bills, so it was included in the kilowatt-hour cost of nuclear power. To date there are no credible plans or cost estimates for managing this highly radioactive waste for thousands of years, but much or all of the outlay will be borne by the federal taxpayer."
[The author considers DOE's liability while in breach of the NWPA to be a subsidy.]
seth said…
Largest solar installation in the US, just built, at Arcadia Florida 42 Gwh/annual $32B/Gw or 50 cents a kilowatt hour at Florida Power’s discount rate. Google it.

Germany's massive tens of billion investment in solar power has resulted in no reduction in GHG's at all, in fact a large increase when the 75 times GHG effect of all the leaking Russian gas required for load balance is calculated in. We will have a similar experience.

Actually Vogtle includes a bunch of money for transmission.

A better example is Scana budgeted at $4.5B/Gw. If TVA built it with their 3 or 4 % bond rates instead of Scana's cost of money at 15% that would be 3 cents a kwh plus the current 2 cents for O&M of ancient sixties tech.

Keep in mind that these are first of a kind prices and don't include factory production.

High wage Japan is building American designed reactors for $1.4B/Gw.

We compete on autos, so why not nuclear?

Because Japan builds nukes with engineers. America builds them with lawyers.
Charles Barton said…
Anonymous: I ran a word search on the text. Words like clouds, are absent, as are words like night. An 18% capacity factor is absurd fir North Carolina, !0% would be generous.
JD said…
The appendices of Blackburn's report give a look at his "apples to apples" comparison between solar PV and nuclear.

First, in solar, he walks through an example of a 3 kW residential installation installed at $6/watt. Through the power of subsidies you can see how the cost drops from $0.35/kWh (over twice the number he uses for nuclear - $0.16/kWh) to $0.159 (just under his nuclear number!). It's a good thing those panels have a 65% tax credit with them (30% federal, 35% state, borne by respective taxpayers). If it was only 64%, his thesis would be wrong!

And what is the other apple for nuclear? A table of utility projects on the gigawatt scale, many of which include costs of financing and probably transmission as well. Quite a few of them undermine his $10 billion/reactor assertion and Vogtle is oddly absent, despite being mentioned by name in the body.
Anonymous said…
An 18% capacity factor is absurd fir North Carolina, !0% would be generous.

Source, please? Forgive me for not accepting the undocumented assertion of someone who entirely missed Blackburn's CF figure first time through.
Brian Mays said…
"Federal studies estimate that the damage from non-worst case accidents could exceed $500 billion. [Note: I haven't read the federal study but I'd point out that TMI-2 didn't come close to $500 million much less $500 billion]"

This "federal study" is an NRC document that was contracted through Brookhaven National Laboratory. It was an interesting study in that it looked at the worst possible scenario that could happen in a spent fuel pool leak, but the scenario that was examined has little to do with what could be realistically expected. The NRC has stated again and again that the assumptions used in this study are overly conservative "by likely an order of magnitude." For example, the NRC states that the assumed release of radiation used in the study "is neither a realistic estimate nor an appropriate assumption for a risk assessment of ... issues where realism is needed."

Nevertheless, the authors of the NCWARN "report" chose to cite this study as the source of their $500 billion estimate, which indicates that either (1) they are complete idiots or (2) they are simply too lazy to cherry-pick a better source.

Since these two jokers are an old, long-retired professor of economics, who spent his career specializing in university politics and administration, and a "Masters of Environmental Management candidate" (whatever that worthless degree is), it is unclear to me which possibility is more likely.

Is this the type of sloppy scholarship that we should expect from Duke University's Economics Department, which Dr. Blackburn once chaired?

Then again, Duke is known for its parapsychology laboratory, so I suppose that the university is accustomed to its faculty and students spending their time on studies that have nothing to do with reality.
DocForesight said…
Other than keeping us abreast of general energy news, this article seems more appropriate as a dart board target.

It ought not take a Doctorate in Economics to recognize the inherent limitations to solar and wind power. They are fine for specific locations and applications - remote, off-grid, rural where access to transmission lines would be prohibitively expensive. Tax breaks and subsidies for urban home-owners allow for "boutique" energy.

It's the energy flux density, sweetheart.
Anonymous said…
As a North Carolinian who has been following this report and others like it, I feel a duty to clear up two areas that are being misunderstood here.

To C Barton: I’m sure that it is exciting to throw your own opinion up against a research economist, but is 10% capacity factor anything more than a number that popped into your head? Why not 4%? Duke Energy and Progress Energy Carolinas have acknowledged capacity factors in N.C. of 20% and 16% respectively (Duke Energy did so recently in their own PowerPoint presentation to the NC Energy Policy Council). For empirical evidence you might want to check out NC GreenPower’s list of solar generators ( For each kW installed, an 18% capacity factor would yield 1340 kWh per year (1 kW * 8760 hours per year * 18% * 0.85). You can see that 1340 kWh also accounts for a generous 15% derating factor (or line-loss) from converting DC to AC current. The GreenPower data shows the vast majority of NC solar generators are meeting or exceeding 18%. You can even see what cities they’re in.

Regarding subsidies: It is easy to pick on solar because you can clearly see that they benefit from 30% + 35% tax incentives in North Carolina. The fact is, nuclear energy is so dependent upon subsidies that NO nuclear projects will EVER be viable without federally subsidized loans and loan guarantees (taxpayer funded). Solar benefits from subsidies now, but subsidies will come down as the units’ installed cost CONTINUES to decline. Private financial institutions agree. The only new nuclear projects to get license approval have shifted all the financial risk to their ratepayers (Vogtle, for one). The company has no risk if the project fails and they get to start charging their customers for the project cost a decade before it ever generates a watt (thanks to the “construction work in progress” provision). How are these not subsidies? Do you need to put a percentage on them?

Another subsidy IN KIND? No one can deny that nuclear plants will have to be decommissioned once their lifecycle ends. Not only do we not know how to do it, we don’t know how much it will cost or what to do with the spent fuel (which will be with us for about 400,000 more years – longer than any human institution has ever existed). Utility companies have been paying fees to fund a solution to these big problems, but no solution has been reached. The difference between the fees already paid and the actual cost that it will take to solve these problems are, in effect, uncharged costs – or in other words, “subsidies.” No one can say how much more money will be sunk into these problems. I guess Blackburn could have thrown a number out there, but what would be the point?

I don’t think the author is saying that solar is a 1-for-1 trade for nuclear. Rather, every new nuclear plant built is a 40-60 year commitment to an industry that has never been able to stand on its own and crowds out the kind of smart-energy development that offers a real solution. The “Nuclear Renaissance” is just a new take on our backwards-looking approach to energy with a new host of shortcomings.

Everything is fine…. Until it’s not. BP.
Anonymous said…
Previous anonymous,

"Rather, every new nuclear plant built is a 40-60 year commitment to an industry that has never been able to stand on its own and crowds out the kind of smart-energy development that offers a real solution."

Big question mark here, as I'm pretty sure this sounds more like solar than nuclear. Current nuclear plants pay user fees to the NRC and pay fees to cover the back end of the fuel cycle. Solar panels? Dependent not only on subsidies, but on mandates! These projects are so worthless (for everything but political expediency) that government has to force utility companies to build them. Remember what happened in Arizona? Lawmakers introduced a bill that said hydroelectric and nuclear could satisfy renewable energy mandates. Guess who cried? Arizona solar industry: they said such a measure would kill the industry. And this is Arizona we're talking about. If solar were going to succeed anywhere it would be there.

What a joke. Just like your claim of no solution to the back end of the fuel cycle. Don't confuse political nonsense with a lack of technical solution. You know what really lacks a technical solution? Solar power at night-time and wind power on calm days. Eventually the political winds will stop blowing in the direction of pipe dreams and we'll see real progress here.

Really though, you followed this report and don't find it to be laughably flawed? The author should campaign for total subsidies for solar panels for everyone then he can write a paper about how solar panels are the cheapest thing ever in the universe.

By the way, construction work in progress saves money for everyone in the long run. And the companies do have a lot of skin in the game, it's a requirement for loan guarantees.

Maybe you should post your reply from an internet that runs on intermittent power sources if solar PV is so great.

As for my condescending tone, you asked for it with your closing line. Maybe next time do a second or two of safety record research.
Anon said…
Anonymous #10

You said we don't know how to decommission nuclear power plants. That may be true of you and I personally, but not of the USA as a whole.

10 nuclear power plants have been decommissioned in the US and 13 more are being decommissioned now.
Mike said…
Brian Mays said...
"Federal studies estimate that the damage from non-worst case accidents could exceed $500 billion. [Note: I haven't read the federal study but I'd point out that TMI-2 didn't come close to $500 million much less $500 billion]"

I'm undecided on the issue of solar vs. nuclear, but I find it hard to follow the arguments and attacks of people that are off by a factor of three (at the very least) when assessing the cost of TMI-2.
The cleanup cost of that incident was $1B in 1993 (, which is $1.5B in 2009 dollars.
Brian Mays said…
Mike - First of all, I didn't write that. I was quoting an earlier comment from an anonymous person.

Next, the context of that earlier comment was claims about liability limits and insurance against catastrophic accidents, and the comment is correct. Industry-funded insurance paid out about $70 million for claims related to the Three-Mile Island accident, which is much less than $500 million or $500 billion.

The cost of the cleanup is something entirely different and has nothing to do with Price Anderson.
Anonymous said…
Thank you Brian, that was exactly what I was referring to, but I didn't seem to make it clear enough.

At any rate, even the full cleanup costs were below the tier where the federal government would pay anything. But, as said before, the insurance liability was far lower.

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