There May be Trouble Ahead for Ohio Solar Project
the real problem is government interference in the energy market,
Eric LaMont Gregory
While at Oxford, this author, began writing a series entitled 'The Science Behind the News'. What began as a series of talks to 'A-Level' students in England grew into a much more detailed analysis of the science behind major news stories that appeared in the English and world press. An example from a recent news item, a headline news story, from the Columbus Dispatch.
On 6 July 2011 the headlines of the Columbus Dispatch reads "Ohio solar project a go" by Dan Gearino. "The largest solar-power project in the Midwest will be built in a rural area of eastern Ohio." the story begins.
"There may be trouble ahead for solar energy in Ohio," might have been a more suitable title, when one delves into the science upon which solar energy in general and this project in particular are based.
The real problem with the recent announcement of a 750 acre solar array to be installed in Noble County is that it is just the lastest example of government interference in the energy market, by 2025 the state's utilities are required to get 0.5 percent of their power from the sun. The lessons that government should have learned from the ethanol debacle seem to have not been enough.
Unless the solar panels that are to be installed have already been manufactured and are being warehoused for installation day, the cost of the panels if they represent the most efficient kind, will be prohibitive by the 2015 date this project is supposed to begin generating electricity.
If the solar panels will be made of silicon their efficiency is too low to be viable given the few hours of sunlight available in the hills of Eastern Ohio, and the highly variable weather of the North Central States. In fact even under ideal conditions, solar cells produce useful power less than 25% of the daylight hours available. Maybe the designers of this scheme did learn a lesson from the ethanol debacle, that is, get the government involved and a subsidy will follow.
First of all, the sale of silicon solar cells is increasing rapidly, in fact, as recently as 2008 the silicon wafers for solar cells out sold those used in the microelectronic industry.
Although silicon is abundant, it makes relatively inefficient solar cells that struggle to compete with electricity generated from fossil fuels. The most advanced solar-cell technologies rely on materials much rarer than silicon.
The efficiency of a solar cell is measured as a percentage of the light energy the cell converts into electricity. The most advanced silicon solar cells have after much effort and great expense reached a conversion efficiency of 25%. By comparison, the most efficient solar cells, the multi-junction solar cell, can achieve efficiencies of 40%.
The multiple-junction solar cell owes its superior performance to the rare metal indium, which is far from abundant. There are fewer than 10 indium-containing minerals, and none present in significant deposits on Earth.
Most of the rare and expensive element indium is used to manufacture LCD screens, an industry that has driven indium prices to $1000 per kilogram in recent years. When we factor in an increase in indium-containing solar panels estimates are that we have only a 10 year supply of it left. If power from the Sun is to become a major source of electricity, solar panels would have to cover huge areas, making an alternative to indium essential.
Therefore, solar cells to be used in an energy project in Ohio that begins in 2015, will either be inefficient or cost prohibitive.
And, this is where government could play a vital role. After the Civil War the government invested in all branches of the sciences and helped launch this country into the greatest industrial power that the world had ever seen, and it should be noted that higher education was free at that time.
Its an interesting formula, investing in the sciences and education. But the score card in this state has not been not good in either.
In 2006, when this state should have been investing in technologies on the commercial horizon, like the electric car battery and making sure that the raw materials from which it is made were available, this state was pouring millions into fuel cell research which it turns out had not ascertained the availability of the key ingredients for that industry either. (see: China flexes its rare earth muscles)
Although, fuel cells are still the most effective way to turn a gas into electricity, fuel cells rely on the very expensive metal platinum to make the reaction work.
The trouble is, platinum makes indium appear abundant and is priced in dollars per ounce, $1724, not per kilogram. And, if the cars in use today were powered by fuel cells, the world's recoverable platinum supply would be exhausted within 15 years.
The question to be asked is not, will the taxpayer have to subsidise solar resulting from the legislative 'mandate' to meet a o.5 percent sun power input requirement, but how much will the taxpayer have to pay for subsidising it.
And, that is the science behind the "Ohio solar project a go" headline in the Columbus Dispatch, 6 July 2011, by Dan Gearino.