Will China's Planned Solar Field Lower the Cost of Alternative Energy?

Sep 14, 2009 by Miranda Marquit weblog
Solar Farm
Panels from a solar farm in Spain. This solar farm will not be the largest when China's solar field opens. Image source: Treehugger.com

(PhysOrg.com) -- One of the biggest complaints that some have about solar power (and other forms of alternative energy) is that it is so much more expensive than the fossil fuels that are more commonly used today. However, this might change with China's ambitious plans to build a 2-gigawatt solar field in Inner Mogolia.

The solar field will be built by the U.S. company First Solar, and it is not scheduled to be completed for another 10 years, in 2019. The massive undertaking, though, could help make more competitive in terms of energy pricing. MarketWatch reports on the project, and its possible implications:

The project "represents an encouraging step forward toward the mass-scale deployment of solar power worldwide to help mitigate concerns," First Solar Chief Executive Mike Ahearn said in a statement.

The project will depend upon a "feed-in-tariff" supplied by the Chinese government, which will guarantee the pricing of the electricity it produces over a certain period, First Solar said.

"This type of forward-looking government policy is necessary to create a strong solar market ... which in turn continues to drive the cost of solar electricity closer to 'grid parity' -- where it is competitive with traditional energy sources," Ahearn said.

While many are not as impressed with the idea of climate change concerns, the idea of more affordable solar power appeals on another level. Being able to develop energy sources beyond , which will eventually run out and are located to large extent in countries of questionable stability, would contribute to energy security. also recognizes that it will need more energy as it moves forward in its efforts to become the next economic superpower. Fossil fuels will probably prove inadequate, so China is taking the time now to develop energy source for the future.

In the end, much of what is lacking in terms of alternative development and mass use is the political and financial will to front the money needed to give it a start. China is hoping that by providing political and financial capital it will be able to jump start a move toward increasingly affordable solar power.

© 2009 PhysOrg.com

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zevkirsh
3.2 / 5 (11) Sep 14, 2009
the first country to begin saving substantial amounts of money that is flowing OUT of the country by using renewable energy sources that are available within their country will reap tremendous benefits, second best is by using non-renewable energy sources avaiable in LARGE AMOUNTS within the country.

it is beyond me why the u.s.a. doesn't start finding a way to substitute for oil purchases via their massive coal, natural gas, wind and solar resources. oil contributes almost half a trillion annually to outflows, and that number is steadily climbing to a trillion as the dollar weakens and oil supply/demand balance tips over as developing nations mature.
defunctdiety
2.1 / 5 (7) Sep 14, 2009
The project "represents an encouraging step forward toward the mass-scale deployment of solar power worldwide to help mitigate climate-change concerns,"...

Never mind the world socioeconomic concerns this type of technology could help alleviate, let's see what we can do to fix something that's not broken.
Alburton
3.6 / 5 (8) Sep 14, 2009
...and lets hope it goes on that way for a looong long time.
It pleases me to read this article,as earlier today I read an inverview to a recent nobelprice winning physicist (no clue about his name,sorry) who pointed out that under the chinese government live 1/5 of the world population,making it impossible to plan a global energyshift without them.
Come on governments!Why not make this an engineering contest a la space race?Looks like the commies are going fast!
YankInOz
1.6 / 5 (7) Sep 14, 2009
As lovely as photovoltaic "fields" are - they are not the best method of energy production. I support any attempt to develop alternative methods of energy sources - not because of peak oil or climate change acceleration but because there are easier and less expensive ways to provide energy. What needs to be researched and developed are direct conversion methods that are available 24/7 - not just when the weather is good. China will also be the largest wind farm in the world. And I believe we will see tidal energy capture in the megawatts in China. Once the power is produced, if people are willing to truly study Lorentz's theories - we may see a remarkable reduction in the amount of energy needed to obtain the same results. There is technology from Japan that can reduce the amount of power/energy used by 50% to get the same results. And the inventor will not supply it to the US because of the dropping of the bombs. Interesting, aye. Fear and hate can win again.
Arikin
4 / 5 (2) Sep 14, 2009
YankinOz, What is the name of that technology and what kind of device, method, or software is it??? Or do you at least have the inventor's name.

I kinda doubt your 50% reduction as it is a even and commonly used guess figure.

Oh and don't forget the 3 gorges dams that produce electricity in China. Destroyed countless historical sites and displaced thousands from their homes.
dachpyarvile
3.4 / 5 (5) Sep 15, 2009
...
it is beyond me why the u.s.a. doesn't start finding a way to substitute for oil purchases via their massive coal, natural gas, wind and solar resources. oil contributes almost half a trillion annually to outflows, and that number is steadily climbing to a trillion as the dollar weakens and oil supply/demand balance tips over as developing nations mature.


It is most often cheaper to import oil than to produce and use our own on a larger scale. It is often cheaper to import other materials than to mine them here. This is an unfortunate situation but that is what exists.
docknowledge
3.3 / 5 (4) Sep 15, 2009
One day, solar energy will be so efficient and cost effective, environmentalist will complain fields of solar arrays are affecting local habitats?
dachpyarvile
2.8 / 5 (6) Sep 15, 2009
I am truly surprised that they are all not already doing that now. Depending upon size, habitat destruction can be quite substantial.

I know in California they are opposing stuff like this because their plans to install such things in the desert will break up the under-soil lichens and cause huge amounts of dust to be thrown up into the air.

This dust would be laden with bacteria and virii which will harm many people when they inhale it.
Kedas
4 / 5 (6) Sep 15, 2009
I think solar panel technology is going too fast to start such big projects, by the time it gets finished the panels would need to be replaced by something that gives twice the energy (and for the same price, maybe less).
If efficiency is about 70% or more then you can start thinking about doing that.
El_Nose
2.2 / 5 (5) Sep 15, 2009
You know what truthfullit is very possible that efficiency will not get terribly better for another 20 years... I believe it is in the best interest of the technology and the environment as a whole to invest in it now -- and the gain of having the infrustructure in place will be a great boon.

-personally i am all for destroying 2% of the desert, I know its important, to have a gain of no more coal fired power plants --- And I also am for the development of a energy grid based on superconducting fiber to transport the energy produced. In the long run the superconducting fiber replacing long distance lines will be the greater boon.
dachpyarvile
2.2 / 5 (5) Sep 15, 2009
Good luck with that. And when you and/or other people get infected with the newly airborne bacteria as a result, I hope you remember your opinion and what it cost the people who get infected and die as a result. I hope that you remember what it was like before many more tons of manmade GHGs over 17000 times more potent than CO2 get released into the atmosphere as a result of expanding said technology and the maintenance that goes therewith. :)
alq131
4 / 5 (4) Sep 15, 2009
@docknowledge,
It's already happening--Environmentalists are fighing over being more environmental. Two neighbors, both prius driving. One plants redwoods. The other installs solar on their house. The trees eventually grow to shade the solar. Who wins? The solar panels--the redwood owners had to cut their trees:
http://www.nytime...675.html
jselin
not rated yet Sep 15, 2009
Good luck with that. And when you and/or other people get infected with the newly airborne bacteria as a result, I hope you remember your opinion and what it cost the people who get infected and die as a result. I hope that you remember what it was like before many more tons of manmade GHGs over 17000 times more potent than CO2 get released into the atmosphere as a result of expanding said technology and the maintenance that goes therewith. :)


Pave the desert and use solar thermal. Done and done. Amirite?
otto1923
3.7 / 5 (3) Sep 15, 2009
China will also be the largest wind farm in the world. And I believe we will see tidal energy capture in the megawatts in China
Plus solar, huge dams, nukes, and what- a new fossil fuel plant a week? Plus a huge new deal for Aussie natural gas. Not just china- the world is desperately arranging for more Power. Which makes sense- energy production and use per capita has only ever increased as civilization has advanced. This scramble means unprecedented growth on the horizon- like the African land grab of the 1800s. Good or bad? Inevitable.
dachpyarvile
1 / 5 (1) Sep 17, 2009
Pave the desert and use solar thermal. Done and done. Amirite?


...and increase the level of ambient heat radiating into the atmosphere, as well as throw the dut into the atmosphere during the contruction phase...

Sigh... People do not learn...
Damon_Hastings
not rated yet Sep 18, 2009
-personally i am all for destroying 2% of the desert

That might not be necessary. Large solar farms are only popular right now because few individuals can afford the large up-front costs of solar (and the maintenance costs, and panel inefficiency.) But this will not always be the case. I suspect that, in the end, the cost of maintaining a power distribution grid will make grid electricity more expensive than home solar panels (or wind turbines or whatever), and the grid will gradually disappear. The average rooftop receives 10 times the solar energy needed to power everything under it. So imagine if you could buy $100 of solar panels and batteries, and have ample free electricity for life. Sound unlikely? Well, I just bought a $20 wrist watch that has a more powerful computer chip in it than a $10 million supercomputer from 50 years ago. Better, smaller, cheaper. That's just what technology does. All it needs is money -- which solar now has (finally!)
dachpyarvile
Sep 18, 2009
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
dachpyarvile
Sep 18, 2009
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
dachpyarvile
1 / 5 (1) Sep 18, 2009
We are a long way off from that time, unfortunately. What's more, this same amount of energy received from the Sun is not the same every day. One still needs a large area of south-facing, shade free land or roof to get even a fraction of that energy.
jselin
5 / 5 (1) Sep 18, 2009
Pave the desert and use solar thermal. Done and done. Amirite?


...and increase the level of ambient heat radiating into the atmosphere, as well as throw the dut into the atmosphere during the contruction phase...

Sigh... People do not learn...


You HAVE to be kidding me right? Dust control isn't a technical challenge and, as it turns out, gravity will eventually settle the dust that you miss. The solar radiation incident on that patch of desert will heat the ambient air anyway by conduction from the warmed ground. Sure the area will have a higher effective absorptivity but aren't most of the viable alternatives adding energy to the system anyway?
dachpyarvile
1 / 5 (2) Sep 18, 2009
Nope. No kidding around.

Yes, it will eventually settle out, but not before people breathe a lot of it in. The proof in principle can be seen in all the lung illnesses that occur in regions hit with large earthquakes. These illnesses are caused by airborne virii and bacteria in the dust raised.

The heating effect on desert ground is lower than the same effect from blacktop in the desert. And, the heat radiates off the blacktop in the desert into the atmosphere for some time longer than from the natural ground.
Damon_Hastings
not rated yet Sep 19, 2009
We are a long way off from that time, unfortunately.

Maybe not as far off as you think. Solar panels have been hovering below 15% efficiency for decades, but now that research dollars are finally coming in, labs are suddenly boasting efficiencies well over 30%. Analysts expect these to hit stores in a decade or two.

What's more, this same amount of energy received from the Sun is not the same every day.

Yep, and I'm already accounting for that. The average solar insolation in Alaska is around 250 watts per square meter (and 400 at the equator) -- and that already includes nights, winters, and clouds. That comes out to 46,000 watts of sunlight hitting a typical 2000 sq ft roof in Alaska. Maybe not all of the roof faces the right way; but even using 10% of this power would be more than enough for virtually all households. Nowadays, of course, covering a roof with solar panels would break the bank.
dachpyarvile
1 / 5 (1) Sep 19, 2009
In Alaska you also need to account for volcanic ash, ice-coating, snowfall and snow cover on your panels, as well as the rest of the normal factors, all of which subtract from efficiency. The cost of the panels themselves not only would break the bank but to make up for lack of efficiency the system itself would have to be capable of producing that sort of power. That makes the cost go up by order of magnitudes.

Today, no one would be able to afford such a monstrosity except the rich. And heaven forbid you should have to replace these in a few years for any reason. I have seen even professional quality PV cells break under the stress of extreme temperature variations.

In some place like Alaska I would think that you would have to find a way to keep temperatures from varying in the panels so as to prevent such breakage from occurring, increasing cost and decreasing efficiency.

Out of curiosity, would you have an approximate figure for how many people in Alaska actually use solar?
dachpyarvile
1 / 5 (1) Sep 19, 2009
I forgot to mention the fact that moderate solar installations in the far north also require fossil-fueled backup generators. Otherwise, in order to compensate for times when there are weeks of heavy cloud cover you would have to expand the system considerably, further breaking the bank, as you say. Most peoples' roofs are not large enough to hold such an array, either.
Damon_Hastings
not rated yet Sep 20, 2009
Yeah, I wouldn't recommend solar in Alaska with today's panels, since the days are so short in winter.

Today, no one would be able to afford such a monstrosity except the rich.

Exactly my point. Large-scale solar fields are only popular now because individuals can't afford solar. Yet.

The point I was trying to make was: once the cost of individual energy installations falls below the nominal maintenance cost of "the grid" (the power distribution networks), I suspect that "the grid" will gradually disappear. Power will become a commodity, not a service. And it will be a commodity you buy once (more or less) for free electricity thereafter. Should be a huge and interesting paradigm shift!

Most peoples' roofs are not large enough to hold such an array, either.

A 2000 sq ft roof covered in 10% efficient panels could generate over 4000 watts (including nights, winters, and clouds). But the cost is prohibitive -- for now.
dachpyarvile
1 / 5 (1) Sep 20, 2009
The problem that now faces us with the newer high efficiency PVs on the horizon is how to contain the GHGs associated with the manufacture and maintenance of these. These manmade GHGs are quite potent--on the order of magnitude!--and last many hundreds of years in the atmosphere.
Damon_Hastings
not rated yet Sep 20, 2009
Are you referring to nitrogen trifluouride (NF3)? While the current greenhouse contribution of NF3 is trivial (0.1% of the contribution from CO2), I agree that it could become a problem in the future, especially with solar panel manufacturing set to increase by maybe 100-fold. But they're already starting to phase NF3 out (in favor of F2), and it should be long gone well before we see a 100-fold increase in solar. Honestly, it's only being used as a cleaner, and there are lots of alternative cleaners.
dachpyarvile
1 / 5 (1) Sep 20, 2009
Yes, one of the compounds is nitrogen triflouride. The other is Sulfur Hexaflouride. Both of these are used in not only the cleaning of solar tech but in the manufacture thereof.

While these may be "trivial" now, each of these is more than 17,000 times the GHG that CO2 is. So, a little goes a long way.

Are you saying that they are going to start using pure flourine gas (F2) instead of nitrogen triflouride??? That's just nuts! I had not heard that...
Damon_Hastings
not rated yet Sep 20, 2009
Even at 17,000 times the potency of CO2 per molecule, there are just too few molecules in the air right now to matter: 0.16 parts per trillion. But, yeah, that number could certainly change (and fast!) if we suddenly started making 100 times as many solar panels as today, and without first phasing out NF3.

My understanding is that NF3 and SF6 are used only as cleaning agents, even during solar panel manufacture.

pure flourine gas (F2) instead of nitrogen triflouride???


Well, they break the gas into fluorine ions first, and only 2% of the gas survives. But, yeah, that's the direction:

From http://www.solar-...sted.php :

"fluorine gas (F2) has been identified as an effective alternative, having zero Global Warming Potential... this proven technology has been installed at more than 20 semiconductor, LCD and solar cell production sites..."

Concentrated F2 is highly corrosive, but not enough is produced to raise atmospheric levels.
dachpyarvile
Sep 21, 2009
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
GPG
not rated yet Sep 21, 2009
"It is most often cheaper to import oil than to produce and use our own on a larger scale. It is often cheaper to import other materials than to mine them here."
Plus you are "banking" your own reserves.
oneuniverseonlybydefinition
not rated yet Sep 21, 2009
In what way is the

production of solar cells

or

solar cells per se

"environmentally friendly"?

To avoid being mocked please do not refer to the 'carbon credit' shell game scam or wik*edia.

dachpyarvile
Sep 21, 2009
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
Damon_Hastings
Sep 21, 2009
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
Damon_Hastings
not rated yet Sep 21, 2009
While the TFT manufacturers seem to have begun jumping on board with F2 tech, it seems that the vast majority of solar manufacturers have not.

Agreed. And, in fact, F2 technology has been around since the 90's! The main reason it hasn't been widely adopted yet is because there are more urgent problems to work on. Due to its ultralow concentration in the atmosphere, NF3 still has only 0.1% of the global warming impact of CO2 -- and that number will likely stay under 1% for many years. I haven't checked into SF6 specifically, but I would expect similar numbers for it. By the time these numbers creep up to the point where they matter, there may well be a more cost-effective alternative than F2, and so many businesses are just taking a "wait and see" approach. Given that it's just a cleaner, swapping it out shouldn't be too hard on a technical level. Even so, many forward-thinking plants have already made the switch (and thus worked out any technical kinks.)
dachpyarvile
Sep 21, 2009
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
Damon_Hastings
not rated yet Sep 21, 2009
I still do not see how China's involvement in purchasing solar tech will bring the cost down to acceptable levels.

Yes, that's confusing to me, too. I was always taught that increasing the demand will *increase* prices. But perhaps they're assuming this will trigger larger investments in R&D and/or supply capacities, which will drive down prices in the long run. This is suggested by the Ahearn quote, and may have been mentioned in one of the "..." parts.