Thursday, September 17, 2009

You have a nice day too, Mr. Friedman

I've been mulling over an Op-Ed by well-known economist Thomas Friedman for the past few days. To summarize, Mr. Friedman visits Applied Materials' Silicon Valley headquarters and bemoans the fact that all of their solar panel production facilities are located abroad (in Germany, Taiwan, Spain, Italy, Abu Dhabi, India, and China, to be precise) and therefore the U.S. is doomed to become an importer of solar panels from China, thus repeating the vicious cycle of being beholden to another area of the world for our energy needs for decades to come. Well, there it is. Global competitiveness: doomed. National security: doomed.

Fear not. As you may have gleaned from my tone, I don't entirely agree with Mr. Friedman's assessment of the situation and here's why:

One of his major points is that the solar industry needs clear and stable policy signals and he references Germany's feed-in tariff system as a way to do that. I completely agree but Mr. Friedman is putting his cart (solar PV) before his horse (the electricity grid). Any major policy effort to increase significantly the amount of variable electricity generation feeding into the grid will first require an overhaul of how the grid operates and interacts with external power sources. This needs to happen first. Even more challenging will be your average Joe Megawatt who wants to sell his excess power back to the grid: this isn't The Gap, people, returning electricity isn't free. It takes extra modifications and operational planning. If all of this isn't optimized then feeding in Mr. Friedman's "zero variable cost" renewable energy could cost more in terms of dollars and emissions than the "do nothing alternative."

Another problem I have with the article is his singular focus on solar PV and sometimes wind. He states, "The world is on track to add another 2.5 billion people by 2050, and many will be aspiring to live American-like, high-energy lifestyles. In such a world, renewable energy — where the variable cost of your fuel, sun or wind, is zero — will be in huge demand." Not true. Energy will be in high demand, and most people won't be thinking about whether it came from a solar panel or a nuclear power plant. So let's not lose focus on the big picture and all the other options (carbon capture, nuclear power, geothermal, hydro) out there for providing low-carbon reliable, baseload electricity. And let's not forget that many of these low-emissions alternatives to solar panels are being developed and built right here in the USofA.

1 comment:

  1. Haha, Joe Megawatt.

    Mr. Friedman never discusses the cost of photovoltaics in his op-ed. The current generation of PV is many times more expensive than wind or natural gas...too expensive to make a signifcant impact on global emissions without bankrupting the global economy. Although future technologies such as concentrated PV, thin films, and organic PV may be cheaper (substantially cheaper? maybe not), existing PV production facilities won't be able to make these technologies. So who cares if the U.S. isn't handing out unnecessary subsidies?