Parasitic power: Solar energy’s five fatal flaws

The sun is the most important energy source on Earth. It provides our daily warmth and light and the rotation and orbit of the earth turn its steady output into fluctuating day and night, summer and winter. Solar energy powers the growth of all trees, grasses, herbs, crops and algae; it creates the clouds and powers the storms; it is the source of all hydro, photo-voltaic (PV), solar-thermal, bio-mass and wind energy; and, over geological time, it also creates coal.

PV solar panels can directly harvest solar energy. They are useful in remote locations, for some portable applications and, with enough panels and batteries, stand-alone solar can even power homes.

Viv Forbes

Viv Forbes

But solar energy has five fatal flaws for supplying 24/7 grid power.

Firstly, sunshine at any spot is always intermittent and often unreliable. Solar panels can only deliver significant energy from 9am to 3pm – a maximum of 25% of each day. Solar can often help supply the hot afternoon demand for air conditioning, but demand for electricity generally peaks at about 6.30pm, when production from solar is usually zero.

Secondly, to be a stand-alone energy supplier, PV solar needs batteries to cover those times when solar is not producing – about 75% of the time under ideal cloudless skies. To charge the batteries for continuous power, while also supplying usable power, a solar plant can only deliver a theoretical maximum of 25% of its day-time capacity.  Cloudy days greatly increase the battery storage needed, and the generating capacity absorbed in charging the batteries. Currently, only pumped hydro storage could possibly supply the storage capacity needed and then only at massive cost, and in a few suitable locations.

Thirdly, solar energy is very dilute, so huge areas of land are needed to collect industrial quantities of energy.

If it were possible to anchor a solar collector one meter square at the top of the atmosphere, aligned continuously to face the sun, and never shadowed by the earth or the moon, it would receive solar energy at the rate of 1,366 Watts per square metre (W/m2) – that would power 13 light bulbs each using 100 watts.

If that panel were located on the surface, at the equator, under clear skies, aligned continuously to face the sun, and never shaded by the earth or the moon, solar energy dissipated by the atmosphere would reduce energy received to 1,000 watts.

In the real rotating world, where sunshine only reaches usable intensity for about 25% of the time, the best located panel would have a capacity factor of about 17% – it would receive 170 watts of energy – not quite 2 X 100W light bulbs.

PV solar panels convert solar energy to electrical energy at an efficiency factor of about 15%. Thus our panel, at the equator, Solar panels 2year round, should deliver 25.5 watts of electrical energy – one very dim light bulb.

Away from the equator, solar energy hits the Earth’s surface at an angle, thus delivering less energy per panel. This useful site shows how solar intensity varies with latitude in Australia:

Shift that panel to Melbourne, add clouds, shading, urban air pollution and dirt on the panels, and fix it to a sloping roof often aligned poorly to collect sunshine, and it is time to start the diesel generator in the car port.

It is sensible to use unused space like roofs for solar collectors but such fragmented facilities will never match a compact well-designed solar plant in construction, maintenance and cleaning costs or go close to achieving the correct panel orientation.

Most people underestimate the land needed for significant solar collectors. In a learned paper published in 2013, Graham Palmer has produced a credible calculation that it would need a square with 31 km sides, completely filled with PV panels, to collect energy equivalent to Australia’s annual electricity requirements.

To also charge batteries to maintain steady supply from a stand-alone solar facility would require at least four times this area – imagine 3,844 square kilometres of collectors, even if suitable battery technology was available.

In addition, PV panels start to degrade in rain, hail and sunshine from the day they are installed, some panels losing significant capacity in as little as three years. And unless washed regularly, dust and bird poop degrades their performance even quicker. All those sparkies checking panel performance and all those cleaners with mops need access roads – this greatly increases the area needed for industrial solar installations.

The fourth fatal flaw of solar energy is the pernicious effect of the dramatic fluctuations in supply on the reliable and essential parts of the grid. When solar electricity floods the network around mid-day, the back-up stations have to throttle back, all the stations needed for stability and backup have their profits reduced, and some may be forced to close, making the network even more fragile and prone to blackouts. Then if a cloud floats across the sky, the backups have to re-start swiftly.

Fifthly, large-scale solar power will create environmental damage over large areas of land. Solar collectors may only manage to convert about 10% of the sun’s energy into electricity, the rest being reflected or converted into local heating. But the whole solar spectrum is blocked, thus robbing 100% of the life-giving sunshine from the ground underneath, creating a man-made solar desert. For solar-thermal, where mirrors focus intense solar heat to generate steam, birds that fly through the heat beams get fried. Why would true environmentalists support industrial-scale solar energy collection?

All consumers should be free to use solar energy in their own way at their own cost. But these five fatal flaws mean that  Solar roadcollecting solar energy should never play more than a minor and very expensive role in supplying grid power.

Desertec, the utopian US$560 billion project designed to cover 16,800 square km of the Sahara Desert with solar panels, and then export electricity 1,600 km to Europe, has collapsed.

A similar fate awaits other attempts to extract 24/7 grid power from intermittent, unpredictable and dilute solar power.

The latest “Desertec Idea” is “solar roads” where highways are paved with solar panels. Imagine the construction and maintenance costs, the length of transmission lines, and the problems of shading and abrasion by traffic, the hazards of cleaning and the random non-ideal orientation of the panels.

Not with my money thanks.
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Would you like to know more?

Solar Power Realities

Desertec Sahara Solar Project abandoned

Emerging solar plants scorch birds in mid-air

Household Solar Photovoltaics – supplier of marginal abatement or Primary Source of Low Emission Power?

The Solar Fraud – Why Solar Energy Won’t Run the World, Howard C. Hayden, Second Edition, 2004, Vales Lake Publishing

Solar Roads? Too good to be true

Australia’s Carbon Sense Coalition

Australia’s Carbon Sense Coalition
Australia’s Carbon Sense Coalition
Categories

About the Author: Viv Forbes

Viv Forbes is Chairman of Australia's Carbon Sense Coalition. He was awarded the “Australian Adam Smith Award for Services to the Free Society” in 1988, and writes widely on political, technical and economic subjects.

  • Greg Halvorson

    What a joke — play on peoples’ emotions, they’ll believe ANYTHING.

  • John Garret Frieslaar

    How about a balanced view showing a few benefits … This way round you may allow people to understand, not just be led …

  • Philip Beck

    “The latest “Desertec Idea” is “solar roads” where highways are paved with solar panels. Imagine the construction and maintenance costs, the length of transmission lines, and the problems of shading and abrasion by traffic, the hazards of cleaning and the random non-ideal orientation of the panels.”

    But Viv, just think of all those unionized government “SP Cleaners” that will be needed! Those greenies want open borders for good reason.

  • LJS

    I would classify this as “filtered perspective”. Solar would supplement exisiting methods. Use solar instead of water from reservoirs to fill the daily fluctuations of energy needs. Useful time in the desert summer is 6 am to 7 pm (depending on how close it is to the equator). Of course peak output is during mid day but it isn’t useless other daylight hours. All in all – a good start to breaking our dependence on foreign oil.

  • Don Beckman

    I don’t like it when people cherry pick data to support their own views, on any side of a subject, and this is just as bad as those that solar can replace fossil fuels. C-FACT I expect better of you than misrepresent solar energy whit articles like this, let us speak the WHOLE truth, and not adopt the deceitful tactics of our foes.

    • yaki534

      What ya going to do when the sun is not shining ?Think, now.

  • Tommy Davis

    Guarantee this post was made by a scientist or researcher that was paid by the oil companies or the coal industry.

    • yaki534

      Really. How else is it going to work? It is just like a gasoline powered generator , no gas = no power. Solar panel, no sun = no power. Itis that simple.

    • Solar energy is a public policy issue. It’s not about to displace other forms of energy. That’s the point of the article. It is too expensive and inefficient. Electric cars plug into a coal and nuclear grid. Solar is about cashing in on subsidies, not generating power. Facts are facts.

    • wkb

      Is that your best argument? If he is so biased and off base why do you not critique the content?

  • yaki534

    Solar is available when the sun shines. That means it is useless through the night unless you have batteries and enough solar panels to get them charged enough to get ya theu the night.

    • Old comment but something to consider.

      Most people don’t consume many calories when the sun doesn’t shine either. Solar has an amazing benefit by generating power when it is most needed. When people are awake and using power. This can help in load leveling decreasing peak load issues on the grid.

      This article is little more than clap trap pandering to an unthinking mind.

  • anthony

    So let those who think otherwise come up with reliable counter-evidence proving this article is so far from the truth. And we still hear this absolute nonsense about “breaking our dependence on foreign oil” as though the statement itself is enough to solve the energy problem. Interesting how “oil” has driven the progress of the world for well over a century but now environmental “geniuses” have it all figured out using “alternative” energies, but for some reason nowhere are their assertions manifesting this “green” utopia. Thinking themselves so “sophisticated,” Europe hides its problems with wind and solar energies, problems mentioned in this article. The real dupes are those who think there’s hardly a trade-off with green energy, when if it were so feasible, it would have become the norm, not the alternative!

  • wmscott

    Thanks for the head in the sand drivel Tommy D. You contribute nothing to the discussion.

  • GrowABrain

    The
    author should put in the fatal flaws of coal, oil & natural gas.
    Namely, the extraction process, the unreliability of deposits, clean up
    costs, damage to the environment, cost of transporting oil/coal/gas both
    in $$$ and energy/fuel, health costs, costs of transmission lines
    (solar can be de-centralized), power outages/stress on distribution
    points due to daytime summer demand (the current grid can barely handle
    this), the fact that the hottest part of the day is between 3:30-4:30pm
    (where he got 6:30pm is beyond me), and during the summer their is
    significantly more daylight. He uses PV efficiency #s
    instead of supercritical fluid (mirrors in picture) efficiency #s,
    average total solar irradiated power is ~100Watts/Sqft (src NASA) –
    (true, PV is horribly inefficient and tuned to a small swath of
    spectrum, but efficiencies have been bumped to as high as 48% as of last
    year -src: NASA Tech Briefs). He bases the energy storage on old
    battery technology, ignoring all sorts of other means of storing power
    (as heat) during offtimes. Forgets that coal, NG & oil are only
    renewable in geologic time scales (thousands to millions of years).
    Fails to mention strip mining removes massive swaths of forest that
    affects the local (and perhaps regional) cooling effects of forests
    (thereby requiring MORE energy to keep things cool). Fails to mention
    the dangers associated with fuel transport, spills, the energy required
    to clean up these spills, and all manner of health risks & damage. I
    do agree the solar road idea (as presented by Desertec) is horribly
    flawed and will never work as promised (good idea – hideous
    implementation). The “surges & drains” complaints, the author
    refers to, on the power grid are moot points w/today’s power
    distribution systems which are currently designed to handle this problem
    already (except, for maybe California –
    ). If anything, solar assisted power is good for the power grid (not
    to mention, his ignorance in assuming that the solar is going,
    unregulated, to the power grid – never the case and illegal anyway).
    Oh, and I forgot to mention. Just how is NG, Oil, NG converted to energy? They are combusted to produce energy via an inefficient means – maybe about 50% after considering all the mechanical (and other) losses. As far as economics, did he forget to include the cost of pipelines, trucks, drills, pumps, generators, etc used for conventional fuels when making a comparison with the “high” cost of PV & other solar tech? Nope!

    • Greg

      Speaking of geologic time scales, this guy looks and writes like a dinosaur.

  • frank

    if you notice not one of these shmucks, putzs, anal gazers etc…comment on what viv actually wrote. typical leftist unvironmental b.s.

  • Greg Ernst

    Viv Forbes Credentials Degree in Applied Science Geology, and Fellow of the Australasian Institute of Mining and Metallurgy…………SAY NO MORE!!

    • wkb

      Exactly. He has made his contribution to the lifestyle you enjoy, he has an understanding of climate change over geologic time. He has obviously thought things through. What credibility do you have making ad hominem remarks that any dummy could make.

  • Manu

    Idiot. Go back to your coal backed analysis

  • Scottar

    I find this article reflects that of other analyses, even on Germany’s liberal Speigel. One thing I wish he had made more clear is the solar conversion factors of incoming solar energy, it doesn’t lie but it’s somewhat muddled.

    I think it would have read better thus:

    In the rotating world, the best located 1 m2 (10.8 ft2) panel would have a capacity factor of about 17%, it would receive (1,000 x 0.17) 170 watts of energy. Commercial PV solar panels have a conversion efficiency of about 15%. Thus the panel, at the equator, year round, would deliver on average (Due to the 23.5 degree tilt of the earths axis) (170 x 0.15) 25.5 watts of electrical energy.

    Actually, the best option looks to be nuclear:

    http://www.extremetech.com/extreme/187917-startup-gets-funding-for-its-molten-salt-nuclear-reactor-that-eats-radioactive-waste

    Molten Salt Nuclear Reactor That Eats Radioactive Waste Gets Funded
    By Ryan Whitwam on August 15, 2014

  • zn

    Desertec was canned due to the rapid drop in the cost of solar PV cells, meaning European countries didn’t need to import expensive foreign energy from North Africa because they could simply just build the infrastructure themselves.

    This trend is at the heart of the renewable debate. Year-on-year, the price of solar, both domestic and utility scale, continues to drop at a precipitous rate, while the maximum and average efficiency of each panel continues to rise. This isn’t techno-utopian fantasy, it is the steady rhythm of technological progress. Add in the benefits that come with market maturation such as greater economies of scale and increased competition, and solar only makes more and more sense.

    Intermittency is a definite problem though, and storage of some kind seems like an obvious solution. Battery tech is a hot topic right now, and there’s plenty of smart people researching ways to improve densities and efficiencies. I’m not saying solar is perfect or that technology will solve all our problems, but this problem seems solvable, and I’d rather be optimistic and look for ways it can be done than simply throw my hands up and say it’s impossible.

  • hughjones

    A super conductor from NYC to LA might well be justified on the basis of line losses in our present system but it would also reduce the need for storage in solar.

  • Andreia Zlatea

    Viv Forbes is the Chairman of the Carbon Sense Coalition,
    which was created to “defend the role of carbon on earth and in the
    atmosphere,”.

    Forbes has also had a long association with the coal industry. According to his biography at Stanmore Coal where he acts as director, Forbes has over 40 years of coal industry experience and has worked with Burton Coal, Dalrymple Bay Coal Terminal,South Blackwater Coal Mine, Tahmoor Coal Mine, Newlands/Collinsville
    Coal Mines, MIM, Utah Goonyella/Saraji and Gold Fields.

    He is also associated with other skeptical organizations including the International Climate Science Coalition (ICSC) and the Australian Climate Science Coalition (ACSC).

    Looking to his credentials his approach is tinted, sorry Viv, you don’t have much credibility when the coal industry is paying you for over 40 years.

    • wkb

      Is your ad hominem the best argument that you can present. If the author is so biased and out to lunch why not critique the content.

  • Fatal flaw #1: the sun does shine only a few hours each day. This doesn’t seem to be a reason not to use this energy.

    Fatal flaw #2: we need storage … surprise, surprise 😉 Is it a problem that can’t be solved?

    Fatal flaw #3: only part of the suns energy is converted to electricity. Is it a problem? Just 31 by 31 km of solar panels would supply Australia with electricity? 1 kW of installed PV produces around 1400 kWh per year. 170 W times 31000 times 31000 means this equals 163 GW of installed PV or 228.2 TWh of electricity. Close enough to the numbers on Wikipedia.

    But: why the hell do we need 4 times as much PV if batteries are involved? That makes no sence.

    Fatal flaw #4: true, expensive backup (usually gas power) will be expensive, especially if they will/can only be used a few times a year.

    Fatal flaw #5: that is ridiculous! To power any first world nation one would need less area than the roads in those nations …

    Conclusion: it all comes down to the costs and they decreased constantly year over year. If it becomes cheaper to collect solar and wind power and store power for short interruptions (night) in batteries/hydro or in form of gas for longer interruptions (seasons), conventional electricity is pretty much done …

    Lets see if the author changed his mind, 10 years from now 😉

    P.S.: It’s just 31 by 31 km of land that could power entiry Australia! That’s a very small area, don’t you think?