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Colorado 'solar garden' is a farm under solar panels (npr.org)
355 points by akeck 75 days ago | hide | past | favorite | 270 comments

The key part is:

> But he soon discovered that the shade from the towering panels above the soil actually helped the plants thrive. That intermittent shade also meant a lot less evaporation of coveted irrigation water. And in turn the evaporation actually helped keep the sun-baked solar panels cooler, making them more efficient.

Solar panels are still way over hyped in a stupid marginalist way, but polyculture has always been a good idea :).

Solar is hardly over-hyped. It has always over-delivered since the first panels were built in the 19th century. No one predicted such a success and so incredibly low prices even 20 years ago.

Could you explain what you mean by "hyped in a marginalist way"?

I've seen a lot of suggestions that solar can be used as the only energy source for humanity, that we don't need anything else, just build more solar!

That's not realistic. Of course, the limitations that solar has are very much solvable, and having solar is better than not having it. Solar is important, and it is our future.

But the solutions to solar's limitations seem to be in their infancy (new types of storage), hard to scale (battery storage), not really helpful (just build more coal and gas peakers!) or not considered at all. Which does not inspire confidence.

You see this quite a lot. There does come a point where adding more solar … when a certain percentage of your production is already solar … there comes a point where more solar is a whole lot more expensive and less reasonable.

But that’s really more of a “80% of our power is solar” problem and the US isn’t even at 3%. The percentage of usage which could be handled by solar is usually far underestimated.

We don’t need to care about limitations of solar for a long long time.

> You see this quite a lot. There does come a point where adding more solar … when a certain percentage of your production is already solar … there comes a point where more solar is a whole lot more expensive and less reasonable.

this is a lesson factorio can teach us. from[1]:

"A single solar panel outputs an average of 42 kW over a day and requires 0.84 accumulators to sustain a constant power output through the night.

It takes 23.8 solar panels to operate 1 MW of factory and charge 20 accumulators to sustain that 1 MW through the night."

the rules are contrived and simplistic, but the principles apply. the effectiveness of solar generation varies relative to net consumption rate and storage capacity. of course, some inefficiency may be desirable to avoid severe weather problems, but our imprecise climatalogical models dont positively affirm a sense of impending doom. hard to tell what the correct path is.

[1] https://wiki.factorio.com/Solar_panel

Let me get this right.

You are using numbers from a computer game wiki in a discussion about real world?

Numbers which are by the way off by 2 orders of magnitude. Don't have any nuance in them, don't account for any seasonal variance nor in fact for weather.

It's game-ified and an alien planet. Could be a tool to learn how to think of the problem.

Quick ballpark numbers. Common solar panels are between 15 and 20% efficient. Numbers for the _surface_ of the earth (not the upper atmosphere) are quoted as about 1000W per square meter in a search. I assume that's a peak number.

Since I don't want to think about weather, calculus, or any other factors for a napkin estimate, can we agree that's 8 hours of useful output at 1KW of input power per hour? So over a day 1 meter of solar panel would generate between 1.2 and 1.6 KW / day? I'd also very crudely extend that to 75% of the daily output must exist as a storage buffer. (Gut feeling more than anything else.)

1.2KWd to 1.6KWd of daily generation per square meter.

0.9KW to 1.2KW storage; per square meter for a day.

I have trouble visualizing that though. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Deep-cycle_battery Suggests that the discharge should only be to 50% on a regular basis for the most economy of material use (and thus cost). Double the above estimates for the storage bank.

Searching for "deep cycle battery solar" I see many results for 12V 110AH batteries, just a tiny bit more than the 1200KW storage value I guestimated earlier. Around 200 dollars per battery, about 13 x 7 x 8.5 inches (rounded up). So a big honking consumer 'truck' / SUV battery sized deep cycle battery, but double that up for wear prevention.

Though I still prefer baseload generation capacity for industrial and 24/7 loads. Solar can be a good peaker for AC use and waking consumer stuff.

I agree, however your point about 3% isn’t quite true. Look at the last 12 months rolling and estimated total solar and divide by total electricity and you get about 3.7%:


Would 80% be ideal? I would imagine Solar would start getting iffy over 50%.

Presumably you want a lot of hydroelectric, wind, and nuclear so you don't need a lot of batteries, and you have enough sources of power when the sun isn't shining.

Maybe I'm being un-imaginative - but is anyone envisioning a global energy grid so we could have solar energy from Australia and Sahara shipped to North America during our night - and back to Asia and Europe from the Southwest during our day??

^ This seems nonsense science fiction.

This is the problem, don’t just imagine your guess is correct. Actually look at daily load cycles and solar production variability. Also imagine dynamic pricing causing demand patterns to change, and things like electric vehicle charging which could be done flexibly.

Even now peak demand and peak solar production are fairly close daily.

We’re going to enter an energy economy where production isn’t just instantaneously controlled but supply is going to be a bit more dynamic and pricing is going to reflect that. There have already been demonstrated markets where this has been efficiently handled.

For a while there will be things like occasional negative pricing, but once users figure out how to take advantage of this prices normalize and usage will better match capacity patterns and new power installations will match new demand patterns.

Intuition on what you guess will be the case is a bad way to make arguments about infrastructure. Go look up actual data.

South Australia already gets the majority of their energy from renewables [1] [2]. They recently commissioned (end of Oct '21) two synchronous condensers [3] that allow for a reduction in thermal generation for grid frequency support. (EDIT: See my below comment for retraction of this broad statement: "They have the lowest energy costs in Australia"), and have only had an hour or two of outages in the last five years.

[1] https://reneweconomy.com.au/south-australia-makes-big-leap-t...

[2] https://opennem.org.au/energy/sa1/?range=1y&interval=1w

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Synchronous_condenser


South Australia does not have cheaper electricity bills. We also had a multi-day outage in 2016 which was partially due to wind generators shedding load. Large scale solar also periodically turn off rather than pay to add power to the grid due to too much installed capacity and no suitable storage.

There's a lot more nuance to the 2016 event. Ironically, the wind generators could have saved SA from a multi-hour blackout but the "settings" being used by the wind farms were overly paranoid (in my simple understanding) and caused them to shut-off before their more realistic danger limits were reached.

This is more of a failure of development and regulation of standards, which, I believe, have now been resolved. Said standards had already been developed in countries that had more experience in wind generation than Australia.

The "cause" was unprecedented wind speeds that brought down a few of the big "giraffes" that carry high voltage wires across the state and the interconnectors between states. See article below for example photo.


A lot of good has actually come out of that event, none related to the politicking.

More info: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2016_South_Australian_blackout

Your link's sources are "Canstar Blue electricity customer satisfaction survey, January 2021." I will argue the reliability of that data source, and you can consult OpenNEM's price data per region (note that Western Australia [SWIS], while on OpenNEM, is not a part of the NEM grid). The blackout you mention was over five years ago, as my comment mentioned ("and have only had an hour or two of outages in the last five years."). Large scale solar does have to curtail when the spot price goes negative, which is leading to the development of new transmission to New South Wales [1]. The price of power frequently goes negative during daylight hours in SA due to an abundance of renewables.

[1] https://www.pv-magazine-australia.com/2021/09/30/nsw-gives-a...

I would argue actual bills paid (as shown in the camstar data) is important to the average voter vs wholesale price as you have quoted.

I would agree retail rates are more relevant than wholesale rates, while at the same time, there's a lot of noise in what the "average" is. If you're exposed to the spot price (Time of Use plans/tariffs) and judicious about when you use electricity, it will be very cheap. If you are not exposed to the spot price, and/or you use a lot of power when rates are higher, your power will be very expensive. I've spent ~30 minutes looking for a reliable indicator of retail rates for residential customers, and I can't find one other than customer surveys. I did find a release from the SA premier indicating $350 million AUD in electrical energy savings over the last two years [1]. Also, this post [2] asserts SA to have the lowest wholesale rates (per Australian Energy Market Operator/AEMO) in Australia by early next year.

I rescind my statement from my higher level comment that "They have the lowest energy costs in Australia"; the data is incomplete, there are multiple factors at play between generators, transmission, and retail supplier cost variations, and it was too broad of a statement considering all of the factors involved (when I should've referred specifically to wholesale rates influenced by renewables).

[1] https://www.premier.sa.gov.au/news/media-releases/news/bang-...

[2] https://indaily.com.au/news/business/2021/05/10/rise-of-sa-r...

> Would 80% be ideal? I would imagine Solar would start getting iffy over 50%.

Depends on how much storage you have. There is very, very little right now so even 50% might be a stretch.

> Maybe I'm being un-imaginative - but is anyone envisioning a global energy grid so we could have solar energy from Australia and Sahara shipped to North America during our night - and back to Asia and Europe from the Southwest during our day??

I'd think you'd need a relatively inexpensive superconducting cable for that to make any sense. Running cables between continents has been a thing for over 150 years, but I'd think resistance losses would make it wildly impractical to power, say, Los Angeles with solar power collected in Australia.

> but I'd think resistance losses would make it wildly impractical to power, say, Los Angeles with solar power collected in Australia.

Allow me to present to you the "Australia-Asia Power Link" [0], exporting solar power a distance of about 4,500km, which is still less than half of LA to Australia, but not insignificant.

What governs the practicality is often more complex than just power loss. Carbon credits, local taxation, and plain ol' bureaucracy can make it more profitable to export than to consume.

[0] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Australia-Asia_Power_Link

Resistance losses aren’t a huge problem (standard currently available HVDC can do 3.5% loss per 1000km, or 1-(0.965^20) = 51% loss between opposite points of the planet, which is fine given how cheap PV is).

The cost for both is the big thing: even just assuming overnight electricity replacement, 12 hours * 2 TW * $100/kWh = $2.4 trillion; the 8 GW English Channel link cost $1.6/km[0][1], which a naive scaling up to 20 Mm and 2 TW would cost $8 trillion. Then the question is “which lasts longer, and which is harder to refurbish at end of life?”. (Numbers are just a guideline. On the one hand there is less demand at night and there will probably be wind and geothermal in the mix, on the other hand we want something that allows everyone to have an energy use currently only available to rich people and this doesn’t cover anything except mere electricity).

I have not been able to find the size of the global energy industry in dollars per year to compare this to, only an un-cited claim of “$5 trillion per year … subsidizing the fossil fuel industries”.

That said, at this scale I have to ask about the economics of making an orbital ring, transferring power kinetically in what is essentially a ballistic superconductor[2], and now you can put the PV in space on the ring without having to solve the political aspects of “can I convince everyone else I’ve not sneakily designed my power satellite to be used as a death ray, and can I be sure everyone else’s can’t all be told to collectively focus on one place even if I trust the owners’ intentions?” that usually follows any discussion of space-based solar.

[0] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/High-voltage_direct_current#Co...

[1] I’m ignoring converter stations because over 1 Mm they amortise to negligible

[2] i.e. purely classical and without the fun quantum magnetic effects: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ballistic_conduction

Grid scale batteries became cost effective within the last year or so, though.

It's at the same point solar/wind were a few years ago when they were the cheapest form of energy but received a lot of criticism for making up a small % of total production.

Naturally that changed.

Fun fact, I think Russia has the longest single electric network. So long in fact the network in the East runs a half phase behind the West!

Here's a great video from Real Engineering [0] that goes into the pros and problems with that approach, and where and how it is currently being tried. For example, via undersea transmission cable under the Strait of Gibraltar.

[0] https://youtu.be/7OpM_zKGE4o

Yes, you could run a civilization entirely on solar if you had a robust storage, conversion and distribution system.

After all, the entire fossil fuel reserves of planet Earth were generated over time by photosynthesis, i.e. the solar-powered capture of atmospheric carbon and its reduction to the hydrocarbon state from the carbon dioxide state.

The problem is the scale of the effort needed to replace current generation with solar generatioin. Practically, it would take decades and a vast amount of work. However, there are no technological barriers, and if the world had exhausted its fossil fuel reserves in say, 1970 then we'd already have much of the solar infrastructure in place.

As far as storage solutions, you can find dozens of strategies. My favorite is using solar energy to capture carbon for carbon fiber building materials, 'aerochemical' products (as opposed to petrochemical) for industrial needs (dyes, solvents, etc.) and of course RP1 jet/rocket production. Clearly such an approach will be needed for interplanetary travel as well (Mars seems to have enough CO2 and H2O to make this viable).

It's not surprising that people are so poorly informed, however, as the fossil fuel sector runs massive propaganda operations targeting childhood education onwards.

> Yes, you could run a civilization entirely on solar if you had a robust storage, conversion and distribution system.

Just don't want to let it become a single point of failure. Earth's history is punctuated by periods of low sunlight at sea level.

Storage will be a solved problem once everyone has an electric vehicle with a 65kWh battery sitting in their garage. Power your home overnight from your car, then recharge during the day when the sun comes out.

If you have a large home or need to always have a fully charged car, spend $15k on a home battery.

We need to get out of this mindset that electric utilities will provide unlimited power at a fixed price. With some investment from individual homeowners we can reduce peak to average ratios for utilities and make it much cheaper and possible to use intermittent green energy sources like wind and solar.

> then recharge during the day when the sun comes out.

Unless you actually need the car during the day..

Then you get a separate battery. But the vast majority only drives their car back and forth to work, so most of the day the cars are just standing there and could be charged.

If we’re speculating about the future, having cars sit by idly all day seems like a good target for disruption.

I’d like to believe we’ll get to the point where we share self driving vehicles or own some that go on about their day producing profit.

The cars could also charge themselves in the process.

All it would take is one person smoking in their shared car to ruin it for the rest of us.

Once a vehicle (or a home) has been smoked in, you can never completely get the smell out.

It makes me nauseous to sit in that smell for any length of time.

The shared-everything vision of the future ignores the extent to which people's cars serve as extensions of their home and storage. Having a bunch of stuff always available when you need it, and knowing that nobody else will stink up the place, means that personally owned cars will remain popular for a very long time.

For around two years I’m constantly using shared cars via apps. I’ve had almost zero issues. If the car is dirty or smells you can review it and one would assume repeat offenders get booted off.

Hotels have solved that problem by simply prohibiting smoking in most rooms, and if you get caught doing it anyway, they’ll charge you a high fee to sanitise the room.

Im all for having a more robust ecosystem of shared vehicles. But it does make me think of the rough physical state of shared scooters and bikes in my neighborhood...

Then you buy a home battery, as he said?

It feels that people can get a bit unimaginative when talking about the future of cars or solar or, in this case, a combination of both. "What if I drive the car to work? I guess this whole solar-battery scheme falls apart."

FWIW, the people I know with EVs have solar panels and a home battery.

I hope to get an electric car soon, and it would be great to be able to charge at work - even if I had a home battery. And I'm sure there will be programs to encourage businesses to get chargers into car parks around here in the next few years - and since cars are parked for a fair while, it can just be slow charging like 7 kW single phase (I guess it would make sense to also have two or so fast charging spaces for when people need it)

Charging at work would be ideal - it would all basically happen 100% in solar hours. My work has solar on its roof itself, I'm sure more and more places will, so it all really makes sense. And that way I could basically run my house 100% off a battery, whereas charging an electric car from a home battery would probably mean I'd still have to buy a fair bit of power from the grid.

But yeah, the story basically is that it's all possible and not that hard.

The real idea is not using cars for storage but end of life car batteries AND simply using the same factories that make car batteries to make grid batteries. AND, since vehicles will be a significant source of our electricity demand, we can use them as "storage" simply by not charging them at some times.

I think most people don't realize that V2G tech is old (Chademo supported it, and older Leafs can already do it natively, and they're about a decade old), but it's expensive. You basically need a DC charger for every car that will be doing V2G. Look up how much a DC charger is, and you can get something like a dedicated Powerwall for the same price...

I think using the car batteries as storage also makes a lot of sense. Suppose technology improves so that cars have ~double the capacity they have now (~150kwh), then that’s super useful for long car journeys, but most people only do short journeys each day. So you could use the excess for storage. And they’d be plenty considering the average household in the uk only uses 10kwh a day (although admittedly that’s factoring in gas heating which will need to be replaced)

Hence why Tesla sells Powerwalls instead of supporting V2G. There are also subsidies for Powerwalls from a variety of entities, and they can be orchestrated in concert to create a virtual power plant. V2G for anything other than emergency power is unnecessary complexity.

Yet Tesla attempts to do it, too, with autobidder

> We need to get out of this mindset that electric utilities will provide unlimited power at a fixed price.

We already pay spot price here in Norway.

How much variability do you see in spot prices? Are there any alternatives?

It looks like 90%+ of electricity produced in Norway is hydro, with fossil fuels only around 2% [1]. Hydroelectric plants are very quick to respond to changes in demand.

From what I can see, it probably isn't a huge surprise bill risk to the consumer compared to places like, say, Texas.

[1] https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Electricity_sector_in_Norway

It's fun you ask, because for the first time in many years we have seen quite a interest in the spot price, because it has reached the record high of 0.35usd/kWh (but mostly it stays around 0.12usd/kWh). This has been a record dry automn, combined with very high prices in the UK and Europe (and we export/import power, which affects prices here). You can get all other kind of pricing schemes as well, but as with insurance in general, on average you are going to be best off with spot price if you can stomach the ups and downs.

And large parts of Texas.

>Storage will be a solved problem once everyone has an electric vehicle with a 65kWh battery sitting in their garage. Power your home overnight from your car, then recharge during the day when the sun comes out.

Too bad you'll be driving to the office on business days.

When the issue is "how do we generate enough power" it doesn't really matter where the car is.

That just complicates distribution a little, but not a whole lot.

Not all of us have a garage or a car for that matter (nor a place to put a large battery).

Those for whom that is the case probably live in a dense urban core which is surrounded by hundreds of thousands of detached single family homes for whom it is not.

In any case, it's not hard to imagine that XX kWh onsite battery reserves will end up as a standard condo feature in the future same as hot water or a weight room.

How often will I need to replace my battery set?

Tesla Powerwall has a 10 year warranty. If thats based on actual expected life and not just a marketing thing, its not too unreasonable.

And in 15-20 years when it's replaced, it's likely the replacement will cost a tenth of current prices. Batteries are getting so much cheaper every year that I'm delaying purchasing only because I don't want to lock in today's prices, and I'm hoping for an aggregated demand response solution that can start paying me for battery usage as well. Just being able to island my house and ride out a blackout isn't as much of an incentive at the moment.

> everyone has an electric vehicle with a 65kWh battery sitting in their garage.

That's a solution I hope that neither I nor my children live to see. It's a solution I hope never happens unless a new battery technology arrives that for a start eliminates our need to once again fuck over some very poor countries in order to get our hands on rare resources. Lithium battery tech is quite miraculous, but it's also not appropriate as the basis for the entire electrification of human civilization.

Also, lots of people will have neither cars nor garages.

> unless a new battery technology arrives that for a start eliminates our need to once again fuck over some very poor countries

It is already here. Google LFP batteries.

I’m a big fan of LFP don’t get me wrong, but it still requires mining and refining lithium, which indeed does fuck over the environment quite badly

Compared to, say, steel or aluminum, what is the increased damage? I've read every single documentary news article, read reports from governmental agencies, and I still don't know what's so bad about lithium. Particularly compared to standard extraction of other resources that nobody ever talks about.

Especially oil. Oil and coal and natural gas have horrifying consequences for local environments all the time, and nobody ever talks about that. From fly ash ponds to spills to destroyed drinking water. If there was anything remotely as bad as that, wouldn't any of these articles I have read pointed out the damage? Literally the worst lithium story is political, not environmental, in that indigenous people are not being given enough compensation for their land, or not given enough input.

Cobalt has stories of child labor at artisanal mines, but again that is political, not environmental damage, and the environmental damage is the same as from all the other parts that go into the grid, or a car, and they don't have the horrifying consequences of fossil fuel extraction.

If I'm wrong, and there is something I don't know,I will be forever grateful for a pointer to clear documentation of this environmental damage you speak of. But I have been asking this question for years, and searching for years, and nobody, literally nobody, has pointed me to anything concrete. Just vague assertions at best. Which is not what environmental damage looks like. Environmental damage is specific, horrifying, and all too often swept under the rug as long as its wealthy fossil fuel companies doing it.


I can’t vouch for this of my own knowledge but as lithium is such a light element it is sensible that it would be easy to find and use.

Erm, have you heard of


No technical recolution needed, no rare elements needed, no invasions nedded, just plain salt, iron and copper. They are just bigger in size.

And for some reasons not really known so this whole discussion feels a bit off.

>But the solutions to solar's limitations seem to be in their infancy (new types of storage), hard to scale (battery storage), not really helpful (just build more coal and gas peakers!) or not considered at all. Which does not inspire confidence.

You're not wrong, but also not right. We have renewables that run at night (wind, water, geo-thermal heat pumps), we have some storage solutions/"batteries" as well, such as pumping stations or water-based heat storage. And even peakers that burn fuel are not that bad for the environment if you only run them a limited time. Coal/gas peakers that only run when needed would not kill the environment if the main sources of energy production are renewable - a coal plant burning only some nights is still a lot better than one burning 24/7 - and peakers can be fueled by renewable sources as well, not just stuff you dig out of the ground, making them carbon neutral over the grow-burn circle.

The problem right now is that switching over to such a mixed energy production requires a lot of investment and construction, and we have a lot of infrastructure (especially housing) that cannot be easily retrofitted. E.g. right now, be it in the US, be it in Germany where I live, be it in other places, solar and wind deployment is severely hampered by the lack of transmission lines. This isn't a problem of high investment cost either, it's "locals" fighting tooth and nail against new transmission lines being build in the vicinity of where they live because "it ruins the view".

> But the solutions to solar's limitations seem to be in their infancy

We're further along than you think.

Battery storage seems eminently scalable compared to other energy developments. A commodity that can be manufactured in a factory and that we would need anyway for cars. Small components that can be built into enclosures, and racked in a container. And the sites are nice and simple. A fence, some substation gear, a concrete pad.

Particularly nuclear.

Not true. Check out https://model.energy

There are proven, scalable technologies for storing large amounts of energy. For overnight storage you can melt salt. For seasonal storage you can make Methane (or Hydrogen). Every country has strategic gas storage infrastructure already built. Batteries are only interesting because they might become cheaper than these.

Currently we don't store large amounts of energy because it's cheaper not to, not because it's impossible to build the necessary infrastructure.

It is now cheap to store using batteries. It just hasnt been that way for very long.

That depends on the scale I think. It's getting close to economical for private electricity use, but we're still pretty far away from the manufacturing capabilities that would allow us to store a week of power for the whole grid. And even further away if you also include energy that is currently not supplied as electricity (e.g. for heating).

It's economical to combine it with solar/wind on the grid. Both California and Hawaii are doing this right now. This form of energy is about 1/3 the cost per MWh of nuclear (as opposed to solar/wind alone which is about 1/6th the cost). It just hasnt been that cheap for very long.

Hydro as storage, better grid interconnects, demand shaping (e.g. using smart storage heaters that turn on when electricity is cheap) can bring down the cost still further.

I think you have not looked at all the of EV vehicles currently being built and how much of a change those vehicles are going to have on the power grid 1. a large portion of the batteries in those vehicles are going to find 2nd lives as stationary battery storage. 2. The vehicles themselves are also storage.

>>since the first panels were built in the 19th century.

? Any interesting things to point me at on this topic?


This says 1954



Let me know if you have something else.

>Charles Fritts installed the first solar panels on New York City rooftop in 1884

>created the first solar cell by coating selenium with a thin layer of gold

from https://brewminate.com/a-brief-history-of-solar-panels-since...

Non-silicon cells are older, but still fall in the 20th century[1]. Maybe copper oxide cells are older still?

[1] https://solar.lowtechmagazine.com/2021/10/how-to-build-a-low...

EU is experiencing surge in electricity prices, thanks to green idiocity. Wind and solar subsidized so heavy, nuclear closing, coal bad. But double the price of electricity is fine!

The price surge is mostly due to natural gas prices and increased, unexpected higher demand [1].

Countries that have access to renewables are actually doing much better than others!

> Since most countries still rely on fossil fuels to meet all their power demands, the final price of electricity is often set by the price of coal or natural gas. If gas becomes more expensive, electricity bills inevitably go up, even if clean, cheaper sources also contribute to the total energy supply.

[1] https://www.euronews.com/2021/10/28/why-europe-s-energy-pric...

That's a completely false statement. Nothing about it is true.

The whole world is experiencing surges in electricity prices, not just the EU.

Even within the EU, countries like France, which gets up to 70% of its energy from nuclear power, has rising electricity prices.

Subsidizing wind and solar has nothing to do with this. Stop spreading lies.

This is fundamentally wrong on so many levels.

Let's just pretend you would have any resemblance of a point there: Firstly, renewables are much cheaper than fossil or nuclear power - both in construction and operation. Secondly, the surging electricity prices, at least speaking for Germany here, are a result of the idiotic "EEG-Umlage".

> coal bad

I agree on nuclear, but let's talk coal. Your point is that coal is good?

Solar still relies on fossil fuels (coal!) and other rare earth metals that will be not be sustainable for many years (if ever). Solar prices are dropping, but I don't see how we ever fully divest from fossil fuels.

That's not true - basically no commercial solar panels contain rare earth metals (the place they're actually used is in permanent magnets in electric motors and generators for things like electric cars and wind turbines, maybe you were confusing that? But there's a lot of interest in eliminating those, e.g. e-motors).

Solar panels don't rely on fossil fuels either - perhaps you're confused by reporting that currently they're produced using a fair bit of energy from coal etc.? But that is reducing and improving all the time as grids get greener.

No, they directly use coal and silicon to produce solar panels. And panels only last ~10 years. So there is a constant need for fossil fuels.


None of this is correct.

Building and shipping solar panels costs energy and material resources.

Which is accounted for by the energy payback time, which is generally less than 5 years since the nineties: https://www.bnl.gov/pv/files/pdf/PE_Magazine_Fthenakis_2_10_...

Current estimates are around 1 year for southern Europe and 1.2 years for northern Europe: https://www.ise.fraunhofer.de/content/dam/ise/de/documents/p...

What's not accounted for is decreasing EROI on mining the minerals needed to construct panels and the fact that the average lifespan of a panel is 2-3 decades (and the efficiency decreases with age) and then what? We have no recycling solutions in place. The amount of energy it would take to actually fully recycle these panels throws a big wrench in that calculation. We're already in the midst of a solar waste crisis and it's about to magnify significantly as these panels start dying out

And then of course there's the massive cost of batteries and all the mining and recycling issues associated with that

And what about the amount of space they take up relative to other energy sources? What about the costs of cleaning up all the lead and cadmium that leak into the environment?

Everything in your comment is false. That's an impressive performance.

There's no decreasing EROI on mining sand and bauxite.

The average lifespan of a panel is more like 60 years; 2-3 decades is just the design life. Of course some panels are defective.

Efficiency asymptotes to about 70% of initial efficiency.

There are a number of recycling solutions in place.

Making PV panels from PV panels takes less energy than making them from raw materials and not more.

There is no solar waste crisis.

There will be no solar waste crisis.

These panels aren't going to start dying out.

Batteries cost less than panels and have routinely been recycled for decades, because recycling them is lucrative.

The amount of space PV generation and batteries take up is irrelevantly tiny.

Modern solar panels and lithium-ion batteries contain no cadmium. PV panels do contain irrelevantly tiny amounts of metallic lead, which does not normally pose an environmental risk.

Cadmium telluride solar panels do contain cadmium, but they are no longer in wide use, because they cost too much to compete with polysilicon; because they are thin-film panels, the amount of cadmium they contain is irrelevantly tiny, and it is poorly soluble.

Discarded lead-acid batteries do not pose a significant environmental threat even if they fail to be recycled, because the lead they contain is not mobile.

I am at a loss as to how you managed to write a comment like this without accidentally slipping up and writing at least one statement that was correct.

Panels are almost exclusively sand. Should we run out of one of the things needed to make solar panels a recycling market will pop up. I also think you need to check your lifespan numbers. Solar panels degrade much slower than that, if they get thrown out after 20 years that has silly reasons like they stop getting subsidies after 20 years. There is a healthy market for used solar panels.

We don't have 'no' recycling solutions in place... There are currently at least six companies doing it in my country (Australia), surely we're not the only place this happens...

Also, please note that panels that contain cadmium are, I believe, around or less than 10% of solar panels produced.

And in a 100% solar economy, the energy to build and ship the panels would be solar. This is fine, as they output enough energy to make themselves in 1-4 years depending on which study you look at.

Using energy still generates heat, as per the laws of thermodynamics.

Converting sunlight to electric energy and then using that energy generates the exact same amount of heat as if that sunlight was simply absorbed by the ground without the solar panel being in the way, as per the laws of thermodynamics.

This is where I am curious to see if solar panels cover city rooftops can help - not entirely mitigate but help - with city heat island effects.

By absorbing the energy to then use it - say to run aircon - it should be better than having the surroundings absorb it and then pump in more energy from outside to mitigate it.

Though, if the solar panels absorb more energy than the ground, due to the ground reflecting more of the light, that’s still a little bit of difference, right?

(Not a knock on solar panels, I’m just being pedantic)

That depends on albedo.


Yes, and?

Perhaps they are mixing up the “there is therefore a maximum safe rate of worldwide energy use (however far away we are from that)” point with the “CO2 emissions from fossil fuels contribute to greenhouse effect” point, and...

ok, I’m not sure either

Doesn't everything? It's not an issue so long as across it's life it results in less carbon production than alternative sources do per kW

That’s true but it’s also true for fossil and nuclear fuels.

> low prices

This is the stupid marginal ism I am talking about.

Cranking out more solar panels is easy. Actually making the grids larger or have more storage requires the type of planning competence and cordination we suck at.

Solar panels are popular precisely because they don't require that planning competence and coordination. So if we go full solar wind, we will slam into a wall we are utterly unprepared for, despite, yes, getting better at solar and wind themselves with volume.

Going full solar and wind is going to take some time(20 year-ish?) and in the meantime energy storage will get there in terms of scale and cost.

LiFePO4 packs already started trading below $100/kWh in 2020:


CATL is pushing sodium-ion batteries:


You don't even need a lot of storage to greatly increase maximum stable solar and wind share.

Exiting times ahead of us.

Our electric grids aren't designed for distributed generation- they are centrally planned and maintained.

Every person that generates their own electricity stops paying their fair share of maintaining the grid, forcing poorer people who cannot afford their own rooftops to subsidize them. It is actually quite regressive- the denser the population center, the less electricity per person can be generated by solar. The electricity might be free, but the cost of maintaining the grid never goes away.

> Every person that generates their own electricity stops paying their fair share of maintaining the grid,

Nope. Not in California- even if solar covers 100% of your usage, PG&E is collecting money from you. You don’t pay any energy production costs, but you’ll pay ‘your fair share’.

Here in EU the energy prices are separate from distribution grid. In fact distribution grid is forbidden to sell you energy at all by law. So there are months where I pay more for a monthly standing fee for having a connection than I pay for energy. And they charge for energy transmission on top of it.

Anyway, in my country for historical reasons all of the electricity production was in one corner of the country. So if any of the generation moves away from there (and remembering that electricity always takes the shortest possible path [0] from producer to consumer) any new generation in any other part than the original producer lowers the demand on the grid.

[0] or to be more precise the lowest resistance

You're confusing cost with billing structure.

When you go with net metering you still pay a bit, but PG&E sources power at around 10 cents per kwh. The rest of the bill people receive is for infrastructure - around 2/3rds of their bill. They do this to incentivize people to use less electricity.

California's net metering is not sustainable for forever, and you are not paying for the infrastructure you're using. Which I don't have a problem with, it's just something that can't continue forever.

> Every person that generates their own electricity stops paying their fair share of maintaining the grid

This isn't true, at least not in Colorado. I pay a number of fees for maintaining the grid and these aren't going away when I have my net meter installed later this week. (hopefully)

I keep seeing this, but every power bill I've ever seen has a monthly connection fee. With solar panels, that connection fee is frequently higher than the consumed power charges.

Isn't that paying for the grid?

> Every person that generates their own electricity stops paying their fair share of maintaining the grid

"their fair share." What exactly is that for something you don't use?

This is a bit like saying everyone who walks/bikes to work stops paying their fair share of gas taxes that maintain the roads their food arrives on.

> This is a bit like saying everyone who walks/bikes to work stops paying their fair share of gas taxes that maintain the roads their food arrives on.

I haven't seen people argue this point for people who don't own a car, but my state does have a special levy on electric and high efficiency vehicles to make up for lost gas tax revenues: https://www.dmv.virginia.gov/vehicles/#highwayuse_fee.asp

They actually do. Gas taxes pay about 60% of the costs to maintain the road infrastructure and given that the damage caused to roads increases as the square of the vehicle's weight, walking/biking causes minimal wear and is offset by the 40% of road costs that come from general taxes.

In this hypothetical, they are still using the Grid to power their homes at night

You added that part.

That's a policy problem, not a technological problem. It becomes a political decision: convert grid maintenance to a progressive tax, subsidize local power generation for poor families or rental properties, etc.

There is no fair share to be paid

Think about the scale and complexity of the current gasoline and natural gas infrastructure. Pipelines, pumping stations, tanker trucks, super tankers, floating cities to drill under the oceans, massice refineries all over the globe, and on and on.

Yes some people exist who don’t understand the scale of effort needed to get a grid ready to work with just solar and wind and little else. But humanity has done this before.

If the market rewards battery storage it will get built quickly.

> Solar panels are still way over hyped

It literally turns abundantly free solar energy into electricity. Where is the hype?

What do you do when it's cloudy?

In addition to using other forms of energy, you can also over provision. Solar panels still work when it’s cloudy. They just don’t produce as much power. And with a grid you can average cloud cover over a large area.

That's why we have an electricity grid, it's not cloudly all the time all across the world, so even if we went full solar I don't see how it'd be problematic.

Use other forms of electricity generation?

Thankfully when it’s cloudy, your peak loads from AC are a lot lower.

Current solar panels are almost 20% efficient. Even in the most outrageous sci-fi scenario, they could only hope to be 5x more efficient than they are currently, and in any case would require significant land use. Compared to nuclear or geothermal, the ceiling is so much lower.

And then we get all the vaporware viral ops like solar freaking roadways and those water bottles that magically refill from the air with a tiny solar panel, ignoring the laws of thermodynamics but making hella kickstarter bux

Solar takes much space compared to what? Oil wells and refineries? Gas wells and processing and pipelines? Coal mine and power plant?

Solar can be squeezed into lots of unused spaces, e.g. where I live all new Lidl and Aldi have solar on their roofs, an otherwise empty and unused gray space.

The cool thing about solar is you can fix it on top of current infrastructure. Sure the solar roadways are a ridiculous idea, but putting solar panels on roofs actually makes use of space they can't be used otherwise

There are so many public spaces that would benefit from more shade, where the cost of building that shade could be offset significantly by having solar panels on the top. I'm thinking about things like public parks, car parks, open-air malls, etc.

I am increasingly seeing this exact thing put into practice, but it kind of blows my mind that the uptake has been so slow.

And putting solar on roofs tend to reduce cooling costs by a few percent for a building due to the shade.

And if you have good credit the Sun pays for it. You borrow money, put up panels, and then pay the loan with your electricity and gas budget. Still two weeks away from actual final hook up from the power company but friends with similar have that experience.

When you count for buffer land around nuclear (most don't want to live too close) land use becomes comparable to solar

For example, look at Diablo Canyon site acreage vs the acreage of the new large-scale solar project in Pahrump, NV.

That buffer land can be forest and lots of living creatures. Not a solar panel covered wasteland.

We're commenting on an article about solar panels covering a productive farm. Need not be a wasteland.

Solar installations are generally not placed where there'd otherwise be a forest, at least not where I live. I've usually seen them in deserts (where living creatures would appreciate the shade) or the sort of land people would've already considered wasteland.

Animals and plants are perfectly happy living under solar panels.

>would require significant land use

you're commenting on an article about a solution to that.

We have a need for ceilings. When you account for that the amount of space needed provide ceilings, powering our civilization with solar is a negative number rather than a positive number. Negative, because we can more then power our civilization with existing space through dual purpose structures. An example of this is a solar roof. However, even if you ignore that potential, the amount of space needed is only a few square miles. It's not like it would be the size of a country or even the size of a state. The amount of space is small enough to place in some remote desert and for all intents and purposes to then forget about it.

Like most things, the final answer is probably a mix of everything.

Look at this with satellite view enabled. That's 1.5MW installed capacity right there: https://www.google.com/maps/place/Laudeley+Betriebstechnik/@...

That peak capacity seems a bit high, and just isn't very helpful if there's any volume of solar on the grid. Some back of the envelope calculations for mean output:

Total area: ~5000m²

Annual mean insolation: ~100W/m²

Solar panel efficiency: 20%

Annual mean power output = 5000*100*0.2 = 100kW

And on top of that, you still need either energy storage or rapid on-demand generation (e.g. gas fired) to get you through the Dunkelflauten.

> Solar panels are still way over hyped in a stupid marginalist way

Talk more about this, I’d be very interested to understand your thoughts

How's what I wrote in https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=29219258 ? Conversely see what I wrote in https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=29212004 about more capital intensive power generation that if done at a good scale would drown current demand.

>Solar panels are still way over hyped in a stupid marginalist way

Solar panels are powered by fusion, of course they are hyped.

a lot of pressure to not go solar and the whole overhype movement i've seen was mainly endorsed by those with vested interest in other forms of energy. big oil, coal, nuclear etc. there's a lot of energy we are not harvesting due to battery technology. hell we can honestly pull energy out of the air during a storm, it would make the area safer because lightning itself could be used as a way to charge up batteries. but the batteries are just not there, there are very cheap ways of storing energy though, gravity being one of those primitive technologies. pumping water up a spout etc. but i don't think solar itself will be all we need, i agree with that part. but we have a lot of unused energy that we can take advantage of if people allow their mind to explore new sources of renewables

The hype is going to die down the more we see landscapes and entire mountains being covered with non-recyclable, toxic panels:


It strikes me as environmental vandalism. Solar panels make sense on roofs, not so much on landscapes. Maybe the desert, but you have transmission loss and still have to deal with the large amount of toxic landfill they generate. Nuclear makes much more sense for anything approaching base load.

I assume you wring your hands just as much for mountain removal for coal? Or the coal ash ponds so toxic they kill workers by the dozen when they need to be cleaned up? Or the millions of lives whose health is damaged by fossil fuel externalities?

By all means we should have frank discussions of the externalities of various technologies.

Correct, coal is worse. But notice I said nuclear is the way to go.

Putting them in landfill implies is it harder to turn old PV into new PV than to build new PV literally out of rock. This does not seem plausible in long-term (short term, sometime has to actually build a factory to do it), and if it was true then we would’ve just substituted one polluting non-renewable (fossils) for another.

> When Kominek approached Boulder County regulators about putting up solar panels, they initially told him no, his land was designated as historic farmland.

That's Boulder for you, they're super progressive right up until progress forces something to change

Yeah, Boulder considers it's green belt to be the fence of their little gated community. They're terrified of the idea of development around Boulder. The city even owns a bunch of land in surrounding counties so the perpetually undeveloped land is some one else's tax burden.

You have a nice thing. You engage in conservation to preserve that nice thing. Someone else gets mad that they can't just pave over your nice thing.

Help me understand how you're on the side of progressivism, here.

You make it sounds like they’re conserving their nice things, by not letting other people have them. Gate keeping progress.

Help me understand how /you’re/ on the side of progressivism, here.

You cannot always have your cake and eat it too. If you pave over open spaces, you no longer have open spaces.

Is paving over nature what you consider to be progress?

I don't really consider hay farms to be 'nature', any more than houseplants are.

Hay meadows aren't a more natural environment than paving them over, building a large high-density apartment block, and placing houseplants in those apartments?

Do they not host more ecological diversity? Are they not more environmentally productive?

Do hay farms introduce parking lots, traffic, roads, hundreds of housing units, and on average, ~1.5 cars for every unit?

If Boulder actually cared about all of that, they'd allow density where the pavement already exists.

This is all pearl clutching to keep out the poors with a fence that doesn't make you sad when you look at the fence.

Low-density makes the place nicer to live.

That’s why people want to live in Boulder in the first place, as opposed to Longmont, Broomfield, or Denver — all of which they’re free to choose, instead of spending more to live Boulder.

Why should the very traits that make Boulder desirable be destroyed to accommodate everyone that desires to live there?

How the hell is Longmont or Broomfield Dense? Its a damn suburb where farms exist literally after crossing a single 4 lane road. Its a 20 minute bike ride to get to the "downtown area" from a majority of the area.

It's not the "low density" that makes someone choose Boulder over Longmont or Broomfield. Longmont and Broomfield already are less dense than Boulder.

Boulderites who cry about 'keeping the low density' are just using that as a thin veneer to mask their classism. That very classism has all but ruined what made Boulder special in the first place, killing off the arts scene.

That's true, but it's also a different problem with Boulder. Right now you can't build out, and you can't build up, so it's getting more and more expensive to live there. But honestly as a dude who was born 20 miles away I consider it their problem not mine. I get to enjoy their open spaces and still eat at their expensive restaurants but I don't have to live in their ridiculously priced neighborhoods. Live and let live.

Perhaps the fence is part of the reason it is so expensive in the first place?

Am I supposed to feel bad for poor people who cannot live in Boulder, so they have to live 20 minutes away?

This is the exact classism that has pretty much killed Boulder. I lived there for 12 years, and every time I go back it does a better job of convincing me I made the right choice.

Killed the Boulder you wanted, which was not the Boulder that the people who actually live there want. If Boulder was actually dead, home buyers would not need to pay $1M to get a 1970s ranch.

There's a lot of people who pay more for something than it's worth.

Good luck to your property values.

Sounds to me like they're just making a cogent argument for conservatism.

I’m not in Colorado, but I can tell you a similar story in my area… county wouldn’t allow the construction of a Costco, which would have brought desperately needed jobs and tax revenues, because of zoning. Instead on that same ground they will allow a mini-storage or a gas station, because those fit the zoning. This is on a stretch of highway that the county and state have deemed to be “protected farm land.” I’m as progressive as they come and completely agree with the sentiment that we need to protect green spaces, but the way the sausage actually gets made doesn’t achieve any good for anyone.

I agree that NIMBYism is bad, but I don't see how undeveloped land incurs a tax burden.

Those neighbouring counties don't raise as much property taxes because there's nothing on the land.

You could argue that the land doesn't cost those neighbouring counties anything, so it's a wash.

It's sort of backwards when you're talking about municipalities competing for property tax revenue. Boulder city wants property tax revenue, so they allow development in specific places where they reap that. Therefore the city owns land that isn't land within the city so they can maximize property tax revenue, but still have a undeveloped belt. The surrounding counties aren't a big fan of this relationship, but can't do much about it.

Yes they can: tax land, not property.

They've got their own reasons for not going all georgist on it, as much as I'd personally love to see it happen.

The city of Boulder needs to pay property taxes on that land to the other counties, and that money comes from the local taxes that Boulder residents have to pay.

Well, they did end up allowing the change. He had to actually engage with them. If anything the description of how things were handled seemed quite reasonable: He had to present a case for why he should be allowed to make what was a very substantial change in use that changed the character of the area, and in the end was allowed to when they updated their building code to allow for it.

Now, the article doesn't give much detail on whether it really happened that reasonably. E.g. it doesn't give a timeline, or say anything about whether it was a lengthy and difficult fight, so it might still be they were unreasonable and difficult, but I don't think that single line is enough to judge them.

Bill Maher had a segment on this recently about progressives that don't acknowledge progress and are afraid of it in practice. A kind of willful blindness. Steven Pinker calls it Progressophobia.


Also, Liberal Hypocrisy is Fueling American Inequality. Here’s How.--NYT Opinion[1]

Has a focus on housing, but it's the same underlying issue. People love to signal their virtue, but their true values are revealed by what they do.

1. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hNDgcjVGHIw&t=670s

That's rich coming from Maher.

> That's Boulder for you, they're super progressive right up until progress forces something to change

It's mainly window dressing, it's really is like most tech hubs: a police state protecting the wealthy elite. It's a literal fiefdom, and no surprise most of the the real-estate is owned by one firm (TEBO).

Being on Pearl Street past midnight pre-pandemic, or any time afterward with the amount of homelessness made it seem so much like the Bay Area!

I realized whatever Boulder offered me for 6 years was going to have to be enough, because it's hard to see how things aren't getting worse.

Also, I'm sure that vacant Walmart on 28th and Iris next to the 24 hour fitness, where the lights were still on until 2019, could have sold their building as they were effectively run out of town for being not being in 'Boulder's image' a few years back.

Honestly, Boulder was fun from 2015-2018 if you were in the fintech scene but things degraded fast after that and it's MegaCorp face became all to obvious to justify living there any longer. I'm just glad I got to live the experience and live to tell the story--I used to go to the King Soopers when I visited my friends in Table Mesa where the shooting happened.

Just curious what years you lived in Boulder and (roughly) what age you are?

I tend to find that most places were at their peak when we were in our mid-to-late-20s and started to get less-cool as we entered our early-30s and beyond.

I must read too many negative articles… this stands out as a feel-good, “real” win-win. The science & cost-benefit is clearly understood even for the non-technical and the implementation seems straightforward, at least at first glance. Would love to see solar farms wildly adopted

I imagine the height of the panels is important to allow cleaning, but they could perhaps try more to combine the solar infrastructure with any fixed elements that would help the plants - irrigation lines, grow/heating lights or pest deterrents, rails for picking carts, etc.

I recently toured a very advanced tomato greenhouse system where a heliostatic field, solar tower and turbine generated the power to cool/heat the greenhouses and desalinate water for irrigation. The heating pipes doubled as rails for the scissor-lift carts used by inspectors, pickers, etc. They had navigational lines embedded in the concrete flooring so that they could fill a train of carts with tomatoes, and then program a destination for it to self-drive to.

Agrivoltaics, agroforestry, aquaponics and regenerative organic methods combine really well for modest commercial farms.

I'm curious to see how, or if, these approaches scale, together or individually. Automation could be a decisive factor.

> But he soon discovered that the shade from the towering panels above the soil actually helped the plants thrive. That intermittent shade also meant a lot less evaporation of coveted irrigation water. And in turn the evaporation actually helped keep the sun-baked solar panels cooler, making them more efficient.

Holy cow! Sounds like a win-win-win to me?

They should still compare solar+farm, to covering the farm with canvas shade and having the solar panels elsewhere.

I think it would go without saying that for most crops, having more sun and better machinery access would be superior. But the farmer couldn't make it viable without the solar. Once they had solar, the produce was another positive factor.

What would that show?

Similar to solar roadways, I would expect there are many reasons to separate the solar panels and the farm.

For example, maybe the solar panels restrict the types of tractors you can use. Maybe the fields sometimes create too much condensation and harm the solar panels. Maybe pesticides damage the solar panels. Maybe the solar panels sometimes block too much sun from reaching the plants. And so on...

What's that, a gish gallop waiting to happen?

They're not arguing to have found a global maximum and everybody everywhere should stop what they're doing and adopt this scheme, this is just reporting that there are unexpected positive effects to the scheme they've tried.

I'm just pointing out a common engineering principle: Trying to optimize two solutions together is often more difficult than trying to optimize them separately.

I hope I'm not coming across as overly negative here. If these things work together, that's very cool! But I would still be curious to see an overall comparison between doing them together vs doing them separately.

the solar roadways comparison would be if you put the solar panels under the pants.

One issue with solar is where we put it all. If it turns out that a meaningful portion of farmland has an excess of solar energy, that takes a big bite out of the problem. Powering the US entirely on solar might take a land mass equivalent to 2% of the country... Only a small portion of the 40% of US land area used as farmland.

This is a non issue. Rooftops alone are enough to power the US with solar, versus prime land. With that said, there is enormous potential in the roofs yet to have solar installed, parking lots with solar canopies, marginal land, floating PV systems at reservoirs, etc. Land is not an issue. At this rate, we’re constrained by pv module costs, deal flow, permitting, and install labor (a combination of labor and soft costs, essentially, with a healthy dose of supply chain issues).


Having PV above water is something we should do immediately.

As this article points out it seems to help with evaporation and evaporation is a big deal [1]

water out here and heading south just sits in concrete canals waiting to be flooded inefficiently onto crop land. but using way better irrigation is another topic.

[1] https://www.circleofblue.org/2013/world/report-evaporation-f...

There was a story on HN the other month about solar panels above irrigation canals in India. Something like this: https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20200803-the-solar-canals...

Love it. I also remember one a long time ago about filling a reservoir with floating balls. But solar does two things at once.

We already devote enormous tracts of land in the US for energy from solar for transportation, way way more than we'll ever need for PV. Fully 40% of the US corn crop goes to ethanol.

People talk about how bad solar efficiency is in turning sunlight into usable energy at around 20%, corn is only able to do 1-2% and then it has to be processed into ethanol. Thus, replacing corn for ethanol with solar would result in massively more energy available for our use (not that I think that would be a good idea or that we could even use that much solar electricity).

edit: And I should add that there's likely to be plenty of farmland becoming available due to water shortages. Think about it, say you are a farmer that has water rights and use it to grow a low value crop like alfalfa. You can put up solar panels and sell your water rights and you don't have to do any work. Or if you rely on groundwater, lease your land for solar for 20 years and let the aquifer recharge during that time.

Has this ever actually been a problem?

I think most of the recent progress has been in lowering prices, while the amount of power you can extract from a square meter of land presumably hasn't changed much. But I don't actually remember any serious commenter suggesting that running out of physical room was ever an actual consideration when it came to solar.

There has been opposition to greenfield developments on environmental concerns, much harder to oppose a dual use installation over farmland.


We'd have to solve some environmental problems with solar panels if we wanted to do that. Panels have been found to leak lead and cadmium into the environment. We should probably keep them away from our food until that's fixed


That paper doesn't support your claims. They didn't test for lead leaching, and they tested pulverized solar panels in strong acid. Moreover, they were cadmium telluride solar panels, which have been obsoleted by cheaper polysilicon. Polysilicon PV panels don't contain cadmium and don't contain a significant amount of lead.

We're really really far away from having difficulty with where to put solar.

That would be nearly enough to power the world; not just the US. Powering the world would take a bit over 115000 square miles, apparently. About 3% of the US landmass.

Residential roofs. As long as residents can sell the power back to the grid, it will be viable.

> Our farm has mainly been hay producing for fifty years

For those who don't know, Boulder has a bunch of land outside the city that is designated openspace/'farm' land. Being from the midwest I always sort of laughed at these land parcels being called 'farms' since economically it really can't be farmed outside of selling niche products at affluent farmers markets. I am glad to see that Boulder is finally letting the land be used for something more productive.

And this is a very cool idea. My family grew strawberries in eastern Colorado for a few years and one of the big problems was the extreme sun. In order to extend the growing season we used low tunnels to shield to plants from frost. However, the low tunnels during the peak summer months would act like a lens melting irrigation lines and even damaging produce.

> Being from the midwest I always sort of laughed at these land parcels being called 'farms' since economically it really can't be farmed outside of selling niche products at affluent farmers markets

The midwest can't be economically farmed outside of being propped up by a trillion dollars in government welfare called "the farm bill." That includes paying farmers to not grow anything, and to grow food that is shipped to warehouses where it rots.

Then there's all the non-farming federal spending in those states.

Then there's all the military spending to employ all the midwest kids coming out of high school with no job prospects.

Then there's the tariffs and other trade policies to protect midwestern farm crop prices.

Then there's the mandated use of ethanol from corn in gasoline.

Then there's the price fixing on sugar which drives processed food to use corn syrup.

Also, he farm was a hay farm for fifty years goes a bit contrary to the claim about "niche products ad affluent farmers markets."

> My family grew strawberries in eastern Colorado for a few years and one of the big problems was the extreme sun. In order to extend the growing season we used low tunnels to shield to plants from frost. However, the low tunnels during the peak summer months would act like a lens melting irrigation lines and even damaging produce.

Sounds like problems more ground-coupling of the thermals would help mitigate. This guy used "Earth Tubes" in combination with partially buried and appropriately oriented greenhouses:


Is it just me or is not letting the rightful owners of the land use it for the most productive (and not damaging/harmful/polluting) thing possible seem insane?

Why does Boulder get to decide whether these farmers are allowed to install solar on their own land?

The fact that they had to fight a battle and take time out of their life to obtain permission to do this (on unprofitable farmland) seems tremendously unjust.

My mind reels.

In America (land of the free) it is considered normal for all the surrounding landowners and/or voters to decide how you may use your own property. Typically you must ask permission or change local laws to use land in other-than-narrowly-prescribed ways.

Since land covenants were legally neutered in the 60s, law is sort of the only avenue people have left for trying to make sure the community they live in is the kind of place they actually want to live, and doesn't turn into a factory district or a ghetto.

You forgot about trusts. And HOAs. Also, CC&Rs are still a thing.

They exist but you can't do much with them anymore, hence why zoning is such a popular strategy.

There's not a single country in the world that doesn't put restrictions on what land owners can do with their land, on the basis that everywhere in the world has realised that what you do with your land affects the lives of everyone surrounding it.

You can consider that a limit on freedom, or you can consider that allowing a total free-for-all would infringe on the freedom of neighbours to enjoy their land - maximising freedom involves finding compromises that minimises the restrictions, not having none.

The “total free for all” is used as a scare tactic to justify an otherwise unjustifiable infringement on property rights.

Arguing for the us local property zoning scheme is the same as arguing for corrupt local developers to control local land use.

I'm not arguing for the us local property zoning schemes. I'm pointing out that painting giving your neighbours a say as a problem is no more of an argument for liberty than arguing for restrictive zoning.

Both significantly harm any prospect of liberty.

Personally I'm rather glad my neighbor can't turn his property into an industrial hog farm.

yes but the reason is because of smells that will cross onto your property. plain tort law will allow you to seek compensation for that

Seems to me that "land of the status quo" might be a better term.

that or “land of I got mine”

I assume upthread is talking about Boulders “urban growth boundary”.

I think the most likely “free market” result of removing the restrictions would be what they call “suburban sprawl”.

There are a lot of reasons to consider suburban sprawl damaging/harmful/polluting.

There are a lot of valid critiques to be made of an arguably NIMBY policy like the urban growth boundary, but it’s more than just “farms are pretty”.

Because Boulderites love their open space and spend a ton of tax dollars protecting it. It makes for a very nice city.

(I was born and raised in Boulder)

My mind reels

Then you've never lived in a place with no zoning, where someone can open a junk yard next to the home you spent 20 years saving money to buy.

You can do what you want on your land. But at the same time, you have to live in a society with neighbors. There is give-and-take.

If you want to do anything you want on your land without restriction, feel free to save your money and buy your own country with no other residents. Until then, you'll have to learn to get along with other people and understand that what you want may not always be what is best for everyone.

There's a big difference between banning the construction of anything and letting people run a junk yard. And TBH inactive farms tend to have a lot of old junk and falling down buildings anyway.

I lived in incorporated and rural areas most my life and it was never a problem.

Plus for every law prohibiting junk yards and nuances, there are laws and HOAs actively doing harm like yard and lawn requirements.

Yes and... I feel the "it's _my_ land" perspective is constrained by human lifespan.

Did you experiment at all with swapping out different materials? IE: using a thicker material to shade from the sun and then something else in the fall to hold in warmth. I’m debating doing something similar in my garden. In my area we have a lot of orchards that are now completely under sun canopies due to our extreme heat / sun.

A major modern greenhouse operation I saw recently dealt with this by spraying the exterior with some sort of chalk solution (I think). Just made the glass panels look slightly opaque. Then they'd wash it off when they needed more light through. In this case, there was generally less rain when they wanted the solar protection, so they didn't have to worry about it washing off out of schedule too often.

Solar with grazing land could make a ton of sense. Plus you wouldn’t have to pay for mowing.

And if done right the panels could even be free shelter for the cows.

Apparently sheep are the right thing to graze. Cows and horses are too big. Goats tend to bite at the cables. Sheep are small enough to fit in and around the solar panels and won't bite the wires.


> The inverters here generate enough power for 300 homes to use in a year. Kominek hopes to soon grow enough food beneath the panels to maybe feed as many local families.

This would be a super interesting village concept. Have 1 central agrovoltaic farm owned and operated by the surrounding farmers, and supply all of them with the electricity produced by the central solar farm. That way the land would be used both to grow produce to sell and sustainably power all the electrical needs of the surrounding farms.

Sounds like a good idea for a DAO honestly

$2,000,000 / 300 homes / 20 years = $333/home/year for electricity. Assuming this is a low-maintenance setup, it seems like there’s lots of room for steady profit.

At the same time, the article makes it sound like the farming output was improved too.

Aside from regulatory concerns, what downsides are there to installing these on millions of acres?

My assumption is they pivoted from hay to growing high margin stuff (most greens are higher margin, I think) they can sell to restaurants/farmers markets/co-ops. Being close to Boulder definitely helps in that regard. The solar panels just provide the shade that shadecloth used to provide with the upside of producing income.

The biggest barrier to scalability is probably how labor intensive some of the farming is and the target audience for stuff like kale and collard greens outside of major metro areas.

> My assumption is they pivoted from hay to growing high margin stuff (most greens are higher margin, I think) they can sell to restaurants/farmers markets/co-ops.

yes, this is exactly the case. as i understand it, they've got a single customer they're selling all the produce to, who is also involved in providing man power for the farming.

> The biggest barrier to scalability is probably how labor intensive some of the farming is

yes, they've got folks out there most days during the growing season, whereas when it was hay, it could be managed with a couple of man*days a month.

(i am more familiar with the operations there than i'm going to admit, or provide evidence for. don't "sources?" me.)

Well, it depends - for a current investor of any scale in the utility and fossil fuel sectors, this is a disaster.

1) Installing solar panels on millions of acres would be done most likely by utilities for grid-scale power. This means an accelerated investment in infrastructure, and that means profits don't go to dividend payments but for solar panel purchases (from an international manufacturer, as domestic US solar manufacturing is basically a joke at present).

2) Then you have the follow-on losses - investors in utilities tend to have large holdings in fossil fuels, and one hand washes the other - power plants buy fracked gas, in other words, boosting the value of the fossil fuel investments. So when you switch to solar, and write off the natural gas and coal plants, there goes the majority of the profits that investor's portfolio generates.

There's no way around it: renewable systems are far less profitable than fossil-fuel systems, because you don't get to <sell> set up a wind and sun cartel (*orbiting sunscreens maybe?). This is the source of both Wall Street and fossil fuel exporter disenchantment with renewables.

Now, if you're a farmer and can generate your own power while continuing to enjoy good crop yields, it's all winning. Although your 401K retirement fund may decrease in value. But that's OK, as your net savings are greater than that loss.

Very cool, if you are into this sort of stuff I have a YouTube channel on growing food at home.


A blog post on my solar system I bought outright https://russell.ballestrini.net/fulfilling-childhood-dreams-...

In India government is encouraging this and have a scheme for farmers to setup solar plants and do farming together. The scheme is yet to pickup but good to see results like this.

On the talk of reduced evaporation, can we replicate this at a fraction of the cost by running some plastic sheeting across a field? The solar is an investment that may not pay off in all farms, but reducing water usage is a major concern and stringing along some barriers could be a big help with that.

Good point. While it may make harvesting trickier, installing covers could be a cheap way to increase water use efficiency

Maybe not plastic sheeting, but certainly other forms of shade.

Doesn't it make far more sense to just put solar panels in a field like this, instead of doing custom work putting them on top of individual homes which may have shade or directionality issues? Even disregarding the agriculture happening, why don't we do this more often?

At least in the Netherlands, you don't pay energy taxes on electricity generated "behind the meter", ie from solar panels on your own house. Electricity that comes from the grid, no matter how it is generated, comes with grid fees and energy tax. Seeing how the price for bulk electricity is currently ~0.09 EUR/KWh and the taxes+ grid charges come to ~0.15 EUR/KWh for a total price of 0.24 EUR/KWh, electricity from solar panels on your own house instantly becomes about 3x cheaper than if you put the same panels elsewhere in a field. Thus, many people opt to put the panels on their home since the installation cost is not that high and the financial benefits are substantial.

Personally the addition of solar panels to my roof has the added appeal of reducing the wear and tear of my roof.

The panels must be in the sun, so they'll always be getting that UV damage if they exist outside at all. May as well let them do double duty on my roof in that role.

It'll also help keep the solar thermal gain out of the house, reducing cooling costs...

Disregarding taxes and financial incentives that may bias things, putting it in a field means you don't need to work on a roof to maintain it, you aren't limited by roof area, and you don't need to worry about the roof weight limit or damage during installation.

I think there is no question a field is preferable if there are fields to work with. Of course, in a city that isn't much of an option and there are significant advantages to point of use generation (i.e. no need to upgrade power lines from rural solar fields to a city center).

I used to live in Boulder, and while I'm not sure exactly which field they're talking about it was not a long bike ride into farmland. I can imagine it working much better there than a bigger city.

I don't know about "more often" but we certainly do it pretty normally. There are entire businesses built around obtaining rights to use land, building solar farms, and selling the tax credits.

Panels on my roof reduce my electricity costs. Put in a field by someone else does not. My panels are not visible from the street and will have paid for themselves within a few years, so there isn't really a reason not to. I think 30-40% of homes in my city have panels on their roof.

This ignores any feed-in tariff which is declining, though there were early adopters with a locked-in rate who wouldn't have paid for electricity for years now.

Most of the current PV generation in the 100 miles around where I live (near Santa Fe, NM) looks exactly like this (but without the agriculture).

I think the simplest answer is that we put panels wherever it's easiest. With no existing infrastructure in a random field it takes more effort to get the panels to function, compared to mounting on a roof and wiring in to an existing grid. The upfront cost has always been a barrier to entry, so higher costs turn the average consumer away.

But you can install a whole lot of panels in a field, which has a significant amount of labor price advantage. Running a cable over might not be too bad.

Presumably because, the further you transport electrical energy, the more it is prone to be lost as heat.

From what I understand even at 100 miles the loss of energy is about 5 percent. You may need to build more transmission lines at some point - but I would still wager there is no way that it is energy efficient to build a frame upwards + have people get on special tools to maintain things 10 feet above the ground.

In places like Colorado there is very cheap land that is not very good for farming about an hour away from Denver and it certainly seems like it would be cost + energy efficient to build out there instead of up.

I'm not arguing for a giant solar array in the Sahara, just using marginal farmland that surrounds many cities to put solar panels instead of scattered about on roofs in the city. And with most solar installations it just dumps electricity back into the grid so I'd think losses would be similar.

>Doesn't it make far more sense to just put solar panels in a field like this, instead of doing custom work putting them on top of individual homes which may have shade or directionality issues?

Depends on what you're optimizing for. If you're considering solar purely from the angle of replacing carbon-thermal generation on the grid then sure, large arrays are more efficient, offering more room for amortization of fixed costs, more optimization for solar gain, and more room for optimal hybrid usage like this example.

However, buildings need roofs anyway, and will in turn get sun exposure. Since solar tech like tiles can take the place of traditional roofing, there are some double gains to be had there in that they're both doing the job of protection from the elements and taking otherwise mostly wasted energy and doing some work with it. Depending on how one gets into the weeds on aesthetics (like if they wanted nicer tiling anyway) the marginal extra capex of tiling may well be worth it as costs come down further. Building-solar also can help provide resiliency to grid damage, which by definition grid feeding cannot. For people in areas where they'd otherwise be running generators anyway, solar/res-wind+battery (and as BEVs take over near everyone will have an extremely sizable slab or three of battery around much of the time) can be compelling. Still more upfront, but maintenance-free for a decade or more and constantly providing some ROI (and effectively constant verification everything is working), whereas hydrocarbon generators require regular maintenance/testing which cost money and generate zero return otherwise, they just depreciate. And local solar/wind/utility resources are going to affect the time horizons for all this.

So basically there are a ton of new variables and enormously more scalability up and down the spectrum for renewables and batteries. Doing the math is in turn going to be very individual, but it will often still make sense to do both.


>why don't we do this more often?

I mean, we're still in a pretty steep part of an S-curve here. It's just plain early days. People are still experimenting with stuff like this and learning what works. Unit costs are dropping, which in turn changes what projects make sense which in turn changes demand and thus unit costs. Grids are adapting and getting smarter. Both storage and opportunistic demand are doing the same in parallel in a variety of ways. Stories like this where someone tries some new stuff and it works out well will make others perk up and take notice. There will also be things tried that don't work out. Going to be a wild decade.

Unfortunately second-order effects make rooftop solar less desirable than you'd think. In urban areas built to adequate densities (> 100 residents per acre) there's not enough roof area to power those residences, so you need the off-site generating resources anyway. Denser development has significant demand efficiency payback, but it always reduces the ratio of on-site solar generating resources per capita.

On the other hand you also have the phenomenon that after a person puts solar power on top of their little detached single-family house they start yammering about "solar access rights" to stop the construction of even slightly taller buildings nearby. Boulder, Colorado is ground zero for this kind of stupidity, see their "solar access protection" law which is as naked an act of NIMBY greenwashing as anyone has ever seen.


I don't think anyone who actually bothers to run the numbers suggests that solar will meet 100% of a buildings energy needs. However, even at 100 residents per acre[0], it's utterly possible to put about 4-6kw of panels and a solar water heater on every house. Having both of those on a duplex, I can tell you that my power bill is basically nothing now.

Naturally, that power output will differ by location, but it's doable.

[0] Based on my local area, this is a mix of row-houses, semi-detached, and fully detached housing.

Is it just me, or do the photos show that only part of a single row between panels has actually been planted? Looking outside the plants in the foreground, it just looks like bare grass everywhere.

Yes I spotted that too. It looks to be a very small garden from the photos.

I saw a good video on YT about this idea. It made the excellent point that it has a fundamental problem:

   1. It's excellent for everybody, except...
   2. It's a sub-optimal use of land for the farmer, and ...
   3. It's a sub-optimal use of land for solar PV
Trying to get something adopted where the two primary parties both end up with a suboptimal solution, even though the overall solution is great from a broader perspective, tends to be difficult.

And it does generally need both farmers and the solar PV folks to collaborate; the former have the land and systems for growing, the latter have the capital and process for solar PV.

This doesn't mean it cannot work, but it does require some creative "marketing" to get people to take up the idea even though it may appear sub-optimal when viewed through a narrow lens.

> It's a sub-optimal use of land for solar PV

the PV aspect doesn't really have to make any compromises for this sort of system. it is installed on taller posts than you might normally use, and there's some netting on the underside to keep the wiring a bit more protected from passerbys, but it's otherwise a standard install in a field.

It might be optimal in terms of a reliable income to have different things you can sell.

Most farmers don't have the capital to invest in enough solar PV to generate anything you might call an income.

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