Are large-scale solar projects doomed to fail?
It’s been nearly 200 years since humans discovered how to convert sunlight into electricity, but solar energy still faces a number of challenges in its adoption as a reliable source of power.
Humans have been harnessing power from the sun as long as we have existed. By eating our photosynthesis-fueled friends in the animal kingdom and other organisms that eat plants, we are, ultimately gaining all of our energy from the sun. It stands to reason that we tried to extract energy from the sun for industrial purposes as well at the outset of industry. During the Industrial Revolution, way back in 1839, French scientist Alexandre Edmond Becquerellar made history when he discovered that a man-made solar cell could be used to convert sunlight into electricity thanks to the photovoltaic effect in 1839.Also on rt.com India surges ahead in global solar race
What’s more, sunlight is abundant, free, and clean. “Every five days, the sun provides the Earth with as much energy as all proven supplies of oil, coal, and natural gas,” reported Singularity Hub last year. “If humanity could capture just one 6,000th of Earth’s available solar energy, we’d be able to meet 100 percent of our energy needs.”
So if solar energy is more than capable of meeting all of our energy needs while producing zero greenhouse gas emissions, and the United Nations is all but pleading with the private sector to fund more renewable energy research before it’s too late to avoid the onset of catastrophic climate change, why isn’t the world simply blanketed with solar panels?
There have been some attempts to do just that: massive-scale solar plants that cover huge swaths of land. These projects have not, however, solved our clean energy needs. Far from it. The $1 billion Crescent Dunes solar plant developed by SolarReserve in Nevada was going to be the biggest solar plant in the world in its investment phase back in 2011, but by the time the project complete, it was already obsolete. “SolarReserve may have done its part, but today the company doesn’t rank among the winners. Instead, it’s mired in litigation and accusations of mismanagement at Crescent Dunes, where taxpayers remain on the hook for $737 million in loan guarantees,” Bloomberg reported last month. “Late last year, Crescent Dunes lost its only customer, NV Energy Inc., which cited the plant’s lack of reliability.”
Ironically, the Crescent Dunes project was not a victim of the failure of the solar industry, but of its sweeping, whirlwind success. Solar tech has improved rapidly in past years, and a mammoth project like Crescent Dunes just couldn’t keep up. “The steam generators at Crescent Dunes require custom parts and a staff of dozens to keep things humming and to conduct regular maintenance,” the Bloomberg article goes on to say. “By the time the plant opened in 2015, the increased efficiency of cheap solar panels had already surpassed its technology, and today it’s obsolete—the latest panels can pump out power at a fraction of the cost for decades with just an occasional hosing-down.”
Despite this cautionary tale, the United States military currently has about $38 billion invested in projects very similar in style to crescent dunes. (This is not an anomaly -the US Department of Defense has invested heavily in all kinds of alternatives to fossil fuels as climate change becomes an ever more pressing issue and peak oil looms around the corner.) As Popular Mechanics reports, “the Department of Defense has more of the government’s high-profile “moon shot”-type investments with DARPA, the Spruce Goose, and other famous weirdies—but in the short term, the government invests in cutting-edge science, too.”
But these investments may very well be just as ill-fated as Crescent Dunes. “As in any form of investment, there's risk involved.” the Popular mechanics article continues. “And public money has another layer of trouble. Because of the way public contracts are bid for, won, and fulfilled, the companies chosen to complete projects are often the best at the application process, and not necessarily the best at the work the project really involves.”
While it may still hold true that solar holds the greatest promise for the future of clean energy, bloated, government-contract projects mired in litigation, bureaucracy, and limited reflexivity to changing technology and trends are most certainly not the answer.