Concentrating on solar power

Despite the fact that there’s rumours the upcoming budget is going to throw money at putting solar panels on people’s roofs, the conservatives are no fan of solar cells. And you know what? They’re dead right.

Solar panels are one of the most expensive forms of renewable energy out there, and, despite claims of cost reductions in the pipeline, they haven’t gotten any cheaper over the past five years. Particularly if you factor in the cost of batteries if you’re trying to completely replace grid electricity. For that reason, while solar panels may be the energy source of the future, right now, they’re one of the most expensive ways imaginable to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

But the temptation of endless power from the sun is, well, tempting – there’s more than enough energy available, it’s just that a cost-effective means of tapping it is required. So it’s unsurprising that a less complicated but perhaps more affordable technology is getting a lot of attention at the moment – solar thermal energy.

Solar thermal is essentially a scaled-up version of frying ants with a magnifying glass. You use some kind of optical device – and, like telescopes, on a large scale mirrors are much cheaper than lenses- to collect the thermal radiation from the sun on a large area. You use your mirrors/lenses to focus all that thermal radiation on a much smaller area, which consequently gets nice and hot – potentially really, really hot. At that point, we can use the exact same technology we use in coal-fired power stations – the steam turbine – to turn that heat into electricity. Or a gas turbine. Or even something more exotic like a Sterling engine.

But there’s a problem. As well as not working at night, power plants like these won’t work at all if the sun is covered by cloud. So, if thermal solar power is to replace significant amounts of fossil fuel power, some method to store surplus energy when the sun’s shining, and release it again when it’s not, is required. While it’s certainly possible, like any other power source, to store the surplus electricity in batteries, there’s a more convenient, and cheaper, way to store the energy from the solar collector. Why not build something like a solar hot water system, where the heat energy is stored in an insulated tank for convenience?

A number of different projects around the world are proposing to do just that, though they mostly don’t use water as the storage medium as it boils at too low a temperature to be convenient. A number of different materials have been proposed, from molten salts to solid concrete, as energy storage – indeed, there have even been proposals to use molten salt as the working fluid in solar thermal plants, rather than water. But there’s a problem: molten salts, well, don’t stay molten if you let them cool to ambient temperatures.

So, to prevent seizing up your energy storage system, and allow a solar thermal plant to produce power all the time, many systems turn to an alternate heat source – natural gas. You can use natural gas in a hybrid solar thermal system right now, even without energy storage – instead of using the sun to make steam, you run a boiler with gas. This can, apparently, be cheaper than running separate natural gas fired power stations, as you don’t have to pay a second generator and turbine. However, while it’s running on natural gas, it’s just another fossil-fuel fired power station emitting greenhouse gases into the air.

The key question with this technology, is not so much the environmental goodness, it’s the cost. And that’s where the big unknowns come in. The US government’s renewable energy lab reports estimates that power from “parabolic trough” systems costs about 12 US cents per kilowatt hour right now, but projects costs going down to somewhere round 6 cents per kilowatt hour in a decade or so (big PDF document)). But there are hints that parabolic trough technology has been outrun by a new, Australian solar thermal technology. Ausra doesn’t have much to say on its website, but their chief investor, Vinod Khosla, claims that a gigawatt-scale plant, planned for “a few years from now”, will produce power at below than 7 US cents per kilowatt hour. The 4 Corners program I mentioned in an earlier post has an extended interview with Khosla in which he mentions the specific figure. The program also has a good illustration of the Ausra system, which uses less costly flat mirrors and simpler pipe technology than the hard-to-manufacture parabolic troughs.

Khosla is publicly confident that the technology he is investing in will be a dominant force in carbon-free power in the future. But, then, he is a venture capitalist. Keep in mind these numbers (which are anecdotal, but sound about right to me). Only maybe 2 out of 10 venture capital investments ever make serious money. More broadly, solar thermal remains a gamble. It’s a promising technology, sure. But ruling out geosequestration and nuclear on the basis that cheap solar thermal is just round the corner is a stretch not even Khosla was prepared to make.

Posted in environment, Technology
79 comments on “Concentrating on solar power
  1. I would go further and say that ruling out nuclear on the basis that geosequestration is just around the corner is a stretch.
    The technology behind geoseqestration has not even been demonstrated and there is no evidence, anywhere, that it is actually works. The government, and the opposition, are only boosting it because they need the votes of the coal miners, not because they believe it works.

  2. BilB says:

    As usual Robert a good post. The sterling engine is an exciting prospect. My preferences for my domestic solution include a combination fresnel relector running the roof length in a well created by a mansard roof construction (this will give me 30 to 50 sq metres of collector area at low cost, the roof change is planned anyway to allow for upstairs rooms and the mansarding just makes them larger). The mirrors concentrate heat onto a single oil pipe of the concentrating solar construction. The oil circulates to a combination absorptive air conditioner (google: broad solar air conditioners) and a 3.5 kilowatt sealed unit sterling cycle generator (google: Whispertech in Christchurch New Zealand). The Whispertech generator runs presently on gas and to date only produces 1.2 kilowatt (240 volt), but they will, I believe, eventually make a larger unit. The beauty of this engine is that it uses a swashplate construction and is hermetically sealed. They claim a safe 40,000 hour running life. A larger unit built for solar power would have a variable swashplate (the current design is fixed) which would better cope with the variable energy flows of solar collectors. Sterling engines have a hot spot and a cold spot. The cold spot is well above domestic water temperature levels. In an extreme extension you can cook with circulating hot oil (everything except grilling). So if this whole package costs under $20,000 then it turns a tidy profit in its running life. Storage and/or gas (even wood fired is practical) are used for non solar periods.

    Has anyone done any research on 21st century coal gas? Can it be done better than it was done in the past?

  3. Looked into coal gas. Can be done. Needs geosequestration otherwise it’s an environmental disaster.

    By the way, wood power may be renewable and thus carbon-neutral, but it’s a killer otherwise. Your average wood stove puts out as much particulate matter, NOx, and various other very nasty local pollutants as hundreds of cars. Unless you’re going to put in expensive scrubbers in the system to remove those, wood is a nonstarter for urban areas. Indeed, governments around Australia should ban them from built-up areas.

  4. MrLefty says:

    While we’re on renewable energy ideas, there’s also Paul Kouris’ vortex generator, which could be worthwhile if it proves that it works when they build a full one near Ballarat.

  5. Sorry Mr Lefty, but this sounds like a crock:

    It’s the principle of spin, and according to Melbourne-based inventor Paul Kouris, the basic theory to his invention can be witnessed any time there’s water swirling down a plug hole.

    This has nothing to do with the rotation of the earth – it’s an old hubby’s tale. Why do so many people believe it? Because they see water spinning round the plughole all the time, but they never systematically observe it or experiment with it.

    Fact is, that vortex around the plug hole in your sink can be made to spin either way – it’s a matter of setting up appropriate local conditions. And you don’t need to do anything as crude as setting up a general rotation in the sink to achieve that – a well placed sock in the laundry trough will do it.

    Try it out some time. Or keep a sink rotation diary for a couple of weeks.

    And that’s enough off-topic stuff from me.

  6. MrLefty says:

    I think the ABC describes it badly, and it’s not really the same thing as water in a sink at all; there’s enough basis to the idea that they’re trialling it. ( But I’m not an engineer.

  7. pre-dawn leftist says:

    I was just listening to the Science Show on Radio National (one of my very favourite radio programs). There was a segment on wave power, specifically examining a project nearly completed in Scotland. I didnt realize but the potential of wave power is enormous, and it ticks all of the climate change boxes. There are problems of course, but it beats nuclear and coal hands down (well, just about anything does).

    All of the renewable energy options will have their place in the electricity generation mix of the future- the days when we think we can rely on a single power source (even though we never really have) are past. Now if only we can convince Howard and co…

  8. carbonsink says:

    Sorry off topic, but does anyone here think Howard has the politics right on nuclear power? Seems to me he’s on a hiding to nothing with today’s announcement. I reckon most voters either don’t give a damn about climate change so don’t understand why we’d be building these scary nukes, –OR– don’t understand the cost and baseload issues with renewables, so don’t understand why we’d be building these scary nukes instead of wind farms, solar and geothermal.

    IMO, Howard has lost the plot. I can’t see any votes in this for him.

    Oh and BTW, I know you views on nuclear power Robert, and personally I’d much rather see us build nukes than clean coal. This is a comment on the politics only.

    BilB, do you still think we can run the world on biofuels?

  9. MrLefty says:

    And one thing – the coriolis effect certainly isn’t responsible for the direction of the water spinning in your plughole, because it’s completely outweighed by much more significant comparative factors on that scale.

    But it IS a real force, and presumably has a more significant impact on larger bodies of water such as in dams connected to hydro-electricity generating plants.

    However, it’s a long time since I did physics so I won’t comment further.

  10. The Coriolis effect is real, but tiny in magnitude, hence the minimal effect it has on the direction of your bath.

    Therefore, the amount of additional energy available from tapping it would seem to be miniscule compared to that available from conventional hydropower.

  11. Carbonsink: you’ve really got me on that one. Politically, I can’t see him gaining a single vote, but there are plenty of votes to be lost on the topic.

    I was planning to put up the nuclear thread we had to have after the conference announcement and Howard announces whatever it is he’s going to announce.

  12. says:

    For that reason, while solar panels may be the energy source of the future, right now, they’re one of the most expensive ways imaginable to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

    But their output coincides with peak demands – ie hot days when everyone switches their A/C on. There is currently massive fossil fuel infrastructure just for these days. Energy Australia has, I believe, $1bn worth.

    Nuclear, if financed fairly is too expensive, much too slow (compared to gas) to respond to changes in demand in any meaningful way and has inherent waste problems. Renewables with some gas can easily provide baseload.

  13. Helen says:

    I’m sick of people always claiming that Solar can never be anything but a minor energy provider.

    And as for off the grid, well, put everything on the grid that we possibly6 can!

    The point is: in the olden days the predictions of what was and wasn’t going to succeed, or work, in the future were always off. And innovations like the motor vehicle were pretty slow and clunky and inefficient at first. The catalyst? the political will to spend lots and lots of money researching and developing. If Solar wasn’t the poor relation to coal, oil and other things which make a shitload of money for their apologists, the technology would advance. And instead of being a glorified quarry we might even be able to go back to producing and exporting both solar technology and the knowlege behind in it.

    I know I’m dreaming, as you were

  14. so does solar thermal, and it doesn’t cost in the order of 40 cents a kilowatt hour, or, slightly more generously, 25 cents a kilowatt hour if you install it on a large factory instead of on your own roof and thus the costs of inverters and whatnot scale better.

  15. BilB says:

    Carbonsink, most definitely, but not completely. Bio fuels are the transition fuel that will take us from all petrol to anything less than all petrol (the anything being whatever total volume of ethanol mixed with total volume of petrol required for the balance). Google Advance Ethanol. These current providers of ehtanol say that the today price for E85 is $.89 per litre. The flex fuel convertor costs $500 to have it fitted. E85 will work in any fuel injected engine. You do the maths. It is E85 all the way for me when it is available until I can buy an all electric vehicle.I would prefer to be driving an all electric vehicle, but these are not available yet. Some experts claim that concentrating solar thermal power systems will return more energy per square kilometer that ethanol. There is more desert available than wet farm land so the probable direction is clear.

    My other prefered form of transport is either the TL 2000 Sting or the Pipistrel Virus. I haven’t decided yet. But to appease my environmental conscience I will have to power whichever I choose with E85.

  16. Christine Keeler says:

    …but does anyone here think Howard has the politics right on nuclear power? Seems to me he’s on a hiding to nothing with today’s announcement.

    Not particularly, but it’s more of just the same old same old, ‘people say I’m wrong, but I know I’m right’ (and an attempt to wedge Labor) man of conviction politics isn’t it?

    Ultimately it’s just his 1950s response to ‘misguided’ concerns about climate change.

    I think you’re wrong about voters not caring about climate change BTW, and I think that’s his problem.

  17. carbonsink says:

    I think you’re wrong about voters not caring about climate change BTW, and I think that’s his problem.

    I didn’t say that. I said there are two categories of voters, those who care and those who don’t care, and I don’t think Howard’s “nukes everywhere” policy appeals to either. I reckon its probably two-thirds / one-third split in favour of those who do care about climate change.

  18. tigtog says:

    But their output coincides with peak demands – ie hot days when everyone switches their A/C on.

    Solar panels also act directly as a heat sink on your roof, absorbing solar energy that would otherwise heat your house, thus cutting the energy needed for A/C as well.

    I’m with Helen.

  19. carbonsink says:

    Anecdote time:

    A friend of mine, very environmentally aware, wants to do the right thing, had his electric hot water heater blow up. Gas is not available where he lives, he has a big house with three young kids who can’t go long without hot water. He looked at solar, but by the time he’d paid for the (much more expensive) solar heater, the plumbing and electrics he was looking at close to $10K. The electric heater could be replaced for $1K. A no brainer really. You’d have to be very, very committed, and/or very well off to go solar.

    The plumber said “that’s why no-one goes solar” … and solar hot water is much cheaper and has a much shorter payback period than solar PV.

    Which got me thinking, what would have changed my friend’s decision? I reckon even if we taxed the crap out of coal-fired electricity the up-front costs of solar would still put most people off. It really has to be heavily subsidised by the govt, probably in a way that the consumer never sees the real cost. Kinda like bulk-billing medicare where the plumber, electrician etc just invoice the govt for half the cost and the consumer pays the rest.

  20. tigtog: and, conversely, in winter they absorb solar energy that would otherwise heat your house. Not all of us live in tropical climates, you know!

    In any case, a question to both Helen and tigtog: have you actually priced a solar system for your house?

  21. Austin says:

    Clearly no government want to properly test the larger viability of these technologies. Otherwise there would be a reasonable system in place to assist in making the required investments. I guess subsiding Nuclear and Geo-sequestration are more palatable, for whatever reason.

  22. Brian says:

    Robert, our neighbour who’s not a dill is thinking of going solar and reckons he’ll be selling electricity to the grid and get his money back over 25 years. That was a quick exchange, I’ll try to find out more, but I reckon it’ll have to be good to get past his missus, who is the practical one.

    Carbonsink, you are suggesting that the government picks the winner and subsidises it. On present information I’d lean to geothermal.

    Nevertheless, I’d be happy with governments subsidising home solar at least to the extent that they would be paying to supply a similar amount of grid energy. Whoops, that’s assuming public ownership of grid power!

    I’ve just heard that Labor has approved the ‘more mines’ policy.

  23. carbonsink says:

    In any case, a question to both Helen and tigtog: have you actually priced a solar system for your house?

    I have. For a typical 3-4 bed house you could just about cover most of your electricity use with a 2.5kW PV system, which is around $35,000. Depends where you live of course. It would work much better in Cairns than Hobart. Here’s a price list for installed solar PV systems.

    And here’s a solar PV calculator that will tell you how much your PV system will generate given ideal roof angle and orientation (unlikely).

  24. BigBob says:


    Biofuels are having a rough time getting started in Aus.

    Don’t hold your breath on being able to get E85 any time soon. It is currently illegal to sell such a brew, with substantial fines attached.

    Government policy and the four major companies produce an environment that is not favourable towards any dramatic expansion in E10 sales either.

    Cellulosic ethanol production (the holy grail of ethanol) is at least 5 years from commercialistion, probably more like 10 years.

  25. carbonsink says:

    Carbonsink, you are suggesting that the government picks the winner and subsidises it.

    Yes. Look at my real-world example above. Even if we double or triple the price of coal-fired electricity, no-one is going to spend $10K on solar hot water or $30-$40K on solar PV.

  26. joe2 says:

    “In any case, a question to both Helen and tigtog: have you actually priced a solar system for your house?” says R.M.

    A fairer question, Robert , would have been, have you actually priced a ‘solar hot water system’, for your house?……… far less bucks , roof space and they work very well.

  27. Brian says:

    carbonsink, I’m not against picking winners as such. You’d like to think that the government would pick the right one.

    Howard has already done so. I think Clive Hamilton in his Perspectives piece on Radio National got him right. He’s relying on two large scale technologies – geosequestration for coal and a new type of nuclear reactor. Unfortunately, says Hamilton, neither will be available for 15 years, which many think is too late. Stationary energy is due to grow to 70% above 1990 levels by 2020 in Oz by one estimate I’ve seen.

    If tim were here and not moving house, he’d remind us of a CSIRO report pulled from the net last year which saw concentrated solar as competitive with coal by about 2013-2015. I gather Robert has doubts.

  28. Don Wigan says:

    About 12-15 years back, long before these issues got much public traction our local Warrnambool Standard paper ran a feature on an old farmer in the Illowa- Koroit district.

    At the time that electricity was introduced to the district (late 1920s-early 1930s) he was told that he would have to pay an upfront levy of 300 pounds to be linked to the SEC grid. In his words, there was no way he could afford to link up,even though he wanted the advantages of electricity.

    So he determined to generate his own electricity. He did this through a series of windmills on his farm property. (Our area is a very windy environment and has currently attracted a lot of ‘wind farm’ investment.) Soon he had enough to wire up his residence and enjoy the benefits of electricity such as lighting, radio, hot water and various appliances. (Some of this I think he had to do the hard way of converting the appliances to his voltage, which was not 240v from memory. But it didn’t seem to be a problem with his engineering and inventing skills.)

    Ultimately he had enough to consider other options. Using some electrolytic process he was able to extract hydrogen from water. He used this hydrogen to power his tractor and farm machinery. Obviously it all took a lot of work over half a century, but he said he didn’t ever have a day’s regret that he never paid the levy and joined the grid. Wish I’d kept the article.

    Sounds rather prophetic with where we are today.

  29. Jed says:

    The plumber said “that’s why no-one goes solarâ€? … and solar hot water is much cheaper and has a much shorter payback period than solar PV.

    Which got me thinking, what would have changed my friend’s decision?

    There is a scheme under development at the moment which (if it happens) will enable people to pay off the purchase price of the solar water heater in instalments as an alternative to the regular electricity bills.

  30. Jed says:

    …as an alternative to the regular electricity bills.

    actually only the hot water bit of the electricity bill, not quite so exciting a prospect, but worthy all the same

  31. Megan says:

    Well I can’t think of any way of generating electricity that is more expensive than nuclear energy. If you are honest about calculating the cost of energy production, you really have to take into account the scores of millenia you will have to spend money keeping the nuclear waste under secure enough wraps. And the costs of decommissioning old power stations are also astronomical.

    As far as coal is concerned if you take the full costs into account of producing energy it means counting all the environmental damage it causes in terms of emissions. Geosequestration just puts the problem under the carpet on top of adding further costs.

    I’m sure anyone in their right mind would consider solar energy far cheaper and smarter in the long term than these two dirty, primitive, cumbersome methods of energy production. Renewables are the true way of the future!

  32. Solar is JUST as cheap as oil

    if you subsidize it as much as they do oil. Check it out.

    2) If your electricity bill has penalties for using too much or has been divided up to 3 different bills as it is in most of the States, all you need to do is cut 1/4 to 1/2 your electriciy buying from the utility to cut your bill by 50 to 75%.

    How? They divide the bill into distribution, transportation, and electricity. They then double charge you for going over a ‘made-up’ base by doubling the transportation and distribution charges. Any way- Cut your electricity buying to UNDER any baseline and PRESTO! You get a 2-fer or even a quadruple whammy effect.

    Forget the batteries! Tie into the grid. Don’t expect energy prices to get LOWER, not with THESE groups in charge = faster and faster payback. Am I alone or doesn’t everyone realize that all the oil countries EXCEPT the US is buying TONS of SOLAR??? Google, HUGE stores, governments, countries… Hello? Do you really think they are ALL STUPID?

    Do like I did and set up a google alert every time solar power is mentioned. It’ll scare you to see how many new setups are being planned and bought.

  33. Russell says:

    I heard someone on the radio say that we couldn’t have big solar electricity plants because you would need huge cleared, flat, secured areas close to the city. Could we not use the railways? Build solar pergolas over the lines, covered with thousands and thousands of panels – the land is flat, cleared, secured, already owned by the governments and in the cities. Scaling up production of panels for such big projects would have to reduce the cost of them, wouldn’t it?

    Another reason not to dismiss panels on house roofs connected to the grid is that it’s something people, who have the means, can do. And if they can they should – it will all help, and it’s better than just waiting for some technology to be developed. Perhaps it should just be mandated for most new buildings – after all houses have gotten a lot larger (home theatres etc) with fewer people living in them. What you can afford shouldn’t be just ‘how many square metres’ – those square metres should have to be environmentally responsible.

  34. drscroogemcduck says:

    in order to increase steal output we should order every new house to be fitted with its own furnace.

  35. TimT says:

    Well I can’t think of any way of generating electricity that is more expensive than nuclear energy. If you are honest about calculating the cost of energy production, you really have to take into account the scores of millenia you will have to spend money keeping the nuclear waste under secure enough wraps. And the costs of decommissioning old power stations are also astronomical.

    But at the same time, there are several viable choices for dealing with nuclear waste. For instance, you can simply recycle it all and use it in a breeder reactor – nuclear waste gone! And I don’t imagine it could be THAT expensive storing it underground in a designated geologically stable area? Plus several other options, which I’m sure all have different costs.

    Also, it’s true, it costs billions of dollars to decommission nuclear power stations. But the power stations can have a long life, and they would more than offset these costs in that long life.

    There are nuclear power stations all over Europe, Britain, and the States. One would imagine everybody over there wouldn’t be that enthusiastic about them if they were as economically unviable as some people in Australia make them out to be!

  36. TimT says:

    Also, it has to be said that the enthusiasm of politicians for power sources (coal, oil, nuclear, wind, solar) and their willingness to throw public dollars at pretty much all of them is a fairly obvious example of people in power trying to pick winners. They’re trying to anticipate future technological developments that can’t really be anticipated.

    The companies involved recognise this; that’s why we get arguments so often from the solar-power lobby that the price of oil and coal-generated power ‘do not reflect the real costs’ and that pro-active subsidies are needed to ‘level the playing field’. It’s naked opportunism, the sort that belongs in defunct Soviet economies, and not the modern world. Take away all subsidies – NOW – that’s the only way you’ll get ‘real’ costs and not ‘artificial’ costs!

  37. St Margaret says:

    TimT – ‘And I don’t imagine it could be THAT expensive storing it underground in a designated geologically stable area?’

    Oh come on TimT! Australia might be the best place in the world to dump nuclear waste deep underground, but they keep having the darndest problems with manufacturing the containers. Apparently containers designed to last 1000 years are beginning to show problems after 10 years. And do you know that nuclear waste dumped on the Cotentin Peninsular in France is beginning to seep into underground water? Yes nuclear power might be popular all over the world, but that’s because human monkeys haven’t come up with anything better up until now. Anyway, in Iceland renewable energy generated thermo power stations supply all of the electricity and it is so cheap that they use it to warm footpaths at night.

    And another thing that bothers me about your post – if people have such a whiz bang method of getting rid of nuclear waste as the recycling method you mentioned then why is everyone still trying to dump it somewhere?

  38. TimT says:

    Hmmm – ‘if people have such a whiz bang method of getting rid of nuclear waste as the recycling method you mentioned then why is everyone still trying to dump it somewhere?’.

    Is everyone? I haven’t seen the figures relating to everyone.

    Thermo power may be an option, in some places. I simply think that in a nation as wide as Australia, with plenty of isolated areas perfect for safe storage, and with several other options at hand, that nuclear power may be an option as well!

  39. philip travers says:

    The future needs designers now,but the immediate problems are all around the electric grid.I just read in dear olde England they had a earth tremor and the power lines came down unlike humpty dumpty .I can and will defend solar wherever someones argument seems illogical,but lets try to remember that what is a system now or in the offering isnt the real solar power. For example ordinary black farm polypipe with water in it and out in the sun produces a level of hot water that is scolding.Methylated spirits added to that water will probably speed up that processs. To have the days hot water to extend into the night if large coils of this stuff were used, either needs a relevant insulation,which could be something rubber with a potential for two distinct layers ,of say, sand and vegetable oil..Once the night comes… just toss the rubber cover over it.The sand component could be used later to filter the water,and the vegetable oil inside one of the layers will heat up in the sun even if it isnt placed on the coils of black poly pipe.Water in the sand could be heated by other means ,and I think from memory and observation, sand holds its heat well,and slowly releases it.Inflatable rubber beds is what I had in mind.. One of the best solutions I have seen as a potential workhorse for power is what is being called a over unity boiler.Which is a boiler that has water pumped through it through cavitations and out the other end is steam in a matter of seconds,hot as well.I would love to see a vortex tube that can drop temperatures below to _minus forty blow its cool air at the strange steam.The air pressure inside a vortex tube has also a hot end which could be attached to the boiler for experimental reasons.The over unity boiler is described as such on youtube and the vortex tube will be found in commercial product pages maybe even within Australia,but principly the U.S.A.

  40. St Margaret says:

    TimT again – ‘Take away all subsidies – NOW – that’s the only way you’ll get ‘real’ costs and not ‘artificial’ costs!’

    I distinctly remember reading about a US nuclear power station that is in the process of being decommissioned – and it is costing the tax payer billions of dollars in subsidies because the companies making money out of the rotten thing claim they have no money to do that. As it can’t just lie on the landscape and fall into ruin it is left up to the average punter to pick up the tab. That’s free market forces for you and the kind of social irresponsibility and naked opportunism that’s just so flaming typical of it.

    I also saw on the excellent ABC science program Quantum that the amount of subsidies that Howard’s government gives to renewable energies pales into insignificance besides the subsidies they have poured into coal powered energy production for years. In fact even this abject trickle of government funding for renewable energies is quietly being withdrawn by the end of this financial year. And Howard is making it very obvious right now that he is willing to pour even more taxpayers’ money into setting up nuclear power and ‘clean coal’ technology if he wins the next election. So much for the level playing field.

    I wish you’d take some of these readily available facts into consideration before you start typecasting the nascent renewable energies industries as totally dependent upon the leathery, dried out tits of some creaky, dysfunctional system of government that belongs to a bygone age. Sadly it seems to be the other way around.

  41. Russell says:

    “One would imagine everybody over there wouldn’t be that enthusiastic about them…” I’m not sure anyone’s really enthusiastic – they went down that road a long time ago, for various reasons. Surveys here I think show that nearly everyone doesn’t want a reactor anywhere near them. I’m not totally opposed to nuclear, but would only have it as a very last resort, after renewables, subsidised or not, were really tried.

  42. TimT says:

    St Margaret, you have a habit of coming to conclusions that are not supported by your arguments:

    ‘That’s free market forces for you and the kind of social irresponsibility and naked opportunism that’s just so flaming typical of it.’

    Actually, you quoted one example of a particular company making a bad choice, nothing typical about it.

    When subsidies exist, there will exist rhetoric to portray the subsidy giving to one particular group as favouritism. There’s no way around it – the people giving away the subsidies are no more or less perfect than the people receiving them.

    Oh, and

    ‘I wish you’d take some of these readily available facts into consideration before you start typecasting the nascent renewable energies industries as totally dependent upon the leathery, dried out tits of some creaky, dysfunctional system of government that belongs to a bygone age.’

    I didn’t.

  43. St. Margaret, you remembered wrongly. The US government isn’t funding the decommissioning of any commercial nuclear power stations. What they are funding is the cleanup of the Hanford Site. Commercial nuclear power stations in the USA have to pay into a fund for their own decommissioning.

    Han G: and where do you suppose this miraculous other power coming off the grid comes from?

    Brian: I always have doubts about new technology until you can actually buy it at the claimed price, in quantity.

    Carbonsink: that’s precisely the point I was making. And that’s still not taking into account the cost of storing surplus energy for when it’s needed when the sun isn’t shining (which can more than double the cost). Furthermore,

    joe2: no. I already have gas hot water, which beats solar-electric hands down in terms of emissions.What carbonsink said. I also buy Green power, and ride a motor scooter to work. Maybe I should look into a solar-gas system. Certainly, I should replace my washing machine with a front-loader when the current one dies. Frankly, my biggest contribution to greenhouse gas is probably the international travel I do for work each year – and the only thing I can do about that is buy offsets.

    Helen: Do you know how many technologies failed to live up to their promises? Hint: it’s a lot more than the technologies that succeeded.

    Russell: technically, you can send power as far as you need, reasonably efficiently (see Vinod Khosla’s interview for a discussion of that). It’s just that building very long-distance powerlines is expensive.

    Brian: is he taking into account the cost of borrowing the money to do it?

  44. BilB says:


    “And that’s still not taking into account the cost of storing surplus energy for when it’s needed when the sun isn’t shining (which can more than double the cost).”…….(which can more than double the cost)…..not true. Concrete storage for 6 hours at full capacity costs around 25% of the total plant cost and energy for the balance of the non solar time comes from gas in the full hybride concentrating solar thermal system (parabolic trough type). The world experience for total gas consumption is around 13% of total power output in baseload operation mode. As the 1 gigawatt sized installation competes with gas for electricity cost, non solar period equals no additional power cost.

  45. Bil: I was speaking specifically in response to solar PV, not solar thermal. Sorry for the confusion.

    I’m much more positive about solar thermal than solar PV. I’m just naturally skeptical about new technologies, particularly when I’ve seen so many of them fail to live up to the claims of their inventors.

  46. St Margaret says:

    Ok Robert Merkel “Commercial nuclear power stations in the USA have to pay into a fund for their own decommissioning” – I was wrong about the Hanford site. Apologies. But in future, we are going to be talking about lots of decommissioning especially if countries are going to be relying more heavily on the nuculear industry. Who knows how much that is going to cost and is the money commercial companies have been paying into funds going to be enough?

    TimT: OK my argument about free market forces has been blown out of the water by Robert Merkel’s point about the Hanford site. But time and again with examples too numerous and diverse to go into here, free market forces have exhibited one consistent maxim – ‘privatise the gains, socialise the losses’.

    Also I don’t understand why you say ‘we get arguments so often from the solar-power lobby that the price of oil and coal-generated power ‘do not reflect the real costs’ and that pro-active subsidies are needed to ‘level the playing field’ and then argue that this kind of argument belongs to a defunct Soviet-style economy. The reality of countries with capitalist economies is that government subsidising of commercial organisations goes on all the time and Australia is no exception. The term ‘The level playing field’ wasn’t invented by the solar industry and is in fact always was code for a plaintive bleat for government funding.

    My point is that the perception that coal-powered energy exists totally on its own two feet is a complete myth and it is in fact far, far more heavily subsidised than the solar industry and with this much vaunted and futile foray into developing ‘so-called clean coal’, inevitably set to become even more so.

    Finally, if you all love your nuculear power stations all so very much – fine! But I just think the proliferation of nuculear power and an over-dependence on it could pose massive problems for the environment for a length of time way past our reckoning. Also it’s unsuitable for Australia in terms of its massive consumption of water and that goes for uranium mining as well. In fact more uranium mining in central Australia would drain the Artesian Basin to a massively unprecedented degree.

    Actually I’m convinced we could bypass nuculear energy altogether if enough resources were poured into r&d for renewable energy industries. But to do that, it’s about time we put away the old capitalist/communist arguments about running economies and putting realistic considerations for environmental sustainability first.

  47. joe2 says:

    “Maybe I should look into a solar-gas system.” says Robert.

    I will certainly go for it myself when our current gas hot water system needs replacing. Hopefully, with the help of a low interest government loan.,23599,21640443-1702,00.html

  48. Stephen L says:

    Well having installed gas boosted solar hot water last week I can refute the claim that “no one goes solar”. Cost for a four person house is under $7000 and I’ll get a fair chunk of that back on rebates. It’s going to take a while to pay it off in lower gas bills, but I think I eventually will.

    Unlike my previous system the water is actually properly hot, and this is in Melbourne, so everywhere in the country other than Tassie would be as good or better. Admittedly the same place that installed my system checked out my parents (who live 2km away) and told them not to bother, the layout of their house would increase installation costs by several thousand and make it unviable.

    It’s a lot harder to make renewables pay for electricity, which is why I haven’t installed panels (yet). But the thing about renewables is that there are so many that are known to work, and are gradually becoming more affordable: Wind; PV; solar thermal; wave along with several at more speculative stages: hot dry rocks, solar chimneys, new sorts of wave power.

    The federal government is putting many times more into geosequestration than into all of these combined. Their hopes of nuclear are based largely on the massive subsidies governments around the world have put into is development in the past. I’m not confident any one renewable power source will cut it on an economic basis, but I’m very confident that at least one of them will.

  49. rf says:

    All this talk of solar hot water systems is good and well, but what about the principles of solar design as it relates to housing?
    If we could reduce the need for air-conditioning we could make some substantial gains in energy efficiency. It’s just so disappointing to see so many new houses built where solar design principles are ignored in place of installing reverse cycle a/c units.
    I haven’t investigated this in depth but the little reading I’ve done suggests incorporating solar design principles (alignment of teh house, appropriate insulation etc) adds little to the cost.
    In terms of making an immediate impact on CO2 emmissions, you can’t beat energy efficiency.

  50. Brian says:

    Robert, the cost of money is a good point to consider in relation to PV on your roof. I’m guessing my neighbour would be spending at least $25,000. I had a look at the opportunity cost, if, say, you had a lazy $25,000 in the bank.

    If you had bought Commonwealth Bank shares in 1991 for that amout they would now be worth $245,000 and your dividend last year would have been $10,370.

    If you’d bought Leighton’s shares in Sept 1991 when they were $1.28 the dividend cheque would have been $12,890 and worth a mere $679,100 now.

    If you’d borrowed the money you could have charged the interest as an expense at tax time. Then if you’d reinvested the dividends I can promise you, you’d have done very nicely.

    Warning: This is not a recommendation. I suspect the market is more expensive now, but all I’m saying is that in crude personal financial terms the opportunity cost is a factor. (I’m aware that the $ depreciated over that time, but it was after the high inflation period and the investment arithmetic is still impressive.)

  51. Brian says:

    There are nuclear power stations all over Europe, Britain, and the States. One would imagine everybody over there wouldn’t be that enthusiastic about them if they were as economically unviable as some people in Australia make them out to be!

    Tim T Robert might have the figures, but it’s my impression that coal-fired electricty in Europe is several times more expensive than here.

    St Margaret, last week Phillip Adams interviewed Judge Christopher Weeramantry former vice president of the International Court of Justice, and a leading light in the new International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons. Weeramantry said that if a previous generation many thousands of years ago had left us the legacy of nuclear waste that we are going to leave we would regard them as truly barbaric.

    That’s why I would tend to be in the ‘only if necessary’ camp (along with securiy issues). But apart from generation IV reactors, there’s also thorium to consider.

  52. rf: you won’t get any argument from me on energy efficiency. One of the things governments need to look hard at (is what regulatory impediments exist for cutting energy use.

    I don’t have the figures, but the short answer is for countries without their own coal reserves, like France, coal-fired power is really expensive.

  53. carbonsink says:

    Stephen L: Don’t get me wrong, I think its fantastic you went ahead with solar hot water. Congratulations. However, to solve this problem we need to make switching to a low-emissions hot water (gas or solar) a no brainer for everyone, not just lefty, greenie do-gooders who hang out at LP of a weekend 🙂

    Robert: From what I’ve read gas-fired hot water and electric-boosted solar are roughly equivalent in terms of GHG emissions. If you have 100% GreenPower then electric-boosted solar should (in theory) be better than gas. Gas-boosted solar is obviously the best option, but not everyone has natural gas piped to their house. I don’t.

    The federal government is putting many times more into geosequestration than into all of these combined

    Give me nukes any day before this ‘clean coal’ nonsense. To give you an idea of the scale of the problem: the world emits 16 cubic kilometres of CO2 per day* from burning coal.

    You reckon we’re gonna capture that, compress it, liquefy it, pipe it to some hole in the ground hundreds of kilometres away hope its stays there for eternity? Clean coal makes nuclear waste disposal look easy.

    * 10,500,000,000 tonnes * 556m3 = 5,838,000,000,000m3 = 5,838km3 per year or 15.99km3 per day

    Global CO2 emissions from the consumption of coal (2004) = ~10.5 GT
    Volume of one ton CO2 at 25C and one atmosphere pressure = 556m3

  54. Chris says:

    Why has nobody mentioned this project lately? The project plant in Spain has been running for a couple of years, and works. Last I heard the full-size version near Mildura was in the pipeline. Water-efficient agriculture and solar-thermal power from the same plant — brilliant.

  55. Because, Chris, they’ve been talking about this for a long time, and there’s been very little action as far as I’m aware.

  56. Pollytickedoff says:

    “Bio fuels are the transition fuel that will take us from all petrol to anything less than all petrol”

    A biofuel only service station is due to open in Marrickville soon. Thought you might be interested to know…

  57. Brian says:

    Chris, further to what Robert said and from the CSIRO report that tim would be telling us about if he were here, a 10,000 ha site was purchased in Feb 2005. Construction is due to be finished in 2009.

    I gather they have plans to build more in Australia. Also in China who have invested in a JV.

    Thje CSIRO report says that they have “very low thermal efficiency”. An advantage is that they can produce electicity for several days without the sun.

    The thing is 7k in diameter, so you need a fair bit of flat land. I gather the Mildura mob are hoping to make a tourist attraction out of it and hang telecommunication equipment off it, plus maybe grow some stuff under the skirt.

    I’ve no idea how the costs stack up.

    Here’s a CSIRO blurb (pdf)

    Thre’s more at the company website.

  58. Sir Henry Casingbroke says:

    A timely post. I think you’re right Robert, that a major problem with renewals is our primitve as yet ways of storing energy, while fuels such as coal and petroleum are in effect solar batteries (but which cannot be recharged and arewasted into the atmosphere and hence the trouble we’re in.)

    A number of energy storage devices have been canvassed above, but none are fully developed.

    This brings me to the vanadium redox battery developed by Maria Skyllas-Kazacos at the Uni of NSW in the 90s. It seems to have died in the bum since then but I cannot understand why, as it showed tremendous promise at the time: from peak current demand equalisation to mobile applications as replacement for petroleum.

    To cut to the chase, the current in VRB is stored in an electrolyte fluid and not in a solid box as in lead acid or even lithium ion. This means that spent (non toxic) fluid can be recharged in a servo attached to the grid while the charged fluid is exchange pumped into a vehicle like petrol, allowing an electric car the same flexibility as a petroleum powered car or truck. The car can also be plugged in but it would take some time to recharge the fluid.

    The vanadium battery is also not constrained by scale – it can be built in massive storage ponds so it can act as a grid equaliser storage device on a mass scale.

    I believe that once the mass storage problem is solved, petroleum and coal will become history.

    Apart from that, there is always Tesla’s notion of drawing electricity from ah, out there.

  59. Hmmm. The company with the licence for the VRB technology developed by UNSW is a startup called VFuel.

    Hard to say how they’re going; the website doesn’t look like it gets updated very much, but lots of startups don’t publicise themselves too widely so it’s not clear what to draw from that.

  60. Sir Henry Casingbroke says:

    The amazing thing is that VFuel links back to a site last updated in 2002. I do not know what to make of this, except to make a leap pf logic to a paranoid interpretation that Big Oil or Big Coal or Big Foot, has bought the patent via a cutout shelf company and, ah, shelved it.

    Bear in mind there’s been both a huge amount of work, and investment in this technology, starting in 1984! So 20 years down the track, millions spent on it, reputation of one of Australia’s premier universities tied to it and, and, and… what? Phhhht?

  61. pablo says:

    Check out Tony Jones interviewing Resources Minister McFarlane on ABC Lateline …masterful. McFarlane tripped on his government’s own nuclear (Switowski) review in trying to overcome his climate denialist stance. In bagging the Rudd and Labor states, he was left red-faced on the recommendation that the Feds take over all nuclear power decisions.
    Great tv but I don’t think we’ll hear old gravel voice on the box for a while.

  62. Brian says:

    Yes, specifically the recommendation from Siggie was that the Feds control the siting of nuclear power stations.

    Difference of opinion was on the whole CC/GW issue. Warwick McKibbin said that we would only be doing Gen IV nukes in this country, which according to just about everyone in the room would make it too late if it was the only shot you had.

  63. That wasn’t the only trip-up McFarlane made. He went on and on about Rudd acting precipitously, without waiting for evidence on the economic impact, by committing to the 60% emissions cuts before the Garnaut study comes in. Jones then asked why the Liberals hadn’t commissioned something similar. McFarlane then said something about how the government wasn’t waiting for reports – it was acting.


    Brian, quite right with regards to McKibbin’s comments there. He also got it wrong in his claim that you can’t run Gen III nukes with minimal water. You can use dry cooling towers, at an additional capital cost and possibly marginally lower efficiency.

  64. BilB says:

    I went to the recording of the Differrence of Opinion program last night ( all of the panel were very interesting), and the good news is that every one is on the same page. Panel and audience alike. Everyone, that is, except JH. I suddenly realised that this is the classic image of an army marching along with one (little) guy on the side out of step looking peturbed because other people are out of step with him.

    The mood was: action, action now, action on things that we can do with what we have now. Not pie in the sky fantasy stuff way off in the future. Tim Flannery summarised it very well in his message that you are hearing today on News Radio. Efficiencies, full implementation of renewables, then if there is still a shortfall, as a last resort, nuclear.

  65. BilB says:

    I haven’t heard much about the generation 4 reactors that Howard is so thrilled with but I got a glimpse of what they are about last night. We are back to the Sodium/Water cooled Plutonium Fast Breeder Reactors, which is where the whole nuclear programme stalled in the late seventies. This is the worst case scenario. If anyone is interested try dropping a little bit of sodium in a pot of water and see what happens. Then imagine mixing a little (a very little) plutonium in with that, and you will quickly realise how little JH has between his ears.

  66. carbonsink says:

    I laughed out loud watching Lateline last night, but almost felt sorry for MacFarlane by the end. Howard really dropped him in it with his nutty “nukes everywhereâ€? policy. The government are gonna spend the next six months fending off endless questions about where the 25 nuclear powers station are going to be sited.

    I loved this exchange…

    TONY JONES: As you know, there’s a lot of opposition to nuclear power stations in the states.
    We recently had the head of your nuclear task force, Ziggy Switkowski, he told us the best outcome would be for the Commonwealth to take over the power to control, regulate and site nuclear reactors. Do you agree?

    IAN MACFARLANE: That’s Ziggy’s view. Right now what we want to do is have a debate on whether or not nuclear power stations are part of our low emissions future. We would like not only –

    TONY JONES: Everyone wants to know and they’re going to want to know before the election who has the power to site nuclear reactors. Ziggy Switkowski, the head of your task force, is saying it should be the Commonwealth Government?

    IAN MACFARLANE: At the moment we’ve got state governments – despite what happened on the weekend which was all an interesting bit of theatre – we’ve got state governments saying that despite the fact that the Labor Government has agreed to expand the uranium industry, they’re not going to allow uranium mining in their state. On that basis I assume that the state governments will block any attempt to have a debate on nuclear power stations, let alone site any in their state.

    TONY JONES: Indeed that goes back to Mr Switkowski’s point. He says it is ultimately a federal responsibility, is he right?

    IAN MACFARLANE: Ultimately, it is the responsibility of the people and you can’t have that decision. Well let me finish. You can’t have that decision if you don’t have a debate and you can’t have a debate while half of the politics or the other side of politics are not prepared to have a discussion based on science, common sense and economics.

    TONY JONES: If it’s a decision for the people would you be prepared to put it to a referendum?

    IAN MACFARLANE: Let’s have the debate soon.

    TONY JONES: Would you be prepared to consider it?

    IAN MACFARLANE: Everyone wants to get the cart before the horse. Kevin Rudd is good at it, I know that. Let’s have a debate.

    TONY JONES: We’re trying to have a debate and find out what the Federal Government’s power will be in all of this. Ziggy Switkowski, the head of your task force, says the Federal Government has the responsibility and the power to control, regulate and site nuclear reactors. Is that true or not true? That’s part of the debate, isn’t it?

    IAN MACFARLANE: Well no. The debate is do we want to use nuclear energy as part of Australia’s overall strategy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

    TONY JONES: I’ll put it another way – do you want the power to site nuclear reactors?

    IAN MACFARLANE: I want to have a debate. No, I don’t want that power in the debate.

    It went on and on and on, but the gist of it was:

    JONES: Will the Feds have the power to site nuclear reactors?
    MACFARLANE: Lets have a debate.
    Repeat 10 times.

  67. The vanadium redox technology isn’t dead yet … !

  68. Tim Macknay says:

    There is a vanadium redox flow battery in operation on King Island. It’s used as a load leveller for the wind farm.

  69. BilB says:

    Vanadium redox battery. There is a much larger load leveller being installed in Ireland currently. I have spoken with the inventor on a number of occasions and there is the probability of dramatic improvements in the VRB storage capacity, which currently stands at 20 watt hours per litre of storage medium. It is an intersting exercise to compare this with hydro storage capacities.

  70. solar save us says:

    On a side issue (on the main issue I’m with Helen, way up near the top):

    I’m really interested in the Solazone (grid-connected solar power system) mentioned earlier, and looking through the site and the costs, I’m very likely to consider it as an option when building a new house as I may well be doing in a year’s time.

    In all the discussion above that I managed to get through (about the first 2/3), one factor, in relation to the kinds of private-domestic decisions about whether to install solar, etc., hasn’t been considered. It’s a fact that’s got nothing to do with the efficiency or otherwise of the systems and everything to do with perceptions of market value.

    Simply, if I installed a Solar Energizer for around $20K (minus $4K rebate), how would this affect the market value of my house? If you consider the possibility that those people most inclined to consider such a system (because they’re concerned, whether for economic or environmental reasons, their energy use AND because they can afford the initial costs) are also the most “mobile” in the housing market, it would seem that such people are likely to move on from their super-green houses before they reap the economic benefits.

    Now that wouldn’t be an issue if the cost of investing in a solar power system were reflected in the market value of the house, but is that likely? I wonder whether that maybe there’s a whole set of concerns here (about aesthetics, preconceptions about the reliablity of solar power, ignorance about the up-front costs and subsequent power savings, etc.) that would lead, if anything, to a reduction in the market value of your house.

    Or am I wrong here? This is a round-about way of asking what people think may be the general, public perception regarding the “appropriateness” or “value” of a domestic solar power system.

  71. An interesting question, SSA.

    To speculate, I very much doubt in the current climate that having solar panels on the roof would devalue your house (unless they ruined the aesthetics of some Fallingwater-esque architectural marval). I’d expect, at a minimum, the value of the house to go up by whatever the reduced cost of electricity is worth – though that’s a lot less than what the systems cost to install.

    You might also get some premium for the warm fuzzies some people get for living in a solar-powered house.

    That said, don’t kid yourself. As Brian says, stick that money in the stock market and you’ll almost certainly be financially better off than if you buy solar panels for your roof.

  72. Frank Calabrese says:

    Howard is Spooked.

    THE Government will gazump Labor’s proposals to make people’s homes greener in next week’s federal budget by offering extensive rebates for rainwater tanks, solar panels and other initiatives to combat climate change.

    The current $4000 rebate for installing solar energy is expected to be doubled, Fairfax newspapers reported.

    At last weekend’s conference, Labor offered low interest loans of up to $10,000 for households with incomes of up to $250,000 but the Government’s rebates would not have to be paid back.,21598,21669730-5005361,00.html

  73. Brian says:

    Frank, this is looking like an unsavoury auction for our hearts and minds through our rooves, rather than sensible policy.

    In today’s AFR it’s clear that the Government is finding it’s normal MO in tackling the political problem of climate change. An article by Angus Grigg and David Crowe, Scare tactics on power, petrol has Costello telling us that he’s been watching the evil Europeans and what they do is use the excuse of climate change to increase excise on petrol. Of course, under Rudd, elecricity prices will also go through the roof.

    The Energy Supply Association of Austarlia is quoted as saying that :

    cleaning up the power sector [whatever that means] would cost about $40 billion and lead to a 25 per cent rise in electricity prices over the next two decades.

    $40 billion is meant to impress, but over 20 years it is a quarter of one per cent of GDP, or thereabouts. As a comparison, Chris Richardson tells us that new spending and tax cuts announced since 2002-2003 will cost us $58 billion in the single year of 2007-2008.

  74. Captain oats says:

    cleaning up the power sector would … lead to a 25 per cent rise in electricity prices

    Jebus! Is that all?!

    Where do I hand over the extra money?

  75. Captain Oats: yes, that’s all. Maybe 50%, if we’re being really conservative. Phased in over time.

  76. Simon Friend says:

    This company seems to be on the verge of mass producing vanadium batteries:

  77. steve says:

    This news just in.

  78. Brian says:

    Steve, that’s fair comment (in the linked article) as far as I can see. The IPCC document is here and there was a really good summary on PM tonight when the transcript goes up.

    I plan to do a new post tomorrow, if one of the other LP bloggers doesn’t beat me to it.

    Tonight I have to watch the Bunnies v the Broncs!

  79. Jack Davis says:

    You want solar thermal that runs through the night? Try this!

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