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Solar power – the need for investment

May 1, 2009

I have an entirely un-scientific predilection for solar, largely because I don’t like the economics of big engineering such as wind turbines, geothermal or tidal systems, where build, installation and operating costs can be so high. Of course, projects like desert installations are of a similar scale and impact, requiring HVDC distribution systems to make economic sense or much of the power would be lost during transmission.

I would suggest there is another strategy based on solar panels, and one where big engineering is not required (and nor, therefore, would HVDC be needed as an additional costs). By increasing the efficiency of photovoltaics and improving yields, home-owners and builders could incorporate better energy collection and storage systems in homes and also in industrial estates, where the grouping of business in a small area suggests an ideal environment for supplementary power generated through solar. It might also be true that ground-effect systems would be both economic and viable if planned and implemented for new industrial estates, something else the government can fail to invest in.

Of all the proposed renewable technologies, solar seems to offer a better theoretical return on investment because it is so simple and easy to maintain. Local installation requires no big engineering that impacts on other aspects of our environment, where scaled up projects like those mentioned in this article still suffer from the centralised, high-impact, high initial investment and high-visibility distribution systems that make it so much more difficult to fund. I’m not suggesting big plants in desert locations should be avoided, but where demand can be met at the point of consumption, many other problems are avoided. I suggest we need both types of renewable energy – local and trans-national – but what prevents any serious level of photovoltaic uptake is the poor efficiency of the panels and their high costs relative to the energy output.

If I could influence government investment in R&D, I would be putting considerable investment into solar research because it is so close to being a most viable and cost effective technology. Solid state technology like this can be subject to huge savings when economies of scale are achieved: In 1981, computer memory cost $4000 per megabyte. Today it costs 80 cents. If we could achieve anything like these cost savings photovoltaics would be a most attractive proposition.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Tracy permalink
    June 2, 2009 10:26 am

    I agree with you about solar power. I can’t understand why countries which have far more sunshine than us didn’t invest more in solar power research decades ago, imagine how much more efficient and cheaper solar power would be now if they had. AC units are a particular bugbear, there they are, highly visible on all buildings in countries such as Australia, using huge amounts of energy whilst the sun is beating down – why not insist that every AC unit has it’s own solar panel?

    As for geothermal, they’re trying it out at the Eden Project:

  2. mark houghton-brown permalink
    January 17, 2010 6:29 am

    Hello Graham, hope you are well,
    shame that your blog has “lapsed” and sorry i got here so late; do keep going!
    I run a small fund investing in renewable energy and like you – I too like solar but sad to tell you that its still of marginal efficiency with regards to net energy – in fact the Energy Return On Energy Invested (EROEI) for different sources of power generation is still very much disputed, and estimates vary depending on exactly what is counted, but a full energy costing of photovoltaics shows that it may still not be really adequate (as yet) for the continuation of modern civilisation. Wind, geothermal & hydro are far better and have a solid history behind them. They need to be deployed now and we need to get on with it. I know they are . Solar thermal is ready to go, PV & marine need more development. Of course scale will help, and the PV industry is scaling up rapidly, expecting to be grid competitive in 4 or 5 years. We have PV on our roof and solar thermal hot water. They are modestly good investments financially (because we get an artificially high price for the electricity) & spiritually though!! A PV panel on top of an AC unit would not in general provide a very high proportion of the power required for it to operate, although it would tend to be synchronous production, best regards Mark

  3. gpwayne permalink*
    January 17, 2010 8:26 am

    Hi Mark, nice you could pop in. Sorry about the lack of topicality – it does bug me but between Guardian postings, my fiction (on my second novel now, looking for a publisher for the first) and my IT work to keep body and soul together, it’s hard to keep a separate strand going here as well. But there’s always tomorrow…

    Interesting points about renewables too. My thinking in this respect is that, given the engineering advantages I allude to, this is an area I would be putting rather more effort into. Perhaps you saw the news recently that LG are building a plant to produce panels – a good fit with their LCD manufacturing skills. The only way we are going to see the panel prices come down is through economies of scale (and increases in efficiency of course) but this is one area where I do believe that the science has barely got started.

    Another area I think needs more investigation and investment is ground effect. I keep thinking about the way new housing is built – why not legislate in planning laws that all new builds – say in groups of 20 houses or so – have a shared ground effect system that delivers heat to all 20 units? Building in options like this as part of the infrastructure – again local – ought to be a sensible idea because the increase in cost per house is small relative to the payback. A £200,000 installation between 20 houses is…er (gets out calculator)…£10K per house, or £500 a year over a 20 year period. This sounds fairly sensible even without feed-in tariffs or grants.

    Lots of potential one way and another. It is this diversity of options that I think signals the way forward – think global, act local as they used to say.

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