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Jul. 26 2010 - 8:21 pm | 576 views | 0 recommendations | 15 comments

Solar power at the ‘tipping point’

GAINESVILLE, FL - APRIL 16:  Damon Corkern, wh...

Image by Getty Images via @daylife

The Holy Grail of the solar industry — reaching grid parity — may no longer be a distant dream. Solar power may have already reached that point, at least when compared to nuclear power, according to a new study by two researchers at Duke University.

It’s no secret that the cost of producing photovoltaic cells (PV) has been dropping for years. A PV system today costs just 50 percent of what it did in 1998.

Breakthroughs in technology and manufacturing combined with an increase in demand and production have caused the price of solar power to decline steadily. At the same time, estimated costs for building new nuclear power plants have ballooned.

The result of these trends: “In the past year, the lines have crossed in North Carolina,” say study authors John Blackburn and Sam Cunningham. “Electricity from new solar installations is now cheaper than electricity from proposed new nuclear plants.”

If the data analysis is correct, the pricing would represent the “Historic Crossover” claimed in the study’s title (pdf).

Two factors not stressed in the study further bolster the case for solar.

1) North Carolina is not a “sun-rich” state (pdf). The savings found in North Carolina are likely to be even greater for states with more sunshine –Arizona, southern California, Colorado, New Mexico, west Texas, Nevada and Utah.

2) The data include only PV-generated electricity, without factoring in what is likely the most encouraging development in solar technology: concentrating solar power (CSP). CSP promises utility scale production and solar thermal storage, making electrical generation practical for at least six hours after sunset.

Power costs are generally measured in cents per kilowatt hour – the cost of the electricity needed to illuminate a 1,000 watt light bulb (for example) for one hour. When the cost of a kilowatt hour (kWh) of solar power fell to 16 cents earlier this year, it “crossed over” the trend-line associated with nuclear power. (see chart below)

Chart by Blackburn and Cunningham, 2010

The authors point out that some commercial scale solar developers are now offering electricity at 14 cents a kWh in North Carolina, a price which is expected to continue to drop.

While the study includes subsidies for both solar and nuclear power, it estimates that if subsidies were removed from solar power, the crossover point would be delayed by a maximum of nine years.

The report is significant not only because it shows solar to be a cheaper source of energy than nuclear. The results are also important because, despite the Senate’s failure to pass a climate and energy bill this year, taxpayers now bear the burden of putting carbon into the atmosphere through a variety of hidden charges – or externalities, as economists call them. Fossil fuels currently account for 70 percent of the electricity generated in the U.S. annually. (Nuclear generates 20 percent.)

Having dropped below the cost of nuclear power, solar energy may now be one of the least expensive energy sources in America.

he authors point out that some commercial scale solar developers are now offering electricity at 14 cents a kWh in North Carolina, a price which is expected to continue to drop.While the study includes subsidies for both solar and nuclear power, it estimates that if subsidies were removed from solar power, the crossover point would be delayed by a maximum of nine years.

The report is significant not only because it shows solar to be a cheaper source of energy than nuclear. The results are also important because, despite the Senate’s failure to pass a climate and energy bill this year, taxpayers now bear the burden of putting carbon into the atmosphere through a variety of hidden charges – or externalities, as economists call them. Fossil fuels currently account for 70 percent of the electricity generated in the U.S. annually. (Nuclear generates 20 percent.)

Having dropped below nuclear power, solar power is now one of the least expensive energy sources in America.


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  1. collapse expand

    i assume thats not including the decomissioning costs of the nuclear facilities

  2. collapse expand

    “While the study includes subsidies for both solar and nuclear power, it estimates that if subsidies were removed from solar power, the crossover point would be delayed by a maximum of nine years.”

    So how and the government-money paid “researchers” conclude that solar power is cheaper, when it would not be cheaper if the tax payers were not being sheared to support it?

    Solar power is not an alternative to coal/hydro/nuclear. Because it, like wind power, is an INTERMITTENT power source. Because it does not provide CONTINUOUS power, coal and other continuous power plants must be kept running on standby even if the sun is shining and the wind is blowing hard.

    Government-mandated follies like ethanol plants and other “green” baloney is no substitute for reality.

  3. collapse expand

    The subsidizing of the civilian nuclear power industry is one and the same as the subsidizing of the nuclear weapons industry. If you can enrich reactor fuel, you can enrich bomb fuel. Which is why everybody is up in arms about Iran’s “peaceful” nuclear program.

    As to the so-called solar “tipping point,” the weakness of PV’s is not cost so much as conversion efficiency. The really fancy state-of-the-art cells (which are of course much more expensive) are 25-30% efficient at best (their efficiency is in part a function of temperature). A one-quarter conversion rate of sunlight to electricity is not exactly something to brag about. CSP systems (which I agree are definitely the future of any meaningful solar power system) are for all practical purposes solar-powered steam generators, and have similar efficiency levels.

    As I’ve tried to point out repeatedly, the real problem with these systems is not that they don’t work, or even intermittency; the real problems with these systems arise when you try to scale them up to an industrial level. Running a small community of say 20,000 on “green power” isn’t really problematic. The problem is Chicago. Tokyo. New York. London. These cities are essentially giant, fossil fuel-powered machines that maintain artificial environments for the homo sapiens who live in them. Unfortunately, these same homo sapiens have become dependent on said artificial environments for their survival.

    To say that this poses a problem is the understatement of the century.

    • collapse expand

      The most efficient PV cells are over 40%, but they’re currently prohibitively expensive for anyone but NASA and the military.

      All energy sources have trade-offs and I don’t think solar technology will rise or fall on any one factor. We power our vehicles mostly with gasoline — which has a conversion efficiency of just 20%. Eighty percent of the energy released in an internal combustion engine takes the form of heat and vibration (sound). Yet, that’s somehow ignored in energy debates. (As are the thousands of premature deaths caused each year from tail-pipe emissions.)

      But the true elephant in the room is, of course, climate change. It’s not ignored, insofar as people talk about it. But it isn’t being acted on in any serious way, certainly not in a manner commensurate with the enormous consequences of allowing the ocean to acidify and the climate to change radically.

      I agree about the immensity of the problem before us. This generation is called upon (as JFK once put it) to find the solutions. Perhaps it’s my because I’m American to the bone, but I believe we can rise to the occasion. I’m not saying we will, mind you, only that we can.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
      • collapse expand

        “We power our vehicles mostly with gasoline — which has a conversion efficiency of just 20%”

        Bingo. One of our biggest problems is we have the industrial world’s most inefficient mass transit system. Any honest discussion about climate change and resource depletion (two sides of the same coin) MUST put personal transportation on the table. The days of teenagers with hotrods are over.

        In response to another comment. See in context »
  4. collapse expand

    Mr. Davidson,

    An additional problem with PVs is that of “ganging” them together. The newer, higher efficiency units are harder to “gang together” because they do not produce identical voltages. In order to “farm” solar power, it is necessary to assemble huge arrays of PV panels which are all linked together. This requires identical voltage which can only currently be achieved by the older, less efficient panels. So for small installations where only a few panels are needed, the newer units are terrific. However, for the large scale generation needed to achieve grid parity, it is still the older PV panels that dominate.

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