Friday, December 11, 2009

Maryland project reveals photovoltaics system costs

The State of Maryland has announced plans to build a solar photovoltaic facility at Mount Saint Mary’s University in Emmitsburg, Maryland , not far from Baltimore and Washington DC. The facility has a nameplate capacity of 16 to 17 MWs, will cover 100 acres, and will reportedly cost around $60 million. of course it is doubtful that the $60 million figure includes subsidies. The PV system is expected to produce 21,000,000 kilowatt hours of electricity per year, and will be completed by December 2012. Since there are few "large" PV facilities in the United States, this information will be enough to learn about PV performance and cost.

Lets do a little analysis. First, 21 GW hours from a 16 MW facility means that the facility is expected to produce electricity at capacity for 1312.5 hours a year. There are about 8760 hours a year. So that will give us a capacity factor of about .15. But our performance estimate maybe a bit optimistic. Weather data for nearby Baltimore reports only 105 clear days a year, with another 108 partly cloudy days, and a staggering 152 sunless days a year. This would suggest that any PV system output would be diminished by low quality solar radiation for at least half of the day light hours during a year.

Near by Washington, D.C has even worse solar exposure. NOAA reports only 92 days of total sunshine a year, and an astonishing 168 sunless days. That would suggest optimal PV performance on only 25% of the days. Thus we are going to mark the estimated output estimates as questionable and quite possibly optimistic, and subject to revision once the system is up and running, but I will assume them for the sake of this analysis.

There are other, quite possibly optimistic figures in the press release, for example the $60 million price tag, but I am not going to argue about it now. If we multiply to higher of the two capacity figures given in the press release, 17 MW, by the capacity factor of .15, we get a 2.55 MW average output. And now we can calculate our capital cost per unit of real output. Each watt of average output will cost $23.53 in capital costs. Mark Cooper, who is an employee of anti-nuclear fanatic Ralph Nader, claims that
The likely cost of electricity for a new generation of nuclear reactors would be 12-20 cents per kilowatt hour (KWh) . . .
Cooper's motive for making this claim is to discourage new nuclear construction in the United States. In contrast Cooper refers to
renewable energies at 6 cents per kilowatt hour, . . .
Clearly that will not be the case for the Emmitsburg solar photovoltaic facility. Thus we have to mark Cooper's estimate of future nuclear cost as equally suspect.

These findings are in keeping with with the Energy Information estimate for the 2016 levelized cost of photovoltaics, which it places at 395.7 or close to 40 cents per kW hour. In contrast the EIA reported the 2015 levelized cost of nuclear power to be 107.3, or a little less than 11 cents per kWh.

There are few available case studies the actual performance of Photovoltaic projects. "NNadir" offers us one for a 52 kilowatts PV system on the roof of Boston's Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art. NNadir found that the Boston system produced on average 10.6% of its rated capacity. The system was paid for by a grant of $700,000. Thus for every watt of actual average output the MMCA paid $66.04. But it is worse because the MMCA paid in cash, and thus the $66 figure is overnight costs. Costs on which no interest needed to be paid in this case. I can only conclude that a large scale photovoltaic is and will continue be prohibitively expensive for the foreseeable future.


Frank Kandrnal said...

How much more stupid will it get? Building a solar power plant covering 100 acres in an area with only 105 sunny days in a year and $23 per watt is insane. This is another reckless expenditure of national financial resources.
“Please Scotty, beam me up there is no sign of intelligent life down here”

Soylent said...

It's actually worse than that.

Even if you assume there is a borderline miraculous rapid commercialization of a process to print efficient solar cells at about the same cost as making wax-paper for milk-cartons, solar is still not that useful.

Even given this miracle, there will still be huge, possibly insurmountable problems with transmission and storage(hydroelectric plants with reservoirs can do a little bit of balancing by defering production when solar power is available); there will still be significant costs associated with inverters and maintenance.

What would solar energy be used for in a post-carbon grid if this miracle were to occur without a similar miracle in storage and transmission technology?

I believe it would be used for air cooling in hot climates. A large part of the cooling need coincides with sunshine so the intermittency isn't terribly problematic.

I believe it could be used for irrigation and water pumping and potentially bulk desalination for farming where you have the coincidence of access to sea water or brackish water, a decent amount of sunshine and a lack of access to sufficient fresh water. Getting solar to work for desal requires very, very low capital costs and reduced upkeep(e.g. filter replacement for RO) over technology that exists today.

I don't believe solar would be used for much else even when the panels are essentially free.

Charles Barton said...

Soylent Solar hot water heaters work well in areas with sunny climates. Not Boston. Baltimore, Washington,DC., Knoxville or almost anyplace else east of the Mississippi.

LarryD said...

Wind driven pumps have been used in the midwest to pump water for livestock for a long time. Usually works well enough.

The EIA report shows Solar PV to be the most expensive form of new energy production, worse than solar thermal, which is worse than offshore wind, which is worse than onshore wind.

BTY, offsore wind is somewhat more than twice the cost of nuclear, and solar PV is more than three times the cost of nuclear. And the difference in the capacity factor only gives nuclear even more of an advantage.

ScottStapf said...

The clear sign of someone who can't win on the facts is when they resort to outright lies. Mark Cooper doesn't work for Ralph Nader. Spout out all the ill-informed opinions that you want on behalf of the nuclear power industry, but try to keep the outright lies to a minimum.

Charles Barton said...

Cooper's biography states that he is Director of Research at the Consumer Federation of America.
The Wikipedia states that the CFA: "is one of many groups associated with Ralph Nader and his consumer movement."
People Magazine stated,

In other words a Ralph Nader front organization.


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