Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Good News on Solar Power - Sort Of

An article in Reuter's today stated that the world's electrical generating capacity from solar cells is expected to rise to between 207.9 gigawatts and 342.8 GW by 2016. It is certainly good news to see we are developing solar capacity. But, there are drawbacks, as well.

The first thing to understand about solar energy is that it is not cheap. In fact, it is very expensive in comparison to other sources of electricity. In the U.S., the average rate for electricity is about $.09 per kilowatt-hour (kWh). But, not all generated electricity is equal. Currently, nuclear power is about $.10/kWh; coal is about $.08/kWh; and natural gas is about $.064/kWh. Solar power tops them all at about $.15/kWh. This is more than 66% higher than the average and almost 2 1/2 times what it costs to generate electricity with natural gas. To convert over to solar power would be a gigantic economic hit for the country.

The good news is all of this is the price of solar power has been dropping very rapidly over the last couple of decades. It has even dropped by about 25% since 2008. And, as more and more solar power plants are built and demand goes up, the price should drop even more. It is estimated that solar power will reach parity with other forms of power generation within the next decade.

But, the other bad thing about solar power is that the manufacture of solar cells is not environmentally friendly. The manufacture of solar cells involves using some extremely nasty chemicals. As the tonnage of the waste products from solar cell plants builds up we are experiencing a crisis with storage. And, unlike nuclear waste, this chemical waste will be poisonous for all eternity, it will not decay into something harmless. It is strange to note the similarities between the solar cell industry and the nuclear power industry, but environmentalists don't seem to care about the solar cell industry problems.

The good news on this front is that the industry is working to reduce the hazards involved.

If we continue the way we are, we will reach the point where solar cells are safe and economical to manufacture and install. At that time, they will become a real competitor to traditional sources of power.

All of this illustrates the point that there are no easy fixes for the climate problems we find ourselves in. It took hundreds of years for us to get to this point, we are not going to fix it over night, or even quickly. We need to learn to agree on this, that we need to take steps, but those steps need to be rationale, well-thought out and not extremists.

Doing nothing and doing something very severe would both be extremists and both need to be avoided.

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