January 8th 2020
The purveyors of solar energy are working overtime to spin the now official failure of the Crescent Dunes thermal solar plant in central Nevada. The contracts to purchase the electricity from the constantly broken plant will be voided. Bloomberg Businessweek claims that Crescent Dunes was obsoleted by technological advances in the form of photovoltaic based solar plants. That is nonsense and misses the whole point of the Crescent Dunes project. It also misses the reality that all utility-scale solar is a failure - not marginal, not growing into being practical, but a total and complete failure.
The scalable forms of renewable energy are wind and solar. Hydro is severely limited by most state laws that define renewable energy - not because hydro is not renewable, but because it is not politically correct. Dams are not politically acceptable to the kayakers and big thinkers at the Sierra Club. Nevada is wind poor but sunshine rich. So for Nevada, solar is the only route to energy nirvana.
Nevada has a law requiring that 50% of the electricity be from renewable sources by 2030. That law was passed by the Nevada Legislature. No doubt they were influenced by the state's utility, NV Energy, owned by the Warren Buffett organization. Tom Steyer is a California billionaire and global warming fanatic. Currently, he is running for president. Steyer bankrolled an initiative to put a 50% renewable electricity requirement by 2030 into the Nevada state constitution. The final vote on the constitutional amendment will be in November 2020. Presumably, renewable energy must be frozen into the constitution so that the investors in solar energy can be protected against the possibility that the Legislature will come to its senses and repeal the renewable energy quota.
Crescent Dunes was a serious project designed to attack the great weakness of solar electricity. Sunshine is strongest in the middle of the day, but demand for electricity peaks at the end of the day and in the early evening. This is especially true during the Las Vegas summer, when air-conditioners are running full blast as temperatures soar well past 100 degrees in the late afternoon.
A method of storing plentiful midday solar electricity so it can be utilized in the evening was needed. Otherwise, solar would hit a ceiling at far less than 50%. One method is to use batteries. That is wildly expensive and quite dangerous as the flammable batteries store vast quantities of energy. That's not stopping the Gemini project, scheduled for a site north of Las Vegas. The Gemini solar project will have a $500-million battery system that stores as much energy as 5 million sticks of dynamite (1,400 megawatt-hours). There have been dozens of fires at similar installations around the world.
The Crescent Dunes project stores energy in the form of molten salts. During the day, sunshine is concentrated by motorized mirrors aiming beams of sunlight at a central tower, where the liquid salts are heated to a high temperature. The hot salts are stored in a large tank. When power is need in the early evening, heat is taken from the tank to make steam and drive a turbine-generator to make electricity. Crescent Dunes was plagued by leaks in the salt tank, forcing it to close for months at a time. By contract, the electricity was sold to NV Energy for $135 per megawatt-hour, or about six times as much as it would cost to generate the same amount of electricity in existing natural gas plants.
Crescent Dunes is eligible for the usual government subsidies amounting to around 75% of the construction cost. It was granted a $700-million government loan guarantee on the ground that it was pioneering, experimental technology, which it was and is. That problems emerged is not surprising. That happens to pioneers. But the not unexpected failures at Crescent Dunes besmirch the propaganda that solar energy is the wave of the future. Thus, it is necessary to kill Crescent Dunes for the spurious reason that it is obsolete technology. Like all utility solar, it is useless, but it was an honest attempt to fix the severe problem that solar doesn't work well late in the day, and not at all after the sun sets.
Solar is useless because it can't replace the generating infrastructure of the traditional electric grid. In Nevada, an army of natural gas plants will never be replaced by solar. They have to remain because they are needed when solar stops working because it is cloudy or because it is night. All the solar accomplishes is to lower the utilization of these plants, saving some very cheap natural gas fuel. Without subsidies, using the cheaper photovoltaic plants, it costs about $80 per megawatt-hour to generate solar electricity. But electricity can be generated in the existing natural gas plants for $20 or $25 per megawatt-hour - the cost of the fuel. The massive government subsidies for solar make it seem closer to being competitive than it actually is.
The idea that solar energy is a practical solution for reducing emissions of carbon dioxide is strictly a fantasy. James Hansen, the scientist who virtually created the global warming scare, says renewable energy is a grotesque solution for reducing emissions. The reason is that it costs about $140 per ton of emissions prevented by using solar energy. That is too expensive. Much better methods exist. Hansen advocates nuclear energy. The rapidly increasing emissions from China and India dwarf the emissions of the United States, an illustration of the irrelevant nature of the renewable energy enterprise.
The weaknesses of solar energy are well known among the gurus of renewable energy. But those weaknesses are rarely exposed in a blunt way. Criticizing the powerful solar industry is dangerous for people who are susceptible to economic or political pressure. So the problems tend to be downplayed, or it is suggested that the problems will be solved by future improvements. There is a large contingent of federal legislators who support renewable energy and support the climate disaster narrative. Scientists at the Energy Information Administration or the National Renewable Energy Laboratory are unlikely to pick a fight with congressmen or senators.
The media, with honorable exceptions, are generally unable to understand technical matters and so end up parroting the press releases of the industry.
Norman Rogers is the author of the book Dumb Energy: A Critique of Wind and Solar Energy. He runs the website NevadaSolarScam.com.
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