Crazy cheap solar power plant

“World’s Largest Solar Power Plant Switched On” (Forbes):

The $870 million project was the result of a competitive tender process that will see electricity from the site sold to the Emirates Water and Electricity Company (EWEC) for around 2.4 cents per kWh, a record at the time of the auction and a record for any completed solar project. It was built by the Indian firm Sterling & Wilson with nearly 3000 people working on site during the peak of activity.

Can this be right? These profit-driven folks can recover their $870 million by selling power at 2.4 cents/kWh? That’s more or less free (the average cost in the U.S. to consumers is about 13 cents/kWh, which of course includes distribution).

Most parts of the U.S. are not as sunny as the UAE, but some parts are. Could we build a monster plant like this in Arizona or Nevada and run the power back to the cloudy East Coast? A friend who used to run a mutual fund that invested in this area said, “It would be a no-brainer economically to run a DC high voltage line from wind farms in Oklahoma to New York City. You could shut down every fossil fuel power plant in New York. But the U.S. power grid is fragmented and the people who stand to benefit from that have enough politicians in their pockets to keep it fragmented. So you’ll never see that power line built.”

Vaguely related: This investor considers Jeff Immelt to be the most incompetent executive in recent American business history. “GE actually made windmills so they knew that the price was going to drop below that of coal-fired power plants,” he said. “Yet still, GE bought Alstom, which has been disastrous. Even if the market for fossil fuel plants had held up, GE was locking itself into French labor, which any rational businessperson would seek to avoid. It is fair to say that the folks at Alstom were a lot smarter than anyone at GE.”

For the rest of the world, where they aren’t as plagued by cronyism in power transmission as we are, will it be time to go nuts with electricity (cars, planes, heat pumps, etc.)?

Also, does this mean we don’t have to worry about about climate change and CO2? Who is going to bother burning fossil fuels for any reason if they can get electricity for 2.4 cents/kWh plus reasonable transmission fees? (Aviation? Just turn the electricity into hydrogen and then run your electric motors off a fuel cell!) We were terrified in the 1970s about burying ourselves in nuclear waste. Then it turned out that we couldn’t operate nuclear plants economically, so the amount of waste generated was much smaller than anticipated (we just burned natural gas and dumped out CO2 instead!).

10 thoughts on “Crazy cheap solar power plant

  1. Very cheap.

    But a lot more capacity needs to be built than is obvious. Solar only outputs 10-25% of the quoted capacity since, you know, the sun don’t shine 24/7/365.

    Meanwhile, natural gas, a byproduct of fracking, is nearly free, in some cases trading at negative prices. Hard to compete with free.

    This remains useful and partially address your questions about long distance power transfers:

    But Vaclav Smil is the most clear-eyed. We need fossil fuels for much else besides transport. From his book “Energy and Civilization:”

    “That epochal transition from the fossil fuel–dominated global energy system to a new arrangement based solely on renewable energy flows presents an enormous (and generally insufficiently appreciated) challenge: the ubiquity and the magnitude of our dependence on fossil fuels, and the need for further increases of global energy use, mean that even the most vigorously pursued transition could be accomplished only in the course of several generations. And the complete transition would require the replacement of fossil fuels not only as the dominant providers of different kinds of energies but also as critical sources of raw materials: feedstocks for the synthesis of ammonia (about 175 Mt/year in 2015, mostly to supply nitrogen for crops) and other fertilizers and agrochemicals (herbicides and pesticides); feedstocks for now ubiquitous plastics (whose total output is about 300 Mt/year); metallurgical coke (now requiring every year about 1 Gt of coking coal and used not just as the source of energy for reducing iron oxides but for its structural role in supporting charged iron ore and flux in blast furnaces producing annually more than 1 Gt of iron); lubricants (essential for functioning of both stationary and transportation machines); and paving materials (inexpensive asphalt).”

    But delaying climate change is oh so (conceptually) simple. Just plant trees:

  2. You probably know the answer to most of those questions, its all about energy storage (or lack thereof), and the relative costs of available on demand peaking power. Carbon taxes (or subsidies) probably also come into the equation. For this big UAE project, the key points seem to be cheap construction labour, and low-interest government financing.

    Seems they are planning even bigger solar farms soon:

  3. I think energy storage is going to be a race between redox flow batteries (where storage capacity is essentially limited only by the size of the electrolyte tank you put behind it) and sodium batteries (cheaper and safer than lithium-ion, and sodium is naturally abundant).

  4. Actually the problem with solar and wind power is not the generation side, but the battery side.. The world has pretty much solved how to make cheap renewable power as evidenced by this project and others. But the world needs cheap power at all times of the day. So the real issue is how to store that cheap solar power and dispatch it out to homes after dark when everyone is watching TV and running their AC. Here in Arizona our utility, APS, is pursuing several power storage methods,

    They have the Solano solar plant that uses molten salt to store power. It put out 770 MWH last year versus a 990 MWH capacity. So almost 80% usage. Not great but not bad for the first big try.

    APS is also doing big batteries. They have several subdivision size batteries already installed in Phoenix. And they are getting ready to contract out 850MW more battery storage soon. The plan is to use those batteries to soak up all the cheap solar power during the day and then dispatch it out to homes after dark. They will make money on the cost spread.

  5. Can’t wait for room temperature superconductors. One small buried line taking a million amps across the country from those mid-state wind farms and southwest direct solar conversion farms. It would be a win for everyone. Even if you don’t believe or care about global warming, free and clean energy is free and clean, so why not, indeed?

  6. I think that the clean energy race will be won by China, and in 30 years everyone in the US will be wondering what happened to this once great country.

    The US has always excelled when it comes to pure technology. Computers, software, airplanes, war machines, etc. Also to matters of combined technology and will such as landing a man on the moon. Clean energy is more a matter of will and we don’t have it. Like landing on the moon, it’s largely an exercise of trial and error and brute force with a component of technology. Our capitalist society doesn’t support projects like that; it demands that replacement technologies be clear economic winners before adoption. But, you can’t get there without failure. Over half of our country is religiously aligned to fossil fuel industry and in complete denial of climate change. A combination of economic conflicts of interest and scientific ignorance will be our downfall.

    The Chinese government will mandate the willpower to win the clean energy race and they will figure out the tech as they go.

    • Senorpablo: “I think that the clean energy race will be won by China, and in 30 years everyone in the US will be wondering what happened to this once great country.”

      Then would we be able to move to China as undocumented immigrants and claim free housing, healthcare, food, phones, etc.?

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