Group hoping to answer questions on solar power

James Neiss/staff photographerThe sun shines bright on a large solar farm, with signs from BlueRock Solar and CIR Electrical Construction Corp. at the entrance on Grand Island on Bedell Road.

When answering a self-inquired question, ‘Is solar power cheap enough?’ Richard Perez, a senior researcher of the University of Albany, quoted Fortune magazine saying, “Solar PV is rapidly becoming the least expensive technologies to generate electricity on a pure energy (kWh) basis.”

Perez was asked to speak by the United Solar Energy Supporters in New York on a webinar streamed Thursday on their site, usesny.org. To begin with, he asked the three questions: ‘Is solar big enough?’, ‘Is it cheap enough?’ and ‘What about when the sun does not shine?’

Perez said that while the planet is in danger from the greenhouse gases causing climate change, those same gases are traceable to our energy consumption, and a change in energy consumption could drastically change those numbers.

“The planet used about 19 terra watts of energy a year,” he said. “Currently the economies of the world power that consumption with the four big ones: coal, petroleum, natural gas and uranium. These resources are finite and someday we’ll run out of them and they’ll get more and more expensive to tap into them — if we don’t destroy the world before we stop using them.”

According to Perez, solar can produce 23,000 terra watts a year, and in terms of cost, Perez said people in the industry have told him that, in a couple of years, it could cost “a dime a watt.”

But this will take change, Perez said, though he explained that technology is there and will only get better, the regulation and policy of how energy is produced will be severely different from now and when this energy consumption revolution takes place.

Solar is intermittent, said Perez, as in it does work all the time, when it is cloudy, at night, etc.

“I think it’s intermittent, marginal position is at the root of some of the opposition that is growing in the country,” he said. “Someone has to manage that viability.”

In not only a daily intermittent cycle, but a seasonal cycle as well, Perez said the energy has to be transformed into something that is reliable.

“Energy storage is on everybody’s lips,” he said. “There is one major issue with it, because while unconstrained kilowatts are very cheap, to make it firm energy – 24/7 – is a small fortune in energy storage only, because we’ll need so much of it.”

The solution? Overbuild solar farms.

“It sounds hopeless, unless you think outside the box, and think overbuilding the solar resource and by design you curtail it, you throw away some of the output generated, you don’t hold on,” Perez explained. “When you do that something very interesting starts to happen.”

It’s at this point where the cost of the storage of firm energy goes down, but unconstrained kilowatts from solar panels costs goes up, according to Perez, because a lot of it is being thrown away. However, a sweet spot is found where they meet, leading Perez and his colleagues to believe that solar power could be very possible throughout the year at a very small cost.

“Overbuilt to curtail is so effective, we called it implicit storage because it acts as a catalyst to storage and enable storage to do what it does with much less of a cost,” he said.

Perez said that it’s less technology but policy that needs to be changed.

“The solution that would get us there is not monetizable today,” he said. “We’re not entitled to build and throw away half of our production. It doesn’t work that way. So, we’re kind of stuck on an expensive, modulized mode when we could direct ourselves to a low cost and grid dominated future.”

Perez went on to show that for the state of New York needs 360 square miles of solar farms to generate the amount of power needed.

“We are going to overbuild everything by 50%, that has to occupy some space,” he said. “15% of urban space, 5% of suburban space, 5% percent of open water, and then 1% of farmland. That exceeds 650 square miles, so much more than needed to do the job.”

USES is a pro-solar group dedicated to education of solar power. It has 200 supporters and is endorsed by such organizations as the Sierra Club. It has been streaming and recording webinars on its webpage since March.

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