Solar PV: Still Too Carbon Intensive

A friend of mine sent me a link to a recent Mother Jones article that attempts to dispel the "myth" that the benefits of photovoltaics are limited because they are energy intensive to produce. Unfortunately the article over-simplifies a relatively simple math problem, and in doing so it reaches an incorrect conclusion. Here's what I wrote back:

The issue with PV is not limited to whether they produce more energy than is consumed during manufacture, as suggested by the MJ article. Mathematically, even if you get the energy back in one year, it would still take many years to get a net carbon benefit from PV, assuming you ever get one. The reason is that PV currently provides a tiny fraction of our electrical energy (about one-half of 1%), and so the industry would need to grow exponentially for many years to make any significant contribution to the energy supply. During the period in which a carbon intensive industry is growing exponentially, the carbon emission rate of that industry is also growing exponentially. During the exponential growth years for solar, the carbon emissions will exceed the carbon offsets for that year and, depending on the rate of growth and the actual energy payback time, the emissions will offset the gains from most or all prior years. The faster solar grows, the more net carbon it will emit in each year. The benefits, if any, are way down the road, and they only occur if you extinguish the growth of the industry. Sad but true.

I built a pretty cool mathematical model to prove this to myself, but the proof is barely needed. It's fairly obvious, thinking about it, that trying to solve a carbon problem by ramping up a highly carbon-intensive industry is going to be a losing proposition.

As far as the energy payback for PV being 1.7 years or less, as suggested by the article, I don't put much faith in those numbers. PV payback studies generally neglect or underestimate the energy consumed by the wholesale, retail, installation, maintenance, repair, and disposal chain. Ask a solar installer how much fuel their trucks consume and how much heating and air conditioning energy they consume, add it all up and compare it to the energy generated by the systems they installed in a year, and prepare to be disappointed.

A far more pertinent question about our energy predicament is, why are we focused on energy-intensive solutions rather than efficiency solutions? I have my own answers, but why do you think is the reason?

I hope this was helpful, and all the best.   - Mark


Renewable Energy's Missing Logic

This editorial ran in the Opinion section of Sunday's Santa Fe New here to read it. I wrote it in response to Staci Matlock's article on Tres Amigas from a couple of weeks ago. You may want to read that one first to fully enjoy the satire here! - Mark.


Imagine that you’re sitting on big piles of sunshine and wind and you’re thinking, “Geez, how am I going to get this stuff to market?” when in rides a tall stranger in a Stetson hat. He comes from humble roots – a “ranch kid” from southern New Mexico, and even though he left the state to attend West Point and become a power player in electricity, his firm handshake and his love of western art convince you that he’s still a New Mexican at heart. “The solution,” says the stranger, looking natural in cowboy boots, “will only cost a few billion dollars.”

The tall stranger in this case is Phil Harris, the man being hailed as the “mastermind” of a proposed electric transmission project called Tres Amigas. Harris’ big idea is to build an electric “superstation” that ties together three giant electricity grids so that gigawatts of power can flow between them. This, according to Harris, will “unlock the potential” of New Mexico’s vast renewable energy resources by enabling us to sell sunshine and wind to California.

Does spending a few billion dollars on a system to ship wind and sunshine around the country strike you as odd? I’m pretty sure Californians have sunshine and wind already, but who knows...maybe they would prefer a nice imported brand. Hello...customer service? Do you have anything in a dry, desert wind with hints of pinon and juniper? Great...put it my bill!

The problem with claiming that multi-billion dollar transmission projects like Tres Amigas, Sun Zia, and High-Plains Express are renewable energy projects is that it isn’t even remotely credible. Big transmission lines are for one purpose only:  to support big, central power plants like coal and nuclear. And while we continue to invest in obsolete central-power infrastructure, the rest of the world is charging ahead with far more efficient electricity based on distributed power. With distributed power, we wouldn’t need to build any more big, ugly, expensive, inefficient power stations, and we wouldn’t need all these big, ugly, expensive, inefficient transmission lines to haul power over long distances. Instead, independent developers would build lots of small, nifty, clean, efficient power stations, near the loads where they’re needed. This has huge advantages: efficiency goes to the moon, costs go down, reliability improves, and lots of new players come into electricity markets, bringing innovation and private capital with them.

So I don’t think Harris’ superstation is so super after all, and I sure don’t think it has anything to do with renewable energy. No, my guess is that Tres Amigas is a component of a poorly conceived plan to revive the nuclear power industry here in New Mexico. Harris built and ran a nuclear power plant years ago, and this past April he admitted being approached by developers who want to locate nuclear power plants near his project. And why wouldn’t they? We’ve got a nuclear fuels plant going in down in Eunice, New Mexico, and there’s a big push under way to allow our nuclear waste dump in Carlsbad to take high-level waste. All we need is a few reactors and his multi-billion dollar super thingy, and we’re the new, nuke capital of the U.S.

The debate over whether nuclear power is a good idea is a completely separate issue. The question for now is, why are big power-line developers all claiming that their wires are for hauling sunshine? Instead of hints of pinon and juniper, I’m starting to pick up a strong scent of green goo. Whew...check your boots, fellas! And then put ‘em outside where the sunshine can dry ‘em out, assuming you didn’t sell it all to California already.


Getting Beyond the Oil Age

I'll be giving a lecture and leading a discussion this Sunday morning at 11:00 at the Travel Bug in Santa Fe. The lecture will be about how we should respond to the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. After reading hundreds of articles on the topic, and watching dozens of hours of eyewitness testimony from guys on the rig, I have a pretty good idea what happened. This one had a lot of people musing about "game over" scenarios for the planet, so I think our response needs to measured with that in mind. I don't think increasing regulation is going to do it for me!

I hope to see you there, and I'm looking forward to the discussion!

You can download a flyer of the event here.


Mark on "Living on the Edge" with David Bacon

I was on David Bacon's "Living on the Edge" program at 6:30p Thursday on KSFR 101.1 FM in Santa Fe, discussing the need to "Free the Grid". I don't think the shows are archived, so I hope you got to hear it live.

What do you think about a state-wide movement to make the grid a public asset dedicated to the public interest?