Why solar power, as a source of energy for the power grid, will simply never work

by Porter Stansberry, Stansberry & Associates Investment Research

[Porter Stansberry has given PolyMontana his personal permission to republish this article. Here, Porter describes why solar energy cannot compete with carbon fuel energy. Porter not only shows his excellent insight into investment research but also his excellent understanding of physics and thermodynamics. – Ed]

Editor’s note: In today’s (December 27, 2011) second installment of our S&A Holiday Best-of series, we take on one of Porter’s most controversial topics: solar energy.

For years, Porter has sold short leading solar-panel maker First Solar (FSLR)… and made consistent profits for his subscribers…

Solar energy is an absurd boondoggle and a hopeless money-loser. But no matter how correct Porter’s investment thesis has proven… many people continue to pillory him for being “anti-solar energy”… His commentary on the “industry” regularly generates some of the angriest feedback we receive.

So in an essay we originally ran in the September 23 Digest, Porter explains in detail why solar energy is a dead end… not only from an investing perspective, but at its scientific core.

Why every solar energy plant has a natural gas generator inside…

I have received all kinds of funny notes… sent to me regarding my solar comments. Folks with Ph.D.s and engineering backgrounds, who should really know better, have sent some of the best. But most of the notes were simply ignorant comments from folks who desperately want to believe in the political “promise” of solar energy – that in the future, energy will be nearly free… if only trolls like me would get out of the way. Other folks were merely curious. They just wanted to know more about why I’m so skeptical. Or they wanted me to clarify what I meant – on the differences between local, passive solar energy and grid power.

This is as clear as I can be: Solar power, as a source of energy for the power grid, will simply never work. And by “work,” I mean it will never even be even remotely economic. The reason why it will never work has nothing to do with technical hurdles or innovations that have yet to be made. The reason it will never work is because of the laws of nature, in particular, the Second Law of Thermodynamics.

Several readers have sent me quotes from various sources saying the laws of thermodynamics only relate to objects cooling, electron equilibrium, etc. Likewise, politicians, who know nothing of physics, have come to believe solar energy is akin to Santa Claus – a sort of electrical “freebie” that solves all our problems. Just wait until the voters realize they’ve been had again…

Alas… the laws of thermodynamics apply to solar power, just as they do to everything else in the universe. The Second Law of Thermodynamics, in particular, has many useful applications, including information technology (Shannon’s Law), which is where I learned it. The critical point to understand about the Second Law is that the usefulness of energy (its ability to do work) decreases over time and space. Thus, by the time sunlight reaches the surface of the Earth, it has lost much of its useful energy.

The total amount of energy in sunlight doesn’t change – that’s the First Law of Thermodynamics – but the amount of useful energy dissipates over time and space. That’s why some passive solar power applications, such as heating your pool or perhaps powering minor appliances during the peak heat of the day, can be relatively efficient. I say “relatively” because, in many places, the energy required to aggregate the sunlight and convert it into electricity will render the total costs of such systems uneconomic compared to grid power, which is generated with other fuel sources (coal, uranium, natural gas) that are far denser in useful energy.

Currently, tremendous efforts are being made with various types of technologies to harness the energy in sunlight. Major investments are being made – on the back of demands and with financing from governments – to use photovoltaic semiconductor (PV) technology to convert sunlight into electricity for the power grid. I believe this is a tremendous waste of capital. It certainly would NOT occur without the intervention of governments – which are notoriously bad at capital allocation – because it is horrendously inefficient.

PV processes use photonic energy in sunlight (not heat) to “lift” electrons and create electricity. The thermodynamic limitations of this approach mean that many of the electrons fall back into the hole from whence they were lifted. This makes the panels very inefficient. Theoretically, something called the Landsberg Efficiency stipulates that under perfect conditions and with perfect materials, semiconductors could convert 95% of the sun’s power into electricity. This is the academic justification for the investments into PV solar power.

The catch is, in the real world, the materials needed to reach such efficiencies are rare and expensive. The other more important catch is that the main impediment to PV efficiency is… heat. Yes, that’s right. As PV solar cells are exposed to ambient temperatures above room temperature, their efficiency plummets. And seeing as how most of the places best suited for solar power panels (like the roofs of buildings in warm climates) also have high ambient temperatures, I believe it’s unlikely that this approach will ever prove worthwhile. I’m convinced PV solar panels will never be economic. (I’ll explain more about the theoretical aspects of my cynicism in a moment.)

Currently, the best PV solar cells only convert about 15% of the energy they’re exposed to into electricity. This makes solar power the most expensive of all energy sources – so using solar energy to power the grid is a functional impossibility.

The other approach to harvesting solar energy is based on using mirrors to focus the sun’s rays from a broad area on some type of heated medium. This approach is called concentrated solar power (CSP). The medium can be water or gas … or even molten salt, which is more efficient thermodynamically.

CSP works like any other kind of power plant – and thus the standard thermodynamic limitations are in effect. The amount of useful work created is dictated by the amount of heat generated. Think of nuclear power plants. They sometimes melt down because their cores are so hot. There’s a lot of useful potential energy being created there. While that makes them dangerous… it also makes them extremely efficient. Nuclear power is, by far, the most economic way to produce electricity. That’s because uranium is the most abundant dense form of energy on Earth.

Here’s a simple, common sense way to think about nuclear power versus solar power. Who, historically, has been the best judge of power sources? The world’s big navies. Governments might screw around with wind power or solar power… But you can bet the U.S. Navy won’t – not for its most important ships. Navies switched from wind to coal… from coal to oil… and finally from oil to nuclear. You can bet they will never switch to solar. Not ever. Why not?

Very simply: Sunlight is a diffuse energy source. Attempts to aggregate into more useful forms of energy (capable of doing more work) require additional energy – lots of it. If you don’t believe me, just take a close look at the world’s biggest operating solar power plants. They are CSP plants. Inside every CSP plant in the world, you’ll find… a lot of natural gas. In fact, these plants require natural gas pipelines to operate. No, I’m not kidding.

I believe without the natural gas burners inside CSP plants, these plants wouldn’t work at all. California state regulations allow natural gas to produce 25% of all the energy at “solar” plants. What’s not measured is the percentage of useful work the natural gas is providing. And my bet is, almost all of it.

The diagram below shows a schematic of the operations at Nevada One, a huge, 64-megawatt CSP power plant built in the late 2000s in the Nevada desert. Note the crucial “additional heat” box immediately in front of the turbine generator. Guess what “additional heat” means? You guessed it. Natural gas.

Now… you’ll recall from my earlier writings and from above in this note, that I’m particularly concerned about the government’s massive investment in PV solar technology. My concern is that it will never work. PV isn’t a heat engine. I don’t believe it will ever generate much useful energy in the real world. The Second Law of Thermodynamics renders it practically irrelevant as a source of on-grid electricity. Quite simply… technology can’t do much to improve a weak fuel. That’s a fact of nature.

What solar plants actually do is hide huge energy inputs in the form of materials. Take a CSP project like Solar Two, which claims to produce a peak of 10 megawatts (MW) of electricity from 130 acres of mirrors. (Actual output is much lower, only about 1.6 megawatts.) Scientist Petr Beckmann calculated that solar plants like these were not capable of producing enough energy to build another solar plant of comparable size. To put the limitations of thermodynamics in stark relief… to produce as much power as a 1,000MW nuclear plant, Solar Two would require 127 square miles of mirrors.

The physics (and thus the economics) of PV plants are even worse. Florida Power and Light recently opened its Desoto PV plant – billed as the largest solar photovoltaic plant in the country. It is rated at 25MW peak production. But the company actually estimates the plant will create 42,000 megawatt-hours over the course of a year… or 4.79MW per hour on average. That’s roughly a 19% operating capacity factor.

Worse, there’s no way to store this power, which means it’s only available for a few hours each afternoon. Assuming perfect operating conditions, that’s enough power (for that part of the day) to serve about 3,000 homes. And for this small amount of electricity, Florida Power invested $150 million – or $50,000 per customer. Do the amortization and merely paying for the capital cost of the plant (not the costs of its operation, which are substantial) will cost each rate-payer $322 per month… For electricity they can only use part of the day.

On the wholesale electrical markets, nuclear power costs about $1.65 per kWh. Solar power is selling for around $14-$20 per kWh, depending on the location. That’s roughly 10-12 times as much. Why?

Because when you study the physics closely, you will find that the sun isn’t providing any of the useful power. All of that must still be delivered by other, more dense sources of energy. What you’re buying is solar panels that are being metaphorically stuck on top of natural gas generators, nuclear power plants, and coal-fired power plants. This is merely to appease the idiocy of our political leaders, who are in turn, responding to the absurd dreams of the public, which knows nothing about the hard realities of energy.

Chris Lee, writing in Physical Review, about the limiting impact of electron behavior in PV solar cells said…

Fighting this is exactly like fighting the laws of thermodynamics, the rules of which read something like: you can’t win (you never get out more than you put in), you can’t draw (you don’t even get out what you put in), and you are not allowed to lose with style (when you come close to getting out what you put in, the device is invariably impractical).

The truth is, some scientists (and their backers in government) aren’t fighting something like the laws of thermodynamics… they’re fighting THE laws of thermodynamics. Doing that my friends is simply stupid – the laws of thermodynamics are undefeated. And they always will be.

Regards,

Porter Stansberry
Baltimore, Maryland
September 23, 2011

2 thoughts on “Why solar power, as a source of energy for the power grid, will simply never work”

  1. This is truly the most idiotic tripe I've ever read when it comes to solar energy. You don't even bother trying to make sense. It's bad enough that an investor thinks so highly of himself that he thinks his understanding of the science of energy production exceeds that of actual scientists who work in the field for a living, but some of the nonsensical arguments used are simply mind-boggling. You want to talk about "simply stupid", let's talk about that…

    "Currently, the best PV solar cells only convert about 15% of the energy they’re exposed to into electricity. This makes solar power the most expensive of all energy sources…" That makes perfect sense if you're stupid. If you have functional brain cells, however, it's the kind of statement that a kid with severe mental retardation would read and say "Boy, is that guy stupid." Expensive? Sunlight is free, genius. So explain how 15% of free makes it the most expensive of all energy sources.

    "On the wholesale electrical markets, nuclear power costs about $1.65 per kWh. Solar power is selling for around $14-$20 per kWh, depending on the location." In most electrical markets, excess solar power is added back to the exact same grid that nuclear or coal power is feeding into. Once there, the electric company has no clue whether the energy they are sending you came from coal, solar, wind or anything else that might be generating power on the grid. Again, for someone with no intelligence whatsoever they might by your BS. But let's be clear…it is BS.

    "Because when you study the physics closely, you will find that the sun isn’t providing any of the useful power." No useful power, eh? There are tens of thousands of homes in the United States alone that are completely off-grid thanks to solar power. They store the power collected from numerous solar panels in cadres of batteries for times when the sun isn't shining. This is energy they use to power their homes. Now maybe you feel like keeping the refrigerator running, the air conditioner on, the lights illuminated or the hot water tanks hot aren't "useful", but anyone who has critical thinking skills does.

    I have to say, I'm disappointed with the pathetic attempt at bashing the solar energy industry. I'm sure there were some valid points that could have been made to point out the fact that solar energy shouldn't be relied on as the sole source of energy for the country. Our nation needs a robust energy policy that includes every possible source of energy including solar, wind, geothermal, nuclear, natural gas, oil, coal and anything else capable of turning electrons into usable energy. You've managed to make people dumber by trotting out this garbage. Congratulations.

  2. Dear Jason,

    I refer you to the recent article by Marita Noon about the corruption of the solar industry. If solar energy was all that its proponents make it out to be then why does the solar power industry have to depend upon internal corruption and our government tax dollars just to make it work?

    Clearly, solar energy has a place in single applications, either for remote power or for homes. However, the justification for solar power has not been proven for use on the grid or in parallel with continuous power sources like coal, gas, nuclear and hydro. In fact, attempting to insert discontinuous power sources like solar and wind into our power grid results in less electrical generation efficiency and higher electricity costs.

    But the core of Porter Stansberry's article is about power density, and on that he is correct. The power density of solar (and wind) is far below that of fossil fuels and way below nuclear power. High power density is a desirable property of power generation because it costs money to compress a low power density into a higher power density, such as done in CSP solar plants.

    Porter also has a good point about the need for gas heat in CSP plants and his question about how much of the energy output comes from the gas versus solar. If a solar power plant cannot generate enough energy to build a copy of itself then clearly something is wrong with the economic calculations.

    I agree with your position that our energy policy should be open to all sources of energy. However, all energy sources must play on the same economic playing field. Government money, meaning our tax dollars, should not take sides in decisions on energy sources.

    The reason the solar industry is so corrupt is because solar energy cannot compete in the real world of grid power without support of our tax dollars.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.