Sunday, February 26, 2012

The Hottest Places for Solar Panels

It’s a pretty obvious fact that some countries are much, much hotter than others. However, where is the best place to live to benefit from solar panels – is it where it’s sunniest? In the US, California has excellent environmental conditions for solar panels. In particular, a trip to Inyokern, on the eastern edge of Sierra Nevada, in the Mojave Desert, would be the place where you’d most need sunscreen – it receives more solar radiation annually than anywhere else in the whole of North America.

It would seem logical that this would be where you could earn the most money by installing solar panels, since it is where they’d generate the most power. However, while there is a Federal tax credit for renewable energy, additional incentives vary widely from state to state. The seemingly unlikely best state for installing domestic solar panels is, in fact, New Jersey. Indeed, not only is it one of the most attractive places for investment in solar in the US, but in the world. The generous incentives in the Garden State include renewable energy credits, where one credit, worth $650, is paid per 1000kWh generated. Combined with some of the country’s highest electricity costs, at $0.19/kWh compared to the national average of $0.11/kWh, this means that the solar panels will pay themselves off after approximately 4 years, and the payments last for 15 years.

Don’t live in New Jersey? Don’t get disheartened; don’t forget the other forms of renewable energy. Oil magnate, T. Boone Pickens planned to build the World’s biggest wind energy farm in Texas, due to a healthy mixture of incentives and ideal conditions for the generating power from the wind (although he did end up selling of 667 turbines due to transmission issues).

If you don’t even live in the USA, certain countries offer arguably better incentives. Italy is a world-leader in encouraging solar energy, offering a 0.431EUR/kWh tariff for solar power generation over a 20 year period, with a potential 30% increase if the house is certified as energy efficient, and for residents of Milano County, further assistance is available in the form of an interest free loan to buy the system in the first place.

What could happen if the sunniest places worldwide were used for solar power production? Dr Gerhard Knies, a German climate change expert, states that “within 6 hours, deserts receive more energy from the sun than humankind consumes within a year.” In November 2007, data gathered over 22 years of study by NASA revealed that the two sunniest places on Earth are a patch of sea in the Pacific Ocean and an area of desert in the Sahara, near the ruined fort at Agadem in south-east Niger. “For some reason there are fewer clouds just there than elsewhere” Paul Stackhouse, a scientist working on the project, told Reuters.

The Desertec charity is a German-led initiative to make use of the abundant sunlight in the Sahara, which regularly experiences temperatures soaring above 122 degrees Fahrenheit. The project could start generating electricity as soon as 2015. While there are currently no government incentives in the Sahara for renewable energy generation, the electricity will be exported to Europe, where it could meet up to 15% of its energy needs by 2050. The costs involved are immense – it’s a $400bn investment4. This initial expense, however, ought to be offset by the relatively low production costs of the electricity itself, estimated to be between 0.065 and 0.16 EUR/kWh, and fairly low losses of 4-5% of the power per 1,000km of cabling through which it has to travel to reach other countries.

It would seem projects such as this effort, encompassing 12 different companies across multiple countries, are to be necessary for solar power to be generated on any reasonable scale. Taking advantage of the sunniest places and the economies of scale that come with massive installations is the best sustainable solution because it is the way to produce renewable power at the lowest cost per unit.

In more economically-developed countries, with greater per capita energy requirements, there are usually greater incentives for solar power generation on offer. This certainly helps keep down the costs of infrastructure development and transmission losses, both of which are otherwise greater when the electricity has to be transported thousands of kilometres. However, this is probably outweighed by the much higher average levels of sunshine in many less economically developed countries around the equator, hence the real way for solar to become a viable long term solution is to generate the electricity at the lowest cost possible, no matter whether it’s governments, large companies or individuals paying for it. For this to happen, solar will have to be encouraged in sunnier countries, and so perhaps inter-lateral government investment ought to be expanded to make this happen.


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