And privately designed/built/owned particle accelerators? It's definitely a new era.
What if one day the other side of the globe getting sunlight powered the grid for the other half? Of course this would require very peaceful nations on each continent, so even if we had the cost-effective technology now, it would take hundreds if not thousands of years to happen politically.
That being said, at .40/watt you can cover a lot of rooftops economically and that means that you cut the top off the 'peak' usage for a city or town. Cutting that peak off is a huge win because often power companies have fossil fuel plants (called 'peaker plants') which they bring online only during peak power requirements.
The cool thing about having the buildings support the power load is you get a benefit of not transporting it very far (few losses due to power line resistance). And yes, even on the most overcast day solar panels generate power. The ones on my roof in California can generate nearly 50% of their best days on overcast days. That does not hold though for panels covered in snow so there is some requirement to keep them clean.
HVDC can be as efficient as 97%, compared with the US average of 93%. That 4% "inefficiency tax" would likely pay for long-haul HVDC connectors (as outlined in one of Obama's 2008 energy proposals) within years.
So it is a proven technology to have this as a long distance link (been in operation since 1965) and it is capable of bi-directional power transfer as well.
Mercury-arc rectifiers (the technology replaced with IGBTs and GTOs) were very large and expensive, and also less efficient (even more so before the 1930s or so) so HVDC only made sense for submarine cables (which have huge capacitive losses). With IGBTs and GTO thyristors it start to become feasible to e.g. do an HVDC line across a continent.
As an example the HVDC inter-island was built using mercury-arc valves (it included a submarine leg), but they have since benn replaced with solid-state devices.
HVDC is also a good to tie two separate grids together; since they will be on different time-bases you can't just directly AC couple them.
 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/High-voltage_direct_current#Dis... (note: some of these are due to AC parts having economies of scale and decades of efficiencies and process that HVDC may not be able to tap into without widescale implementation)
* Difficulty cooling. If you build next to an ocean or river, you can just use some of that water to provide the cold end of the temperature differential that you're using to generate power. Deserts are trickier, and more expensive.
* Transportation. If you build next to navigable waterways, you can ship really big components on barges. In deserts, you can ship some things by rail.
But hey, at least it's politically convenient to stick scary power plants in deserts.
Water just happens to be a particularly convenient coolant.
Water has some disadvantages. It's a good neutron moderator, but with its low boiling point you have to keep it under a lot of pressure (160 atmospheres for most light-water reactors). That means you need very strong, thick steel, and a huge oversize containment dome, since if a pipe breaks, the steam will flash into 1000 times as much volume. Then some of it will split, and you'll be at risk of a hydrogen explosion, which is what we all saw at Fukushima.
Molten salt, on the other hand, works at atmospheric pressure, and if something leaks it just drips out and cools into rock.
Sodium has a disadvantage in being reactive with oxygen and water, but it also works at atmospheric pressure. The integral fast reactor design uses a big pool of sodium, which provides so much thermal inertia that Argonne was able to switch off the cooling system entirely, and the reactor just quietly shut down.
Either design works at higher temperatures than LWRs, giving better thermodynamic efficiency.
Actually, we have, albeit with varying degrees of success:
If you've ever seen the insulator jacket in an underground HVDC cable it is huge.
How about flywheels?
There are hundreds of other processes with huge energy inputs that are currently satisfied by cheap fossil fuels, but could well be met by equatorial solar facilities. Considering how quickly manufacturing transitioned to China, it seems entirely plausible that we could move most high-energy, low-labour processes to equatorial regions within a couple of decades.
But still the author is right, we need ways to store electricity and we will also need a much more flexible grid than the one we have today.
The neo liberal FDP here in Germany is trying to kill off the solar market by drastically reducing the fee you get for feeding solar electricity into the system. But we already have net parity, therefore it is feasible to put up a photovoltaic system on your house, when you size it carefully and consume much of the energy by yourself. It simply reduces your utility bill.
If this new technology really halves the price of modules, people for sure will continue installing new systems. Yay!
But this is definitely long term thinking on their part. Already Germany is the current world leader when it comes to renewables as a percentage of total generating power.
As the price of power goes up this 'stupid' strategy starts to look smarter by the day.
Then, January/February this year cold snap happened, and they had to buy power from neighborns that still have regular obsolete power plants, because they couldn't provide enough energy for themselves. Green energy means you hope for good weather or neighborns to have enough electricity.
Germany is now protesting Poland new nuclear power plant, when Poland is trying to change its dependence on fossil fuels (sth lik 96%, I don't remember exactly).
This isn't smart. This is hysteria-motivated energy policy.
EDIT: one source http://rt.com/news/germany-reactors-cold-weather-927/
Also the adaption of solar panels on homes went far faster, then most people expected. The grids in single-family home neighborhoods simply are not designed to handle much power being fed into the system at this point. The problem is that at daytime, when the sun shines there is not much power needed in residential neighborhoods, since everyone is at work. This is why self-consumption is the desired use-case for solar-energy on family homes. That's why I think there is a market for home-control right there. -> "Start washing machine WHEN solar energy > X"
The issue is that creates even distortion between the energy sector as a whole and the rest of the economy, since fossil fuels are already subsidized (through not pricing in the negative externality) and we're adding a separate subsidy to green energy.
So we're distorting the market to favor creating green energy over reduced consumption of energy. When what's really needed is simply an effective tax on carbon, and then let people decide the most efficient way to respond.
It's not that nice, because power output from wind/solar plants is random (depends on things like cloud cover or wind strength) and it causes problems in power grid, where power demand must meet the supply exactly, or bad things will happen.
"Without Hot Air" covers this, and other renewable-related issues quite nicely and with real data. I recommend it, it's a good read. It has some good ideas on how to solve power supply/demand problems.
On TED2012 there was a talk about a new kind of batteries designed to solve those kind of problems in the power grid; the video from the talk is not yet up, though (but I think it should be soon, at ).
 - http://www.inference.phy.cam.ac.uk/withouthotair/
 - http://www.ted.com/talks?lang=en&event=2012&duration...
The biggest power cost for us in warmer climates is cooling. When the sun is out, we need lots of power; when it's not, not so much. Solar power sufficient to run A/C from rooftop panels costing less than grid electricity would be wonderful, lining up perfectly with the inconsistencies of available sunlight.
Last summer I ran an experiment. We live in a two story house in California. We usually see low temperatures at night (sub 70deg F) and highs in the range of 105+ degF during the day. At night I opened all of the windows downstairs and used a small industrial fan (about 2000CFM) to pump cold outside air into the house. In the morning I'd shut down the fan and close all windows.
I could get the lower part of the house down to below 70F on most days during the summer. Cold enough to have to wear a sweater. Even with the outside temperature hitting highs above 105+ the thermal mass of the house succeeded in maintaining a very comfortable inside temperature (max around 77F). We did not use the air conditioner at all last summer, saving tons of money. The fan costs pennies a day to run.
This summer I am looking at what efficiency improvements I can make to this arrangement. I'm itching to throw a micro-controller at it, but I want to learn a little more before I take that path. There's a lot to do in the roof. Think about it, you have this huge solar heat collector --the roof-- reaching ridiculous temperatures during the day and radiating that right into the house. Sure, there's attic insulation, but that's a ton of energy to deal with.
I'm thinking that some forced ventilation of the attic with a small fan might just do wonders.
Where I live if it gets hot it says hot, day and night. And most of the country is the same.
Although, obviously, incremental improvements are great even if only some people can use them.
You can use this two ways: You can use it to try to cool the house directly by embedding tubing in the floor/walls or some other approach. Or, you could use it to improve the efficiency of an air conditioning unit by providing supplemental cooling of the A/C unit heat exchanger coils.
Radiative barriers should also be on your list. It's essentially just mylar stapled to the rafters.
(I realize that this is at least borderline pedantry)
(I, for one, don't mind pedantry :))
An 80% / 90 % cut in fossil fuel usage or higher would be a huge thing though!
I actually worked at a startup from about 2007-2009 that was designing particle accelerators for another company pursuing what appears to be the exact same technology (possibly some of the same people).
No idea what came of the project. Very high current ion accelerators in the +1 MeV range is quite the trick without a huge budget. Our company was full of people from Los Alamos. We were actually focusing on a different application that needed higher output.
There is a quite sizeable commercial accelerator market for medical, industrial imaging, and radiation sterilization use (and of course various "homeland security uses".
It's not that new.
I don't see politics as being the primary challenge; the US has allies in almost every time zone that could fairly easily facilitate this. I imagine the greater challenge would come from trying to get all that electricity across oceans. Copper wires thick enough to carry a substantial amount of electricity seem like they would be too think to actually lay, and then you have parasitic losses to contend with should they manage to find a way to do it.
Why? Look at the world today. Russia supplies energy to Western Europe, Saudi Arabia provides energy to the US, Australia provides coal to China. None of them have much love for each other, it's just mutual self-interest.
No denying it's still amazing though...
Well, you could build a push-pull Van de Graaff generator, hook it up to a discharge tube, hook the tube to a high vacuum pump, and there ya go, linear accelerator in the 1 MeV range. Totally doable in a garage.
There are people who built a cyclotron at home. You'll need to wind a huge coil, but it's doable.
I guess it's just a question of power!
Or maybe it would create peaceful nations on each continent. You may say I'm a dreamer.... :)
Trading cheap electric power with little profit requires governments to make forward thinking, progressive decisions because no business will bother unless they could make millions from their effort.
Also, I often ponder what will happen one day when power is cheap and easily available - you'd want to hope it means less war but I fear it means the opposite. The war machine will LOVE cheap power and then attacking power feeds or cutting off the other side of the globe as an act of war or terrorism will be too easy of a target. So we'd need peace first which is unlikely to happen given most governments.
What is important, this books talks about those ideas using real data and carefully estimates what's really feasible to do (like, how many pumped storages you'd need if you'd like to switch 50% of your energy sources to solar).
The arguments against solar were that the tech is "not there yet", so then it's better to just focus on nuclear. I disagree with that. I believe that if the energy industry changed focus to solar panels and other renewable energy technologies, we would get there a lot faster. We would have a lot more companies exploring different ideas that make them more efficient and cheaper.
Nuclear technology will probably never be gone, or at least not within the next century. But I just don't want it to be the holy grail of the energy industry and see the vast majority of investments go into that. I want renewable energy technologies to be that.
Here's a link to a graph created by the Lawrence Livermore Lab that quickly illustrates the miniscule impact of doubling, tripling, or even quadrupling the three primary alternative energy sources.
I wish we could all live in a world powered by solar cells etc, but it just isn't going to happen.
And pretending it can is a problem.
Solar is nice. It'd be FAN-GODDAMN-TASTIC if we could use solar power as the backbone of our power generation. But we can't, it's just not feasible.
Solar today is half of a power plant. Much like wind Solar generates power when its convenient to its own schedule, not ours, and sometimes that means it generates zero power.
This. Is. A. Problem.
It is, in fact, the problem of solar and wind power. Today we can use solar and wind serendipitously. They run on top of base power and when they provide power they allow us to keep gas powered generators offline. That's nice, but it's an edge solution, and we're already nearing the limits of that strategy. In order to replace base load power we need something that provides power reliably when it's convenient for humans. For solar or wind that means we need to invest in vast power storage plants. Things that do not currently exist even in designs. Things that are likely to be about as expensive to build and maintain as solar plants themselves will be.
We do not have the technology to move to solar or wind power as a base load power source. And it seems likely that if we did have that technology it would put the full cost of those power sources at higher than even fission power plants.
We can no more move to solar or wind power for the majority of our power needs than we could move to Thorium reactors, or fusion power.
Solar thermal+thermal storage could be used in climates closer to the equator. The US ran an experimental setup with 8 hours endurance after sundown.
In the case of cooling equipment, solar coincides well with demand.
You are most certainly right that solar won't cover all our baseload power needs. We don't need to cover it all. We just need to whittle down the unsustainable and environmentally unfriendly parts as much as we can.
Subsidizing winners isn't something the government should be in the business of doing. However, penalizing losers is precisely what we have a government for, and CO2 emitting power is a losing proposition for the future.
So if the best solar facility, using 1600 acres of land can only provide 1/3 of one new reactor, your math just won't work.
I'm repeating myself in this tread, but seriously, I recommend to everyone taking a look at http://www.inference.phy.cam.ac.uk/withouthotair/ - it has all the numbers, including e.g. power densities of solar and wind plants in watts per square meter.
According to that book, there's no way solar or wind could compete directly with nuclear. It just doesn't add up.
There is no way to have any serious discussion about energy without doing at least some rudimentary calculations and comparing numbers, instead of adjectives and hopes.
Look out for 35 years. Is it still minuscule?
According to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, the contiguous United States has the potential for 10,459 GW of onshore wind power. The capacity could generate 37 petawatt-hours (PW·h) annually, an amount nine times larger than current total U.S. electricity consumption. The U.S. also has large wind resources in Alaska, and Hawaii.
As for the view... well, you can't please everyone.
The key takeaway from that thesis is:
"As determined in the risk characterization, a centralized wind farm does have a greater impact on avian mortality than the coal fired- power plant. "
The thesis examines only Fowler Ridge, which mostly has 1.65MW Vestas v82 with a 41m blade length and hub height of 70m. The latest I could easily get specs for is a 3MW Vestas: 56m blade length, 84m hub. Higher, more efficient, and most importantly: slower which kills fewer birds.
Last year they introduced a the V164 at 7.0MW: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vestas
There is some other good stuff at that site.
This is probably true. But as always, the problem is money. More specifically, the money that entrenched interests possess (and throw around).
I'd love for solar energy to happen as soon as possible too. It shows great promise. But it might not happen for a while.
> Nuclear technology will probably never be gone, or at least not within the next century.
100 years is a mighty long time. Who knows, nuclear reactors might be completely replaced by renewable energy sources within the next fifty years. Let's hope for the best.
Once solar is significantly cheaper than coal and demand pricing kicks in, a lot of time-shifting of energy use could occur. Right now, night-time electricity is cheaper because demand is lower at night, but if the supply of daylight electricity increases dramatically, any activity which currently benefits from cheap nighttime electricity could be shifted back to the daylight hours.
Data centers currently consume something like 2% of electricity -- it is probably possible to shift at least some of that to bright, sunny days. It may stop being cost-effective to run night shifts at factories, especially if your manufacturing process is energy-intensive. We might end up charging our electric cars at our offices during the day instead of over night at our homes. It'd be pretty silly to fill a battery with solar electricity during the day just to transfer it to another battery at night.
Even without batteries, solar energy could still pick up a lot of our current nighttime energy usage because a lot of our nighttime energy usage doesn't actually have to be at night.
We are not heading towards a world where we have a single power source (solar), and most of our power uses cannot be rescheduled. As fossil fuels are one of the few sources which can be turned on and off at our choosing, I would expect they will function to fill in temporary gaps between supply and demand once renewables capacity is large enough to take the average load. I don't see these gaps occurring predominantly at night.
This isn't true of nuclear power plants; the fission rate, and thus the heat generation rate, can be throttled up and down as needed. In pressurized water reactors this happens automatically as the throttle is opened and closed, thus increasing or decreasing output from the "steam side" of the heat-exchange boilers, a.k.a. steam generators . (In a prior life I was a Navy nuclear engineering officer.)
Yes. Heat is generated by fission of fissile material such as uranium. Fuel rods have X amount of fissile material in them. Higher power -> faster depletion of the fissile material.
> what are fuel costs as a percentage of total operational costs?
Around 30%, according to the Nuclear Energy Institute. This compares with 80% for coal, natural gas, and oil.
> My impression is it doesn't make sense to operate a nuclear reactor at less than full power
I would think that'd be true of almost any machinery, but that's almost a tautology: You design your machinery for an optimized balance of performance versus wear-and-tear, then try to operate at (what you call) "full power" as much as you can, so as to reap maximum value from your investment.
In any event, the original comment was that excess power is inevitably generated by nuclear plants (at least during some time periods) and therefore must be dumped somehow. That's not the case; nuclear plants can be throttled up and down as needed.
If solar took off, i can see a correlation between price per hour and sunny days, as more machines are turned on when it's cheaper to run, hence increasing supply, and decreasing price. :P
Coal power is a base load technology. Spin up time for a coal plant is too long for it to work well for night time use only.
So there can be a decent enough complement to cheap solar power.
Just imagine the world if it was 10 cents per watt instead of $1 a watt for solar. I hope I live long enough to see it. Dare we dream 1 cent per watt, just like what has happened with CPU development in the past three decades? Could we have 1 cent per watt solar in 30 years? 50 years? 100?
To get the installation cost down from an estimated $1.40 in 2020 to $0.10 and $0.01 with the same trend would take 30-50 and 60-100 years, respectively. 70-110 years is definitely further in the future than I am comfortable peering; 40-60, also a little shaky.
But given current trends, it looks like 2050-2070 is roughly what you need to shoot for to live to see $0.10 / Watt solar energy. If you were born in America after 1976, I'd aim for 2076; it'd be nice to see the Tricentennial.
Here's hoping for 10 cents in 30 years.
ps. Isn't it $1.40 right now in 2012? Or are you calculating for off-grid with batteries instead of grid-tie?
You neglected to account for the change in price of fossil fuels. Natural gas is extremely cheap right now and is expected to only get cheaper.
Nuclear power generates 21% of the US electrical usage, of which residential consumption is roughly 1/3 of total usage.
The math won't work...
This 'exfoliation' approach in some ways plays into the concept Elon Musk floated about SpaceX - the actual atoms in a booster are relatively simple, they just need to be arranged in the right way.
EDIT: Oh, I neglected to pay attention to units. The above should be 3mm, 20-micrometer, and 2.98mm, respectively, which means the sheet shearing off is 0.002mm thick. This is seriously cool. Thanks for everyone's patience.
I hope this helps.
To me, this is the second cool part of the story. It shows that we can still do industrial enterprises in the west by applying technology. Sooner or later the production and assembly industry will have no more cheap labor forces to "exploit" on the globe and production, assembly and automaton technology may (again) be an industrial game changer for the west as it was with "spinning jenny".
edit: napkin math:
.40 * 1000 watts = $400/kw
Assuming 4380 hours of optimum sunlight per year and lifetime of 10 years ~= .01/kwh
Should be competitive even when my ridiculous assumption meets reality.
Does anyone know?
I tried to dig into this a few years ago. Evergreen Solar's 10-K for 2007 http://edgar.sec.gov/Archives/edgar/data/947397/000095013508... has some information. Evergreen's competitive advantage is supposedly that they use less silicon than other manufacturers because they don't saw their wafers — they grow them. They say they use about 5g of silicon per watt (in 2007, planning to reduce it to 2½g per watt by 2012), and it sounds like they get paid about US$3.87 per watt on average (US$58M revenue in 2007, maxed-out manufacturing capacity of 15MW/year, 276 full-time employees in manufacturing). Their "cost of revenue" (i.e. manufacturing cost) was US$53M, or US$3.53/W. But 5g of metallurgical-grade silicon at the price above is US$0.008. If each employee costs US$120k per year (including health benefits, and remembering that a bunch of them are Ph.D.s) then that would be US$2.20/W in labor costs, which already accounts for the majority of that cost of revenue.
But they're not buying metallurgical-grade silicon; they're buying "polysilicon", short for "polycrystalline silicon", which is perhaps a bit of a misnomer, since how many crystals are in each piece of silicon supplied by their suppliers is somewhat immaterial, since Evergreen melts the silicon down and crystallizes it in polycrystalline silicon ribbons in their "String Ribbon" furnaces. Maybe that costs a lot more than metallurgical-grade silicon?
It used to be hard to find that information! But it's much better now; http://pvinsights.com/ lists current PV-grade polysilicon prices at US$29 to US$35 per kilogram, and http://www.pv-tech.org/news/polysilicon_prices_declines_will... explains that this is a major drop from previous prices of US$80/kg. 5 g at US$35 per kilogram is US$0.175. But "Silicon PV Module Price Per Watt" ranges from US$0.75 to US$1.40. Dropping 17½¢ off that price still isn't going to get you to 40¢. And if Evergreen has really made it to 2½g/W, silicon cost is even less of the total cost.
http://www.futurepundit.com/archives/008483.html mentions that in 2008 polysilicon prices peaked at US$400/kg.
Anyway. I'm obviously no expert, but I'm skeptical that peeling silicon with a particle accelerator is going to decrease the cost of photovoltaic cells.
"A typical wafer is made out of extremely pure silicon that is grown into mono-crystalline cylindrical ingots (boules) up to 300 mm (slightly less than 12 inches) in diameter using the Czochralski process. These ingots are then sliced into wafers about 0.75 mm thick and polished to obtain a very regular and flat surface."
So it's a better way to slice the ingots into wafers. Those ingots are ridiculously expensive.
The PVinsights link suggests that wafers are a big chunk of the cost of cells. Depending on how much of current costs are ingot production and how good the relative efficiency of this cutting method is, the wafer could become a small part of the costs of cells. That doesn't justify claims of a 50% cost reduction, but it supports the notion of significant cost reductions.
I wish there was some way to opt out of OnSwipe and just load the desktop version of a website on my iPad.