Solar. So what now?

30 08 2014

When I started this blog over five years ago, I was very enthusiastic, even waxing lyrical, over our solar power.  Even though, in retrospect, our first system, as configured at the time, really was a complete waste of time and effort thanks to a badly designed and very expensive inverter.  Live and learn….  Fifteen years ago, I was campaigning like crazy over the prospect of millions of Aussie roofs being plastered with panels feeding the grid.  My faith in the technology was overwhelming, we could save the climate if only the political will came to be.  And it did.  Now millions of roofs are covered in grid feeding PVs.  I take zero credit for this, make no mistake.  Today however, I have a much deeper understanding of these issues, and I have made a remarkable turn around.  So what now?

I notice that our friend from Eclipse now has just published this article:

Is Solar PV even a source of energy when one considers trying to ‘buffer’ it with storage? Does the energy cost of building the solar PV AND the storage render solar PV a net energy SINK rather than energy source? Or, in other words, do you pour more coal and gas and oil into building solar PV + storage than you get back as ‘clean’ energy? Apparently so! Not only this, but we need a minimum of 12 times the energy return on energy invested (ERoEI) to run the modern world. Solar thermal + storage only gives us 9, and that’s the best performing! Sorry folks. The ERoEI of a renewable grid + storage seems to be too low. Nuclear has an ERoEI of about 75. It’s nuclear or it’s climate change. The science says so.
morganesfig1
http://bravenewclimate.com/2014/08/22/catch-22-of-energy-storage/

So there you have it folks.  Solar is uneconomical (we already discovered this… plus that data is for Germany, and let’s face it Europe is not exactly a fantastic source of solar energy!) and nuclear is the only way to go…….  except of course, this takes no account of the fact we are heading into financial meltdown, oil companies are going bankrupt, leaving us no money and no oil to even decommission the old nukes, let alone maintaining the grid. Besides, it seems you can justify any stand you wish to make with any set of data available.  The pro-nuclear folk over at Brave New Climate may like to think nuclear has an ERoEI of 75, but plenty of other researchers disagree, just look at the chart above….  just TEN!  So who do you believe?

The grid itself will become the Achilles’ heel of future energy, not the source, and not storage.  What we need is new thinking, a total revolution in the way we do things.  The old system is irredeemably broken, we should not add any more ‘stuff’ to it, and we should definitely not spend any more money on it.

Much gnashing of teeth and hand wringing is currently happening in Australia over the dismantling of the RET (Renewable Energy Target).  The long-awaited review of Australia’s Renewable Energy Target has been released and, as widely predicted, has recommended winding back or even scrapping the various parts of the scheme.

The Conversation had this to say on the matter:

The report’s executive summary recommends two alternative options:

  • Closing the scheme to new renewable power stations, while continuing to support existing projects until 2030, or
  • Ensuring that new renewable power generation makes up just half of any future growth in electricity demand.

Separately, it also recommends:

  • Ending the system of financial incentives to households that install solar panels, solar hot water systems and other small-scale renewable technologies, either immediately or in 2020.

Of course, one would never expect a report commissioned by our Abbott government (well…  any government actually!) to recommend closing down commerce and industry to save the remaining fossil fuels for a rainy day when renewable energy production will become extremely difficult and part of our nation’s survival strategy.

There are campaigns up on the internet to fight the Warburton Report’s recommendations to slash the RET and incentives for rooftop PVs to continue as they are.  But at the same time, we have to leave the coal in the ground, or guarantee catastrophic climate change.  There are no choices here.  Every time we consume anything, whether it’s PVs or wind turbines or any other techno-fix…….  CO2 ends up in the air, stays there for a thousand years, and none of the techno fixes remove the CO2.

We squandered the best oil and the best coal in the 20th Century for trivial pursuits, and all we have left now are the scarps..  We used those precious fossil fuels to build freeways, huge cars, airplanes, skyscrapers….  and for what?  Just look back, and most of those things no longer exist even!  there are more cars on the scrap heap than on the roads.  Ditto with airplanes.  The current system is merely a means of turning resources into waste.  It’s really that simple.  And the powers that be want to continue this idiotic concept going to our final days of civilisation.  The time for revolution has truly arrived.  In many ways, I agree with the Warburton Report, but for completely different reasons.  I hope I have made this very clear!  The current campaigns against the Warburton Report are the wrong campaigns.

My old 500Ah battery bankI have no idea how to start the right campaigns.  People everywhere, particularly some solar installers, are already starting to have a go at me for becoming anti solar.  I don’t know that I have…..  I feel that if we were smart about it, and reduced consumption to the levels I have proven possible here where we currently live, and stopped doing everything else, with a new economic system, new thinking, new attitudes, we could still “have our cake and eat it”, only it has to be a tiny cake.

Finally, I thought I would put into perspective just how amazing fossil fuels are.  See that old battery bank of mine, which I sold when my first inverter died?  It’s 2.4m long, 0.6m high, and 0.3m deep.  That is a cubic capacity of 430 litres.  It weighed 900 kilos.  How much energy did it store?  24kWh when fully charged…….  or about as much as 2.5L of petrol/gasoline.

Yes, there is better battery technology than that on the horizon, but it doesn’t even come close to the energy density of petroleum derivatives.  Just imagine what we could have done with stuff like that if we hadn’t wasted it all….  we could have kept a comfortable and sustainable low impact, low population civilisation going for a thousand years instead of less than a hundred.  Now we’ve eaten most of the cake, and we have to deal with the crumbs.  If you want my advice, get your panels and batteries now, along with a supply of inverters and other replacement electronics to ensure redundancy before it’s too late.  Because the bastards in charge will do whatever it takes to stuff everything up.

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26 responses

30 08 2014
robertheinlein

Mike,

You are applying narrow studies of one specific PV technology and one specific storage technology to make broad generalizations that’re simply not warranted for the entirety of the solar+storage field. It’s easy to make a case that silicon crystal PV and battery storage just don’t have the ERoEI that you think is needed. I agree, they don’t. But, it’s entirely wrong to make broad generalizations that simply don’t allow for rapid progress in technology which are occuring today. All of the forward-looking studies point toward an entirely different conclusion.

And, forward looking places like Austin, TX, are putting their money on these advanced systems. Last night, the City Council passed a resolution which added 800 MW of solar generating capacity plus 200 MW of storage capacity to an already ambitious goal of having 35% of Austin’s energy coming from renewables (mostly solar) by 2020. Austin Energy signed a PPA earlier this year for solar energy priced at less than 5 cents per kilowatt-hour, far less than any fossil-fuel technology. The ball is rolling and it’s only building momentum, preventing the construction of new fossil fuel generators and causing others to be mothballed.

In any case, there’s also an argument to be made that ERoEI itself is a meaningless metric. In fact, the economist who devised it back in the 1970s now disavows its relevance!
—Bob

30 08 2014
John Doyle

Mind explaining why ERoEi is not relevant? Does it mean we will still consume oil even when it costs more that its energy contribution to extract? Personally I believe oil is just so important we will pay whatever it costs to get it. It will of course have to be rationed, say to fuel farm machinery, essential services like hospitals etc. at least in the medium term.
However those who follow Gail Tverberg’s blogs [Our Finite World] will know the application of Liebig’s law of the minimum is going to bite hard on the viability of our society into the future.

31 08 2014
robertheinlein

EROI is relevant to some extent, but it’s rapidly increasing and should continue to increase. According to a March 2013 Scientific-American article (http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/eroi-behind-numbers-energy-return-investment/ Behind the Numbers on Energy Return on Investment):

“Solar (PV): There are a wide variety of estimates of solar PV’s EROI as well—in part because the technologies and production techniques are improving fast, a major reason for the large price reductions over the past decade. I used the most recent peer-reviewed study I could find (Raugei et al., 2012, cited above). Solar PV’s EROI is almost certainly rising (Raugei et al., 2012; personal communication, Michael Dale of Stanford University). The latest data in Raugei’s study was at least a couple of years old, so the EROI today is most likely higher than 6, the number cited in my article.”

30 08 2014
Chris Harries

I think there’s an error up above. Of all the ERoEI calculations I’ve seen, from numbers of academics, nuclear has a fairly low net energy return, when calculating full life cycle. Typically it’s calculated at about seven to one. I think the 75 figure in the above article may mean 7.5.

Nuclear does have a number of strong advantages, including its base load capability. But it also carries a number of disadvantages – real ones, plus also irrational fear that comes from association with nuclear bombs and so forth. And prohibitive cost.

ERoEI is not a meaningless metric, but it’s true that the importance of ERoEI should not be overstated. It’s a critical factor nonetheless. No matter how good an ERoEI figure may be for any particular energy source it’s not much use if the resource isn’t accessible. Try building hydro-electric dams in South Australia. And ERoEI doesn’t account for environmental impacts, such as bird strikes of loss of wilderness etc, its simply a mathematical model to work out energy viability (as opposed to economic viability).

Negative ERoEI is even feasible, as with corn to ethanol conversion, but you couldn’t do those things as a way of powering an industrial civilisation.

30 08 2014
mikestasse

I have to ahttps://damnthematrix.wordpress.com/2014/08/30/solar-so-what-now/gree with you here (again!). Never ever have I seen such a high ERoEI for nuclear.

30 08 2014
grlcowan

Then you have restricted your reading to instances of motivated reasoning that either are the lying-Dutchman study — commissioned by a Green party, never submitted for peer review — or are literature surveys that depend heavily on it, sometimes computing an average in which its false data are counted multiple times through multiple chains of reference. When these studies are peer-reviewed they amount to a laundering effort.

More on this at http://researchgate.net/publication/258789205_Greenhouse_gas_emissions_in_the_nuclear_fuel_cycle_A_balanced_appraisal/file/e0b495295b4e04406b.pdf

It took a lot longer to run down that reference than it did for you to express your prejudice.

30 08 2014
Dave Kimble

The main weakness of ERoEI is that it doesn’t take into account the timing of the EI and ER contributions. The EI of building a nuclear power station and mining, refining, enriching, encapsulating its first load of fuel has to be done before you get any ER back. Some of that EI has to be done perhaps 10 years before you get any ER. This energy has to be supplied, in addition to everything else, mainly from existing fossil fuel sources, so advancing Peak Fossils.

One of the big EI items comes at the end of the Life Cycle process – the decommissioning and long-term waste disposal process. Since this has never been completed anywhere, the true energy costs of decommissioning are only guesswork, and not surprisingly the pro-nuclear lobby makes light of this.

Storm and Smith came up with this diagram http://www.davekimble.org.au/peakoil/charts/storm.smith.dynamic-energy-balance.gif for nuclear. The likelihood is that when civilisation falls apart, spent fuel rods and shutdown reactors will still not have been dealt with properly, leaving a toxic legacy that future generations will be unable to deal with.

30 08 2014
bev

yep nuclear was always going to happen, it had to renewables could only fail

30 08 2014
ppp251

The numbers that Weissbach study uses for solar are dated (2005/2006). Technology improvements have substantially increased solar PV EROEI which is now somewhere around 15 for northern Europe and 25 for southern Europe.

Storage does reduce EROEI, but how much remains an open question.

31 08 2014
rabidlittlehippy

You forgot Tupperware. We got Tupperware out of fossil fuels too. 😉

In the end it doesn’t matter what the EROEI is unless we can find a 100 renewable source that requires zero non-renewable imput in any stage of construction. The existing renewables will continue to function until repairs can no longer be made due to parts no longer able to be made due to insufficient fuels then they will fall into disrepair and fall apart (nuclear or hydro systems falling apart give me horrors) and in not too many years we will have no electricity. I have little faith in technology coming to the fore. I believe we’ve squandered too many resources to be able to come up with what we need in the time we have left. Reduce, reuse, repurpose will become our only options. Recycling requires far too much energy to sustain long term.

I can’t decide if I look forward to the future our gluttony of fossil fuels has brought to us or if I’m afraid. Probably a good mix of both.

31 08 2014
robertheinlein

After sniffing around the internet, I found that the Wikipedia article has 6.8 for Solar PV EROI.

Moreover, there was a study published at Stanford last year which found that Solar PV was a net energy producer:

“Among the study’s results: The PV industry was a net consumer of electricity until about 2010, and in 2012, the industry became a net electricity provider. Also according to the research, the industry will “pay back” the electrical energy required for its early growth before 2020, maybe as soon as 2015.

“The findings are important because the PV industry has grown quickly over the last few years, creating an increased need for energy – mostly from fossil fuels – for manufacturing.

“If we can continue to reduce energy input, it will be easy for the solar industry to continue to grow at a rapid rate because it doesn’t take much energy to manufacture things,” Benson says.

http://www.solarindustrymag.com/e107_plugins/content/content.php?content.12544

31 08 2014
Chris Harries

With respect, Robert, that’s not a great advertisement. That it actually produces some net energy. I suspect that solar may be a net producer, but the marginal output is very small as yet.

ERoEI figures tend to be exaggerated by both the renewables and nuclear lobby groups. I suspect the actuals will be mid range, as is always the case when opposing groups put forward up their preferred figures.

As solar and wind are on a sharp incline one would expect that the input energy to date is probably as high as the output energy, but we can expect when production rates level off the out put graph would eclipse the production energy. That may or may not happen before end of life cycle when there will need to be a necessary new investment in refurbishment and replacement of solar and wind equipment.

This debate is not about ‘for’ versus ‘against’ renewables, it’s just a debate about the limits of soft technology.

When it boils down to it, the limits faced by society can’t be addressed through technology (as mostly blokes seem to conclude) it comes down to values such as economic growth and consumerism and population and behaviour change and such. New technology possibly represents about 5 percent of the ‘solution’. Our obsession with technology puts it at centre stage.

That said, I admire those who work in that area. don’t think we should be antagonistic to the technological panacea folk…. just need to rein them in a bit.

1 09 2014
robertheinlein

Chris,

First, we are only addressing solar here, not society as a whole. The biggest issue in Mike’s post appears to be EROI at the moment and I dug up the facts to put that issue to rest. EROI is increasing rapidly for solar, which is a fact.

You say, “I suspect that solar may be a net producer, but the marginal output is very small as yet.”

That doesn’t jive with the study’s conclusion:

“Among the study’s results: The PV industry was a net consumer of electricity until about 2010, and in 2012, the industry became a net electricity provider. Also according to the research, the industry will “pay back” the electrical energy required for its early growth before 2020, maybe as soon as 2015.”

That payback can’t happen if the excess production is marginal. My prediction is that we’ll reach an EROI of 30 by 2026 and that solar will be the cheapest and most vital energy of all by then. Note that UBS says the payback period will shrink to 3 years by 2030. That means that consumers will have free energy just 3 years after purchasing their solar arrays.

I agree that the limits society facing are far more daunting than just energy. But, I think the air needs to be cleared on solar at least.

Bob

1 09 2014
mikestasse

You have me wrong Bob……. ERoEI isn’t the biggest issue, society and its ludicrous expectations and faith in technology are.

I don’t believe ERoEI is improving one iota. For starters, as the ERoEI of the fossil fuels used to mine the resources sinks like a stone, try as you might to make thinner cells, it won’t keep up with the amount of energy needed to make the stainless steel substrate, aluminium frames and mounting racks, glass cover, and copper wiring, which is where most of the energy in a solar panel goes. “according to the research, the industry will “pay back” the electrical energy required for its early growth before 2020, maybe as soon as 2015” makes ZERO mention of the diesel used to mine and transport the materials, and to me sounds like an incomplete study.

As I have said before, Prieto and Hall have done a very thorough research of PB ERoEI on Spanish data, and came up with 2.45:1

Other life cycle and energy payback time analyses used models that left out dozens of energy inputs, leading to overestimates of energy such as payback time of 1-2 years (Fthenakis), EROI 8.3 (Bankier), and EROI of 5.9 to 11.8 (Raugei et al)

Prieto and Hall conclude that the EROI of solar photovoltaic is only 2.45, very low despite Spain’s ideal sunny climate. Germany’s EROI is probably 20 to 33% less (1.6 to 2), due to less sunlight and efficient rooftop installations.

BTW…… I expect that by 2026 there will be virtually ZERO industry happening, and that we will be far far too busy growing food to worry about making solar panels!!

1 09 2014
robertheinlein

Mike,

As far as aluminum, copper and glass are concerned, they can be recycled, so they wouldn’t have to mined a second time. Counting them as expendable is simply double-counting that aspect.

I don’t have access to the article in which that EROI was calculated, so I don’t know if diesel fuel was counted. Does anyone have access to the article or know a link to it? Since it was a peer-reviewed article, I would think that would have been flagged by reviewers if it were the case.

I looked at the Prieto and Hall article and found numerous cases of data that was simply old and obsolete. I started to write an article debunking them, but I had better things to do at the time. Don’t rely on obsolete data! It’s no wonder they had problems implementing solar in Spain—they basically didn’t know what they were doing.

Your idea that EROI is something static is not in line with reality. EROI is growing rapidly, but by the time some academic writes a paper, their data will be two years out of date as well. Also, you and others seem to take it for granted that the materials used to make solar panels is somehow static is wrong—history tells us that this changes. Right now, it’s changing rapidly and I’ll take Inman’s statement as a guide: “There are a wide variety of estimates of solar PV’s EROI as well—in part because the technologies and production techniques are improving fast, a major reason for the large price reductions over the past decade.”
—Bob

1 09 2014
mikestasse

You do realise that most of the recycled aluminium comes from cans…. and they just make more cans! Besides, those recycled materials could end up anywhere, like cars and airplanes where lots of those things are needed, not to mention building computers, all swallowed up by growth in demand for everything…

they basically didn’t know what they were doing.

So presumptuous of you…… believe what you like Robert, I think people at the coal face know more stuff than you.

1 09 2014
robertheinlein

Mike, I was referring to recycling the solar array materials once the cells are depleted. In any case, the market will decide what works and what doesn’t. So far, the market’s on my side of the fence and not yours.
—Bob

1 09 2014
mikestasse

The stuff in the arrays won’t be recycled for at least 30 years. By then…… there won’t be a market, and there won’t be any means of recycling all the bling we’ve put on our roofs.

You REALLY live in lala land Robert….

1 09 2014
Chris Harries

Robert,

If solar is not being done to the sake of future society, than what for?
Sorry Bob, but I decline to compartmentalise the problem, it’s what society does too much.

The different perspectives being articulated in this column are about whether or not solar and wind technologies can solve society’s sustainability problems. My standpoint is that we’re creating a grand delusion out there… that by simply switching energy sources our immediate problems (climate change and oil depletion) are tantamount to being solved.

Even on limited grounds of solving energy problems, solar and wind may partly resolve the easy parts – i.e. electricity production – but not the hard parts. The lifeblood of our civilisation is oil, and its many products and services, such as agricultural fertilisers, clothing and building materials.

Both Mike and I have been at the forefront of promoting solar in different parts of Australia. We are not antagonistic to renewable energy. I believe we both want to warn society from their mistaken belief that these technologies represent a panacea. It’s the appropriate application of them that is central to this discussion.

1 09 2014
robertheinlein

Maybe the discussion would be better focused on those resources that we are going to have more intractable problems with, for example, phosphorus. The relationship of energy to these other soon-to-be-scarce materials is that with enough cheap energy, we can mine the oceans for them.

The problem of clean water is often raised. But, with cheap energy from the sun, that problem is simple to deal with—desalination. Ultimately, most problems are solvable with cheap-enough energy, which makes it the critical factor in the endpoint in discussion of limits. I don’t believe solar is a panacea, either, but it is on the road to being a complete replacement for fossil fuels, and that makes it very, very important.
—Bob

4 09 2014
gbell12

Pumping 50 l of petrol in 10 minutes at the bowser is a power output of 2 MW. That’s all you need to know about how energy dense petrol is.

4 09 2014
mikestasse

Wow…. thanks for that! Great metaphor I never thought of…

4 09 2014
robertheinlein

It’s ~36 MJ/L. And uranium is 1,539,842,000 MJ/L. The point isn’t energy density, it’s all about combustion products on a finite planet. I got a mailer today that said that a new oil field has been found in the US which will supply us with oil for the next 400 years. I conclude that the human race as a whole has an IQ less than monkeys.
—Bob

11 09 2014
Chris Harries

On the issue of Energy Return, I was a bit concerned that the extraordinarily high ERoEI value attributed to nuclear energy (in the article) may have been a typo, but it was taken from a partial source.

Energy return calculated for nuclear energy varies a lot, depending on who is doing the calculating, but nearly all academically neutral sources pin it at well under 10:1.

Charles Hall and his research colleagues are probably the best reference placing it at about 5:1
http://www.roboticscaucus.org/ENERGYPOLICYCMTEMTGS/Nov2012AGENDA/documents/DFID_Report1_2012_11_04-2.pdf

I’m dutifully dealing with numbers here, not siding with any cause. The above reference is a very erudite discussion on ERoEI values and a discourse on the role that energy plays in the running of complex society.

4 10 2014
Bob Manton

It will not matter what the EROEI is unless the population is reduced drastically.
There will not be enough resources of any sort to support between 9 and 11 billion.
Forget electricity even from Nukes.
because we will be fired by the waste and the “odd” accident.

4 10 2014
Bob Manton

Sorry, should have been fried

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