Ethanol Versus Solar Energy

Solar energy produced from one acre of land, compared to the ethanol energy produced from one acre of corn.

One acre of good corn growing land in America will produce about 140 bushels of corn during a one year growing season. As a matter of interest the all time record harvest is over 260 bushels per acre but we also have to remember that more often the all time low has been zero bushels per acre. A bushel is considered to be about 56 lbs.

The current corn harvest is only possible due to the artificial fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides that are routinely applied to America’s corn crop. A little over 2 lbs of fertilizer and chemicals are used for each bushel of corn grown. This averages about 1 lb of nitrogen, 0.4 lbs of phosphate and 0.5 lbs of potassium. The herbicides and pesticides amount to about 0.22 lbs of active ingredients per bushel. This might not sound like much but on Kentucky corn alone, pesticides and herbicides equal about 3 million lbs per year. Corn is responsible for a hell of a lot of toxic chemicals that have created untold difficulties.

The USDA estimates that it takes 53,000 BTU’s of energy to convert 1 bushel of corn to 2.8 gallons of ethanol and most of the new ethanol plants are using coal for this energy. The USDA vigorously supports corn based ethanol production; unfortunately they are using accounting methods that completely ignore any environmental impacts from the entire process. These are the same accounting methods that are currently wrecking the planet.

Then there are the energy costs associated with building the equipment the farmer uses to grow the corn, the energy costs that the farmer used himself, the associated production and transportation energy incurred to get seed, fuel, fertilizer and chemicals to the farmer, the energy to get the corn to the ethanol plants, the energy needed to turn the corn into ethanol and then the energy to get the ethanol into your car. There are many other energy costs that are directly attributable to the production of ethanol but we don’t count them for gasoline so why should we count them for ethanol? The answer is, because they exist. Ignoring all the little details to make gasoline or ethanol look better than they actually are is called fooling yourself. Many Americans complain about $3+/gallon gasoline but fail to realize that the true cost of a gallon of gasoline is currently about $20/gallon.1

So the argument continues but it seems reasonable to conclude that gasoline, diesel and ethanol are much more expensive than the pump price. Smart guys have spent a lot of time looking at this and have come to the same conclusion.2

So to keep this simple, 140 bushels of corn grown on one acre in one year can be converted to 392 gallons of ethanol. At 76,000 BTU’s per gallon this equals 30 million BTU’s per acre, per year, from corn, when it is converted to the liquid fuel ethanol. Some folks say that it takes more than 30 million BTU’s to produce this much ethanol, in which case this huge effort is a waste of time but the USDA ethanol guys say it takes just over 20 million. Nobody says you end up with a net 30 million BTU’s from an acre of corn, less than 10 million BTU’s actually produced is tops. All this means that the energy equivalent to at least 3 gallons of ethanol is burned to produce 4 gallons of ethanol. Therefore, we ultimately end up burning 7 gallons of fossil fuels to produce the equivalent of 3 gallons of gasoline (3 instead of 4 due to the greater BTU’s in gas and diesel than ethanol). Due to the similar amount of pollution created burning ethanol compared to gasoline,3 the production and use of ethanol represents a massive increase in global warming gases, pollution and expense. Aside from the relative efficiency of the process, which will be argued over until the cows come home, this increased pollution has been ignored and the increased costs are being picked up by the good old taxpayer. Tragically many vested interests have supported this process for the same reason that vested interests have denied global warming.

Of course, there is a more important issue here that the West has been happy to ignore while it spends billions to create fuel from food. It must be considered reprehensible to convert huge quantities of food to fuel on a planet where 26,500 children die each and every day due to not having enough,4 while the West wastes so much.

Fortunately, there is an eminently reasonable solution, which the fossil fuel gangs have rejected, simply because they have put their greed ahead of everything else. Governments have also rejected this solution because they seldom lead the way and they are also obsessed with short term gain and votes.

Let’s have a look at what 1 acre of land can produce using photovoltaic (PV) panels that are now up to 20% efficient. That means that 20% of the solar energy that reaches the panels is converted into electricity. Twenty percent is a reasonable number these days. The best conversion is 50% using prohibitively expensive equipment but 30% is also reasonable using solar energy to produce steam that can drive generators.

The sun conveniently delivers about 1000 watts of energy per square meter to the earth’s surface (at an angel of 90 degrees). At 20% efficiency each square meter of photovoltaic panel will therefore produce about 200 watts of electricity. We need 5 square meters of PV panels to produce 1000 watts. In 1 acre there are 4047 square meters. Divide that by 5, the area to produce 1000 watts and you get 809, x 1000 watts = 809,000 watts per hour of sunshine, or 809 kilowatts per acre. One kilowatt equals 3,400 BTU’s so in one hour, one acre of solar panels could produce 809 x 3,400 = 2.75 million BTU’s.

Naturally it makes sense to locate solar facilities where you get the most sunshine although corn growing areas are quite good. The Americans deserts receive over 7 hours of productive sunshine per day so 7 hours times 2.75 million BTU’s equals 19.25 million BTU’s per day per acre. Let’s reduce that to 15 million BTU’s to account for installation inefficiencies but you can see that after ONE DAY of solar electrical production we have at least 50% more energy than one year of corn energy from ethanol production. In the desert parts of America getting this kind of sunshine is possible for well over 300 days per year. This means that solar energy plants, that are commercially available today, can produce about 500 times more energy from the same area as ethanol from corn.

To be fair we also have to look at the input costs associated with producing this solar energy. In optimal solar locations, like the American deserts, it will take less than 2 years to produce the energy that was required to make the solar installation in the first place. The solar system will then go on to produce clean energy for decades. Like the ethanol gangs the solar gangs tell us that significant new efficiencies will emerge in the near future.

We should also mention that electrical energy is as useful as liquid energy. It is clean energy we need; the form of that energy is secondary. It is also worth mentioning that solar energy is not difficult to store so that solar energy can be available 24/7 however most energy is used during the day.

Of course all this begs the question. Why would anyone destroy a vast amount of food to produce a relatively insignificant amount of global warming energy when a clean, inexhaustible source of energy is going to waste? Currently humans produce energy equal to about 10,000 million tons of oil per year. That is equal to about 250 billion, million BTU’s per year. The good old sun produces vast amounts of clean fusion energy than we can access without wrecking the planet. On the land surface of this earth, solar energy equals about 100 trillion BTU’s per hour, 24 hours a day, 365 days of the year, 6000 times what people produce from all sources.

Could it be that because solar energy is “free” we humans have rejected it because less profit can be made? Could it be that we are that greedy and that foolish? Could it be?

  1. See The Real Price of Gasoline. []
  2. See Tad W. Patzek, S-M Anti, R. Campos, K.W. Ha, J. Lee, B. Li, J. Padnick, and S-A Lee, “Ethanol from Corn: Clean Renewable Fuel for the Future or a Drain on Our Resources and Pockets?” Environment, Development and Sustainability (2005) 7: 319-336. []
  3. See “Ethanol-blend auto emissions no greener than gasoline: study,” CBC News, 30 March 2007. []
  4. UNICEF’s 2006 Progress of Nations report. []
Bob Fearn is the author of Amoral America. He can be reached at: bfearn@gmail.com. Read other articles by Bob, or visit Bob's website.

38 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Don Hawkins said on May 10th, 2008 at 6:47am #

    By Faye Bowers
    The Christian Science Monitor
    Tuesday 06 May 2008
    The state aims to tap its 325 sunny days a year, but loss of an energy tax credit threatens its big plans.
    Phoenix – The sun shines 325 days a year in Arizona, on average, and some here see that as the state’s biggest energy asset.
    But fledgling efforts to turn Arizona into the solar capital of the world depend on making the initial investment in new energy plants affordable – something that could become much more difficult, perhaps even impossible, if a federal tax credit for solar projects expires at the end of the year as scheduled.
    Arizona is by no means the leader in developing renewable energies, but it has made progress. The latest achievement is at the Phoenix Convention Center, where workers are nearly finished installing 732 peel-and-stick photovoltaic solar panels on the two-acre roof of the center’s West Building. The $850,000 project is the largest solar application in downtown Phoenix and is expected to generate 150 kilowatts of power yearly.
    “We have a tremendous solar energy resource, up to seven or eight solar productive hours a day,” says Ardeth Barnhart, associate director of the Arizona Research Institute for Solar Energy (AzRISE) at the University of Arizona in Tucson. “Other states like New Jersey have very progressive policies, but we’ve got more sun. We could theoretically power the US with a very large stretch of land – about 100 square miles – in Arizona.”
    But plans for a project that could put Arizona on the map as a solar powerhouse – a huge $1 billion solar energy plant to be built near Gila Bend, Ariz., by 2011 – are likely to be scrapped if the tax credit is allowed to lapse. That’s because solar power is still more expensive to produce than is electricity derived from fossil fuel, though some experts expect the gap to close in the next seven to 10 years.
    The subsidy in question is the federal Investment Tax Credit. The US government boosted the ITC from 10 percent to 30 percent for solar systems in 2006, meaning that 30 percent of the cost of building and installing a system is returned to the investor in the form of a tax credit. But that rate is set to expire at the end of 2008. That scenario worries many political, business, and academic leaders here, who see their dreams of a solar-energy hub evaporating.
    “The extension of the tax credit is critical,” says US Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D) of Arizona in a phone interview. “I’ve introduced legislation to extend it to 2016.”
    Representative Giffords is urging that the government pay for the extension by reducing tax credits to oil and gas companies. During “the next five years, [oil and gas companies] are slated to receive about $17 billion. That money instead should be going toward renewable energy,” she says. “It is critical, and I believe Democrats and Republicans acknowledge it.”
    The Arizona Public Service Co., the utility that is the driving force behind plans for the Gila Bend solar plant, already owns smaller solar plants. This yet-to-be-built one, called Solana (Spanish for “sunny place”), would cover three square miles with trough mirrors and receiver pipes and would include two 140-megawatt steam generators. It would provide enough energy to power 70,000 Arizona homes, according to Barbara Lockwood, an APS official.
    Arizona law now requires utilities to invest in renewable energy. Currently, 90 percent of the state’s electricity is produced by natural gas and coal.
    “They have to generate 15 percent of electricity from renewable-energy sources by 2025,” says Govindasamy TamizhMani, director of the photovoltaic testing lab at Arizona State University. “So all the utility companies are trying to meet that mandate.”
    Giffords, who ran for Congress in 2006 on a platform of pursuing solar energy, recently led a group of lawmakers and experts from Arizona on a fact-finding trip to Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada, home of North America’s largest operational solar photovoltaic system. The $100 million, 14-megawatt plant is an example of what might be done at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base near Tucson, says the freshman lawmaker.
    “What’s so exciting about solar energy is that it creates an elegant solution to three of the largest challenges that … face our country today,” says Giffords. The first, she says, is US dependence on foreign energy. The second is global warming, and the third is advances in technology.
    Those advances in technology, she argues, could help America lead the world in this field.
    “I’m very concerned that America is falling behind. Pursuing solar energy, cleaner-burning energy, renewable energy can absolutely lead to economic prosperity,” says Gifford.
    Many in the solar energy field say the rising price of oil, and the possibility of a future tax on carbon emissions, is likely to make the solar option more competitive – and soon.
    “People are looking at some kind of cost parity, some comparable costs in the next seven to 10 years,” says Ms. Barnhart of AzRISE.
    ASU’s Dr. TamizhMani agrees. “At the moment, the industry depends on incentive money, but by 2015 the cost of conventional electricity and solar are expected to be equal.”

    Could it be?

  2. Don Hawkins said on May 10th, 2008 at 7:15am #

    Our Founding Fathers were remarkable in foreseeing the need to protect ourselves against
    some of the less attractive traits of human nature. Among the checks and balances, the third
    branch of government, the judiciary, is furthest removed from the influence of the special
    interests. Darth Vader may laugh off the arrow from the Inuit of Kivalina, aimed at them and
    others in the fossil fuel industry, but the Inuit suit is only the beginning of a growing fusillade.
    As a conservative, I tend to agree with Europeans in their distaste for punitive damages in
    civil suits. But as companies continue to ignore reality, and to intentionally deceive the public,
    large punitive damages seem appropriate. Justice is important and it may have a good effect.
    Settlements against cigarette companies, for causing cancer and misleading the public, were
    inadequate, hardly affecting their stock prices. Similarities in the fossil fuel case are striking –
    did you catch the sheepish admission of contrarian Fred Singer when asked whether he was ever
    paid by fossil fuel industry? It went something like this: well, I did once receive a check in the
    mail for $10,000 from ExxonMobil that I didn’t quite understand. I wonder if he cashed it?
    There are a large number of defendants in the Kivalina case. The hope is that the captains of
    industry will include some who are more of the ilk that I am crediting Mr. Rogers. Others have
    argued that I am giving too much credit, but I think our best hope is to find some captains who
    are able to understand the requirement for a real change of direction, and we should encourage
    that. The captains are some of the most capable people that we have, and we need their abilities
    – not many of us want to go back to the boondocks. The tipping point will occur when enough
    of the captains peel off, onto another course. I know, it is claimed that many already are, but
    look at the numbers (emissions, for example) – the change so far is minuscule. The government
    needs to contribute by providing incentives, so we can’t give up on the elected branches of
    government – and there is an election on the horizon.
    In the meantime, back on the ranch, the most useful thing that most of the public can do to
    save the planet is to take actions to block construction of new coal-fired power plants. It is also
    important to be sure that fossil fuel mining is prevented in national parks, off-shore regions under
    state influence, any place where the public has influence and can help assure that fossil fuels are
    left in the ground.
    You also might buy a single share of stock in the evil empire and make some noise at a
    stockholders meeting. Who knows, if Darth Vader is continually whacked on the side of his
    helmet with a two-by-four, hard enough, he may eventually realize that there are other forms of
    energy besides fossil fuels. James Hansen

    The time is now and this is about the whole ball game.

  3. Michael Kenny said on May 10th, 2008 at 8:14am #

    There is no “versus” in the renewable energy debate. All sources have their place. Solar energy is fine if you get enough sun. Windmills are fine if you get enough wind. Ethanol is fine if you produce more food than you can eat and therefore have agricultural land to spare. And so on for any source you like. The right “mix” will vary from country to country. Many parts Europe, for example, have little sun but lots of wind. European agriculture produced vast surpluses, leading to huge amounts of land being left fallow. Bringing that land back into production to produce crops for ethanol is a boon for the rural economy without any loss whatsoever of food production. Better yet, it breaks the US stranglehold on Europe via its control of Middle East oil supplies. That might annoy Israel’s supporters, but who else?

    The other point that always strikes me as odd in the American debate is that it always seems to postulate Americans driving around in gas-guzzling cars more or less to the same extent as they do now. That is absurd. Whatever energy sources are available, they are going to have to be used much more sparingly that they are now. Thus, demonstrating how much corn would have to be produced to meet current demand for automotive fuel, or how much that would cost, does not invalidate the arguments in favour of ethanol. It invalidates the argument that the world, and in particular, the US, can continue to consume energy on the present scale. That will inevitably involve regulation and public intervention. That might annoy the proponents of unbridled capitalism, but who else?

  4. Don Hawkins said on May 10th, 2008 at 9:57am #

    Exactly

  5. hp said on May 10th, 2008 at 10:51am #

    Besides solar, wind, and tide, there is another energy which, in America, is becoming increasingly rarer and rarer.
    It also is relatively free of cost yet offers side benefits such as improved self esteem, good appetite and sound sleep.
    It’s called elbow grease.

  6. Lloyd Rowsey said on May 10th, 2008 at 11:09am #

    wake up-a little evie, wake up!

  7. Don Hawkins said on May 10th, 2008 at 12:50pm #

    Hp very good. The easy way out is no way out.

  8. HR said on May 10th, 2008 at 2:07pm #

    I consider the ethanol welfare program to be nothing but a scam. Beyond that, I pretty much disagree with the author.

    Photovoltaics could be mandated on all existing structures and on all new construction, funded by diversion of some of the revenue currently directed to the war department. Hell, even in the high plains, people who have installed them generate more net energy from them than they use, and get a credit from the power company every month. Trouble is, under the status quo, you have to be at least a yuppie to afford the initial installation.

    Talk about destroying desert ecosystems by installing solar (including wind) plants just sickens me and is one of the reasons I despise the so-called left in this country … who are just as bad the right at ramming their half-assed “solutions” down the throats of the rest of us. They are the same nut cases who propose making incandescent bulbs illegal, when, in fact, there are situations where incandescents are more cost and energy efficient, like in bathrooms or hallways, porches or garages, where the light is only on for a little while. It’s the same mentality that punishes pets, through sterilization, to “fix” a problem caused by careless, irresponsible, or uncaring pet owners.

    I also note that few commentators ever address the core issue: the need for lower human populations worldwide. This hornets nest is pretty much untouchable, at least in public discourse.

  9. Willy Sierens said on May 11th, 2008 at 1:38am #

    Sorry, but I take exception at this:
    “solar energy is not difficult to store”
    It is very impractical (aka impossible) to store, for all but the smallest scale purposes (cell phones, say).
    Try running a tractor on stored solar energy!

  10. Alan said on May 11th, 2008 at 1:48am #

    Your solar metrics are sloppy and your insolation assumptions over-reaching. This is not to say that PV isn’t vastly better than growing corn, it’s just that putting out erroneous or confusing data invites critics to discredit, and we don’t need anymore of that just now.

  11. David E. Bruderly PE said on May 11th, 2008 at 7:31am #

    The fundamental premise of this article. “Ethanol vs Solar Energy” is flawed as is most of the lay political debate about biofuels. Most of the pioneers in the ethanol industry saw corn as an easy way of jump-starting the industry at a time when oil was less than $40/bbl while using large reserves of surplus corn. The industry sees corn, grain and sugar cane ethanol as transition fuels to cellulosic ethanol that can exploit feedstocks like ag waste and urban waste that currently have no value and standing timber resources that cannot be sold for a profit and are a huge problems for land owners.

    As commonly practiced today solar energy powers homes with electricity or hot water, not fuel for vehicles. Ethanol works because it is easily blended with gasoline to power vehicles. Critics need to understand and properly define the problem before making irrelevant comparisons among solutions. To make a relevant and practical comparison to ethanol the theme of this article should have been “Ethanol vs Solar Hydrogen and Solar Electric Fuels.”

    Michael Kenny’s comments are right on the money; sustainable renewable energy solutions must be tailored to regional and local conditions. There is NO universal sustainable transportation fuel solution available today that can compete with ethanol or biodiesel blended with liquid petroleum fuels. Compressed methane (aka natural gas or biogas) and compressed hydrogen fuels are excellent fuels for the umbiquitous infernal combustion engine but are widely overlooked because liquid fuels are so much easier to handle than pressurized gases.

    If you are serious about reducing the carbon footprint from transportation fuels, however, hydrogen fuels and electric fuels, have to be your final objective. The good news is that there is no need to wait for the much ballyhooed cheap fuel cell; hydrogen is the cleanest and most efficient fuel for internal combustion engines. To eliminate carbon emissions all one has to do is make hydrogen from renewable energy sources. High pressure electrolyzers for solar electric systems and gasifiers for biomass systems are now commercially available methods of making renewable hydrogen. Variouis compressed gas and hydride storage systems are also commercially available. The capital costs are higher than liquid fuels, but the comparative benefits are so large as to render liquid fuels obsolete IF your objective is to mitigate the greenhouse gas effect by reducing carbon emissions by 80% by 2050.

    Today the major barrier to widespread use of zero-carbon fuels, electricity and hydrogen, is ignorance.

    To solve this problem I advocate voluntary use of performance based standards based on universal sustainability criteria for all petroleum and alternative energy sources and energy carriers (aka fuels). The relevant universal criteria for biofuels are simple: life-cycle net carbon emissions (ie. carbon footprint) and life-cycle net energy yield. Local sustainability criteria that must also be considered in any comparison include issues like regional water quantity and quality impacts, criteria pollutant air emissions, labor issues and local land use and transportation issues.

    For example, according to Wang (2008) the life-cycle carbon footprint for gasoline is about 95 gCO2e/MJ compared to a range of 77 to 101 for corn ethanol, to about 23 for sugar can ethanol to about 19 for midwest switchgrass (cellulosic) ethanol to about 11 for Florida cellulosic ethanol to a little above zero (embedded energy) for solar hydrogen. These numbers are easily calculated for each source of fuel. If fuel retailers posted these numbers on their marques right next to the price of the fuels people would finally start to understand the magnitude problem and their contributions to that problem. In addition, they would also start to understand that they can actually do something today to start solving this problem.

    So the challenge is how do we empower the experts who actually understand the problem and the range of solutions to educate a few hundred million people who don’t know what to think or do?

    I belive that people want to do the right thing. The problem is that most of the articles and opinions are based on incomplete understand of the problem and incomplete analysis. The result is a lot of misinformation or biased propaganda from those who are protecting their investment in the status quo.

    With oil at $126/bbl and widespread agreement that carbon emisions must be significantly reduced as soon as possible, just about every study used to estimate cost-feasibility of alternative fuels and technologies is obsolete. I am working to help people start making decisions based on relevant facts and data rather than rumor, inuendo, gossip or incomplete or irrelevant analysis that merely confuses the lay public.

    David E. Bruderly, PE
    Bruderly Engineering Associates, Inc.
    920 SW 57th Drive
    Gainesville, Florida 32607-3838
    352-377-0932
    http://www.cleanpowerengineering.com
    http://www.bruderly.com

  12. evie said on May 11th, 2008 at 7:36am #

    Hmmm well I agree there are a lot of “half-ass” solutions. I have already tired of the meme/mantra “food for fuel.” I disagree lower human populations will solve anything as most of the world’s billions living in mud huts and shanties are not consuming much energy. I agree lower population would at least cut down on some of the human misery of poverty.

    At the momemt my elbow grease is stirring huge kettles to feed a few folks in the “kitchen” – collard greens, brown beans, hamhocks, southern fried potatoes, green onions and cucumbers in vinegar, and crackling cornbread with iced tea. And peach cobbler and coffee.

    Two sons in Iraq have called to wish me happy Mother’s Day, a daughter and granddaughter are here helping to stir my pots and kettles, and my other 2 kids will call before the day is over. It’s a good Sunday.

    🙂

  13. hp said on May 11th, 2008 at 8:28am #

    Good for you, evie. Happy Mothers Day!
    It’s obvious you have great self esteem and I bet you also eat and sleep very well.
    Just what the doctor ordered.

  14. bob fearn said on May 11th, 2008 at 11:25am #

    Hey Willy, go to –
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R26RdfqGvUE
    and see what one guy can do, then imagine what John Deere could do if they put their mind to it.
    Alan, where are YOUR, “solar metrics” and your “insolation assumptions”?
    Whatever they are.

  15. Edwin Pell said on May 11th, 2008 at 11:51am #

    ADM makes money and give some back to pols. That is why we have ethanol from corn.

    Solar converts 20% of sunlight to usable energy, corn give 1%, fire wood 0.1%. This is a no brainer.

  16. LuvMyPrez said on May 11th, 2008 at 2:47pm #

    I think everyone is not focusing on the real problem. I practice anal sex and have enjoyed it for years. Oops, have to make poopie now.

  17. bob fearn said on May 11th, 2008 at 2:53pm #

    David E. Bruderly, PE, you say, “The fundamental premise of this article. “Ethanol vs Solar Energy” is flawed”, but you don’t go on to tell us how it is flawed. You do say the article should be named, “Ethanol vs Solar Hydrogen and Solar Electric Fuels” so I guess you missed the “fundamental premise” . To reiterate, ethanol is a foolish choice because it produces far more greenhouse gases than gasoline. Just because ethanol is politically expedient doesn’t make it a sensible choice. You had better read –
    http://www.columbia.edu/~jeh1/2008/TargetCO2_20080407.pdf
    if you think we can afford to only reduce our use of fossil fuels by 10% by 2016, which is your position as a budding politician.
    You then go on to push hydrogen fuels by saying, “hydrogen is the cleanest and most efficient fuel for internal combustion engines.” Not on this planet! Hydrogen as produce today and in the foreseeable future is one of the least efficient fuels which would also require massive infrastructure changes. Even if huge amounts of green energy were available why would you use that to create hydrogen instead of just charging the battery in your electric car? To continue to support the internal combustion engine, when we should have had electric cars decades ago is to deny America the clean solar fuel it could have.
    If, as a politician you want, “to educate a few hundred million people who don’t know what to think or do”, then keep it simple. Don’t try to introduce a new fuel that will cost trillions to store and distribute when those millions of people already have access to an electric plug.

  18. Alan said on May 11th, 2008 at 4:00pm #

    Fearn, your analysis on the amount of insolation is grandiose. The Solar Constant is 1,366 watts per square meter registered at 90 degrees on the outer edge of the atmosphere. You have only discounted this Constant down to 1,000 W/m2 and applied that for the entire day of sunlight. Atmospheric diffusion generally knocks irradiance down to no more than 550 W/m2 tops and this falls off dramatically on both ends of the day, not to mention time of year and latitude. So your average should be no more than 200-300. And that’s a stretch. I won’t even get into the real net of the average solar panel. And you say, “One kilowatt equals 3,400 BTU’s…,” when obviously kilowatts are measures of power, and BTUs are measures of work. You meant kWhs, and while your math tracked, that kind of mis-speak is confusing.
    David, your rant is naive (“voluntary use of performance based standards…”) and myopic, but I will send you an email directly to discuss.
    Gotta go. I have to get to a dinner date, and it takes so long to gas up my Hummer I don’t think I’ll make it on time nor have money left over to buy a hostess gift.

  19. bob fearn said on May 11th, 2008 at 9:07pm #

    Alan, maybe you had better read the article again. That’s nice that “the solar constant is 1,366” at the edge of space etc. etc. Sounds very accurate. I used the word “about” several times and the number “1000” which is a round number. Therefore you do not need to assume that 1000 is exactly 1000. To state that a sq. m of 20% efficient solar panel at 90 degrees to the sun for 7 hours per day in the American deserts would average “200-300” watts is incorrect. 1000 is a more accurate number.
    It is clear that any article by any person can be called “grandiose” but the important point, that the article tried to convey, was that we can do much better than using millions of acres to create a global warming fuel to power needlessly inefficient vehicles, like the Hummer.

  20. Prabhakar said on May 11th, 2008 at 9:47pm #

    The article is brilliant in terms of thinking laterally.

    We always look at land from farm perspective. If we look at land as an energy factory based on insolation, a new dimension opens up.

    Instead of taking all the trouble to grow corn and turn to energy and risking food security of the world, energy to be directly converted from solar energy is a good thought in itself. Increasing efficiency and reducing costs of solar PV can open up a new era.

    Taxes incentives, greed and politics always confuse the issue.
    Geo thermal heating is any day better for environment, but it does not satisfy greed to earn out of heating systems, and not popularly sold.
    Huge ethanol lobby and democracy will choose what is convenient not necessarily what is right

  21. Alan said on May 12th, 2008 at 11:11am #

    Bob,
    Didn’t mean to be too confrontational. It’s just that the ethanol boosters, not to mention the whole fossil fuel oligarchy, are so defensive and desperate that they will seize on any imperfection in the opposing analysis, and they will claim that those imperfections prove THEIR case. The case (and need) for Solar is so clear and compelling, that we should double fact-check our essays so as not to give the “ethofossils” a leg to stand on, or a barrel to hide behind.
    Best,
    Alan

  22. NC said on May 13th, 2008 at 12:24am #

    You are all missing a point here! During the beautiful 70’s there was a system developed for the individual home or office or school, etc. that would heat during times of cold, cool in time of heat, and provide hot water as a by-product. This system is called geo-thermal. There is lots of info on the web about this. I would think it could be used everywhere in the country. What little electric energy that would be needed (to run fans to distribute heat/cool air) could possibly come from solar and wind and on an individual home basis. The major hurtle to achieving this power independence is the major corporate players who would be utterly destroyed by its success. Think of it! The use of oil heat would be gone, perhaps to go into the tanks of our cars or better yet use the natural gas to fuel our cars until electric is mandated! But the repercussions to our society would be immense! No utility companies, no big oil, an employment shift of great magnitude. And don’t forget the measly number of representatives that are suppose to represent us and not the corporations that will no longer be needed.

  23. John Wilkinson said on May 13th, 2008 at 9:43pm #

    “Let’s have a look at what 1 acre of land can produce using photovoltaic (PV) panels that are now up to 20% efficient.”

    You forgot to mention above, that the impact of this ethanol on the energy picture is minuscule, even assuming the optimistic data on energy gain of burning ethanol vs. all the energy that goes into raising and processing corn, etc. Even in that optimistic case, and even if all the available US acreage is planted with ethanol-bound corn (as opposed to food-related plants), the impact would be maybe 10% of the liquid fuel needs (i.e., gas) in the US.

    As for solar, most commercial cells are in the 12% range currently, according to the data I’ve been able to find (do a google search on efficiency of solar panels). Yes, there are some lab models which perform better, but the real world is not the lab; and there are some super-expensive commercial models which perform somewhat better, but am not sure those are meant for installation in power plants, exposed to the weather and producing large amounts of power. So, a little exaggeration here, OK, par for the course from those blindly promoting solar power. At least it’s not an order of magnitude error.

    “The sun conveniently delivers about 1000 watts of energy per square meter to the earth’s surface (at an angel (sic) of 90 degrees).”

    Yes, on a clear day, at noon and around noon, if the atmosphere is not too polluted. And your solar panels are not too dirty, etc.

    “One kilowatt equals 3,400 BTU’s. ”

    No, it doesn’t. One kW equals 3,400 Btu/hr. Please don’t mangle units.

    “Naturally it makes sense to locate solar facilities where you get the most sunshine although corn growing areas are quite good.”

    Why would you like to locate these in corn-growing areas? First off, these areas are not nearly as good, there are a lot of rainy, snowy, etc. days, for most of those. In the winter and part of the rest of the year, the sun is too low and the power gets too diminished traveling through the atmosphere. Unless you’re talking certain areas like Texas, which probably also get a lot or rain. And yes, you want to put those panels and mirrors all over pristine areas, which would occupy much more surface area than comparable conventional power plants (coal or nuclear) due to the diffuse nature of solar power. (1kw/square meter may sound a lot, and it is – if you’re talking about powering a house, even then you need a couple hundred square feet of panels; but it’s nothing when you’re talking real power, like for a city). Why shouldn’t I oppose that, covering the land with your solar panels?

    Secondly, we do need the food (by we I don’t mean just the US) at affordable prices.

    “The Americans deserts receive over 7 hours of productive sunshine per day so 7 hours times 2.75 million BTU’s equals 19.25 million BTU’s per day per acre.”

    Exactly, what do you do the rest of the time? How does the light magically come on when you flip the switch?

    “This means that solar energy plants, that are commercially available today, can produce about 500 times more energy from the same area as ethanol from corn.”

    Well, yes, theoretically (see below for some examples why it’s not so straightforward), but it’s intermittent energy. And no, no such solar plants are “commercially available today”. The ones which are, are experimental or pilot plant projects, producing, at best, small amounts of power. Besides, ethanol from corn is also a form of “solar energy” if we want to be exact.

    “Like the ethanol gangs the solar gangs tell us that significant new efficiencies will emerge in the near future.”

    Yes, there are all these gangs promoting themselves, out to get the funding they need to keep going. Anything these gangs say is tainted with conflict of interest, and should be taken with a grain of salt. Anybody who tells you how something is simple and easy, how there’s a free lunch down the road (if only you’d open your purse now) should not be believed. The solar gang has been telling us for centuries (yes, centuries) that perfectly clean, inexhaustible, “free” power is just around the corner. (Just like what you’re saying here). There have been serious research efforts for decades in this country alone, yet it’s still “around the corner”, and no, nothing is perfect, or perfectly clean/safe/etc.

    “We should also mention that electrical energy is as useful as liquid energy. It is clean energy we need; the form of that energy is secondary. It is also worth mentioning that solar energy is not difficult to store so that solar energy can be available 24/7 however most energy is used during the day.”

    I take a huge issue with this statement. Yes, you’re right, storage is necessary, as it wouldn’t do to deliver power just during the day, when the consumption is actually NOT highest. It just wouldn’t do to have huge diminution of power heading into the evening, the highest consumptive period. Yes, in THEORY, it’s not difficult to store energy – any energy, and we’ve known how for centuries. The problem is the vast amounts needed and how it works in practice. For example, let’s talk storing thermal energy, as in those solar systems with mirrors (mirrors focus solar rays on oil-bearing tubes, which then transport the fluid to steam generators, which produce steam to turn the electricity-generating turbine-generators). Yes, there is a pilot power plant in Nevada (pilot means small power output) which does just that. Heats up the excess storage oil, say couple hundred degrees, and uses this stored energy at night. This is easy to do on small scales, and several real-world applications, and NASA applications, have been doing it for years (using special materials to store heat). But it’s different when you’re talking some real power quantities for use by tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of people or whole cities; as opposed to some robot on Mars, which is using 100 W at best.

    (And, by the way, I don’t agree with the blanket statement that “most energy is used (by consumers) during the day”, meaning during the 7 hours with “working” sunshine. What happens when people come home from work, turn on their TVs, their washing machines, their electric ovens, computers, their air conditioners, their lights; when Las Vegas (and other cities) turns on all those bright lights? It depends on the location and what is done in that location – what industries are there, the climate, etc. I bet in Las Vegas – the desert region, the consumption is highest in the evening and at night. In most locations, the evening hours see the highest electricity usage).

    A standard power plant produces about 1,000 MWe (electric megawatts, as opposed to thermal megawatts), enough for a city of million people. (1 MW is one million watts). So, let’s imagine a solar power plant HALF that size, or 500 MWe (even that has never been built), using the mirror technology. (That’s about 1,500 MWth, thermal megawatts). Let’s imagine that its real capacity is actually actually twice that, or 3,000 MWth, but it converts only half that immediately into 500 MWe of electricity, the other half (1,500 MWth) it stores for use at night, in the form of thermal energy, to be converted into electricity via steam turbines, etc.. (The cost escalation is beginning right out the starting gate: in order to produce X amount of power, we need to build a power plant with a capacity of 2X; actually 3X is more like it, as we assume 12 hours of working sunshine instead of 7). So, we need to store 3*500 MW = 1,500 MW of thermal energy (the factor of 3 is there due to inefficiency of converting thermal into electrical energy), produced over half a day, for several hours, for use at night. Let’s be optimistic and assume that, instead of 7 hours of working sunshine as quoted above (a reasonable figure due to various factors), we actually get 12 hours. So, the plant works 12 hours off the sunshine, and 12 hours off the stored thermal energy. And yes, the optimism may be somewhat offset by the fact that in the dead of the night, the electric consumption does go down. So, the figures below may go up or down somewhat in the real world, but the order of magnitude effects should be correct.

    So, the plant needs to store 1,500 MW * 12 hrs = 18,000 MW-hrs of thermal energy each and every day. Well, actually much more, because some of that heat will leak out during storage, and what happens on cloudy/rainy days, or when the mirrors are being cleaned, etc. And our optimistic assumption re number of hours of sunshine per day. The costs keep escalating…

    Just to give an inkling of the amount of energy this 18,000 MW-hrs is (accumulated in only one half-day operation of this modest-sized power plant), it’s enough energy to vaporize 30,000 TONS of water (not heat-up — vaporize). (1 Btu = 1,054 W-sec, heat of vaporization of water is approximately 1,000 Btu/Lb). Thirty thousand tons of water is a cube about 100 feet on the side (a 10-story high building). This, just for half the standard size plant we need. If we want to store this energy in oil, by raising its temperature 200 F, say, then we need about 600,000 tons of oil (specific heat of oil is about 0.25 Btu/Lb/F — at room temperature, probably much less at temperatures of interest). Now, we are talking about a cube which reaches 30 stories high (about 1/3 the size of one of the destroyed twin towers at the World Trade Center in NYC). Or a bunch of smaller buildings. And this all for a piddling 500 MWe plant, which, in actuality is only a 300 MWe plant, due to our optimistic assumptions on duration of usable sunshine. (And factoring other optimistic assumptions — cloudy days, maintenance, etc, it’s even less). We may need several of these, just to power Las Vegas, with all its lights (it’s the brightest spot at night on Earth from outer space). Don’t forget all the good insulation you’ll need for this, too (to keep the heat from escaping), the enormous structural supports (these buildings are now holding all this liquid, not just air), the heat exchangers, the extra piping, the control systems, the safety systems (what happens in an earthquake with this stupendous quantity of extra-hot liquid, in the tremor-prone Southwest?). Are we starting to get the picture as to how “easy” and “cheap” this is?

    Or, you can try to store electricity “directly”, without storing thermal energy. (So, the plant would produce 1,000 MWe during the “sunshine hours”, of which 500 MWe is dispatched for immediate consumption and the other 500 MWe is “stored” — e.g., used to run the pumps in the following scheme). Well, that is even more complicated, with our state of technology – we’re not talking car batteries here, but storing serious amounts of energy. About the only practical scheme which comes to mind is to use the electric power to pump water behind a dam, and then use hydro power at night to produce electricity. (It’s not “direct” storage of electricity, but it’s the best we can do, currently). Needless to say, that solution is just as expensive, if not more so. You need a serious amount of water – serious size lake, to do this. For this particular plant — and neglecting any inefficiencies, losses, etc., which could easily add 50% or more to this, and again optimistically assuming 12 hours of “full-on” sunshine — you need to pump about TWO HUNDRED AND TWENTY MILLION TONS (tons, not pounds, not gallons) of water, behind that dam, each and every day, assuming there is a 10m (33 ft) drop from the artificial lake to the hydroelectric generators. (For a 100 m or 330 ft drop, it’s “only” 22 million tons, but then you need correspondingly higher-pressure pumps). In other words, one needs to install 500 MWe worth of pumps (actually close to 800 MWe, due to pump inefficiencies — so you need to up the total power output of your plant, i.e., the cost) – an obscenely high number, the largest nuclear power unit has only one-TENTH to one-TWENTIETH of that in installed pump capacity. Care to guess how much that would cost, the pumps, the dam, the lake bed, the heavy electric cables and distribution/control centers, the hydroelectric generators, the control system, the maintenance of all this, etc, etc?

    Just to picture this, 220 million tons of water is a lake 10 m (33 ft) deep, and a square stretching 3 miles on the side.

    These are mind-boggling quantities, c’mon? (Yes, some guy on you-tube does wonders in his garage – does he do wonders with hundreds or thousands of megawatts of power? Does he supply power for a whole city? And everything on TV is made wonderful – the grey hair magically disappears, the wrinkles disappear, the cars run without oil or coolant, you can paint like a Michelangelo, cook like the French chef, lose 500 lb in a week, etc., etc., etc. WAKE UP from this stupor, from the la-la land!!! Get out of your private Idaho!!! Get out of this state of mind!!!).

    I suppose you could make hydrogen by water electrolysis during the day, and burn it in a gas turbine-generator at night. It’s another way of “storing” electricity for the night. But then you need to divert much more than the 500 MWe of power, say twice as much, even with other optimistic assumptions still in place, due to gas turbine inefficiencies; with the attendant rise in required power output, i.e., cost of the power plant. Using 0.8277 eV (electron-volts) per molecule of hydrogen dissociated from water, assuming no inefficiencies (including 100% efficient gas turbine generator), conversion factor of 1.6E-19 J/eV (1J = 1 W-sec), Avogadro’s number of 6.025E+23 molecules/gram-mole, 22.5 liters of hydrogen per gram-mole at standard temperature and pressure (STP) and 2g/gram-mole of hydrogen, you would need to make 541 tons of hydrogen per day (in reality twice that due to gas turbine inefficiencies), which is about 600,000 cubic meters (in reality twice that) at a 10 atm (150 psia) storage pressure, that’s a sphere approximately 330 ft in diameter (a 33-story building), or several smaller spheres. That is electrolyzing 1 ton of water approximately every 4 seconds (10,000 tons in all per 12-hr day – in reality twice that); so you’ll need a steady source of water nearby, a desert won’t do. In actuality, you’ll need much more than that, because of efficiencies and optimistic assumptions. And there will be corrosion problems, chemicals that need to be added, the expense of the gas-turbine generator, etc. Another expensive and probably infeasible solution, otherwise why aren’t there hydrogen producing plants all over the place?

    Another way, which is still theoretical – no-one has done this for any appreciable amount of energy, is to directly store electricity in superconducting magnets (there are some “pocket” size systems in use today). Yes, this can be done in principle, and there are conceptual designs, but these magnets (with the current state of the technology, storing serious quantities of energy) need to be cooled to near absolute zero (below minus 450 F), using liquid helium; serious structural supports are needed, the conductors are made of exotic, fragile materials, etc. The reason why it hasn’t been done is because it’s prohibitively expensive and there’s a slew of technical problems which are solved on paper, but not necessarily in practice..

    So, I beg to differ with the above statement about how “easy” it is to store energy (and another statement as to how “free” and “simple” solar is). That is the CRUX of the problem, especially with solar, wind and the like intermittent energy sources, but we would love this to be true even for other sources of electric generating energy (to have the storage problem licked), as this would make life easier in a number of areas (e.g., electric grid management, capacity planning and power plant building and maintenance). But it’s NOT done anywhere appreciable energies are involved, because it’s so hard and expensive and out of reach of current technologies.

    Just an indication about the difficulties with intermittency associated with solar, let’s look at the wind power — another form of solar power. Impressive quantities of wind power have been installed, in terms of megawattage, in some countries and some US states. They look great on paper. They look like they could supply a significant fraction of the demand. (We won’t go into here, how each turbine only produces small amounts of power, the fickleness and inefficiencies, thus you need many, many of them, covering many square miles of real estate, despoiling pristine nature, in order to get a decent amount of power, which is at best low quality). Yes, they look great on paper, but in practice, only a small fraction of that installed power – say 10% is ever usable. On many occasions, grid operators disconnect these from the grid, just when they are producing most power, and conversely they are not there when needed; or they don’t produce the quality steady power that is required. Electric grids are not hands-off affairs, they operate in narrow bands where the output of the power plants roughly equals the demand; and they demand the generated power meet certain parameters. Having too much or too little power (vis-a-vis demand) causes grid instabilities and grid failure, unless timely balancing measures are taken.

    “Of course all this begs the question. Why would anyone destroy a vast amount of food to produce a relatively insignificant amount of global warming energy”

    … but you want to do the same with solar — put the panels/mirrors everywhere, it’s diffuse energy, wreck all kinds of ecosystems, not to mention people’s enjoyment of these areas..

    “when a clean, inexhaustible source of energy is going to waste?”

    … neither clean nor inexhaustible (will last 5 billion years, OK I’m nitpicking I tend to do that when I see hype and errors), nor going to waste (is doing all kinds of wonderful things for us — growing plants, warming us up in the livable zone, making life possible, etc.). Let me address the “clean” mythology. Aka the free lunch mythology.

    Do you know that Silicon Valley is one of the most polluted areas? That there are high levels of carcinogens in the groundwater, high levels of cancer, from all those chemicals that were used in the production of semiconductors (etching of circuitry) and electronics? Guess what, the same processes and the same chemicals are used to make those solar panels, and an immense number of such panels will be needed to make even a dent in the power supply. Same goes for those mirror systems – toxic chemicals used. And high levels of energy and chemicals required to make those mirrors and the power plants. And the huge amounts of these needed due to the nature of solar and the huge areas that need to be covered. (Look at the windmills in California – miles upon miles of them, tens of miles of them along the roadways, probably hundreds of square miles of ruined scenery, altogether producing a measly 100 MW of power – when they are working, this is not even a drop in the bucket in terms of what’s needed. Whereas a coal or nuclear plant occupies a few hundred acres, including the exclusion zone, etc., and produces a thousand or thousands of MW. So, it’s really ridiculous to hear that mantra of “free, clean” solar energy. What bullshit, by ignorant people, or those who use the ignorance here for their own pet purposes and agendas. It’s probably less clean than many of the alternatives, when everything is included.

    Whenever you hear how something is clean and free and perfect, know that you’re being had for a sucker. Over thousands of years of human evolution – over a hundred years of electric generation – no-one had the brains and the wherewithal to use this simple, free and easy thing you’re promoting? Go ahead, put those solar panels on your home, no-one is stopping you, see how you like it, see how it all pays off, ‘cause it’s free, right? Worthwhile projects are sabotaged, because “let’s use solar”. Pie in the sky, smoke and mirrors. Yes, some day, when many problems are solved, just like with the other methods, the only difference is these other methods can and do provide serious power today. And in the end, guess what happens, we use natural gas for electricity generation, at a huge cost. Because we insist on “perfection”, promised (but not delivered) of solar. Yes, the natural gas is “non-polluting” (well, it does produce carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, though somewhat less than coal, but huge amounts due to the quantities burned), but it’s a finite resource ideally suited for space/water heating and cooking. (And in itself, natural gas, which inevitably leaks, is a much more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide). So, the price is going through the roof, because there’s less and less of it, because power generation now consumes as much as all residential combined. What stupidity. Because of your solar chimera (read swindle). Yes, they will import liquified natural gas (LNG) from overseas (the only economical way of transporting natural gas) – if worldwide demand will let them. If they build special expensive port facilities for this — none exist yet. If they ignore the safety risks – LNG has a potential to turn into explosive power the equivalent of a NUCLEAR weapon – did you know that?

    No, I am not against solar, I am against hype and lying, let’s use it according to its true potential and features, not something dreamed up.

    “Currently humans produce energy equal to about 10,000 million tons of oil per year. That is equal to about 250 billion, million BTU’s per year.”

    This is 8.4E+6 MW, it seems low. Actually it is, it’s obsolete data. 2005 data: 474 quadrillion BTUs (quads), or almost twice the above figure.

    “The good old sun produces vast amounts of clean fusion energy than we can access without wrecking the planet.”

    not true, see above. Do you remember “too cheap to meter” claim for nuclear? The same thing here, the same hype, the same free lunch swindle.

    “On the land surface of this earth, solar energy equals about 100 trillion BTU’s per hour”

    the above number is wildly inaccurate, the true number is 1.7E+17 Btu/hr, or 170 quadrillion Btu/hr (assume 7 hr coverage per 24 hr day, as per the convention above, assume perfectly clear day, no clouds, no pollution, all land is usable for energy production, intermittent problems OK, the land area is 1/3 the total Earth surface area of 510 million square kilometers, etc.).

    “… 24 hours a day, 365 days of the year, 6000 times what people produce from all sources.”

    No, not when there are clouds, pollution, etc. And not 6,000 times, but more like 3,000 times under ideal conditions, due to updated world energy consumption figures, see above (again, even that lower number is neglecting the cloud cover, which is substantial — see almost any photo from space, the substantial inefficiencies of conversion, problems with storage, assumption that we want to cover every square inch of land with your ugly solar panels or mirror systems, ignoring cancer risks of manufacture, etc.).

    “Could it be that because solar energy is “free” we humans have rejected it because less profit can be made? Could it be that we are that greedy and that foolish? Could it be?”

    What a ridiculous assertion. In addition to the problems enumerated above – which lead to this not being “free” as you state – the inconstancy of power, storage problems, usurping of huge areas of land, broken promises, cancer and environmental impacts of manufacture and use, here’s a couple more. Yes, the best areas are in the deserts of the southwest, but guess what – you can’t situate your power plants there and then distribute the power all over the country, the transmission losses/costs would be prohibitive. Generally, a couple hundred miles from the power plant is the area you can service. (Yes, the grids are interconnected, but it boils down to the above). And due to all these problems, the costs of solar are sky-high, i.e., the opposite of “free” – look at some of the examples in the reader’s comments. These capital costs ($/kW of installed capacity) are 5-10 times and more of other sources’ capital costs. The operating and maintenance costs are not negligible, either, due to all these problems. All of this translates into high costs of electricity. The other technologies also have problems – nothing is really “free”, but we’ve learned to overcome them and generate useful power.

    Could it be that those are the reasons we’re not using solar on the scales you’d like? (Some utilities ARE building solar projects). I.e., there are reasonable explanations relating to costs and technical problems, as opposed to your irrational conspiracy theories. You say utilities – for some weird reason – don’t like “free”. Why – wouldn’t they make even more money? Don’t greedy capitalist types like free much better than not free? Aren’t they constantly seeking subsidies, tax breaks and corporate welfare? They would continue to charge the same costs for electricity and pocket the difference – if it were really free, as opposed to very expensive (the true state of affairs). Or other utilities would spring up, and make loads of money off this cheap power and kill the competition in the process. Or they would make super-cheap power available, there would be more consumption of it and their profits would rise. For example, they love hydroelectric power – do you see them shying away from it? It’s also “free” (though nothing is free), and also a kind of solar energy. Especially the “flow-through” kind, where you don’t even have to build a dam. How long did it take them to build a first hydroelectric station after the principles of ac generation were discovered? About a microsecond. Because it was truly “simple” (a relative word) as opposed to solar. And in the Northwest, where hydro is used extensively, the cost of electricity is much lower than in the rest of the country. And, as I said before, even if the utilities are in some weird conspiracy, nobody is preventing you and other individuals from using solar. Go ahead, cover your roof with solar panels, it’s “free”, as you claim. Put your money where your mouth is. But don’t forget to include all the true costs of those panels – the environmental and health costs also, and the costs of power plants and transmission lines that are needed to cover you when you don’t have solar power. And the costs of someone going on the roof once a month to clean those panels. And don’t ask me to cut down a tree that’s casting a shade on them.

  24. John Wilkinson said on May 13th, 2008 at 9:48pm #

    “Atmospheric diffusion generally knocks irradiance down to no more than 550 W/m2 tops ”

    No, it doesn’t, I checked several sources, incl. engr. handbooks. It is close to 1,000, of course at noon, at 90 degrees, no clouds, little pollution, etc. But he’s using only 7 hrs per day to account for greater thickness of atmosphere it has to go through, so overall that’s OK

  25. John Wilkinson said on May 13th, 2008 at 9:51pm #

    maybe 900 at the lower end. Now yes, there’s reflection and heating off of the land and oceans, but that’s later, that would be absorbed by the panels.

  26. John Wilkinson said on May 13th, 2008 at 10:08pm #

    From Don Hawkins comments:

    “…where workers are nearly finished installing 732 peel-and-stick photovoltaic solar panels on the two-acre roof of the center’s West Building. The $850,000 project is the largest solar application in downtown Phoenix and is expected to generate 150 kilowatts of power yearly.”

    Typical reporter not explaining things well enough. The 150 kW is due to only a fraction of the roof being covered, otherwise those solar panels would be over 100 square feet each!! Nevertheless, the price tag is almost $6,000/kW, that’s several times more expensive than other types of power plants. Even the 280 MW Gila project, at $1B, is about $4,000/kW, not nearly competitive.

    “We could theoretically power the US with a very large stretch of land – about 100 square miles – in Arizona.”

    Not even close, do the math. The US needs about 400,000 MW of electric power, so you’d have to cover the whole state of AZ. All the mountains, pine forests, lakes, fields, cities, etc. Not that that would do you much good, since transmission costs and losses would be prohibitive. So, this statement is bullshit.

    “But plans for a project that could put Arizona on the map as a solar powerhouse – a huge $1 billion solar energy plant to be built near Gila Bend, Ariz., by 2011 – are likely to be scrapped if the tax credit is allowed to lapse. That’s because solar power is still more expensive to produce than is electricity derived from fossil fuel, though some experts expect the gap to close in the next seven to 10 years.”

    Yeah, sure, that’s what they’ve been saying for decades now.

    “Arizona law now requires utilities to invest in renewable energy. Currently, 90 percent of the state’s electricity is produced by natural gas and coal.”

    What a bunch of crock. Typical propaganda. Palo Verde, probably the largest nuclear plant in the US, is in AZ has three units, each generating 1,300 MW, for a total of close to 4,000 MW. (Compare that to 280 MW of the Gila plant, with its unaffordable price tag). Enough for at least 50-60% of the AZ electric consumption, probably covers both Phoenix and Tucson. But no, we can’t even mention nuclear, that would be against the brain washing, against the mantras. Even erase it from the actual numbers of actual significant contribution to the power picture of a major state. Yeah, solar is the way, forget the real contribution of other sources, focus on the imaginary contributions of solar. Let’s follow the leaders unthinkingly. Let’s not examine all the FACTS.

    So, 90 percent equals 30 percent in this new math.

  27. John Wilkinson said on May 13th, 2008 at 10:13pm #

    AZ has about 6 million people and it’s about 1,000 MW per million, a rough rule of thumb.

  28. John Wilkinson said on May 13th, 2008 at 10:42pm #

    “During the beautiful 70’s there was a system developed for the individual home or office or school, etc. that would heat during times of cold, cool in time of heat, and provide hot water as a by-product. This system is called geo-thermal”

    Yes, these systems exist today — they are in relatively wide use, for heating and cooling. No conspiracy there, companies are making money off them. No, they are not used for electricity production, there are only a few places on earth where geothermal is suited for that (you need high pressure high temp steam, ie underground water coming close to the magma). And even in those places, it produces disappointing amounts of electric power, a few hundred MW at best, for a plant here (say Indonesia), and the closest another one is a thousand miles away (say the Phillipines). No conspiracy there, either, except in your head. There is a plant in California that produces about 1,000 MW, but it’s actually composed of a couple dozen smaller plants, each at its own geothermal source.

    Yes, there is a Chevron commercial as to how they are a leader in this (electric from geothermal), and how their geothermal energy produces electric power for “8 million people” . Makes it sound it’s here in the states, and oh what a huge amount of power, energy independence is here, and oh what a great company, let me buy Chevron gas. They don’t tell you it’s piddling amounts of power, and these plants are located in the above two countries in the Pacific, where the electric consumption is 30-50 times LOWER than in the US (go ahead, check the data, it’s on the web). What a scam.

  29. John Wilkinson said on May 13th, 2008 at 10:44pm #

    well OK, it’s much more than 1,000 miles btw the two countries, it was just an example.

  30. John Wilkinson said on May 13th, 2008 at 10:50pm #

    W’s ranch in Crawford, TX, believe it or not, uses the above geothermal system for heating/cooling. So, there’s no conspiracy, the corporations are on board. And no, there’s no seismic shift in power structure in this country as a result. Maybe the system requires some up-front costs, that’s why it may not be as wide spread as one would expect.

  31. John Wilkinson said on May 13th, 2008 at 10:56pm #

    “where the electric consumption is 30-50 times LOWER than in the US (go ahead, check the data, it’s on the web)”.

    I meant to say per capita electric consumption in these countries is 30-50 times lower than here, so while technically they supply power to 8 million people over there, that’s in reality a pretty small amount of power overall, a few hundred MW total for all their geothermal plants. That’s not something that will solve our, or world’s energy problems.

  32. John Wilkinson said on May 13th, 2008 at 11:14pm #

    “You say utilities – for some weird reason – don’t like “free””

    Some of the most successful companies are water utilities — distributing “free” water. They produce money like clockwork. I mean, how possible would be for any of them to suffer losses or go under — due to a lack of demand for water, their “free” product? So much for utilities not liking “free”.

  33. John Wilkinson said on May 13th, 2008 at 11:48pm #

    “ethanol is a foolish choice because it produces far more greenhouse gases than gasoline”

    Bob, PE stands for “professional engineer”, not “politician”. The guy’s just putting out a press release, that’s how some consultants hope to get exposure.

    Your statement above is not entirely true. Yes, viewed in isolation, ethanol produces SOMEWHAT (not far more) CO2 than gasoline, per given unit of energy released. I’m too lazy to do the math now, but my guess would be on the order of 30% more.

    However, if we look at the whole cycle of ethanol production (it’s always produced from some plant or other, as far as I know) and consumption and that ethanol were produced in IDEAL conditions, say from corn — but without any fossil fuel input (yes, I know that’s not the case, you may actually input just as much fossil energy as you get out, but it’s just an example on the way at arriving at the true numbers, these are IDEAL conditions) — so forget all the tractors tilling the land, the transportation, the ethanol factory energy usage, etc., then, in those IDEAL conditions, the ethanol carbon footprint would be EXACTLY zero, i.e., far better than gasoline. Why? Well, the growing of corn tissue would be accomplished by taking the CO2 out of the atmosphere, as the plants do, and incorporating it into the corn, using solar energy to do this. Then, ethanol would be burned, releasing that same amount of CO2. So, no net change in CO2 in those IDEAL conditions.

    Now, in the real world, there is a substantial fossil energy input. But as long as that input is along the DOA numbers in your article — if they can be believed, i.e., about 70% of the ethanol energy is input via fossil energy, (and yes, you get slightly less energy from a given mass of ethanol vs. fossil fuel) and keeping in mind that ethanol itself just fixates the atmospheric Co2, then there is a slight diminution of carbon footprint of using corn ethanol vs. gasoline — if, a big if, those DOA numbers of conversion efficiency of fossil fuel into ethanol can be believed, i.e., that you use somewhat less fossil energy than ethanol energy derived from the fossil input.

    So, if those numbers are correct, then ethanol is actually slightly better than gasoline as far as carbon footprint is concerned. Now, yes, that’s a very risky game, you’re not gaining much and may actually lose energy in the process, you’re taking food away from production and you’re not gaining any game-changing amounts of net energy, so it’s a waste of time and resources, esp. considering the food situation re the prices.

  34. John Wilkinson said on May 14th, 2008 at 12:05am #

    “Even if huge amounts of green energy were available why would you use that to create hydrogen instead of just charging the battery in your electric car? ”

    For several reasons, Bob. There are technical problems with both hydrogen and batteries. But for one, when you burn hydrogen, you produce harmless water vapor, i.e., no pollution. Batteries, esp. batteries meant to store serious energy, and multiplied by the millions of cars, are highly toxic and contain toxic chemicals — sulfuric acid, heavy metals, all kinds of good stuff. And they eventually need to be disposed of, etc. Even if recycled, there are residual environmental effects of production and discarding.

    The other things is, we still don’t know how to store electricity, i.e., make batteries that will deliver good performance (speed, acceleration, distance) in an all-electric car. Basically, those cars suck for that reason — currently they do. And talk about having to charge it all night after a couple hours of driving.

    Of course, you’re right about the hydrogen infrastructure, which would have to be built from scratch.

  35. John Wilkinson said on May 14th, 2008 at 12:56am #

    “would include two 140-megawatt steam generators”

    actually, I made a mistake above. the steam generators are quoted in terms of MWth, not MWe, so the Gila plant is not 280 MWe, but a paltry 100 MWe, or so, including the conversion efficiency of about 30%. So, the capital cost, in terms of $/kW are on the order of $10,000/kW, or at least 10 times that of the other sources of power currently in Arizona.

  36. John Wilkinson said on May 14th, 2008 at 1:03am #

    “In the meantime, back on the ranch, the most useful thing that most of the public can do to
    save the planet is to take actions to block construction of new coal-fired power plants.”

    I don’t like coal, either, Don, but what they’ll do is simply build the plant running on natural gas, which is what they’ve been doing for years now. And the natural gas supplies keep dwindling and dwindling. Maybe if you live in Arizona, you don’t care (though parts of AZ can be cold, too), but for the rest of us, we don’t want to freeze in the winter.

  37. NC said on May 14th, 2008 at 8:54pm #

    I guess you don’t know what you are talking about John Wilkinson, and you didn’t take my advice in looking it up as well. Shame. The geo-thermal I am talking about is not the geo-thermal you referred to. It is my understanding the majority of our energy is used to heat and cool homes (including heating water for bathing, washing clothes, washing your dog, etc.). Geo-thermal (it’s a heat pump) is similar in function to a refrigerator. It takes a liquid that transfers heat from one temperature zone to another. It is not used to create electricity. It is used to transfer heat energy using no fossil fuels except the small amount to move the air as in a forced air furnace, and move the refrigerant, but as I noted before, you could probably get solar or wind on an individual scale to accomplish that. You would need to dig long horizontal trenches at a certain depth or a very deep vertical hole or use standing water in a pond or lake that would accommodate tubing holding the refrigerant. The constant temperature of the soil or water is then used to either transfer the cool temperatures of the soil or water to cool your house and heat the soil or water or put it in reverse to heat your house when the temperatures outdoors is colder that that of the soil or water. An added advantage is that when the temperatures are at the most extreme the by-product is hot water. The fossil fuels that used to heat or cool your home could then be used in your auto, be it oil or natural gas until demands require it to be electric. This system is quite expensive, but has been added to some new homes where the costs can be spread over the life of the mortgage, which can be a very satisfactory solution due to the fact that the average utility bill is a fraction (remember the use of electricity to run those fans and pump the refrigerant) of a utility bill using fossil fuels. This has been done on some very reasonably priced homes with great success. Some schools have incorporated this system with outstanding savings. I’ve even seen a video on TV where a ice rink in Canada is being chilled by this method and the viewing areas are heated as well. So do some homework Mr. Wilkerson. I priced a system for my home which if I had air-conditioning would require a 2-ton unit or 4-ton heating and got estimates for $25,000 for trenches and $40,000 for the vertical shaft. Some units are guaranteed for 50 years, long after I’m dead. Imagine that! Super low or no utility bills for 50 years! And if all new homes were required to have this system there would be no need for coal and/or nuclear. A little bit of help to spread the cost over 30 years at a low interest could help existing home owner to upgrade. In your research on this topic you will find that this system is twice as efficient as air heat pumps, (plus you don’t need a furnace backup) and therefore, the most efficient means of heating and cooling. So spread the word. Do some homework. Its on the net and you can find a certified installer everywhere.

  38. NC said on May 15th, 2008 at 1:53pm #

    Water is free? I seem to pay a water bill every month to my local municipality that uses it to check it every week for purity, maintain the delivery, and pay a payroll to those who do the work. I’m assuming it’s non-profit, those that went for profit went ballistic as in Bolivia as the utility even claimed rainwater and confiscated homes and sold them at auction when bills came overdue, or in cities in the US that reversed their decision as costs skyrocketed. So George W.’s home in Crawford uses it. Someone other than he decided on that one, it was a good idea!
    By solving our energy needs in areas not dealing with transportation first, although it seems to be the one most pressing, perhaps we can take the savings to transportation.
    During the black and brown outs that occurred in California due mainly to Enron, I was annoyed, as a citizen of the gloomiest part of the US, the Pacific Northwest, where we nearly orgasm when we finally see a sunny day, why didn’t every rooftop in sunny California have solar panels to collect this free energy or at least an abundant source of energy. Later I was informed that it wasn’t due to desire but to availability. There seemed to be a shortage.
    If all sunnier climes were required, be the cost mandated by law to the owner or actually supplied by government, have their domiciles’ roofs fitted with solar cells and with the use of geo-thermal heat pumps for heating and cooling, couldn’t this problem be solved pronto?
    Other somewhat smaller measures should become more trendy. In sunny Sun City there was a rule that the residents due to some being offended at seeing granny’s underwear forbid hanging clothes out to dry. How absurd. It probably took 10 minutes tops to dry clothes and then bring them in. I’m not looking at this in individual terms, but in the aggregate. And yes, I think utilities would be up in arms. Once these systems are in place the only use for the utilities (excuse me, I mean gas and electric companies, who usually are referred to as utility companies) would be in the distribution of the left over electric power generated by the solar panels of individual homes and businesses. I detest the use of solar farms unless it is the only way for large businesses to receive the amount of power needed and the only other option would be coal or gas fired power plants. Why subject the land to changes in its environment when these are numerous acres of wasted space on our rooftops in areas already taken from the land’s natural state? This also applies to wind. There are vertical wind turbines that can supply the individual homeowner or business with electrical power.
    As for transportation, a recommitment of our nation to improve and broaden its railroad system would be a great improvement. Carrying goods via rail is much cheaper than by truck.
    Corn for ethanol is a poor decision. Another adverse effect, other than those that have graced this site, is the additional contribution to the expansion of the dead zone emanating from the Mississippi Delta, killing shrimp, fish, etc., due to the uses of fertilizers leaching into the Mississippi basin that are used to help, what? grow corn.
    Waste, algae, switchgrass, anything but corn would be a better solution.