Aside from the costs, another argument against solar energy has been its small scale compared to a large conventional power plant. A huge nuclear plant can produce enough power for 800,000 customers, while a PV system on someone’s rooftop might just provide enough electricity for that household. Yet, given time, and put in perspective, solar energy can become and increasingly viable means of electricity generation.
A rule that still hold true for energy planners is to have available 1kw of generating capacity for every customer being served. Here in Humboldt County, we have a population of about 110,000 people, and PG&E has a power plant capable of producing 120,000kw, the excess capacity being there for increased population and future demand. Playing the numbers game, 1000 kilowatts is 1 megawatt (MW), and 1000 MW is 1 gigawatt (GW). The US electricity system is capable of generating about 600GW of power, and the world capacity is somewhere around 4,600GW. All this is supplied by thousands of generators ranging from small 1kw portables to huge 1200MW coal and nuclear units. Replacing ALL of these with solar and other renewables such as wind appears to be a daunting, if not impossible task. It will take some time, but it is definitely possible.
A recent press release by Neo Solar Power of Taiwan announced that construction is underway on what will now be the world's largest solar cell facility, a plant that will cost $837 million and produce 3.4 GW of cells per year. LDK Solar of China has a current production capacity of 2GW/year. First Solar in the US can manufacture 1.4GW/yr. These are just three of the largest manufacturers. Include Sharp and Sanyo of Japan, Siemens of Germany, the other US and Chinese, Italians, Spaniards, and South Koreans, and you approach some 35GW of production per year. The significance of this is that this production capacity is manufactured EACH YEAR, and will most obviously increase.
To put this in perspective, we are currently proposing to spend an estimated $10 billion on a new nuclear power plant in Georgia. Once completed, at whatever the final cost, that plant will generate 1000MW (1GW) of electricity when it is running. It will have a license to operate for thirty years, but its output will be a constant 1000MW each hour it runs.
Neo Solar is investing $837 million in a manufacturing facility that will produce 3,400MW (3.4GW) of solar cells every year. So, for the first year, it puts out 3,4000MW, the second year it’s combined output will be 6,800MW, the next year 10,200MW, increasing each year so that in thirty years we will have 102,000MW (102GW) of generating capacity just from that one facility. Start multiplying that by the current, but significantly increasing PV production capacity and the role of solar becomes noteworthy. The nuclear industry dreams of mass production of small modular nuclear power plants, but at what cost, and when such units might be commercially available is hugely unknown. Meanwhile, we will be producing more and more solar energy at relative low cost, no fuel costs, minimal maintenance, no emissions, and readily available at the local level throughout the world. Coupled with increased energy efficiency, all the new technologies in renewables (wind, biomass, ocean, geothermal), and better ways to locally generate, transmit, and use electricity, and within thirty years we are definitely in the new era of green and sustainable energy. Of course many obstacles exist, but our incredible technological prowess, and the fact that there is much money to be made in this area will escalate the transition.