Sun Power: Is It Time To Explore Massive Solar Panel Sites?

There is an interesting graphic by solar panel advocates showing the area needed to be covered by solar panels to fuel the world. These are obviously huge areas but it offers an interesting perspective.

The advocates point out that large areas of such panels could produce massive amounts of energy — particularly if located in places like the Saharan Desert. (That would make the currently poor Saharan people the new energy-rich producers). According to the site, the total energy needs for 2030 could be met with less than 500,000 square kilometers of solar panels.

Obviously, there are tremendous technological barriers in getting energy from such spots to population centers and maintaining such massive grids. However, it does offer an alternative view of how to break our dependence on oil.

44 thoughts on “Sun Power: Is It Time To Explore Massive Solar Panel Sites?”

  1. Tony C.

    The sliver cell process gets 10 times the solar cell area from a silicon wafer that the traditional solar cell fabrication technique produces. The sliver cells are flexible and can be fastened to curved surfaces or even flexible surfaces.

    Slicon is not the only material for which progress is being made in solar cell production. Here is another Catalyst article about artificial photosynthesis using nano particles of titanium dioxide coated with dyes.

    Finally this article also from Catalyst is about solar cells made from plastic polymers.

  2. Tony C.

    The progress in solar powered aerial vehicles does have relevance to the article by J T at the head of this thread in as much as it indicates just how far solar voltaic technology has come in efficiency and performance/price ratio. Yes lightweight construction materials are important, but do you really think anyone would be coating the enormous wings of these vehicles in solar cells unless the price of doing so had come down very considerably. Of course the original solar areoplane Helios was made by NASA which is hardly constrained in the budget it could use, but now NASA is not the only organization in the solar aeroplane business.

    The zephyr is a prototype for a permanent high altitude observation drone which could be used for such things as replacing cell phone towers or for military observation. It is not that far from having real economic uses.

    Tony you are ignoring the fact that solar voltaic technology is a an offshoot of semiconductor technology which has improving in performance/price ratio by many orders of magnitude. There may not be scope for as many orders of magnitude in solar voltaic performance as in the rest of the semi-conductor industry such as microprocessor performance but even a further 5 fold increase in performance versus price would make solar voltaic power stations in dry desert areas economic.

    Did you read the article on sliver solar cells made by slicing silicon wafers vertically to which I provided links in an earlier post. This allows a much greater yield of solar cells from the same area of silicon wafer than if the solar cells are made from the wafer horizontally in the traditional way of integrated circuits. Here it is again so you do not have to go back to search for it.

    The article is from 2007 so progress has probably been made since then. Here is google search on sliver solar cells which produced a hit lit of about 19000 entries.

  3. @Carlyle: I suppose you are just an enthusiast for aerial solar vehicles, but just to be clear, you do understand this has absolutely nothing to do with the article you are commenting upon, right? It is no more impressive than using a solar cell to charge the $$14.95 calculator from the student bookstore. They aren’t making breakthroughs in solar cell technology, they are making breakthroughs in strong lightweight construction materials.

    Scientists looking at materials science for strong lightweight cheap materials see many opportunities for experimentation and advancement, papers and grants. Scientists looking at solar cell science do not, the low hanging fruit is gone, and the higher fruit takes a lot of money to reach, big projects (not just me and a grad student) with big resources (a silicon fabrication plant, for example).

    These solar powered airplanes do not represent advances in solar power! They are not ambassadors from a solar powered world.

  4. To be free of Big Oil’s tyranny, we must first be rid of their lackeys in government. This means the Barbour’s and Barton’s of the world. The base technologies exist that with a Manhattan Project level of effort, the United States could be the first carbon-free hydrogen based economy with public not for profit ownership. The change in ownership from private to public is critical. We have been economic slaves to puppeteers like BP and OPEC for far too long. Operated as a public trust as the defining management feature would keep market based abuses out of our energy supply infrastructure so critical to not just national security but national prosperity by removing private greed from the financial equation. Private greed which is the direct cause of “accidents” like BP had in the Gulf. Accidental like pedophilia is accidental. The reason we have not seen such an effort to eliminate bad actors like BP from our economy all together is the corrupting graft of the lobby and campaign finance systems that prop up clowns like Barbour and Barton. They serve to keep their Big Oil masters in power, not the best interests of the country. To be free from economic slavery requires that the chains be broken and the corporatist slave owners crushed.

    Nature points the way to freedom.

    The government is simply too self-evidently corrupted to take the right path without being forced to comply.

  5. @Carlyle:

    Sorry, that is a bit underwhelming. This plane is a feat of engineering materials, not solar voltaic coming far. It is 208 feet long, covered with 12,000 photovoltaic cells, and has four 10 horsepower engines. Forty horsepower is about about 30 kilowatts of energy. That is about 2.5 watts per panel. There is no advance here in photovoltaic power; the engineering feat here is the advanced materials used to achieve the incredibly light weight. They say THAT two or three times in this article; and do not mention anything about an advance in solar power.

    Even if they had, the point is moot. High efficiency photovoltaic is possible, especially with millions of dollars, an obsession, and the limited amount necessary for this project (just enough to cover the plane).

    I haven’t claimed photovoltaic cannot generate electricity. My understanding was that **high efficiency** cells would be necessary to do any significant good covering one’s house, or putting in one’s yard, and there is insufficient of the rare metals necessary to manufacture enough high efficiency cells to power any significant number of homes.

    Even if that understanding is wrong (and it might be, I haven’t looked recently), at the moment photovoltaic power is running at 2.5 times the cost per kilowatt hour of solar thermal. Thermal is the more practical alternative, and will be for at least another 10 years.

    Thermal has the engineering and production advantage as well. Polished aluminum mirrors, glass rods, steam, and lightweight sun tracking motors (because they move so slowly) are all undergrad engineering tech. Unlike photovoltaic cells, this stuff could be pumped out by thousands of low tech factories and robots by the square mile, and the materials are mundane, cheap commodities.

    Why be enamored of a high-tech solution in ten years when a low tech solution can do the job today? Cover our deserts with thermal and be powered tomorrow. Or send another ten trillion dollars to the Middle East over the next decade (literally, ten trillion), and hope somebody figures out in that time how to reduce the cost of photovoltaics just to the same cost per kilowatt hour as thermal is *today*.

  6. Tony C.

    The performance/price ratio of solar voltaic has improved enormously since they were first invented. A similar increase in the future will certainly bring them to a point where their use will be economical. There are so many avenues of research sopening up such as cells made of gallium arsenide, cells made of plastic semiconductors and cells using organic dyes.

    Did you read the Catalyst article about the sliver cells? There are several other solar voltaic related articles including the one on cells using dyes to capture the energy from photons and cells printed on plastic film.

    Where rare earth metals (neodynium I think is the one used) are needed is in the making of very strong permanent magnets needed for high power to weight ratio electric motors needed to use the output of solar cells.

  7. @Carlyle:

    Perhaps I am wrong. My understanding when I looked into it was that all the advances in efficiency of solar voltaic had required doping with expensive metals, which were available only in small quantities.

    As a result, the physicist I was reading claimed very little scientific advance had been made in CHEAP solar voltaic and all the hype in making it efficient enough to be an affordable alternative was moot, because there wasn’t enough material in the world to accomplish that for any significant percentage of the world need.

    Yes, if it can be done with silicon and iron and copper, hallelujah. Can it generate enough electricity over the lifetime of the cell to at least be comparable to wind, or thermal solar, or geothermal? (I mean within 50% or so of their net lifetime productions).

    That was not the case even five years ago, but if it is true now I don’t mind being wrong.

  8. @Buddha:

    Geothermal is everywhere; we have a world full of drilling experience, and it is completely green with zero emissions. It has a tiny land footprint; as small as a warehouse or city block. It is not as cheap as wind, but only about 20% more expensive than coal, last time I checked. There are self-contained low-temp systems that use the bottom of the hole as a fire box, by low-temp I mean they use fluids that expand with heat at 180F or so; well below the boiling point of water. I’m not sure of the mechanical details but I think they basically work like an internal combustion engine with massive torque to drive a generator on the surface; except instead of exploding gas, the heated liquid is expanded by the downhole heat. All of this is self-contained and the liquids are non-toxic.

    There is enough geothermal energy in the USA to supply our needs ONE HUNDRED TIMES over. If we exploited one percent of it, we would be self-sufficient.

    The other advantages of geothermal: It is distributable in small quantities. A small village can be supplied by a single hole. Larger complexes can be made, but you could also use up a block in a sub-division of a few hundred houses to supply it alone. This also makes it resilient; holes are independent and if one goes out, the others keep on chugging away.

    Geothermal is resistant to terrorist attack; it is a hole in the ground. Blow it up and you need to drill a new hole. No radiation released.

    Geothermal is 24/7. Although storing electricity is an addressable concern with solar or wind, with geothermal it is not a concern at all.

    I guess the big disadvantages are:

    It is closest to the surface around the rockie mountains; as you move toward the East coast it gets so deep we aren’t sure it is cost effective to drill for it. Offshore wind might cost half or a third as much as geothermal for he East coast.

    Although we do have plenty of experience drilling for oil and gas in the USA, so I do not worry too much about the drilling operation itself, we have less experience extracting heat from rock. Using the heat means essentially a massive COOLING operation on the deep rock, and there may be unexpected consequences of that. I don’t know the science of that, and haven’t seen any addressing it.

  9. If someone back in the nineteen sixties suggested that solar voltaic cells would ever produce electricity cheaply enough to compete with coal, they would have been driven from the room in a gale of derisive laughter and rightly so. But solar voltaic technology has come a long way since then. There are aeroplanes that take off and climb to over 96000 feet entirely on solar power.

    Semi-conductor technology on which the production of solar voltaics depends is still advancing at the same compound rate. It should not take many more years of this before mass power generation using solar voltaics becomes price competitive with coal, and then woe betide the owners of coal mines and oil wells.

  10. Tony C

    “Having investigated this myself (I am a full time scientist) the problem with this projection is that the rare earth metals currently used in solar panels are *rare* and the entire known world supply and reserves (stuff still in the ground) could not build more than about 5% of these panels.”.

    What rare earths are used in solar cells? I understood that solar voltaics were made using standard semiconductor fabrication techniques with silicon as the base semi-conductor and doping agents from column 3 and 5 of the periodic table. None of these materials are rare.

    Incidentally their is a technique of slicing the cells vertically from the wafer which gives an enormous increase in yield per silicon wafer compared to the normal horizontal slicing of the wafer that means the area of cells is less than that of the wafer surface. This vertical slicing technique also produces cells that are so thin that they can bend without breaking and can be attached to flexible surfaces such as plastic films. See this article from the web site for Catalyst, an ABC (Australian Broadcasting Commission) TV science program.

  11. The problem with alternatives to fossil fuels is that if we start to use them prematurely this might prematurely lead to advances in these technologies and to economies of scale that reduce the price of the energy produced by such alternatives to the point that they actually become competitive with fossil fuels.

    For owners of petroleum and coal reserves this would be a catastrophe. This is why it important to delay action on Greenhouse warming until any such action taken will be futile anyway and it will therefore be pointless to try it. We should not stop using coal and oil until the last drop of extractable oil and the last gram of mineable coal has been burned. Australia for example has 800 years supply of coal in the ground and Australian coal miners and their employees want to realize the value of every gram.

  12. Tony,

    I agree with your assessment of solar and the proper solution (at this time). There are, however, advances in organic photovoltaics that could render the rare earths constraint moot. What’s your take on geothermal?

  13. An excellent point and one that need to have some implementation.

    We do need to remember that solar, wind, water and other sources of energy use a lot of metal and polymers (think heat from coal for the meal and petroleum for polymers) for production.
    In some ways that argues for saving our petroleum and ores for production of long lived products, like solar and wind equipment.

    We need also to remember whereever these alternative sources are installed they will destroy the local environment and allow powerful often immoral businesses to take over local economies and in many instances to install corrupt often brutal puppet governments.

    That 500K square kilometers of destroyed ecology would probably be doubled by road access. Wind turbines do the same. All of this reduces the natural ecology, often kills trees, strips sod and adds to wind and rain erosion, and impacting local wildlife.

    Everything we as H. sapiens do to satisfied our increasing population needs comes at a cost to all other natural populations and their environments.

    1. Just a note for today. I have been tied up in litigation this weekend so postings will be slightly delayed (actually I am running to take one of the kids to fencing without wifi so I will post the remainder when I return).

  14. University of Pennsylvania Law School



    A Joint Research Center of the Law School, the Wharton School,
    and the Department of Economics in the School of Arts and Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania.

    The cross-examination, carried out by Jason Scott Johnston, Professor and Director of the Program on Law, Environment and Economy at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, found that “on virtually every major issue in climate change science, the [reports of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] and other summarizing work by leading climate establishment scientists have adopted various rhetorical strategies that seem to systematically conceal or minimize what appear to be fundamental scientific uncertainties or even disagreements.”

    Professor Johnson, who expressed surprise that the case for global warming was so weak, systematically examined the claims made in IPCC publications and other similar work by leading climate establishment scientists and compared them with what is found in the peer-edited climate science literature. He found that the climate establishment does not follow the scientific method. Instead, it “seems overall to comprise an effort to marshal evidence in favor of a predetermined policy preference.”

    Read more:

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