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Can distributed renewable energy solve the energy crisis, right now???

photo of Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens
19th February 2009


in real terms, even when you factor in all of those costs, solar power is likely to produce power at about half the cost of the cheapest coal-fired power plants

Nanosolar, Konarka, and the dozens of other solar power outfits who are pushing the price of solar down, down, down below the price of coal power, and towards the a few cents a watt for the panel, meaning your daylight power comes down below 1 cent per kilowatt hour, or maybe 20% of the cheapest current grid power. The whole world is going to get electricity. In many areas, this will immediately lead to vast improvements in lifestyle and economic productivity as electric tractors, pumps, daytime-factories and many other applications are found for the newfound power.

Both citations are from Vinay Gupta.

But some background first.

From my research for the P2P Foundation, I have come to the conclusion that a P2P-based society would be based on a set of inter-related infrastructures:

- a distributed communication and coordination infrastructure, which we essentially already have, despite its imperfections (some would argue we need a distributed decision-enabling infrastructure on top of that, but I think that a virtual infrastructure is not essential, and that the tools for open and transparent government are also essentially there)

- a distributed money infrastructure: we need civil-society based mutual credit and open money systems that can be used both locally and for online affinity groups. Many of the tools are already available.

- distributed agriculture and manufacturing: this is the part which has been emerging with open design communities, on which Marcin Jakubowski is working with his Open Source Ecology project. I think we need about 15 more years for substantial achievements in this area.

If I have not forgotten anything else, this leaves one more important infrastructure: peer to peer energy, i.e. the ability to produce energy at a hyperlocal scale.

Readers who will have read Mike Davis take on global warming, may be convinced that our efforts in renewable energy and carbon capping are failing.

But amongst our network of experts, Vinay Gupta of Global Swadeshi takes a rather radical point of view. While it does not negate the damage that can be done through our continued use of fossil fuels, it does suggest that Peak Oil is not such a fundamental drawback for the next phase of civilisation based on distributed renewable energies.

In fact, says Gupta, these alternatives already exist, and just have to be implemented:

There’s no energy crisis. If we work on scaling plastic solar panel manufacture, we’ll cut human CO2 emissions by 40% (the proportion currently produced by coal) in 20 years because it will simply be uneconomic to keep the coal plants burning.”

For evidence, he points to Nanosolar, about which he gives the following, rather amazing figures: “Panel cost of manufacture is said to be $0.30 per watt. Panel cost at retail is around $1. Price of a machine which will print panels: $0.16 per panel per year.”

He explains: “So what does this mean in terms of electricity supply? Simply put, it means that in some applications, solar power’s real cost is about half that of a coal fired power plant today and it’s only going to get cheaper. We’re likely to see solar displace nearly all of the world’s coal plants within 20 years, cutting CO2 emissions by 40%.”

And this is just the beginning, a competing project, Konarka Technologies, “thinks their panels will be about 1/3 the price of nanosolar. In about a year or so.”

WorldChanging reports that a same kind of promising development may be about to happen in windpower:

“The Jellyfish will do for the wind power industry what the personal computer did for the computer industry. Although the engineering community likes to think bigger is better, Maglaque said, we should remain open minded about using both big and small turbines to power the renewable energy revolution.”

“A mere 36 inches tall, the plug-in wind appliance can generate about 40 kilowatt hours each month, that’s enough to light a home using high-efficiency bulbs, said Maglaque. And although micro-wind is nothing new, at $400 a pop, the Jellyfish’s price and simplicity make it a fresh face in the market.”

The participative, peer to peer, aspects of this potential new distributed energy are well described in the article:

“Maglaque hopes that the Jellyfish will soon be an item you can purchase at any local hardware store, just like a vacuum or blender. And with the combination of access, affordability and easy assembly, he hopes that eventually we will see his invention on every rooftop. While that level of ubiquity is, of course, the hope of any inventor, Maglaque also has a bigger vision: bring massive change to our relationship with energy creation. No longer would energy be something that we switch on mindlessly, and utility bills something that we begrudgingly pay monthly. Instead, personal wind power would allow us to generate energy, involving us in the process instead of just delivering uncontrollable results.

As with other personal renewable energy tools, this one could help us create energy, sell it back to the grid, watch as our energy bills drop and hopefully witness the creation of a better, more reliable grid system through our investment in the utility.

One vision that Maglaque shared was for the Jellyfish to help enable district wind energy co-ops. Imagining thousands of personal wind turbines all creating energy for the grid. He said neighbors could join together to work collectively with the power utilities.

“Say you’ve got 10,000 units in one city. If you connect those units on a server, and generate power together — managing and regulating that power — you are in a position to work with power utilities,” Maglaque said. “This is good for customers because it provides a marginal return, and utilities like this as well because a: you have on demand power, and b: you free up funds to be allocated to the grid network that needs expansion and repair.”

Another hope of Maglaques’s is for the Jellyfish to help people in developing countries leapfrog over dirty energy and jump more quickly into renewables.”

So it is true that all the preceding developments may lead to rather optimistic assessments of future possibilities.

Yet, Kurt Cobb gives excellent arguments for caution, which are important to meditate upon, and for further research.

Kurt Cobb:

“Solar companies, especially the ones involved in thin-film research, have often made extravagant claims in the past that have turned out to be nothing more than hype designed to get them funding and media attention. What they claimed they could do, they simply could not deliver. Whether Nanosolar will be just another in a long line of hype artists, we can’t tell at this point. I would, however, suggest checking out the figures quoted to make sure Nanosolar actually put them in a public release.

What I can tell from their website is that they are using the same rare minerals in their substrates as other thin-film makers, namely, indium and gallium. Let’s assume for the moment that Nanosolar does, in fact, have a revolutionary new process. Will that process actually bring down the cost of thin-film solar or will it hit a bottleneck when it comes to the available indium and gallium supplies? One scientist in Germany has attempted to catalog our known reserves of indium which is used extensively also in flat panel displays. He figures we have 15 years left at current rates of usage. And if we have a large new user such as thin-film solar, then the supply would be gone that much faster. (Amazingly, nobody else has attempted to find out how much of these critical rare minerals we might have left!)

As for gallium, well, there are no gallium mines. Gallium is a byproduct of copper mining. So, you are at the mercy of the level of activity in the copper mining industry for your supplies, and right now that level is declining sharply because of the worldwide economic contraction. Nobody mines copper for the gallium content. It simply isn’t economical and never will be since the amounts are so miniscule in the ore.

So, we have a straightforward resource bottleneck for critical inputs. But, Nanosolar will just come up with a substitute, you may say. Yes, perhaps, but when? Keep in mind that the claims they are making are based on their current technology which uses these inputs and they are not anticipating that they will have to find substitutes for these.

Second, there are the problems of scale and time. If you have a very long time, say, several decades the build up production and distribution of thin-panel solar and you assume improvements and substitutions of more plentiful inputs for the rare metals, then perhaps you can get the kind of solar electric revolution Mr. Gupta speaks of. But if you need to make the change, say, in the next decade, then you are going to find it difficult to build the plants, find or train the necessary people and distribute the product widely in such a short period of time on the scale necessary. If you are faced with falling fossil fuel supplies at the same time, you will find it hard to pay for the fossil fuel energy which must be used initially to do most of what you need to do.

Third, there is the problem of energy return on energy invested, often abbreviated EROEI. Solar thin-film is highly inefficient compared to conventional solar. You are going to need an awful lot of it simply to keep up with growth in electricity demand let alone substitute for fossil-fuel generated electricity. Solar has an very low EROEI compared to say coal. Coal can be as high as 80 to1. Solar is around 2 to 1 at best. We are going from a very high density energy source to a low-density energy source. Which means we are going to need far more space and resources just to deploy it.

Fourth, the real energy shortage we face in the near-term is liquid fuels. Solar panels do nothing to help alleviate that problem. Sure, we could electrify our transportation system, something for which I am a strong advocate. But then we are back to the scale and time problem. How fast do we need to do this and at what scale? My answer is very fast and at a very large scale. These two are hard to reconcile.

I’ve discussed these issues in a series of columns for Scitizen. The titles that are relevant are: Receding Horizons for Alternative Energy Supplies, Will the Rate-of-Conversion Problem Derail Alternative Energy? ,How Many Windmills Does It Take to Power the World? and Charlie Hall’s Balloon Graph.

The coming energy transition, in my view, will be difficult and fraught with missteps–if it succeeds at all. The simple solutions that are being bandied about now distract from our main task, namely, drastically cutting back our energy use to that we can live within the meager amounts of energy that renewable energy will actually be able to provide. I believe this is possible. But it won’t happen if everyone is led to believe that there is an easy supply solution just waiting for us.

Before I close, let me say that I believe your thinking about our need for decentralized, regional and local systems of governance, industry and food production is right on target. The tools we have, especially the Internet, offer excellent ways to help coordinate this transition. But these networks of communication need to be face-to-face right in our communities as well and that work is a bit harder.

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4 Responses to “Can distributed renewable energy solve the energy crisis, right now???”

  1. Michel Bauwens Says:

    Kevin Carson, via email:

    “In general terms I agree, although I don’t know enough to have an
    opinion about whether some form of photovoltaic will pan out and beat
    fossil fuels in terms of EROEI.

    But more generally, all the building blocks of an alternative,
    decentralized and less energy-guzzling economy are out there and ready
    to adopt. As Amory Lovins et al argued in Natural Capitalism, the
    main thing holding it back is cultural inertia and path dependency.
    When energy prices get high enough, they’ll overcome that inertia.
    And according to Lovins et al, just the low-hanging fruit (things like
    replacing trucks with trains and cogenerating power from industrial
    waste heat) could eliminate more than half our current fossil fuel
    consumption.

    On a more radical level, the building blocks are already out there for
    local, small-scale manufacturing economies, as well as the
    prerequisites for shifting a considerable portion of production to the
    household or neighborhood barter economy. As little known as they
    are, I expect skyrocketing energy prices and a collapse of much of the
    wage economy to make it a lot easier for those currently involved with
    such technologies to promote them. For example, almost nobody in the
    conventional building industry knows about passive solar cooling by
    running intake pipes underground. But some people, scattered around
    the country, do have it. And when the cost of air conditioning a
    conventional tract house rises to $300 a month, I expect a guy whose
    house is cooled for $0 a month to generate some hellacious word of
    mouth in surrounding neighborhoods.

    As I’ve also argued elsewhere, I expect small machine shops and
    backyard hobby shops to become the basis of a localized industrial
    economy, under pressure of necessity, when the supply chains of the
    centralized corporate industrial economy collapse. This was the focus
    of my discussion of S.M. Stirling’s fictional industrial economy in
    the Nantucket trilogy, which I raised in an exchange with Samantha
    Atkins on the Open Manufacturing list.

    Coupling such distributed manufacturing with microenterprises
    (bakeries, day care centers, cab services, market gardens,
    microbreweries, etc.) run out of people’s homes using their ordinary
    household capital equipment, and with liquidity provided by LETS
    systems if the old currency collapses, I think thriving local
    economies will expand to fill the gap pretty quickly under pressure of
    necessity.

    One thing that will help the transition will be if the U.S.
    government, state governments, and other “hollowed out states” lack
    the capability of enforcing bank ownership of paper on defaulting
    mortgagers, and we can transition as the banks collapse to a default
    system of ownership based on current possession. That, and no
    last-ditch effort at large-scale police statism to enforce the DMCA
    and suchlike.

    FWIW, I also expect the collapse to be a long one (a “long emergency”)
    taking around two decades, so there will be no catastrophic collapse
    and sudden vacuum to fill. But even when collapses have been
    catastrophic, as in Argentina early in the decade, people have been
    extremely resilient and creative in finding ways to make things work
    in the face of necessity.”

  2. Michel Bauwens Says:

    Marc Fawzi:

    The part about the world running out of Indium and Gallium smells
    funny to me, based on the following:

    1. ITO (Indium Tin Oxide) is the transparent conductor used in LCD
    displays, on this very Mac I’m using and billions of other laptops in
    current and former use. See:
    http://www.google.com/search?hl=en&q=ito+coating&btnG=Search

    2. Gallium Arsenide is used in most IR and near-IR laser diodes (since
    the 60s) and all blue laser diodes use Gallium Nitride. These lasers
    are used in all CD and DVD players today, billions of them. However,
    the amount of Gallium used in each diode is microscopic compared to
    the amount of indium used in LCD displays. But to say that we will not
    have blue/IR lasers because we’re running out of Gallium is a little
    bit funny.

    3. Gallium Arsenide is used in most very high frequency FETs (field
    effect transistors) which are in wide spread use in
    telecommunications…

    I hardly have any credentials in the solar or semiconductor space
    (besides helping students at Northeastern U. design a solar racer) but
    had worked with lasers and flat panel display tech at the R&D stage
    back in the early 90s when making a blue laser entailed IR beam
    doubling via birefringent nonlinear crystals (a $100,000 setup at
    least) and we used ITO in fabricating flexible displays and
    architectural lighting.

  3. Michel Bauwens Says:

    Vinay Gupta, via email:

    yep. the question is, fundamentally, how much indium do they need per panel. I’m significantly less worried about gallium supplies.

    however, note the comparison made with silver

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Indium#Production

    bottom line: we’ll see how this goes, but I have a strong suspicion based on available data that metal constraints will not derail this.

    EROI for low temperature polymer panels – the konarka model – is vastly higher than for other panel production approaches.

    on all of these issues, it’s a question of judgement, the question is how bad do you think they are, and on what basis. nanosolar are shipping a gigawatt of panels a year right now, something around 20% of total US panel output, and they appear to be getting dug in for extremely rapid scaling.

    on the liquid fuel thing, yes-and-no. for climate reasons, we need to take out coal. but replacing oil depends on battery technology, and the ultracapcitor guys aren’t online yet, so we can’t assess how close they are.

    on the other hand, make power cheap and clean, and wait for progress in cars is a decent enough strategy.

    Vinay

    PS: http://oilendgame.com addresses a US-centric biofuels strategy which is actually fairly doable. I edited this while I was working with RMI.

  4. Michel Bauwens Says:

    Eric Hunting, via email:

    My immediate response to this piece was; exactly! This is exactly the argument I’ve been trying to make for decades. We have always had a choice. We can be short-term realists, continue to turn our backs on the future, and watch the civilization coast into oblivion or we can embrace the future, gamble on life rather than death, seize the tiller of change, and steer a more positive course. And steering that positive course entails a physical restructuring of the built habitat. We have to stop demonizing the urban habitat and accept it for what it is and what it could be. Just as suggested by Paulo Soleri and other mid-century futurists so long ago, we must pull back the civilization’s footprint to consolidate our infrastructures for efficiency-sake -the efficiency we need to implement renewable/sustainable alternatives- and give the biosphere back it’s breathing room. And this isn’t coming with an appeal to self-sacrifice but rather to a higher -smarter- standard of living. As I was saying to someone recently, I summarize the ultimate purpose of the various Post-Industrial movements thusly; Through open invention leveraged by the power of Metcalf’s Law, to seize command of the state-of-the-art of The Good Life. This is how you propagate this change.

    Concerning Vinay’s comments, I think you may be missing that this article is not merely calling for social change but a physical renovation of the built habitat that enables the implementation of the very solar energy technology you’re pointing out. Cheap solar panels are only a partial answer because, even if they were free, they cannot change the basic logistical situation common to most forms of renewable energy; that the locations of its optimal production tend to be far removed from the locations that need the power, due to the fact that the high portability of energy in fossil fuel forms have enabled people to live where it wouldn’t otherwise be practical, dispersing the energy distribution infrastructure to such hopelessly inefficient extremes. Solar dynamic energy systems have had the potential to match this level of cost-per-watt since the mid-20th century, and yet that didn’t result in any revolution even amid the Energy Crisis of the 70s because it couldn’t overcome the limitations in storage and transportability of electricity -limitations which are improved but by no means eliminated today.

    Scalability is the key advantage of photovoltaics over other forms of solar power production. But this is keyed to conversion efficiency and regional solar insolation. The stated ideal cost-per-watt of as PV only exists in places like Keahole Point Hawaii. Everywhere else in the world your milage may vary. What really matters is PV area per person at the solar insolation level in their area and at their peak rate of energy consumption. Because if that’s greater than the built habitat area per person, you have a problem, since it means you’re back to putting million hectare arrays in southern latitudes and getting public money to pay to hook them up to where people currently live -radically skewing your cost-efficiency. This new panel technology would only constitute a breakthrough solution to the energy issue if you can actually say that it offers total and convenient energy independence at a dollar and personal space cost most of the global population can afford, For instance, if in any spot at least out of the polar regions, for about the cost of a PC or at worst a small car, and with a panel area akin to the roof of a two-car garage, you can fully cover a household’s energy needs, heating, cooling and personal transportation included all year round. Today that would take an array many times the area of a typical home’s roof costing at least as much as the home itself. (at a typical $10k US per ideal kilowatt -a figure that still hasn’t changed much in 30 years) Anything short of this sends you back to the social issue because you’re back to motivating a society to motivate its governments to invest public money in a deliberate change of the built habitat and its energy infrastructure to support higher efficiency through infrastructure consolidation and exploitation of solar energy over great distances.

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