California and New Mexico among other locations are considering significant solar power plants to take advantage of their regular weather patterns of sun. It is fair game to inquire, then, on the overall effectiveness and practicality of solar power systems on the large scale. How much can solar power be used to provide for America’s energy base?
The proposed answer is simple. Pound for pound and dollar for dollar solar power stations can not create the output of a fossil fuel power station. The energy trapped in coal, natural gas, and diesel fuel is very concentrated and very potent. Combustion fuels will continue to outperform the renewables market for as long as carbon based fuel prices remain low.
Combustible fuels can be thought of concentrated and stored solar energy from millenia before and in that sense are not really a bad thing. Without combustion, we would be without many modern technological developments, and we could not support our industrial base.
Most of our modern comforts and commercial activities are based on a foundation of several industries. This foundation includes processing raw materials like aluminum, iron, copper, steel, and more. This includes plants that produce machinery, tools, cars, airplanes and all the gadgets and gizmos we use in everyday life. This also includes heavy agricultural machinery and sawmills required to provide basic products to our economy.
The reality is our regular daily lives are very electricity intensive. This energy consumption is rooted in the infrastructure that bolsters our economy and our existence and the reality is it is supported by energy generated through combustion.
And here is the fundamental problem with large solar power plants. They can’t supply adequate energy to support America’s industrial base. This does not mean they are irrelevant or undesireable. It just means solar power systems make the most sense when used in residential and small commercial applications where energy consumption is moderate.
A 500 MW fossil fuel power plant can squeeze into a relatively small area of a quarter square mile without much challenge. When considering a photovoltaic solar power plant, nearly 1,140 acres (almost 2 square miles) of solar panels would have to be installed to equal this same capacity. This is 2 square miles of nothinig but solar panels, not even allowing for maintenance access roads and other maintenance space. Considering solar panels make peak power with the peak sunshine of the day then when you compare apples to apples we only get a quarter of the total output with more than eight times the space!
Where the weather and sunshine justify the use of solar power we need to integrate this useful power source into our energy portfolio. We must pay homage, however, to our modern combustion technologies. Modern combustion systems are cleaner and more efficient than ever before, and provide enormous amounts of power 24 hours a day. The energy density of fossil fuels is just to high to ignore when it comes to powering America’s industrial base.
Originally posted 2010-02-13 11:42:54.