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Solar Panels Are Not Cell Phones

By Alex Trembath and Max Luke

“Developing countries can leapfrog conventional options,” the UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon wrote in the New York Times last year, “just as they leapfrogged land-line based phone technologies in favor of mobile networks.”

This seems like good news for those who envision solar panels powering the future economies of today’s developing countries. The Sierra Club believes that the “hardened and centralized infrastructure of 20th-century power grid” will be unnecessary in countries where little or no infrastructure currently exists. The White House recently announced that $1 billion in Power Africa investments (out of $7 billion for the whole initiative) will be directed at off-grid projects, writing that distributed generation “holds great promise to follow the mobile phone in leapfrogging centralized infrastructure across Africa.”

Hold the mobile phone. While solar panels have become cheaper in recent years, they are still the most expensive way to generate electricity, and still far more expensive than fossil fuels — especially in natural gas-rich regions like Africa.

Solar panels have come down in price but nothing like cell phones. Better cellular networks, fewer components, and exponential improvements in computing power have given rise to ultra-cheap mobile phones. Solar panels declined from $77 per watt in the late 1970s to less than $1 per watt today. That sounds impressive until you consider that the cost of computer chips — which are used for the circuit board of the phone — are today one one-millionth the cost (per unit power) in the late 1970s.

Cheap cell phones have helped economies grow by reducing transaction costs and making markets more productive. By contrast, solar panels are a more expensive and less reliable form of electricity. One of the most popular mobile phones in Africa  — the Samsung E250 — retails for about $100. An E250 can help workers communicate with their families, check the prices of goods and services in faraway villages, and access the Internet. A $100 solar panel can power one or two light bulbs for a few hours a day.

A recent report by the Center for Global Development finds that 60 million more Africans would gain electricity if the same $10 billion were invested in natural gas and not just renewables like solar. This is both because solar is expensive and because Africa is awash in natural gas. In fact, Africa has more natural gas than North America. The difference being, of course, that where we consume about 8 percent of our proven gas reserves annually, Africans only consume 0.8 percent of theirs.

Solar-powered micro-grids can provide very basic energy access, and they are gaining traction, especially where they replace costly diesel generators in remote regions. But they remain expensive, provide extremely low levels of electricity, and depend on back-up generators to keep the lights on when the sun isn’t shining. (The new IPCC report acknowledges the challenge of integrating intermittent renewable energy into energy systems.)

While the information transmitted via cell phone ­– whether coordinating a business transaction or communicating with faraway family members ­– can carry important economic and social consequences, the energy required to do so is tiny. By contrast, the amount of energy needed for building and powering irrigation systems, factories, and cities, is very large.

A modern civilization simply cannot be built on distributed solar power, but then, off-grid enthusiasts have never been much for civilization. The idea that small-scale, low-energy, decentralized technologies like solar can and should power poor countries dates back to the “appropriate technology movement” of the late 1960s and early 1970s, inspired by E. F. Schumacher’s vision of “small is beautiful.”

Such a romantic vision might have been understandable in 1972, when China was still a peasant society that few imagined could become a superpower. But today China and other developing nations are rapidly approaching Western energy consumption levels, and African nations are starting to benefit from widespread urbanization and electrification. In the 2000s, sub-Saharan Africa’s urban population grew by 100 million, and the number of people getting new electricity access in cities was twice the number of people getting new access in the countryside.

Data: World Bank, International Energy Agency, and the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA)

While the patronizing language of appropriate technology is gone, the United Nations carries on with the low-energy vision for Africa. Consider the United Nations’ flagship energy access program, “Sustainable Energy for All,” which defines yearly “energy access” for the poor at levels that are barely enough to power a fan, a couple of light bulbs, and a radio for five hours a day.

To the UN, a year’s worth of “energy access” in the developing world is equal to what the average European consumes in less than a month and a typical American consumes in a little over a week. That’s not enough to satisfy basic consumption needs; much less to build a modern infrastructure.

Source: Mark Caine et al., “Our High-Energy Planet,” Breakthrough Institute and Consortium for Science, Policy and Outcomes, 2014.

A new report by a group of international energy and development experts calls on the United Nations and other international agencies to plan for far higher energy consumption in sub-Saharan Africa and in other regions that rely on burning wood and dung for energy. Africans want more than a couple of light bulbs a day, the report’s authors argue. They want the same civilization we enjoy: roads, pipes, water purification plants, hospitals, and schools. Creating those things requires always-on, baseload, reliable electricity that is, above all else, cheap. Just as mosquito nets are no replacement for hospitals, solar lanterns are no replacement for modern electricity grids.

It’s no surprise, then, that experts expect China and India to continue to expand their base of coal-fired power in the coming decades. Africa, meanwhile, is projected to power its rapidly urbanizing population with abundant natural gas and hydroelectric energy, much more so than with solar or wind. For renewables to rival grid-based gas and hydro in the coming decades, major innovation in generation and storage will be required.

Data: BP Statistical Energy Review 2013

Source: Study on Programme for Infrastructure Development in Africa (PIDA), “Africa Energy Outlook 2040,” The New Partnership for Africa’s Development, African Union, and Africa Development Bank, 2011.

In the end, information is not electricity, and comparing them is inappropriate and deliberately misleading. While the IPCC’s finding that wind and solar are getting better and cheaper means that these technologies will grow at the periphery of established energy systems in many regions, it does not mean that they will replace centralized grids in developing countries that currently lack basic energy infrastructure. While solar, wind, and decentralized micro-grids will play an increasingly important supplementary role as they become cheaper, the future energy systems of today’s developing economies will rely on more robust technologies and resemble the established centralized grids of today’s developed countries.

Alex Trembath is a research analyst and Max Luke was formerly a policy associate at the Breakthrough Institute.

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Doug Payne's picture
Doug Payne on Jun 18, 2014 1:39 pm GMT

You say solar is more expensive than fossil fuels. But what if we talk clean fossil fuels. What is the comparison then.


Nate Gilbraith's picture
Nate Gilbraith on Jun 18, 2014 2:53 pm GMT



Much of the damage we attribute to dirty fossil fuels is based on our (U.S.) societal choice to value human mortality at around $7 million per occurance.  These is a large debate within the U.S. as to what this number should be set at, but the ultimate message is that “dirty, damaging, and harmful” can only have the value society gives them through the concequences they bring.  In countries without access to more basic services such as food, water, shelter, or medical treatment then the valuation of such “dirty, damaging, and harmful” pollution is likely to be much different than ours.  While we may not necessarily agree with their valuation of their (and their compatriots) lives and health, we have no right to infringe on the decision to value those damages at whatever level they please.  



Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Jun 19, 2014 3:59 am GMT

Developing countries can leapfrog conventional options, …”

This part is partly true.  They can skip most of the fossil fuel infrastructure deployment using the nuclear route.  But with renewables, the fossil fuel generation capacity is still required for backup.  

The idea of using rooftop solar with storage (and fossil fuel backup) to eliminate the need for a distribution grid might help with rural electrification, but as nations develop, most people will migrate to the cities, as that is where they will find jobs, medical care, schools, shopping, and entertainment.  In cities, it will always be much cheaper combine generation and loads onto shared grids, rather than maintaining thousands or millions of nano- or micro-grids.

So wiring cities with grids and providing enough fossil fueled backup for cloudy periods must be done even with renewables.  Not much leapfrogging.

Doug Payne's picture
Doug Payne on Jun 19, 2014 6:33 am GMT


At the moment, the cultural and fundamental differences in various countries do have an imact. However when the temperature rises 2 degrees it is too late. That is when the world will become the one inadaquate home for all.

Universally around the globe science is in agreement that action needs to happen now or we will all come to learn the hard way that all along we are in the same boat.

So we should start thinking now about clean fossil fuels, if at all. There is no future planning systems with dirty fossil fuel. It becomes very clear to me what will most likely happen. After 40 years working in the power industry and being involved in the control and management of the power grid, I can see where it will go. There will be no fossil fuel base load generation. There will be no large base load systems like we see today.

Doug Payne's picture
Doug Payne on Jun 19, 2014 7:32 am GMT


Have another think about this with a few things in mind. You talk about wind and solar with fossil fuel backup. But the reality is the fossil fuel burn must end. The old base load system has blinded us to the possibilities of the modern technology.

This is not going to evolve into existance. rather, it will gradually disappear.. You talk about the high density living that is happenning around the world and will continue to happen. This is true but it strengthens the outcome of no fossil fuel base load backup required. How is this so? You may well ask.

The game changer is storage. A creative thinking example, I am living in a block of units, 200 in all. They all have a car and most have two cars. The cars will replace the poles and wires. Smart switching of the car energy system, wherever it is connected to the power grid enable it to replace the transmission lines for the energy consumer at the domestic level. Perhaps working in co operation with another battery in the home when the individual situation requires it. In my case it wouldnt require much actual spare home storage. But most of the time there are enough cars on site that would provide power to the entire complex. Smart switching in each flat and electric car connected to the grid, transferring, buying and selling energy according to the energy market conditions.

At the moment on the energy grid there are many billions of dollars of infrastructure tied up in fossil fuel back up supplies. These systems run for less then one half of one percent of their capability. Perhaps it is one percent and most of that is used in routine test runs.

Smart switched storage on the load side has enormous ecconomic and practical advantage. No transmission cost, reduced stability control requirement, huge efficiency gains and removal of the risk of large scale disruptions. Smart switched load side management can perform most of the task with zero input. When energy is required it can achieve the same result with a fraction of the energy. For example 20mws can achieve the same result as a thousand MWs of large gas plant in todays system. (I have a detailed explanation for that number)

There will be a transmission network that supports the infrastucture of the transport system. Wherever you park your car the storage can be connected to this grid and smart switched. The large scale wind and all renewable generators will buy and sell energy on this system on a 24hr cycle that will be effectively flat load, stable and optimally efficient. If you have a home in the suburbs and roof space, you can have a large solar system that will be connected to this grid and market its energy via your car.

Your car will have your travel plan and home energy plan in the control system that you can modify in a number of ways including talking to the computer as you drive.

With this system there will be virtually no energy disruptions. The load profile will be falt as a tack. The transport system, if entirely electric today, would be about 40% of todays load in Australia. However the increase in solar pv and load side/efficiency options, continues to reduce the main system load peaks. As storage is integrated into the system and more electric transport comes into the picture the load peaks will continue to reduce. The need for poles and wires will reduce. As I write this i look out side. The thousands of poles and wires are looking very ugly to me.

I know this is a dream. But unlike the dream some have of burning all the coal in the Australian land, this dream is possible and will allow us to survive.

Bas Gresnigt's picture
Bas Gresnigt on Jun 19, 2014 10:12 am GMT

At the sub-Sahara country-side the costs of a central grid + power station, is many times more than a standard 300W solar panel with a battery, LED-lights, etc. 
So the family can continue some activity after dark. Children can make their homework, etc.

Such a panel produces ~1KWh per day (high sun), which allows also for a computer, washing machine, etc. If not enough the family can extend by buying an extra panel and/or battery.

Even if there is a grid. The PV-panel delivers more reliable electricity than the grid, which often has long outages (illegal tapping, etc).


Joris van Dorp's picture
Joris van Dorp on Jun 19, 2014 12:20 pm GMT

There will be no large base load systems like we see today.”

Why not?

Doug Payne's picture
Doug Payne on Jun 19, 2014 6:27 pm GMT

When solar energy cost around 10 dollars per watt to install and wind generators cost 5 times as much as a coal generator, the political environment was a lot kinder to pollution. The idea of paying for industrial garbage management was not in the account.

Today people are beginning to get the idea that we need to do things in a sustainable clean way.

This being the case, coal generation costs more then twice the cost of wind and is already more expensive then solar. It is often quoted that the clean energy is still more expensive and this is not true if you refer to clean fossil fuel generation. The ecconomics all point to shut down of coal and fossil fuel generation over time.

Coal is actually solar energy stored in the ground. Now we have the technology to take the sun and wind as is on delivery every day. Add to that we have the emerging means to not only store this energy, but to synergise it into the transport industry. This ecconomic push from the transport industry now starting will be the final blow to coal generation. The coal industry and oil industry have other opportunities and other product options. We dont have to burn it. Extracting the energy is the lowest order product I expect. Politics is also globally turing to this thinking as I write this comment.

There are many factors that make the large base load power station sytem a bad idea. We have been using this system for 100 plus years and most people can not see the alternatives because of this accepted process. I will list here a few pointers.

System stability management in the base loaded systems, is in today’s technology, the most expensive and impractical method. Today’s technology would enable the system to be load balanced by adopting load side switching at the micro level. This switching can be done at a much deeper detailed level within the customers load. The result is that contol will be achieved by reducing instability in a convienient inexpensive way that does not cost anything in comparison to todays methods.

 Poles and wires are looking very ugly in the city streets for a number of reasons. The cost added to the energy bills for the maintenance of the infrastructure is just one thing.. It is possible in the future to do the same job for the domestic market using storage and in particular electric vehicles. This dispersion of generation and storage throughout the load in small clean generation points reduces losses. The business opportunities through innovative products are endless.

Wind solar storage stability and efficiency.

Wind and solar are ofen spoken of as never being stable and consistant enough to run the system. This is true if the base load, large fossil fuel idea remains with all the stability management done on the generation response side. Trying to deliver a stable supply in this way is the reason for the problems. We have the technology available now to manage the system stability completely on the load side no matter where the generation is achieved. If you then introduce storage, it becomes an absurd idea to continue the same way we do it all now..

load and cost reduction

We can have a totally green energy system with constant flat stable system energy distribution. When the entire transport industry, (apart from air travel of course) is included, the energy requirement increases about 40%. However with the dispersed generation and smart grid systems, the load compared to today will decrease by similar ammounts. The load that will be carried on an industry grid that will integrate the various green energy systems and transport, willl be a fraction of the grid loadings of today. The potential for catastrophic power failure will disappear and with this the need for hudreds of billions of dollars of infrastructure.


Nate Gilbraith's picture
Nate Gilbraith on Jun 19, 2014 4:05 pm GMT


I disagree that externalities are fully captured within energy markets. Google “National Research Council: The Hidden Costs of Energy” if you are interested in reading more.

In terms of cost increases to due regulations, the purpose of regulations, such as those put out by the EPA, are to help “internalize” those externalities. While it is recgonized that many regulations increase the direct price of a good to consumers, agencies such as the EPA are required to show that the benefits of those regulations exceed the costs. If you believe that pollution leads to negative outcomes such as acidifying lakes and streams in the Adirondack park and causing human mortality, and also believe the value assigned to those outcomes, then the costs of regulations are more than offset by the benefits.  

Here are a couple links you can check out on how the human health damage caused by pollution is valued:



Doug Payne's picture
Doug Payne on Jun 19, 2014 8:29 pm GMT

If your figures are correct then the energy allowed for my family is 1.2 Mwhs per week.

That would make my energy consumption around 1600 + dollars a quarter for my home.


Because of my solar and off grid arrangement my bill is zero and my energy consumption is about 90 kWH a day for the family.


I guess if you provide an infrastructure for large peak base loaded system you certainly do have to over cater


Doug Payne's picture
Doug Payne on Jun 19, 2014 8:30 pm GMT

If your figures are correct then the energy allowed for my family is 1.2 Mwhs per week.

That would make my energy consumption around 1600 + dollars a quarter for my home.


Because of my solar and off grid arrangement my bill is zero and my energy consumption is about 90 kWH a day for the family.


I guess if you provide an infrastructure for large peak base loaded system you certainly do have to over cater


Doug Payne's picture
Doug Payne on Jun 19, 2014 8:32 pm GMT

If your figures are correct then the energy allowed for my family is 1.2 Mwhs per week.

That would make my energy consumption around 1600 + dollars a quarter for my home.


Because of my solar and off grid arrangement my bill is zero and my energy consumption is about 90 kWH a week for the family.


I guess if you provide an infrastructure for large peak base loaded system you certainly do have to over cater


Clayton Handleman's picture
Clayton Handleman on Jun 19, 2014 9:38 pm GMT


I think you are right on target.  So many who oppose renewables suggest that the externalities are already baked in.  This is a strange point of view and just does not stand up to even minimal scrutiny.  This post provides links to several studies and metastudies that offer insights into externalities. 

For carbon, the lowest number I have seen that appears to be developed in good faith is the EPA low end estimate of $10 / MWhr. 

Clayton Handleman's picture
Clayton Handleman on Jun 20, 2014 1:12 am GMT

Yours is an interesting analysis but I don’t think things are as dire as you suggest.  Currently most of the energy (roughly 70%) goes to auto and electricity. 


Cars waste over 2/3rds of this mostly due to thermodynamic inefficiency.  EVs are highly efficient in converting the electricity to traction.  On average, the FF and nuclear power generation is similarly inefficient.  In Reinventing Fire, Amory Lovins shows that there is much headroom in residential, commercial and industrial non-electrical. 


So if we envision a USA with primarily EVs in 10 – 20 years then we are looking at a little over 1TW average, say 1.5 TW to be safe and allow for losses from power to storage and back in EVs.  The US has nearly 2 TW at 50% capacity factor and close to 8TW at 40% CF.  And that does not take off-shore into account.


Storage and transmission infrastructure are the two wild-cards.  With wind PPA’s now at $21 / MWhr ($44 w/o PTC) there is money for transmission lines.  Which leaves storage as the question.  But again, not so dire, there is a lot of promising work being done in the area of storage and a well designed transmission upgrade combined with high CF wind power diminishes the need for storage anyway. 

Finally, if this country actually decides to make electricity market driven instead of the Soviet style centrally planned disaster that it currently is, then the load will also become much more flexible / adaptible to renewables.  This will further reduce the need for storage.  While I imagine we differ on this point, I am confident that the storage problems will be solved in 20 years.  Lithium-Ion batteries could probably do it but there are other, more cost effective approaches that likely will beat them out.



Doug Payne's picture
Doug Payne on Jun 20, 2014 1:39 am GMT


I thank you for the optimistic, simple and realistic annalysis.

I have worked in a role managing the energy grid in critical locations in Australia for 35 years now.

Not enough of us can see this as well as you do. Years ago i did some simple figures and concluded that in the event we get all the modern options in place on the load side management, tidy up the efficiency issues in the system, the transport sector(minus air of course) will be consumed into the power industry and result in loads on our grid somewhere near the same peak loads we experiance now. Now, in this argument were the peaks we had back in 2008.

These loads are falling constantly and for a lot of good reasons. The transport sector i figured would require about 40% of the grid energy demand we had in 2008. Looking at your chart there i find some cumforting confirmation. I have also spoken for years about the cost of energy in the form of petrol, put through a combustion engine is a really stupid idea if you have a choice to go electric.

By the time we chop away at the in efficiencies to best effort right across this energy sector and prioritise the public transport system the loads across the energy sector will be falling for many years.

Perhaps the dis appointing thing for me right now is the constant statements by CEO’s across the energy sector for years now saying each year….”the load is on the turn, it will be increasing a lot this year.” Still they say it and mess up stats from time to time in a process of wishful thinking.

Doug Payne's picture
Doug Payne on Jun 20, 2014 2:05 am GMT

Some outstanding realities

Capacity factors of wind generators approach 40% in many Australian locations.

The capacity factor of major hydro in the same country 13%

The capacity factor of peaking gas plant is often less then 2%

Storage and load side switching as a stability measure uses very little energy and is a 24/7 in service function. We are slow to persue it.

The Australian grid has approximately 6 Gwatt Hrs of storage available daily and it is not utilised because the energy market does not assimilate the advantage and system stability control has a way to go in the take up of appropriate technology. It is difficult to use this valuable resource using base load coal. The storage will be used most effectively when we have much more wind and solar in a market that recognises these assets in an effective pricing process.


Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Jun 20, 2014 4:16 am GMT

Doug, the problem with your dream is that it depends not just on technology improvements and drastic cost reduction, but it involves solving problems that have been studied for decades (cheap batteries) with little success.  As of today, lead-acid is still the low price leader among batteries:

Solar Buzz reports a price of $0.213/Watt-hour, and this has not been dropping over time even though we continue to build tens of millions per year.  Assuming 50% depth of discharge and lifetime of 2000 cycles, that means that energy from the battery costs 21¢/kWh over and above the energy it took to charge the battery.   This cost will apply whether the battery is installed in the house or in the car (it is a depreciation that applies to either).

Your vision for no power lines also has the problem that the cars won’t be at home during the day when the sun is shining; and home is where all that roof-top area for solar collection is located.

Once all that storage is added to support solar, it must be disposed-of when its service life is over.  In the US, the average per capita electricity consumption is about 500 GW/300M= 1.7 kW.  Assuming a 6 year battery life, 14 hour run time, and 50% depth of discharge, the average person will dispose of 1.7kW*14h/.50%/6years= 7.8 kW-h of batteries per year.  Using an energy density of 40 W-h/kg (midrange from Wiki), that gives a disposal mass of 195 kg of batteries per year.  Obviously we’d want these to be recycled, but still some material would end up in the land fill: 1%, 5%, 10%?  If Li-ion batteries ever reach price parity with lead-acid, that would be a huge improvement, reducing the mass by 4x, and avoiding lead’s toxicity.

If you allow power lines in your renewable vision, then wind power can be added.  This reduces the percentage of energy that must cycle through the batteries (by boosting the capacity factor and adding night-time power), thus reducing storage cost and disposal mass.  This is location dependent though, as some places like California have wind that is very seasonal (worthless most of the year).

By the way, I’m holding out for more real-world proof on residential and commercial demand-side management, as there are easy ways to over-estimate the potential (e.g. by letting people volunteer/self-select for the field trials).  I’m optimistic about fuel synthesis and desalinization as dispatchable loads however.

By comparison, the nuclear option has been proven 3 decades ago, when France, Sweden, and Switzerland all phased out nearly all fossil fuel use for electricity using a combination of nuclear and hydro power.  For locations with warm weather and little hydro (e.g. Australia and the southwest US), a combination of nuclear and solar might be optimal (but the solar contribution is still dependent on affordable storage).

So to me, the idea of keeping fossil fuels around (as “flexible generation”) to support variable renewables, in the hope that we’ll get a storage breakthrough is just environmentally irresponsible.

Robert Bernal's picture
Robert Bernal on Jun 20, 2014 5:07 am GMT

You and your low CO2 footprint system still requires that people drive gasoline powered cars to the mine that requires diesel for the extraction of raw materials necessary for the farm equipment necessary to feed those that require a coal powered grid so that they can thrive to the point of being able to drive to a factory, again powered by mostly fossil fuels, to work… so that you can have ALL the things in your life.

Your direct energy consumption is like nothing and is nothing to an industrial planetary civilization… let’s clean it all up AND make it more powerful.

Clayton Handleman's picture
Clayton Handleman on Jun 20, 2014 6:03 am GMT

Good evening Nathan,

While it is true we have a ways to go before batteries solve the grid storage problems I think that things are better than you portray in battery land.  While lead acid battery prices are stagnant, Li-ion battery prices are anything but.  A pretty good case can be made that Li-ion batteries have reached cost parity to lead acid when taking into account superior performance. This article offers some useful comparisons.  I found the last table  particularly helpful. 

While lead acid battery prices are flat due to industry maturity (learning curve saturation), Li-Ion batteries have lots of headroom and top analyst firms expect factor of 3 cost reduction in 6 years.  Elon Musk, a pretty smart guy, also thinks that and is betting a lot of money on it. It is worth pointing out that by betting lots of money on it he is improving his odds dramatically.  It is pretty clear he sees cars as the razors and batteries as the blades.  He has begun giving away car technology.  

Li-Ion batteries have a number of superior characteristics including roughly double the cycle life, tolerance for deeper discharge, better resilience as a function of temperature etc.  Note in the article above that transportation and installation costs figure in as important cost components for lead acid batteries.  Far less so for Lithium Ion.  For stationary applications, Li-Ion appears to have surpassed Lead acid in price performance.  The PV industry has a lot of infrastructure wrapped up in this so is responding slowly.  Tesla and Solar City clearly have already seen the light and offer a leading indicator using Li-ion in home and industrial storage.  Like Apple Computer in the 80’s they are the early adoptor of technologies that are ready for prime time but that the rest of the industry is too lazy to move on.  My bet is that lead acid batteries will disappear at a rate similar to what we saw for the film camera.  5 years from now, . . . , gone.


Clayton Handleman's picture
Clayton Handleman on Jun 20, 2014 5:58 am GMT

Thanks Doug,

We are living through exciting times.  In 10 years I anticipate things will be much different.  Maybe the FF companies will be able to postpone an additional decade so 20 years.  But I look back 36 years to where renewable energy was.  Basically non-existant for solar and wind.  Compare that to now, a vibrant industry still on an exponential growth curve.  A decade and a half ago I offered a scenario for sub-$1.00 / Watt PV by 2012 and even the solar community was quite skeptical.  Now people think that it is reaching too far to hope for 80% or higher by 2050.  How strange that. 


Robert Bernal's picture
Robert Bernal on Jun 20, 2014 7:21 am GMT

The only disaster about the grid is that it is mostly powered by FF’s. Without it, I would have to afford batteries every ten years (or less) and panels. But that isn’t really the problem. Everything that I depend on would also have to powered by such. Until at least 1% of the Earth’s land is covered by solar and appropiate amounts of pumped water storage (which is far cheaper and longer lasting than batteries) I will know that such diffuse and intermittency can not compete with baseload sources. Why? Because no amount of efficiency can cheat the laws of physics. Solar is for helping out, not for weeding out.

Robert Bernal's picture
Robert Bernal on Jun 20, 2014 8:46 am GMT

Perhaps I have misunderstood the meaning “for all”. Perhaps, it means those in completely undeveloped countries. After searching, I have not found anti-nuclear propaganda and found a report about Fukashima that appears completely unbiased. Also, I found a fact sheet “…and helps ensure the use of nuclear technology for sustainable development.”

Clayton Handleman's picture
Clayton Handleman on Jun 20, 2014 9:26 am GMT


Studies show that EV’s are considerably better than ICE vehicles 

The point of the comment on PV was to show that technology change happens much faster than many expect.    LCOE answers a different question and solar is looking quite good under that lense as well.  

Circling back to where this started, renewables are fully capable of providing most or all of the energy for modern civilization.   





Doug Payne's picture
Doug Payne on Jun 20, 2014 10:41 am GMT


Allow us to consider that fossil fuels are 99% efficient in energy conversion. Just for a moment, its a wonderful thought. However, even if it is 100% efficient, you still have to stop using it.

Oil and coal are stored sunlight. But we have a totally clean way of using the sun without digging a hole.. Wind, again is stored sun energy being released and we have a totally clean way to capture it.

When we use the stored energy in coal and oil as was necessary last century because of technology in adaquacies, we make a dreadful mess and we are risking our future.

When our state, South Australia is 100% renewable electric in 2020, will you still say its not possible?


Bas Gresnigt's picture
Bas Gresnigt on Jun 20, 2014 5:06 pm GMT

“renewables are fully capable of providing most or all of the energy for modern civilization.”

That is also the conclusion of many German studies of 15-20years ago!
So the Germans started in 2000 their Energiewende scenario.

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Jun 21, 2014 6:27 am GMT

Clayton, thanks for the article link; good info.  According to the article (written by a li-ion pack vendor), li-ion has caught up with lead-acid for some stationary application; they assumed a worse cycle life for lead-acid (which I don’t dispute), and calculated a whopping 67¢/kWh pack amortization in warm climates.  Their 40¢/kWh value for li-ion would still be unaffordable at grid scale, even with a 3x cost reduction.

Basically, for stationary application backing solar power, neither battery could beat a reversible fuel cell, even if the fuel cell was $5/Watt.  The problem with the fuel cells is that it would be cheaper yet to run it on fossil fuel, and skip the solar panels altogether.

But as you said, the Tesla business plan looks solid; with the $600/kWatt-hour value from the article suggests the Tesla Roadster’s 53kWh battery (200+ mile range) would cost $32,000.  A battery with a 3x price reduction would be able a grab a good chunk of the car market.

The article cited a 97% recycling rate for lead-acid batteries.  This is good as far as recycling goes, but represents an awful lot of toxic chemicals going into dumps.  It also seems that lead-acid batteries should be much easier to recycle than Li-ion, since they are mainly lead and lead-sulphate (Li-ion have a mix of many elements, hence are more like a trash bin than a recyling bin).

Robert Bernal's picture
Robert Bernal on Jun 21, 2014 8:48 am GMT

Grids are for powering electric cars, not the otherway around. V2G is backwards thinking. Why? Because car batteries must be designed to be lightweight in order to maximize vehicle efficiency. If batteries are ever to be used for much grid storage, they will be stationary (and thus heavy, if need be). Costs for a gigantic grid storage unit will undoubtedly be less per GWh than a bunch of super duper efficiency car batteries (besides, who wants to waste their car battery’s cycle life on the grid). Speaking of which, not even half of “everybody” will be in any position to generate the huge amounts of electricity necessary for powering all their direct and, more specifically, indirect consumption.

Good ole pumped hydro is the best way despite losses to evaporation (batteries kinda “evaporate”, too). Dams and solid tried and true turbines last many times longer than batteries.

A true 50/50 solar and wind only scheme for powering the world will require about 1% of the land for the solar (and lots of dams) in order to properly sustain 10 billion people at prosperous levels.

Robert Bernal's picture
Robert Bernal on Jun 21, 2014 8:57 am GMT

Unlike li-ion, the LiFePO4 doesn’t have thermal issues. Still, it will take super advanced machine automation to beat pumped hydro in costs and longevity.

Bas Gresnigt's picture
Bas Gresnigt on Jun 21, 2014 11:09 am GMT

Because base load power plants cannot compete in an environment with substantial renewable.
Even without priority access / subsidy for wind and solar.

The addon costs for electricity produced by windturbines and PV-solar is near zero (~$1/MWh).
That implies that during substantial part of the time wholesale prices will then be at that level. So a 1GW baseload plant then delivers 500MW (=~the minimum) at $1/Mwh while its addon costprice is ~$30/MWh.
That creates a lot of loss in a short time…

You can see the full problem illustrated at page 10 of this spotprice analysis.
There you see that the nuclear base load plants continue near full production (>70%), while they have to pay to get rid of the electricity they produce.
So not strange German utilities consider those to be a burden and try to give them away to government government incl. the €20billion decommissioning fund. And that government refuses to take that burden.

Doug Payne's picture
Doug Payne on Jun 21, 2014 3:05 pm GMT


I have a link for you. Also thanks for this point you raise.

The link is a wonderful write on the concept of disruptive technology. It gives an incite into the things that lie ahead in the power industry. I think it is more acceptable and understood in Germany then here in Australia, Poland and Canada to name a few.

A few months back I was on shift and we had a heat wave. There was a lot of wind generation in the mix, a lot of solar, some substantial load side management in one state and a complex array of imports and exports across the country. As the clock moved along to 1430 hrs, which usually lines up with a summer peak in eastern Australia, the price went to 12500 dollars in NSW and  minus 1000 in Victoria. That lasted for 5 minutes and then the price went to 20 dollars in NSW and 5000 dollars plus in Victoria. The energy management organization forced us to deliver 2 GWs for a half hour at 2 dollars a MW. This was to alleviate a problem on a low voltage line way into the edge of another state and involved a flow of less then 50 MWs.It doesnt always make any sense, its all about the price, the management of constraints and it was a nightmare, as it usually is on shift when limits are met. The market is not a tangible thing when functioning near limits.

Naturally in the retrospective annalysis by the media and people who dont know enough to comment, the blame for the problems was put down to wind and solar and their unreliable outputs.

Experiance enables us to look at a few key lines and a few key data points and we know what the problem is at any time. The big problems in the heat were caused by the loss of a large coal power station, right at the most critical time in the load event. The day would have been dreadful but for the wind and solar. The main thing being that the wind was constrained off at a critical time to enable us to get the coal station back as well as cover the possible loss of a coal gen. Without this flexibility made available in the market by the wind gen agreements, things would have been a lot worse. The other key issue was the available renewable energy from Tasmania via the Bass Link at a critical time.

Wind and solar are ideal by nature to integrate into a system that initiates controls at the load end in a dispersed and small scale process. This will enable huge renewable penetration. There was talk of a maximum 5% penetration which would cause too much instability. Without any detailed load side management it does begin to be difficult when using the old methods. The integration of storage into this load management will enable 100% renewable. When we talk about storage the pessimistic writers think it is all about batteries. It isnt all batteries.

 More then half of my daily energy was stored today in the floor heating and the hot water. My load actually went down at the winter peak moment of 1850 hrs.

Clayton Handleman's picture
Clayton Handleman on Jun 21, 2014 5:03 pm GMT

“Without any detailed load side management it does begin to be difficult when using the old methods.”

It is fascinating to watch those who fear change ranting about economics and free markets UNTIL their approach is not well supported by free markets.  Making loads pay for peak use is a great example of this.  When TOU metering and making loads pay for peak use comes up, suddenly electricity goes from a purchased commodity to an entitlement. 

With the advent of smart phones and home controls, there is no reason people cannot respond to price spike alerts and turn back their AC or do the dishes later at night or charge their car later etc.  The combination of:

– Aggregation of intermittent generation through grid expansion

– TOU pricing and

– Paying to emit carbon

make high penetration both feasible and provides a significantly more level playing field.

Of course it is still slanted in favor of FF due to free ride on habitate and water shed destruction through extraction.  However the above likely makes the system honest enough that RE can get in the game.  Until these changes, subsidies for RE are fully justified.


Clayton Handleman's picture
Clayton Handleman on Jun 21, 2014 5:05 pm GMT

See reply at top.

Robert Bernal's picture
Robert Bernal on Jun 21, 2014 5:54 pm GMT

Base load can not compete (see page 11)? Perhaps at times and because it is not optimized to do so. Nevertheless, it is required (to power modern societies) regardless of “distruptive” sources until such sources can back themselves 100% (and then some for growth and prosperity).

Can solar panels really generate enough energy to make wind turbines to power 5 billion people at prosperous levels and can wind turbines really make solar panels to power the other 5 billion ??? Solar and wind hardware subsidy must instead be directed towards more advanced machine development, in order to make this solar, wind and hydro only dream even remotely possible.

Rather large scale systems such as a bunch of 100MW advanced nuclear systems, would be far more reliable in the absence of fossil fuels to power necessary industry (and, for those un-thought of industries required by a more prosperous future). Most of the subsidy for solar, wind and fossil fuels need to be directed toward the development of these more reliable sources and especially, towards the infrastructure necessary to convert high temp advanced nuclear heat into clean liquid fuels (from air and water) so as to maximize their full potential (during times of “excess” generation).

Of course, resources need to be concentrated towards the engineering, development and the standardization (and minimization) of wastes recycling and disposal (closed cycle). Once further growth is realized by use of such clean, reliable and safe power infrastructures, to the point of powering 10 billion people to above modern levels, then we can get on with a standardnized proceedure of isolating the half trillion tons or so of wastes from the fossil fueled infrastructure, as well. Why? Because only a well powered civilization will ever be able to clean up its mess created during adolescence.

Robert Bernal's picture
Robert Bernal on Jun 21, 2014 7:21 pm GMT

Subsidies need to be directed towards the efficient standardnization of processes required to enable cheap and abundant power and their proper wastes recycling and isolation.

Solar panel subsidies only maintain a Chinese price point on “distruptive” technologies.

Grid expansion is good, time of use pricing sounds like a communist style ration scheme and paying for carbon is good as long as other, more powerful sources are allowed to be developed at the intrinsic level, concurrently.

Robert Bernal's picture
Robert Bernal on Jun 21, 2014 7:33 pm GMT

Fossil fuel is a bridge to nuclear. Very well said!

Robert Bernal's picture
Robert Bernal on Jun 21, 2014 8:07 pm GMT

Thorium fissioned in closed cycle high temp reactors can safely power about 1000 times today’s modern energy requirements (as per image below, since thorium is 4x more abundant than uranium). Furthermore, this potential is already given to us right under our feet. That is 3 orders of magnitude over “most or all of” a severly underdeveloped world!

Bas Gresnigt's picture
Bas Gresnigt on Jun 21, 2014 8:32 pm GMT

Your story:
– confirms the German experience that a substantial share of wind and solar improves the reliability of the grid;
– is in line with the logic that many small and different generators, whose production changes can be predicted rather accurately (thanks to a.o. improved weather predictions), deliver a more reliable service.

Doug Payne's picture
Doug Payne on Jun 21, 2014 9:34 pm GMT


I was part way through your comment thinking it was mine and felt rather proud of my choice of words. Absolutely agree with you also. Did you know that the original market for Australia did include a carbon component and was rejected. I was aware because of close contract with some of the people involved.

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Jun 23, 2014 3:25 am GMT

There are at least two companies with flywheel energy storage devices on the market today, Beacon Power and Active Power.  Both offer products combining highspeed flywheels mounted on motor-generators and control electronics.

The general result of their efforts seems to be products that struggle to complete with batteries.  To store useful amounts of energy, the rotors must have tip speeds that are near (Active) or above (Beacon) the speed of sound.  This means they must have very strong safety enclosures around them to withstand a rotor breakup, vacuume housings to reduce noise and aero losses, and very sophisticated bearing to reduce standby spinning losses.  Pound per pound, the super-sonic units store similar energy as batteries.

Active Power focuses on the uninterruptible power supply market, with products that provide around 15 minutes of energy storage.  Lead-acid batteries can only deliver a fraction of their energy in this amount of time, so they end up needing to be over-sized for a given energy demand.  They use an inexpensive steel rotor and mostly mechanical bearings (magnetic assist).

Beacon is trying to crack the grid energy storage market.  They use special low drag magnetic bearings (with active magnetic levitation) to support the rotor, so they can deliver more hours of energy output (they demo’d 3 hour units in the past for the telecom market, but their products today claim just 30 minutes, likely to support power plant ramping).  They use a higher rotor speed, which requires a high-strength carbon fiber construction to withstand the centripetal forces, thus yielding more energy per pound of rotor.  The main advantage over batteries seems to be the long cycle life (175,000 cycles).

So flywheels are only barely competitive with batteries as of today, and only at the sub-hour time frame.   Thus far, there is no reason to believe any technology will beat molten-salt thermal energy storage for 8-14 hour storage (for CSP or nuclear) or fuel synthesis for >24 hour storage.

Doug Payne's picture
Doug Payne on Jun 23, 2014 4:18 am GMT

Yes there are fly wheels, compressed air at sea level depth that reduces costs, pump storage, switching things off, floor slab heating, heat bank storage, the list goes on and on

Joris van Dorp's picture
Joris van Dorp on Jun 23, 2014 9:52 am GMT


When spotprices of electricity collapse during a windy or sunny day in Germany, solar and wind power business models collapse just as much as do the business models of fossil or nuclear generators. The only reason the wind and solar power providers stay in business is because they get fully repaid through subsidies, which means that the price of electricity simply doesn’t matter to them. At least the fossil and nuclear generators can earn some money when the sky is dark or cloudy or when winds are low. In Germany, every wind turbine or solar panel added to the grid will increase the amount of subsidies needed by solar and wind power providers.

If the subsidy system in Germany is ended, then not one more solar panel and not one more wind turbine will be built. Because they would be selling their electricity into a zero-spotprice market, and the spotprice is zero everytime the sun comes out or the wind picks up.

This really should be very, very easy to see. Why don’t you see it, I wonder?

Joris van Dorp's picture
Joris van Dorp on Jun 23, 2014 9:56 am GMT

“Your story:
– confirms the German experience that a substantial share of wind and solar improves the reliability of the grid;”

An uncontrollable source of electricity can NEVER improve the reliability of any grid. It can only undermine reliability. This is very basic logic, which should be easy to understand.

Doug Payne's picture
Doug Payne on Jun 23, 2014 1:14 pm GMT



Your cost annalysis is meaningless from the point of view of the coal face of the power grid.

While controlling the energy grid in peak hours, in moments of instability, a billion dollars worth of fossil fuel reserve can be replaced by 5 million dollars in new technology and load side response. That is at todays values. Sounds difficult…it is true. In fact, I beliecve it could be a lot cheaper.

We dont do this however and it is not encouraged because the market is designed to ram energy down the customers neck even if he doesnt need it and without understanding the customers needs.. The market is designed to  push energy out there with zero annalysis of the critical need. We send energy to customers at outrageous cost and market volitility that seeks nothing but higher prices. One may argue that we do it wisely. Yes we do. We have wonderful technologies working with thousands of complex stability constraint algorithms. Yet we dont mange the load inteligently. There is no money in that option with this market design.

By switching things off on the load side, we can do the same job as a 1000Mw gas plant. But we can do it faster and more reliable and in doing so push down the cost of the event. No disruption. No outage.

Doug Payne's picture
Doug Payne on Jun 23, 2014 1:30 pm GMT

Bob….I think you will find this interesting

Bas Gresnigt's picture
Bas Gresnigt on Jun 23, 2014 3:09 pm GMT

High developed, dense populated Germany does it. Despite its bad insolation, low windspeeds and little hydro. So most of the rest of the world can do it too.

“… make this solar, wind and hydro only dream … possible.”
No renewable expert dreams of that. Everybody agrees that the combination of the different renewable resources should be used to create a cheap reliable electricity supply.

“…a bunch of 100MW advanced nuclear systems…”
All indications are that those are even far more expensive than the cost price of present reactors. Just study the unsolved issues of the MSR experimental reactor at ORNL.

Bas Gresnigt's picture
Bas Gresnigt on Jun 23, 2014 3:24 pm GMT

“Each man … in America is provided 99.98% reliable … electricity on a 24-7-365 basis…”

You exclude outages due to extreme weather.
In Germany that same reliability is 16 times better: 99.997%! (including all outages due to extreme weather)

Bas Gresnigt's picture
Bas Gresnigt on Jun 23, 2014 3:50 pm GMT

Check German reliabiltiy figures and the share of wind+solar.
Then you see that with the increase of wind+solar, the customer total outage time improved a factor 2!
From ~30min/a towards ~15min/a.

For a reliable supply controlability is far less important than predictability.
And wind+solar have a far better predictability, thanks to their distributed generation!

Two factors:
1. A 1GW NPP can fail in a second, leaving a real gap. But 100,000 dispersed small generators (solar & wind) won’t all fail in a second. Even if 10 fail in a second, it has no real impact.

2. If high voltage power line from the 1GW NPP fails there is similar problem (even worse as the spinning reserve may not able to serve the NPP’s customers).

But with 100,000 small generators dispersed over the area there is no such failure possible. Often the generated electricity is consumed by nearby customers, never reaching the high voltage power line network.

Clayton Handleman's picture
Clayton Handleman on Jun 23, 2014 3:54 pm GMT

Thanks Doug,

I did not know that about Australia.  Sorry they didn’t follow through.  It would have taught us a lot.  Hope there is follow through with the US EPA carbon controls, though if one looks at the timeline it is really not nearly as bold as the FF folks would lead us to believe.  30% and we are already half way there with more gas replacing coal and finally some transmission projects in the great plains.  They may not need to do cap and trade to hit the targets.

Robert Bernal's picture
Robert Bernal on Jun 23, 2014 6:14 pm GMT

Loss of energy (unless aligned withs the Earth’s axis on magnetic bearings) and political obstacles would seem to be the only theoritical problems. However, the power required to convert for electricity in the first place should instead be used to spin the mass wheel if that is more than the 33% or so efficient.

The only energy source that can even remotely resemble Moore’s law in deployment is advanced high temp meltdown proof molten salt nuclear. Infact, such advanced nuclear is the ONLY (intrinsically and technologically) easy solution at this time because we need to sequester half a trillion tons of excess CO2, make fertalizer to feed upwards of ten billion people AND power “everything else” (including some more growth).

We need a solution to ocean acidification as well unless we opt to embace gigadeath.

Clayton Handleman's picture
Clayton Handleman on Jun 23, 2014 8:13 pm GMT

“Instead, let them compete on the day-ahead ISO/RTO market”

Cliff, your notions are so 20th century.  The emerging 20th century grid will allow for 10 minute, possibly 1 minute look ahead. 

The degree of intermittency that you ascribe to renewables considers kw and MW scale generation rather than aggregated GW scale aggregation over hundreds of miles.  Once again your portrayal is antiquated.

It is conspicuous that you left out any externalities in your charactorization of the free market.  If the “free market rules are not set up to include externalities then artificial means such as RECs and SRECs designed to promote reasonable goals are a sensible thing.

Finally, you have assumed a specific outcome if the market is set up as you prescribe.  The interesting thing about markets is they often behave differently than people expect.  Things may not go as you think they will.  Same for me, probably it will evolve differenty.  However, it is worth pointing out that when people were allowed to puchase phones from somewhere other than the traditional utility, the cost of phones dropped, the features improved and the system did not break as Ma bell promised.


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