Saturday, May 11, 2019

Semi-review: Let It Shine - The 6,000 Year History of Solar Power

Short version of my review of Let It Shine: go read it, even if like me you're not interested in passive solar architecture. It's ironic that passive solar isn't that interesting to me, because it's about half of the book and until the last century it was about the only truly successful harnessing of the sun. Everything else, however, is still interesting enough to make this a good book about the history of solar power.

The history of solar water heating is fascinating - it got pretty far, particularly in Japan, before being killed off by cheap fossil fuels. In some alternate universe timeline, solar motors, solar water heaters, even solar electric modules developed in the late 1800s were never replaced by coal and fossil fuels.

Solar electric was particularly interesting to me. They have a picture of the first photovoltaic array in New York City, in 1884. PV energy seems like it could have taken off earlier than it did - the Eisenhower Administration purposefully rejected it compared to nuclear power and the mirage that atomic batteries would be commonplace.

The early space race, OTOH, was a godsend for PV as the only feasible long-term power source for the small satellites they used at the time (I'm not sure when radioisotopes became an alternate power source). The Gollum of 20th Century climate change even makes an appearance. A design for the first proposed American satellite from 1955 "shows that the satellite's designer, Dr. S Fred Singer, planned to use solar photovoltaics as its power source."

PV's cost hardly mattered for satellites but they helped pay for early technological development. Soon afterwards, remote locations on earth also became obvious use cases (irony again, offshore oil platforms started it). PV poked along for a while while subsidies for nuclear power and fossil fuels burgeoned forth, and PV received little R&D. The Atomic Energy Commission in 1973 proposed a 5-year research budget of $4 billion for nuclear and $36 million for solar. The Reagan Administration purposefully neglected solar. It took massive subsidies in Germany and piggy-backing on computer chip technology for PV to really begin its takeoff.

One interesting lesson from the book (mainly from discussion of solar motors and solar water heating) is how much of technological development is iterative development of prior work. The statement that science relies on standing on the shoulders of giants applies just as well to engineering.

Again I'd recommend the book. I'd also be interested in a history focusing exclusively on solar PV, and another on wind power. Suggestions welcomed!

18 comments:

David B. Benson said...

Brian, look at the articles in the "Encyclopedia of Energy".

THE CLIMATE WARS said...

Rchard Rhose new book reveals some curious facts about early silicon pv-- it relied on semiconsuctor industry reject wafers for feedstock.

THE CLIMATE WARS said...

I meant to spell him like the Colossus

Jan Galkowski said...

They didn't necessarily have a technology proposal, but both Tesla and Edison were enthusiastic about the prospects of harnessing solar energy to produce electricity. They just had the physical insight that there was all this free radiation pummeling the surface of the planet, and it seemed a shame it should go to waste.

There were probably others who had similar ideas.

Supernaut said...

Thanks. Wrt the sentence "The early space race, OTOH, was a godsend for PV as the only feasible long-term power source for the small satellites they used at the time (I'm not sure when radioisotopes became an alternate power source)"

It's mainly a question of distance from the Sun. Most Earth-orbiting satellites are powered by solar arrays (where you're exposed to a nice ~1.4 kW/m**2). In solar system exploration, the 'fuzzy' dividing-line is the neighborhood of Jupiter: there's currently a NASA orbiter around it called Juno and it uses (massive!) solar arrays. Depending on the mission, you may want to do trade studies to see which is more convenient at Jupiter, if PVs or RTGs. Certainly beyond Jupiter you switch to radioisotopes/RTGs. Cassini, which until the end of 2017 orbited Saturn, used radioisotopes (you may or may not recall some ill-informed people -including some who should have known better - protesting the launch of Cassini in 1997 b/c of RTGs). New Horizons, which did a flyby of Pluto-Charon system also uses RTGs, as do the ever-more-distant but still functioning Voyager probes.

BBD said...

A design for the first proposed American satellite from 1955 "shows that the satellite's designer, Dr. S Fred Singer, planned to use solar photovoltaics as its power source."

Well, well. Dear old S. Fred, eh?

Brian Schmidt said...

Supernaut - I remember when experts said that solar power couldn't be used beyond the asteroid belt. I wonder if we'll see it used in systems going to Saturn eventually.

I went and looked it up - first satellite using RTGs was in 1961, so solar panels didn't have a huge headstart. Still, however expensive solar may have been at the time, it was probably cheaper and lighter than RTGs.

Canman said...

Solar is hopelessly intermittent. Germany spent tons of money on it. Now that it's cheap, any additional solar they buy is useless, so new deployment has leveled off:

https://www.cleanenergywire.org/factsheets/solar-power-germany-output-business-perspectives

Now their biggest decision is whether to backup their unexpandable solar with dirty lignite coal or Russian gas.

Texas, with all its land and sun only had 1% solar in 2017:

https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/plugged-in/texas-got-18-percent-of-its-energy-from-wind-and-solar-last-year/

Why should they add a bunch of solar that needs backing up when they already have a huge amount of wind, with a higher capacity factor, that needs backing up?

Jan Galkowski said...

@Canman,

You don't understand renewable technology very well, do you?

Y'can't manage renewables in the same way as fossil fuel plants. Renewables need to be planned and located appropriately.

In the case of Texas, Michael Osborne will school you ...

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xHJVjFbOnio

And how about two success towns?

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9XcRl2_IIwU

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nIoo9bLM9k8

Supernaut said...

Brian, thanks. Maybe at some point we could use solar arrays in the Saturn neighborhood. However, when planning missions one has to do trade studies. For instance, at a certain point beyond the asteroids/Jupiter your solar arrays may become too massive to generate the power your mission needs, and you may want to switch to RTGs. It's not just about power; many other factors come into play (such as mass in my example).

Canman said...

Jan, thanks for the links. I honestly can't tell if that second one is a parody or not. If it is, it seems to have fooled the commenters. I wonder how they got Micky Rooney to play the mayor.

... looking at some of the other Hot Mess videos, ... I still can't tell whether it's a parody channel or not! Could this be a new paradigm -- the climate poe?

Canman said...

Jan, sorry about the overuse of sarcasm, but that town is NOT getting all its energy from 100% renewables, and if it somehow did manage to get all its electrons from scouring the grid for solar and wind generated ones, it would be depriving other aspiring 100% RE towns of them.

Jan Galkowski said...

@Canman,

... but that town is NOT getting all its energy from 100% renewables ...

Which town, Minster? Or Georgetown? Minster is doing north of 90%. And I didn't claim they were. I said they were "success stories". The point with Minster is that they've deployed battery storage, and the net cost is still $0.087/kWh for residential, and $0.067/kWh for industrial-commercial. And there is no transmission charge.

The primary point was Osborne's vid. Renewables in Texas use all of the sources, and there's a reason: They counterbalance one another so electric power is available all the time. That was the primary thing you were griping about. So they need solar, because it generates at a time when wind doesn't. Like I said, you don't know much about how renewables work. And you seem not to want to find out.

Then there's my/our situation: Massachusetts has net metering, so we use the grid as a storage battery. Our electric cost due to our 13.5 kW PV arrays is zero over the entire year, despite using electricity for heating/cooling (air source heat pumps), hot water (also air source heat pump), cooking, mowing the lawn, and having an EV. And we're at latitude 42N, in snowy cloudy New England.

ISO-NE has been amazed with what they can do with residential and small-scale PV: https://www.iso-ne.com/about/what-we-do/in-depth/solar-power-in-new-england-locations-and-impact

They were really skeptical when it started out.


Barton Paul Levenson said...

C: Solar is hopelessly intermittent.

BPL: Solar thermal plants with molten salt heat storage in California have already achieved better on-line time than neighboring coal-fired plants.

C: Germany spent tons of money on it. Now that it's cheap, any additional solar they buy is useless, so new deployment has leveled off:

BPL: Germany is now generating more electricity from renewables than from coal.

Canman said...

Jan, first of all, I obviously mean the town with the mayor who looks like the late Mickey Rooney. Second, you're probably right, that I don't understand renewable energy, at least how it works in your YouTube links. There must be some subtle nuances that escape me.

Whenever I listen to RE advocates or read sites like Cleantechnica.com, I get a very strong sense of what is often referred to as the "hard sell". The kind of writing on RE that makes sense to me, is that by people like physicist, Mark Mills:

https://www.manhattan-institute.org/green-energy-revolution-near-impossible

Canman said...

BPL,

"Solar thermal plants with molten salt heat storage in California have already achieved better on-line time than neighboring coal-fired plants."

What is "on-line time"? California has "neighboring coal-fired plants"?

" Germany is now generating more electricity from renewables than from coal."

That's kind of a euphemistic way of saying that their largest source of electricity is still coal, but it's starting to be replaced by Russian gas. If you want to count renewable energy as one source, don't forget it includes a lot of hydro and CO2 emitting biomass.

Jan Galkowski said...

@Canman,

Y'need to do the calculations yourself. There's plenty out there to enable you to do so.

And if you still don't buy it, you and your physicists friend will just miss out, which is fine with me.

Something about laughing all the way to the bank.

This conversation is ended. WOT.

Barton Paul Levenson said...

C: If you want to count renewable energy as one source, don't forget it includes a lot of hydro and CO2 emitting biomass.

BPL: CO2 from biomass is taken out of the air in the first place, so it doesn't add to net CO2 in the atmosphere.