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M1EK versus solar

I don't have time for anything but a quick hit, so here you go:

As the Statesman indicates, some councilmembers, most notably Mike Martinez, are balking at the cost of the proposed gigantic solar photovoltaic plant out in the middle of nowhere.

This is a good objection. I commented to this effect at the austinist last week.

One of the primary benefits of solar PV is as a peak demand displacer/replacer. Why would you want that capacity at the other end of your distribution network from the actual customers, where you undergo all the normal distribution losses and don't get any ancillary benefits for the customer, like shade (cooler roof)?

If you want to invest a bunch of money in PV, and don't want it to be simply rebates for customer systems, then build an Austin Energy photovoltaic farm on top of a bunch of short, wide, buildings with air-conditioning needs. Like the Convention Center, or the millions of warehouses up off Metric, or Costco. AE still owns the energy, but it's being delivered to the grid far more efficiently than from the Webberville location.

(Also, an eastern location is kind of stupid as well - there's a non-trivial difference in hours of sunlight between west and east Austin).

In short, since unlike a coal or natural gas plant, you don't have to put it in the middle of nowhere, why on earth would you want to, and suffer the same drop-off in power due to transmission that they do? Why not take advantage of the few things solar PV is unquestionably better at - nobody minds it if there's solar panels on a roof nextdoor; and everybody loves some free shade.

If you wanted to build a solar plant in the middle of nowhere, given all the above, what should you do? Solar thermal - i.e. the mirrors that focus on a bunch of molten salt. Much more efficient than PV, and there are no ancillary benefits like shade that go to waste when you're out in the middle of nowhere.

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I actually think this is a better business decision than energy decision. If oil prices go back up as expected this grid is going to seem cheap and everyone will applaud their forward thinking.

Plus, all of our discussions about NIMBYism surely have convinced you that NAs would find some way to argue about putting solar panels on big boxes. Maybe that's too cynical...

Tim, do you know what costs are expected from this project? I have not seen anything with regards to cost per kWh. Even the most optimistic claims put solar cost at $.25-$.50/kWh and that's before transmission costs.

Of course, solar technology is improving rapidly and costs could come down substantially. So why not wait until costs come down instead of investing in what will soon be a legacy platform?

Yeah, I guess old habits die hard. Hopefully the advance of technology will overtake events anyway -- there is a company in California, Nanosolar.com, that is building a roll-to-roll production line with a capacity that promises to dwarf that of any solar-cell manufacturing facility. They also claim that the volume cost of electrical production with their solar cells will eventually match that of a traditional oil-fired power station. If they are correct, we could be on the verge of a major breakthrough in green technology.

As for me -- as soon as I can run my A/C in the middle of summer on solar panels installed on my roof, then I'm there (assuming I don't have to take out a mortgage to pay for the installation).

The "roll" solar seems suited, again, for end-of-the-line use much more than out-in-the-middle-of-nowhere use.

I doubt very much whether that cost will ever reach the current cost of coal (which, of course, doesn't take into account massive externalities of pollution, both local and global).

That being my assumption, I again look for ancillary benefits and for more efficient installation - displacing the demand for a peak watt by generating it locally is much more efficient than delivering a replacement watt from a solar plant on the edge of town.

I love that you joined the Save the Austin Solar Plant group on Facebook just so you could tell them the plant needs to die.

Ain't I a stinker?

My understanding is that the cost of solar from the proposed plant is esimated at $0.165/kWh (they chose the provider based almost exclusively on price). That is still quite a bit more expensive than gas or coal from existing plants, but not that much more than building a new gas or coal plant. Plus, it would be locked in for 10 years instead of fluctuating based on gas prices.

In any case, it is a drop in the bucket - something like 1% of Austin's energy usage. It is probably a bigger deal from a PR perspective than an energy policy perspective (i.e., "Austin has the country's largest solar generating plant, so if you are a solar energy company, you should locate here.")

My understanding is that distributed solar along the lines M1EK prefers is a much bigger part of the plan. Depending on who gets elected mayor, what changes are made to the grid and how much the city decides to subsidize it, solar on the roofs of homes and businesses could become something like 10% of Austin's energy usage.

Also, this isn't that far out in the middle of nowhere. It is only about 5 miles east of the 130 toll road (I don't think it would be a likely location for a coal power plant). I'd be surpised if those 30 megawatts aren't used within a mile or two of generation within a few years of this thing getting built.

I think we both hope that this will still be the middle of nowhere 10 years from now, don't we?

5 miles is long enough to incur some transmission losses, and of course there's the "why put shade on top of something that doesn't need shaded" point.

Hope in one hand, crap in the other.

I agree with your points about the weaknesses of this plan, but I think if it is on a list of 10 possible options for power generation, it probably makes it into my top 5.

Mike, you're arguing utility-scale solar pv vs. distributed solar pv when the real argument is USSPV vs. US something else. AE is still doing the rebates and incentives for distributed.

As for the something else, AE has been studying other options (Roger Duncan is a pretty smart man). As of last year, they were studying a solar thermal project in West Texas. They just signed the biomass ppa and declined to participate in the nuke expansion. They are moving forward with ccg expansions as well as wind (though wind progress is being slowed by the transmission problems).

The Solar thermal technology you mentioned is highly experimental. It would require a significant capital investment from AE for an uncertain return. This solar PV installation is a small deal (30 MW, cost capped at $250 million over 25 years), it's a proven technology, there are no capital costs (it's a ppa), and we don't start paying until 2011. It also moves us forward towards our goals of reducing our carbon footprint. And 10 miles of transmission is nothing.

And of course, I loved this quote coming from you:

"nobody minds it if there's solar panels on a roof nextdoor"

Say it aint so, Mr. Nimby-destroyer!

It's true; I have yet to hear of anybody, even Laura Morrison, complaining about solar panels on somebody's roof.

This project is almost as speculative as solar thermal would be - but in a different realm: we're speculating that a long-term fixed power contract set much higher than today's baseline will become competitive pretty soon. This would have seemed like a slam-dunk a year or two ago, of course.

As for the distributed approach - that's NOT what I was talking about. There are economies of scale, and AE wants to have the energy in their hands. Fine. Just put a big solar generating plant on the roof of Costco, and another one on the Convention Center, and another one on one of the big warehouses on Metric. Still owned by AE (strike deal with building owner). Not a thousand different roofs with a bunch of inefficiencies like trees to deal with.

but again, it's the economy of scale. We own the land in Webberville which we can do whatever we want with (much to the dismay of Webbervillians). Going around negotiating with individual business owners in the city is going to introduce a ton of overhead costs that don't exist if we just do the Webberville tract.

I did mention the Convention Center, didn't I? There's plenty of other warehouse-style buildings that the city owns, if we don't want to negotiate with private businesses.

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