Building New Solar Energy Plants Cheaper than Running Coal

Solar Panel School

Since the inception of Things Are Good we’ve been following the demise of dirty fossil fuel usage and the rise of clean energy. A few highlights from over the years:
Solar Power Is Cheaper Than Nuclear
Solar And Wind Outgrow Subsidies
Wind Power: One Of The Cheapest Sources Of Energy
German Coal And Gas Power Plants Closing Due To Cheap Renewable Energy

The rise of renewable energy is even more impressive given the massive subsidies given to fossil fuel industries. Despite the bailouts for companies operating in the tar sands, the car subsidies, and other related government handouts, renewable energy just gets cheaper and cheaper.

This past month the International Energy Agency declared solar to be the cheapest source of electricity in history. Cheaper than coal!

Now, the IEA has reviewed the evidence internationally and finds that for solar, the cost of capital is much lower, at 2.6-5.0% in Europe and the US, 4.4-5.5% in China and 8.8-10.0% in India, largely as a result of policies designed to reduce the risk of renewable investments.

In the best locations and with access to the most favourable policy support and finance, the IEA says the solar can now generate electricity “at or below” $20 per megawatt hour (MWh). It says:

“For projects with low-cost financing that tap high-quality resources, solar PV is now the cheapest source of electricity in history.”

The IEA says that new utility-scale solar projects now cost $30-60/MWh in Europe and the US and just $20-40/MWh in China and India, where “revenue support mechanisms” such as guaranteed prices are in place.

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Renewable Energy Keeps Growing While Oil Companies Shrink

Solar panels on grass

Without a doubt all business have been negatively impacted by the pandemic with some being hit more than others. The dirty and climate-destroying fossil fuel industry has really been hit hard (unfortunately it’s the workers who have been hurt by this and not the lying executives) and the industry isn’t even benefiting from reduced gas prices at the pump. On the other hand renewable energy companies are doing fine with only a slow down and not an industry-stopping problem. Renewable energy growth is expected this year with more utilities investing in renewable instead of fossil fuel because renewable are still cheaper than carbon-intensive alternatives.

Even the decline in electricity use in recent weeks as businesses halted operations could help renewables, according to analysts at Raymond James & Associates. That’s because utilities, as revenue suffers, will try to get more electricity from wind and solar farms, which cost little to operate, and less from power plants fueled by fossil fuels.

“Renewables are on a growth trajectory today that I think isn’t going to be set back long term,” said Dan Reicher, the founding executive director of the Steyer-Taylor Center for Energy Policy and Finance at Stanford University and an assistant energy secretary in the Clinton administration. “This will be a bump in the road.”

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A Website Powered by the Sun

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The world wide web consumes a lot of energy to keep running as it is. The energy sources we use to power the net can make a big difference in the baron footprint of the entire web, which has led one website owner to see if they could run their website using only the sun. It turns out that a relatively small solar setup can do the job.

One catch is that the website had to do without some dynamic elements like a constantly updated database or calls to ad services and other trackers. Reducing your carbon footprint is yet another reason to use ad blockers AKA tracker blockers.

That said, both the network infrastructure and the end-use devices could be re-imagined along the lines of the solar powered website – downscaled and powered by renewable energy sources with limited energy storage. Parts of the network infrastructure could go off-line if the local weather is bad, and your e-mail may be temporarily stored in a rainstorm 3.000 km away. This type of network infrastructure actually exists in some countries, and those networks partly inspired this solar powered website. The end-use devices could have low energy use and long life expectancy.

Because the total energy use of the internet is usually measured to be roughly equally distributed over servers, network, and end-use devices (all including the manufacturing of the devices), we can make a rough estimate of the total energy use of this website throughout a re-imagined internet. For our original set-up with 95.2% uptime, this would be 87.6 kWh of primary energy, which corresponds to 9 litres of oil and 27 kg of CO2. The improvements we outlined earlier could bring these numbers further down, because in this calculation the whole internet is powered by oversized solar PV systems on balconies.

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Solar and Wind Outgrow Subsidies

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Renewable energy systems used to need subsidies to be competitive with the even more subsidized fossil fuel energy systems. Today, despite the fact that globally USD$5.2 trillion was spent on fossil fuel subsidies in one year, non-subsidized solar and wind are cheaper than fossil fuels. This is really impressive given the relatively small size of renewables being used over the last decade. With more solar and wind installations being built the economics of renewable energy is only getting better.

Perhaps nowhere is the push toward subsidy-free clean energy clearer than on arid expanses of Southern Europe. About 750 megawatts of subsidy-free clean-energy projects are expected to connect to the grid in 2019 alone, across Spain, Italy, Portugal and elsewhere — enough to power about 333,000 households, according to Pietro Radoia, an analyst at BNEF.

“The cheapest way of producing electricity in Spain is the sun,” Jose Dominguez Abascal, the nation’s secretary of state for energy, said last year.

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Solar Panels Help Crops Grow

Solar panels on grass
Solar energy is the future and it keeps getting better. Not only are renewables cheaper than destructive gas and coal energy they also have other positive effects. Recently it’s been discovered that solar fields can be used as a really good place to grow crops. This is counterintuitive as the solar panels block the sun which plants typically love and to service the panels there needs to be a pathway where crops would thrive.

However, by planting shade-tolerant plants beneath the panels it means workers can still do their job and the plants can do theirs. The plants do well in the shade thanks to the ambient light and the increased humidity from the panels themselves. Neat!

The researchers see potential here (and in similar “agrivoltaics” experiments elsewhere) that is worth investigating and optimizing. Solar panel installations may not be compatible with the machinery used to harvest many crops, and boosting the panels higher off the ground costs extra. But there are configurations for certain crops in certain areas that can make a lot of sense. Farmers could save water, make money from a solar lease, and might even find that workers are much more comfortable and safe working under some shade—all while allowing solar arrays to expand in those areas without competing for land with agriculture.

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