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Haley Zaremba

Haley Zaremba

Haley Zaremba is a writer and journalist based in Mexico City. She has extensive experience writing and editing environmental features, travel pieces, local news in the…

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Are Large-Scale Solar Projects Doomed To Fail?

Humans have been harnessing power from the sun as long as we have existed. By eating our photosynthesis-fueled friends in the animal kingdom and other organisms that eat plants, we are, ultimately gaining all of our energy from the sun. It stands to reason that we tried to extract energy from the sun for industrial purposes as well at the outset of industry. During the Industrial Revolution, way back in 1839, French scientist Alexandre Edmond Becquerellar made history when he discovered that a man-made solar cell could be used to convert sunlight into electricity thanks to the photovoltaic effect in 1839.

What’s more, sunlight is abundant, free, and clean. “Every five days, the sun provides the Earth with as much energy as all proven supplies of oil, coal, and natural gas,” reported Singularity Hub last year. “If humanity could capture just one 6,000th of Earth’s available solar energy, we’d be able to meet 100 percent of our energy needs.”

So if solar energy is more than capable of meeting all of our energy needs while producing zero greenhouse gas emissions, and the United Nations is all but pleading with the private sector to fund more renewable energy research before it’s too late to avoid the onset of catastrophic climate change, why isn’t the world simply blanketed with solar panels? 

There have been some attempts to do just that: massive-scale solar plants that cover huge swaths of land. These projects have not, however, solved our clean energy needs. Far from it. The $1 billion Crescent Dunes solar plant developed by SolarReserve in Nevada was going to be the biggest solar plant in the world in its investment phase back in 2011, but by the time the project complete, it was already obsolete. “SolarReserve may have done its part, but today the company doesn’t rank among the winners. Instead, it’s mired in litigation and accusations of mismanagement at Crescent Dunes, where taxpayers remain on the hook for $737 million in loan guarantees,” Bloomberg reported last month. “Late last year, Crescent Dunes lost its only customer, NV Energy Inc., which cited the plant’s lack of reliability.” Related: Could This Be The Decade Of Green Hydrogen?

Ironically, the Crescent Dunes project was not a victim of the failure of the solar industry, but of its sweeping, whirlwind success. Solar tech has improved rapidly in past years, and a mammoth project like Crescent Dunes just couldn’t keep up. “The steam generators at Crescent Dunes require custom parts and a staff of dozens to keep things humming and to conduct regular maintenance,” the Bloomberg article goes on to say. “By the time the plant opened in 2015, the increased efficiency of cheap solar panels had already surpassed its technology, and today it’s obsolete—the latest panels can pump out power at a fraction of the cost for decades with just an occasional hosing-down.”

Despite this cautionary tale, the United States military currently has about $38 billion invested in projects very similar in style to crescent dunes. (This is not an anomaly--the U.S. Department of Defense has invested heavily in all kinds of alternatives to fossil fuels as climate change becomes an ever more pressing issue and peak oil looms around the corner.) As Popular Mechanics reports, “the Department of Defense has more of the government’s high-profile “moon shot”-type investments with DARPA, the Spruce Goose, and other famous weirdies—but in the short term, the government invests in cutting-edge science, too.” 

But these investments may very well be just as ill-fated as Crescent Dunes.  “As in any form of investment, there's risk involved.” the Popular mechanics article continues. “And public money has another layer of trouble. Because of the way public contracts are bid for, won, and fulfilled, the companies chosen to complete projects are often the best at the application process, and not necessarily the best at the work the project really involves.”

While it may still hold true that solar holds the greatest promise for the future of clean energy, bloated, government-contract projects mired in litigation, bureaucracy, and limited reflexivity to changing technology and trends are most certainly not the answer. 

By Haley Zaremba for Oilprice.com

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Leave a comment
  • Joe Blow on February 09 2020 said:
    Propaganda much? Globally, fossil fuels take about 85% of all government subsidies compared to the measly 15% that renewables get. Yet in spite of this renewables are surpassing fossil fuels anyway.

    You pick one troubled project as an example, trying your best to imply these problems are true of all renewable projects when that's a flat out lie. No mention of the the constant oil spills around the globe which run into the billions in damages per oil spill. No mention of any of the negatives with fossils compared to renewables in respect to health, environment, et al.

    You, madam, are worse than Hitler.
  • Kenneth Zweibel on February 09 2020 said:
    The headline implies all large scale solar is a failure. Nothing could be further from the truth. Large scale PV is successful all over the world, including e.g., Saudi Arabia and the US. These PV systems are as big or bigger than Crescent Dunes, which is a solar thermal installation. The headline should read "Are all large scale solar thermal installations doomed," not all solar installations. Shoddy headline writing, for whatever reason (cupidity or stupidity) is unwelcome. The rest of the article about solar thermal is well done.
  • Mamdouh Salameh on February 09 2020 said:
    Your article proves what I have been repeatedly saying in my comments to articles posted by oilprice.com that an IMMINENT GLOBAL ENERGY TRANSITION IS AN ILLUSION.

    For energy transition to accelerate, it should have three realistic objectives: benefit to users, practicability and lucrative financial returns from renewables at least comparable to those from oil and gas.

    If major multi-billion solar power projects quickly become obsolete because of the rapid improvement of solar technology, increased efficiency and declining costs, then the obvious answer is to build as many small to medium-sized projects as quickly as possible around the world capable of undergoing small cheap adjustment to remain abreast of advances of technology and efficiency or being declared obsolete without breaking the bank.

    If solar electricity can replace coal completely in electricity generation worldwide, that in itself could be rated as a great achievement.

    Still, decision-makers, environmentalists and futurists may have to accept the realities that there will neither be a post-oil era nor a peak oil demand either or an imminent energy transition throughout the 21st century and probably far beyond. Oil will continue to be the core business of the global economy well into the future.

    Dr Mamdouh G Salameh
    International Oil Economist
    Visiting Professor of Energy Economics at ESCP Europe Business School, London
  • Lee James on February 09 2020 said:
    My apologies to Ms. Marimba and the Popular Mechanics article (which I have not read), but the Crescent Dunes NV project is about more than just "large."

    The project is about doing solar-thermal, meaning it was testing whether solar could provide power beyond just the sunlight hours. The concept tested involved high-temperature solar-thermal storage, at night. Hundreds of solar mirrors concentrated the sun's energy on a small high-temperature collector. The temperature and circulating salt solution is a difficult physical environment indeed, akin to running a nuclear plant. It was not photovoltaic at all, where electric power is produced by solid-state electronics.

    The Crescent Dunes plant was a fairly unique experiment. We will be cautious about going there, just as we are about nuclear power. It doesn't mean that it was a total mistake or was totally irresponsible. We are learning from it. When constructed, we did not know at that time that the price of photocells would drop so much. We thought that the ability to generate solar-steam turbine generation at night would be cost-effective and an alternative to day-only power generation.

    We will continue to move forward with clean energy, despite occasional setback.
  • naveen sreedevan shitijibes unilever on February 11 2020 said:
    From
    A frustrated tax payers USA/ASIa
    ( regretablly for abrief period blue cross customer)

    To

    enrgy .gov

    the civilzation is doomed ahead of schedule( 1 billion years more life is there ni this planet)
    but at this rate by 2075. unless public at large is not kept in the dark about scientific truth, hidden secrets, discovereis, crystal skulls and many more. arctic expeidtions, epxeriments with hihg energy nucelar themonuclar bomb. fusion , fissio energy.


    the option is allow students, academics, generla publc to visit facotires, labs and let them observe first hand the experiemtns being conducted -be it exxon or smsung or apple or nuclear tech in cnada/china etc.

    the fact truth is suprressed implies one simeple truth- if people are allowed to obtain knowledge without much costs/trouble , then all humans will gain in the long run. that is precisely what the mob rulers(ELITE) dont allow.

    you hv to see this from a biblical perspective of life. what is the future. all this cna be reliased only if people can learn freely ( as in learn what they like at affordable fees and comfort, instead of barriers -'security clearnace' 'classified')

    else we will se more rogues in governemtn -obama clinton bush modi sonia gandhi idi amin musharaaff etc.

    cheers

    p.s. having said this, i am certain one soon al gore will be shot dead,, if not by me or by secret service or commandos by the public.

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