Whorled View

May 2, 2007

The most viable energy solution

Filed under: ecology,economics,energy,environment,Miscellaneous,Politics — lullabyman @ 3:13 pm

Pundits everywhere are screaming we need to spend more money on alternative energy solutions, with little regard to what’s viable.

“Most of the proposed solutions to global warming that get serious attention employ technologies that continue to warm the planet at an alarming rate. Politicians also talk about the Hydrogen economy as if it’s a solution! It takes enormous energy to create hydrogen fuel.”

Wind, solar, geothermal, hydro, nuclear, and tidal are the only potentially saving solutions – but they’re too expensive, too difficult, or too restrictive. Or are they? Depends on how they’re done. My biggest bets are on wind and solar thermal (not the more popular solar-PV). Solar thermal, done right, seems to be the most immediately scalable, the cheapest, and the least restrictive.

Get used to seeing this.  It's the future.
The Parabolic Trough – the future of electricity.

I used to work in the solar-PV (PV = photovoltaic – the kind that go on your roof) industry – and let me tell you … what a boondoggle. All the research money goes to PV solar cells (which I used to make), instead of going to solar-thermal. The problem is – PV costs so much to make and takes so much time and space to purify the needed silicon, and the energy required to do so comes at such a high price as to make a mass adoption of the technology absolutely impossible for the next 100 years.  That isn’t to say it will always be that way … in fact there’s good reason to believe that PV will be the solution in 10-20 years because costs are going down fast.  But we need solutions NOW, not in 10 to 20 years.

Electricity generated from Solar-Thermal power fits that profile, it’s cheap easy and can supply the worlds needs at a ridiculously faster and more economical rate than PV with no technological bottlenecks. It’s simple too:

1) Cheap way: A parabolic trough concentrates sunlight onto a black pipe with circulating oil. More expensive: Parabolic Dish to focus on a single point for sterling engine use or to generate H2 for the hydrogen economy.  There are other focusing mechanisms too like fresnel (pronounced: freh-nail’ ) lenses, fresnel mirrors, but regardless of what mechanism used, it’s very cheap.

2) Thermal fluid expansion converts the thermal energy into physical energy to spin an electric generator. You can incidentally also skip the electric portion and directly spin a rotor to pump water, grind wheat, etc, instead of spinning an electric generator.

How it generates electricity

The largest solar-PV plant in the world generates only 12MW but by comparison the largest solar-thermal plant in the world generates 354MW (SEGS in Mojave Desert – uses cheap parabolic trough design) and it was built 20 years ago! That 20 times more!

And how many people even know about solar-thermal electricity? Squat (relatively speaking of course). There is at least 10 to 100 times more money spent on relatively worthless PV solar than what is spent on Thermal solar which is 10 to 100 times more promising for power plants.The current cost of electricity with solar-thermal is comparable to grid – about $0.10/KWh, but it is expected within the next 15-20 years that cost will drop to 1/2 if not 1/3 of regularly produced electricity ($0.035 /KWh)! How many plants are being built with this technology? Practically zippo (relatively speaking). See http://www.parc.xerox.com/research/publications/files/5706.pdf

So what do the cost numbers tell us? Scalability. Technologies can only be scaled up if they are very profitable. Solar Thermal is far more profitable than any other alternative energy candidate and will be for dozens of years . It doesn’t require exotic or highly refined or technologically advanced materials, and maintenance per MW is comparable to any coal powered plant. It seems a slam dunk, but instead solar-PV gets all the money despite that it’s only advantage is portability and distributed integration (solar thermal is largely a power-plant technology only).

“Solar Thermal Electricity is 10X more viable to fix our environment than Solar PV, but it gets less than 1/10th the grant and development money that solar PV gets. It’s an upside down pyramid.”

Now don’t get me wrong about solar PV. It isn’t a completely worthless technology, and eventually it will probably replace Solar-Thermal in terms of cost, maintenance, and expandability but none of the best experts see that happening any time soon and we can’t wait that long, but PV development is critical, which is why I still strongly support PV subsidies (not to mention that it’s needed to compensate for fossil fuel subsidies).

Europe's Pnergy Plan

Europe is already sold on parabolic trough technology (see the CSP plants above, concentrated solar power = trough technology), expecting it to play largest role in their future. The US on the other-hand is far more ideal for the technology (see world map above) and despite amazing success from the 20 yr old Mohave Desert plant solar trough implementation has approached a relative standstill since then. Solar troughs plants however have the potential to supply our continents electricity all from Nevada, and ultimately cost less than what we’re paying right now per kWh.



  1. Thanks for the lesson on solar troughs. I am one of the
    ‘squat’ that didn’t know about this technology. Now I will read up much more on this and start advocating for it. It makes complete sense. We have plenty of arid desert land that sits empty where these trough plants could be build to produce clean energy – as your map indicates.

    I also feel the same that we are seeking alternative energy generation from the wrong sources: flourescent lights, hydrogen cell fueled cars, etc. We are advocating to “transfer addictions” so to speak by replacing one beast with another rather than focusing on developing real solutions.

    I just saw a documentary on PBS about Germany paying their citizens to farm solor panels literally on farms and the solar-PVs on homes on a grand scale. They may have discussed these troughs on the acres of farms that farm energy, I don’t recall the difference, however. The point is, Germany is doing on a large scale what America says is not possible. Germany gets it.

    Thanks again for the energy lesson.

    Comment by truegenius — May 2, 2007 @ 4:21 pm | Reply

  2. Yeah, Germany has their heart in the right place which is a lot more than I can say for the USofA. Truth is though that PV will never make a dent in our oil consumption – the math just doesn’t work. IMO it’s a waste of a nations resources to invest in non-viable solutions and it deprives viable alternatives from the attention and resources they need to truly make a difference. Parabolic trough technology simply isn’t viable on a small farm basis – it must be wholly embraced by governments in order to meet the requirements necessary to really pay off. That means money – money that is being wasted on PV solar.

    It’s all about politics. PV solar is a cheap and easy way for politicians to placate the masses – enacting laws to promote PV solar adoption by consumers is easy and cheap. Politicians also wrongly assume PV shifts the cost burden to the consumer instead of the government. They are dead wrong – the math for PV solar simply doesn’t work. The manufacturing processes alone simply do not make it feasible as a viable solution in any way whatsoever. This vital piece of information is what’s missing in the public dialog today. Solar thermal, not Solar PV, along with some help from wind, is the only viable solution – and the technology is ready today … at grid-competitive rates if not grid-busting rates.

    Comment by LullabyMan — May 3, 2007 @ 2:22 pm | Reply

  3. […] with little regard from the governments where the best, cheapest, and fastest implementations exist. I mentioned this in my last post, but I could go so much further. The alternative industry funds are controlled by lobbyists. […]

    Pingback by An More Inconvenient Truth « LullabyMan — May 9, 2007 @ 1:17 pm | Reply

  4. Yes, it’s a sad reality how politics work in this country and the hoops we must jump through to get anything accomplished. I think we’re moving down the wrong road and our foot print will not be lessened by much, if at all, with all of these so called “alternatives” we are embracing.

    We need someone with billions to starting ranting on truly viable solutions – like the troughs – to bring more attention to it – like Gore does on the not so vaible alternatives. I want it to move past simply being hip to be Green. I surely didn’t know anything about these troughs until I stumbled upon this blog.

    I’ve been researching the troughs more. Can you suggest additional resources to find easy to understand information? I’m joining the movement on my end and will begin writing legislatures and posts on my blog and to my family and friends.


    Comment by truegenius — May 18, 2007 @ 12:36 pm | Reply

  5. Here’s some good links:

    What the US needs is a lobbying group similar to ESTIF (http://www.estif.org/3.0.html). Unfortunately no such thing exists for the US as far as I can tell.

    The ESTIF has outlined what needs to change to make the viability of Solar Thermal to stand out (again, see http://www.estif.org/3.0.html). Summarized these things are:
    1) Energy statistics to fully show solar thermal. The current metrics the government uses to measure viability are screwed up, but with proper metrics like $/Watt, and readiness metrics, Solar Thermal ends up on top.
    2) Testing and Certification needs to be standardized.
    3) All the true costs of the alternatives are not being considered. This needs to change.
    4) The Government needs to establish minimums and provide industries with the information they need to correctly asses how solar thermal can meet those minimums as compared to other energy sources.

    Another thing is to contact the PR departments of solel and other solar thermal players and ask from a concerned citizen’s point of view how you can help. You might get a blank stare, or on the otherhand, maybe you’ll get offered a new job as a grassroots effort organizer.

    Good luck! Tell me how it turns out!

    Comment by LullabyMan — May 18, 2007 @ 4:18 pm | Reply

  6. Thanks for the info. I’ll keep in touch. Cheers!

    Comment by truegenius — May 19, 2007 @ 1:53 am | Reply

  7. Check this Map out, has United States Interactive Carbon Footprint Map, illustrating Greenest States. This site has all sorts of stats on individual State energy consumptions, demographics and State energy offices.


    Comment by Fred — July 4, 2007 @ 9:31 am | Reply

  8. oops wrong conversation this is really good info!

    Comment by Alexis — May 21, 2008 @ 7:27 am | Reply

  9. Solid article.. I will come back again soon!

    Comment by Exenohore — May 20, 2009 @ 10:11 pm | Reply

  10. Solar eneragy is the future for the world.
    solar water pump

    Comment by solar energy facts — January 31, 2010 @ 8:13 pm | Reply

  11. Why can’t we just pour a ton of money into perpetual motion research. That way we can build devices that work right out of the box and we don’t need power cords or even a grid. No more oil, except for lubrication. No more running out of gas while trying to make it to the gas station. No missing important calls because of a dead battery. Everything just works and nobody has to continue to pay for it!

    Comment by Hydrogen Cells — November 11, 2010 @ 11:44 am | Reply

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