Solar energy alternative
August 31, 2005 12:47 PM   Subscribe

Why hasn't solar energy been able to replace fossil fuels in Europe where gas is taxed so heavily?

Isn't the heavy tax over there in some ways like a subsidy for companies that produce solar panels? I'm beginning to think that even with the heavy taxes levied on gas, it's still not profitable to do R&D on solar panels. Even though once it started rolling, the panels would get smaller, cheaper, last longer, and hold more.
posted by MrMulan to Science & Nature (33 answers total)
Europe has clouds.
posted by devilsbrigade at 12:58 PM on August 31, 2005

Not all the tax money goes to solar research.
posted by Pollomacho at 1:03 PM on August 31, 2005

I had this conversation as it relates to the U.S. with some engineer friends a couple weeks ago. I think the reasoning fits with Europe. End result of discussion: solar never took off on a large scale because the upfront investment is too big. Between the panels themselves, the wiring for the installation and the structural improvements required for roofs, you're looking at from 10 to 15 years to recoup your initial investment. For a lot of people this is just not a good deal. Of course, none of these guys were engineers that had specifically worked on any of this stuff, so who the heck knows. Also, I think devilsbrigade is on to something.
posted by spicynuts at 1:03 PM on August 31, 2005

Plenty of R&D has gone into solar panel tech for space applications, where even small improvements in efficiency would save hundreds of thousands of dollars in launch weight.

Solar just isn't very competitive, even with the high cost of fossil fuels.
posted by Popular Ethics at 1:26 PM on August 31, 2005

Yeah, that and the amount of energy you get out of it isn't that great.
posted by SpecialK at 1:28 PM on August 31, 2005

The tax goes straight to the government, at least in the UK. And solar panels are just as impractical and uncool to Europeans as they are to Americans.

(though due to a political anomaly, Germany has fairly significant investment in renewables)
posted by cillit bang at 1:32 PM on August 31, 2005

Best answer: Even the best photovoltaic cells are very innefficient at turning light into electric current. In order to satisfy fluctuatiuons in demand for power, that energy then has to be stored in batteries. Batteries are also very inefficient. The result is that you need a lot of light and a lot of solar panels to meet significant needs for electric power on any industrial scale of energy consumption.

Given the cost of solar panels and batteries, their inefficiency, the large number required, and not forgetting that manufacturing semi-conductors and batteries are decidedly un-environmentally-friendly processes, solar energy doesn't really add up as a useful technology for large-scale power needs. For small scale domestic and single device power requirements, in the reight circumstances, it makes a lot more sense.

In short, solar power doesn't scale well. Far better to consider other possibilities for renewable energy - wind, wave, tides, hydro.
posted by normy at 1:40 PM on August 31, 2005

Something that I think is useful is to discriminate between "solar" generally and "photovoltaics." My understanding is that Colombia generally, and I think Bogota specifically, does a good deal with "passive" solar, like solar water heaters, which are a lot more efficient than photovoltaics.
posted by claxton6 at 1:48 PM on August 31, 2005

California's on the verge of passing a "million solar roofs bill" and has done other things in the past to create a high volume market for solar panels in order to make investment in solar energy research attractive. Currently, the tech is inefficient and there isn't enough of a market to justify research into improving efficiency or creating economies of scale.

So, Europe may not be invested in making solar energy work, but the world's fifth largest economy is.
posted by ursus_comiter at 2:08 PM on August 31, 2005

Because we use more energy than we can currently produce with solar panels. I remember a respected UK energy policy guy (Ian Fell, I think) saying that we were using fossil fuels at a rate of 3 million years of deposited energy per year. We use fossil fuels at such an alarming rate because they're cheap, portable, and individual humans don't live long enough to have to worry about their effects.

Very little fuel tax money goes into solar and "alternative" (I mean really, what's the alternative to sustainability?) fuels. In the UK, the tax load doesn't even begin to cover the external cost of motor vehicles, so there's nothing left over to fund research.

There are basic physical limits to the possible energy capture that a solar panel can achieve. We've probably grabbed all the low-hanging solar efficiency fruit, and the next few percent will be difficult.

I wouldn't describe Germany's dedication to renewables as an anomaly. I would say that most of the rest of the world is the anomaly.
posted by scruss at 2:27 PM on August 31, 2005

This is what I remember from a recent visit at the European Center for Renewable Energies. The cost of producing electricity from fossil fuels was approx 0.15 euros per kWh (figures from a couple of months ago, quoted from memory). Some European governments (Germany, Austria, Greece) have set a fixed price at which utilities companies MUST buy electricity produced from renewable sources. The price paid for electricity produced from wind turbines is approx 0.30 euros per kWh; the price paid for electricity produced from solar energy (photovoltaic) is approx 0.55 euros per kWh. With these guaranteed prices, energy producers (from renewable sources) are expected to recover their investment in approximately 13 years, and they have 20+ years contracts.
posted by aroberge at 2:31 PM on August 31, 2005

Response by poster: This is what I'm talking about...there is a HUGE gap between what scruss and what ursus_comiter posted. Is it just a question of critical mass being reached to make it into a viable alternative or is there a physical limit that does not make it cost effective. Although, as a computer guy, many "limits" have been overcome.

I would love to think that ursus is right, but if scruss is right, then that's a lot of $ being spent poorly in California.
posted by MrMulan at 2:39 PM on August 31, 2005

Yeah, it costs thousands to install a full set of PV roof cells. There are grants available, but the upfront costs are still significant. Same with other green technologies like Ground Source Heat Pumps and water recycling units.

The average length of time between house moves in the UK is around 7 years. This is the magic number: if you can get a technology to repay all costs within this time, then it becomes a lot easier to sell. The previously-mentioned technologies are getting close to this figure - heat pumps in particular - but are still some way off.
posted by blag at 2:43 PM on August 31, 2005

Guys - I don't think MrMulan was saying that he believed tax money goes into solar research but that taxes raise the cost on one kind of energy which makes other more expensive energy sources like solar more comparable in price.

I don't know whether the cost of solar is still too high compared to oil even after the cost of oil has been raised by taxes, but that would be my guess.
posted by willnot at 2:46 PM on August 31, 2005

One issue is that it just doesn't make a great deal of electricity. The current largest photovoltaic plant (and maybe largest solar plant in general) is touted as producing 12 megawatts. This is a drop in the bucket - as an example, for peaking/backup power the industry often uses simple cycle gas turbines (think jet engines on the ground) since, while inefficient, they are cheap to build and can be started up and shut down very quickly. I worked at a power station with 17 GT units this summer, and the smallest units were roughly the size of two school buses and could produce about 14 megawatts.

They're building a huge solar plant in California, not using photovoltaics, and that's going to be 500 MW with an option to expand to 850 MW, and require 4,500 acres. There are plans for an absurdly big solar tower - a tower half a mile high and a greenhouse miles in diameter, around 5,000 acres. It'll only make 200 MW.

A single nuclear reactor is likely to produce 1,000 MW.

I don't see ground-based solar becoming a foundation of our electricity supply. I think the future for now is large combined cycle gas turbines (one generator is turned by the turbine, while another generator is turned by a steam turbine using steam generated from the gas turbine's exhaust heat - or you can have 2 gas turbines and 1 bigger steam turbine, etc) which is the type of plant being built today, or nuclear if anyone starts building them again. To compare sizes, the 250 MW combined cycle plant I worked in was built on about 2 1/2 acres. GE is now coming out with the H class turbines that with 1 gas turbine and 1 steam turbine produce 400 MW.

I think we'll have fusion before the point where ground based solar would start looking attractive.
posted by TheOnlyCoolTim at 3:31 PM on August 31, 2005

And solar panels are just as impractical and uncool to Europeans as they are to Americans.

Where did that come from? This American thinks solar panels are very cool -- their metallic-blue-purple is beautiful (to my eyes, anyway) and evokes space travel.
posted by Rash at 4:34 PM on August 31, 2005

So the solar plant in CA can deliver 850MW on 4,500 acres, roughly 5 MW per acre.

This link says this nuclear reactor in MI will deliver 1100MW on 7200 acres, or roughly 6MW per acre.

Now I suppose we could just remove all the buffer zone around nuclear power plants, and its easy to not include the space required for storage of the waste, etc. But in the end, I think the solar plant seems to hold up pretty darn well...

What am i missing?
posted by H. Roark at 4:51 PM on August 31, 2005

Like the first comment says, "Europe has clouds". Nuclear plants don't care.
posted by smackfu at 5:07 PM on August 31, 2005

Gas and solar energy are really two different things. Think of gas as a storage device, a battery. When you add a bit of energy to gasoline you get a lot more energy out. Solar energy is a means of generating, not storing, electricity. It's like an ac generator, a hydroelectric turbine, coal plant or nuclear plant (which are really just ways of spinning a generator). None of these are very convenient for operating vehicles. If you store the energy produced in a battery then the stored energy may be useful for powering a vehicle.

The main drawback in my opinion isn't the photovoltaic cells, it's the batteries. Present day batteries take a long time to charge relatively speaking and don't provide much stored energy when compared to a tank of gasoline. Once you can buy a battery that efficiently and reliably stores energy in enough density to please the average consumer the source of the energy won't matter as much.

In some areas nuclear or coal will still have to be the original source, not everyplace has the capability of generating hydroelectric, solar or wind power. The question I've never really seen answered is this:

If I could store electrical energy densely enough to power my vehicle would the net usage of fossil fuel go up or down?
posted by substrate at 6:10 PM on August 31, 2005

Answer marked as best is misleading - don't confuse solar power with photo-voltaic. Photo voltaic is good at what it's good at, but is poorly suited to scaling into power stations (as correctly noted), however solar power is a much wider field that is increasing (but slowly) becoming price competitive with traditional generation methods. A lot of solar powerstations are being built right now, but I'd still expect many more years before solar generation technology matures to the level that nuclear already has.

So the first answer to your question is "It is happening, but quietly, still gathering momentum". (The other mistaken assumption implied is that solar should replace other methods. The reality is that even if solar were half the price of oil, it wouldn't replace oil, because there are areas and applications were solar is the best solution, other areas where oil is, others where nuclear is, others where hydro dams are (which, technically, is solar power), etc etc. There is no one solution that fits all. Even if the price of oil doubled (or nuclear, or whatever), it would still have it's place, and so it's market share wouldn't halve in response, there are more factors to energy generation than price.

A couple of examples of non-hydro price competitive solar developments:
The giant solar tower being built in Australia, planned to be the tallest structure in the world, a solar powerplant that generates day and night. link

Here is a 4500 acre solar power plant being built in the USA. This is being build by a for-profit company (as opposed to a government) because they expect the plant to turn a profit. The company won't reveal the cost of the power, but indicates it is very competitive (it sounds like it might be cheaper than other methods). Another link. I'm not sure if this particular power plant generates power 24 hours a day, but I know that systems like this often do, eg by focusing the sun on a pile of bricks (so to speak) that will take longer than 12 hours to cool down, thus the heat-powered generator runs 24 hours a day, and is at max capacity at roughly the same time that power demand is highest (in the USA A/C drives a little more of the power bill than it does in most of Europe. I'm not sure if peak power demand is roughly the same times of day in Europe).

Their generators seem spread pretty thin (hence the large land area), but that raises another point - I image the vast unused deserts of the USA make solar stations more price competitive than in Europe, where deserted areas aren't as common or large.

OTOH, once low-to-no maintenance generators like these become a little more assembly-line rather than custom made, they'll easily fit on the roofs of buildings, and thus become more suited to uptake in Europe.

In summary, there are lots of different reasons, but most of them seem to be diminishing as the march of technology proceeds.
posted by -harlequin- at 6:18 PM on August 31, 2005

Don't confuse oil with coal. While both are fossil fuels coal is not running out at nearly the rate of oil and the "gas taxes" from oil are not related to electricity generation. If you are talking about producing electricity, you need to be comparing it to the price of coal, nuclear, hydro and wind.

The bottom of this 2001 list of countries ordered by fossil fuel reliance is very interesting.

US (for comparison)
fossil fuel: 71.4%
nuclear: 20.7%
hydro: 5.6%
other: 2.3% (2001)

The countries who are very low of fossil fuel use rely mostly on hydro sometimes supplemented with nuclear. The problem with many renewable sources is they don't scale. Once the "low hanging fruit" has been picked it is much less effective to build more.
posted by sophist at 7:00 PM on August 31, 2005

I may have misinterpreted 'gas' as gasoline, I didn't know that home heating gas (natural?) was taxed heavily as well.
posted by substrate at 7:32 PM on August 31, 2005

I don't think it is substrate, and I interepreted it the same way. Just trying to extricate the transportation energy from the grid electricity generation because they seem to have been confused in the original question.
posted by sophist at 8:45 PM on August 31, 2005

As already noted gas(oline) is an easy and mobile source of energy while electricity is not. While oil remains a major source of electrical generation in some European countries, this oil is not taxed to the same level that applies to oil bought by motorists. As to why solar energy is not used more widely, it remains amongst the most expensive sources of electrical generation despite considerable efforts on the part of some European countries. However, other renewable energy technologies have been developed in the same period and are much more competitive than solar. onshore wind is the leading example. The technology has been supported with considerable investment in Denmark, Germany and Spain, amongst others and seen considerable expansion while also seeing reductions in cost. It is difficult to give accurate figures for the reduction however due to the nature of the mechanisms applied. (An academic paper here provides an in-depth description of what I mean by this.)

I'm afraid aroberge's figures may be a little off, 0.15euro/kWh is closer to the total figure at which electricity is sold to the consumer, not what the it costs to produce the electricity. (See here for a breakdown) A typical generator will produce and sell their electricity for much less than this. (The difference comes from the money that has to go to support the transmission and distribution networks and for selling the power to consumers.) To be competitive a renewable generator has to be able to compete with the prices at which fossil fuel generators can produce electricity. In general this isn't possible without additional support. This is currently often provided by Government on the grounds that is in the public interest to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. One common mechanism in Europe (and definitely not in the US) is the tariff mechanism mentioned by aroberge. This forces supply companies to pay a fixed sum (or tariff) to renewable generators. Investors in renewable generators can then be assured of an income against their investment. Countries can set the level of the tariff differently for different generators - the aim is to allow investors an incentive to invest without letting them make a huge profit at the public expense. The levels at which tariffs are set for different technologies in one country should give you some idea of how comparatively expensive technologies are.

The current tariffs for Germany offer 0.091 euro/kWh for wind and around 0.50euro/kWh for solar cells. Tariffs for different technologies are shown on page 8 of this pdf document. (Disclosure: My paper but not my website)
The price of solar is going down though, as a result of subsidies in a number of countries. This paper considers how programmes in Germany have brought down costs and increased capacity.

Besides the use of sunlight for electrical generation, there is also the possibility for solar thermal technology. This has caught on in some places (E.g. Greece and Isreal) but could perhaps be more widespread. There has historcially been a focus on renewable sources of electricity with much less attention on sources of heat. This may be beginning to change, but there are currrently far less incentive programmea aimed at increasing use of solar heating.
posted by biffa at 2:47 AM on September 1, 2005

"This link says this nuclear reactor in MI will deliver 1100MW on 7200 acres, or roughly 6MW per acre."

You're confused or disingenuous. The fact that the company owns 7,200 acres doesn't mean the nuke plant takes up that much, or that so much land is required as a "buffer zone."

For more realistic space considerations, the nearest nuke plant to me (Indian Point) is 239 acres and 3 reactors (1 retired, 2 generating about 1,000 MW each.)

The waste is not so much of a problem. It just sits there, and you don't go near it. There's really not even that much of it. Much better than fossil fuel wastes that go into your lungs and cause global warming.
posted by TheOnlyCoolTim at 7:33 AM on September 1, 2005

TheOnlyCoolTim: You missed that H. Roark's maths is assbackwards too: 1100MW on 7200 acres would be 0.153MW/acre. The total magnitude of the area is fairly irrelevant anyway I think, more important is the cost of that land - don't know how much of a factor that will be if the place is scrub/desert anyway. The article makes clear that 6300 acres is held by a conservation agency but the nuclear people may still have had to buy it as an unavoidable part of their investment.
posted by biffa at 8:26 AM on September 1, 2005

Believe it or not, the U.S. will outpace Europe on solar. We've got better weather, cheaper land, and far more efficient / investment-friendly capital markets, which is going to be the magic formula for large-scale solar buildouts if fossil fuel prices stay high for long enough to interest investors in solar plant buildout and battery R&D. (As suggested above, better battery technology is crucial to scaling up solar both on the supply side and on the demand.)
posted by MattD at 8:46 AM on September 1, 2005

MattD: I'll believe it when I see it. Better weather yes, cheaper land may help but it depends on whether the market is for free standing industrial use or for domestic use in which case it can be roof mounted. Given that the big programmes in Germany, Japan and the US have all focussed on building-mounted solar and that the electricity generated from solar tends to be at low voltages I tend to favour the latter.
I don't think US capital markets are tooled particularly to support capital intensive long-term payback technologies. Plus the US Government has shown itself less than willing to invest in the long-term subsidies that will be required to get the price down sufficiently to make it a major contributor to energy use. Germany and Japan have been pouring money into this for years. That isn't to say American companies can't get in on picking up some of the market in places where there is subsidy and this is creating demand for niche applications.
posted by biffa at 9:23 AM on September 1, 2005

yeah, what biffa said. MattD, batteries -- of any shape or form -- have no part in utility scale generation. An electrical grid will always be much more efficient, since storing electrons is hard.

I do miss the 50 year Japanese money that we used to build our windfarms in the UK. Just about everyone in North America wants their return in less than five years, which is no way to run a sustainable society.
posted by scruss at 11:53 AM on September 2, 2005

Thirded. Battery tech can be crucial to cars, not power stations.

Solar power stations don't need batteries to generate and deliver power day and night. Usually the excess solar energy from the daytime is stored as heat to run the turbines at night, though there are other methods.
The systems generate solar power 24 hours a day.
posted by -harlequin- at 12:35 PM on September 2, 2005

also, distributed photo-voltaics on rooftops would be useful for peak-power generation during hot summer days, and with net-metering no batteries necessary. i feel the biggest obstacle to this today isn't price per-se but small-users inability to come up with the start-up costs and inexperience with the long paypack time scales necessary to make it worth it.
posted by jacobsee at 8:43 AM on September 3, 2005

I'll add to jacobsee's list of reasons that the regulation of electricity networks is usually tooled towards centralised generation rather than distributed nd this can throw up barriers to distributed generation which can either block it or raise its costs.
posted by biffa at 1:06 AM on September 5, 2005

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