A pleasant surprise this morning to see across the front page of the Waikato Times the headline “Waikato’s plan to harvest sunlight”. The article reports that lines company WEL Networks has been evaluating photovoltaic cells and is now investigating the feasibility of solar power production in the Waikato region.
Commercial viability is the determining factor. It’s the dramatic fall in the cost of photovoltaic cells which has caused WEL Network’s investigation. CEO Julian Elder said that the low price of the cells, compared with where they were a few months ago, made solar power stations affordable in New Zealand. He said that in the space of a few months the return on investment had gone from about half a century to under 10 years.
We are looking at the whole range, from 1-2 kilowatt units on a house, up to the thousands of kilowatts for a large-scale pilot,” Dr Elder said.
He said it was not a case of if they built such power stations but a matter of when.
What land area might be needed?
A one-hectare photovoltaic power station would produce about 1 megawatt of power at full capacity, enough to power several hundred homes.
It would take about 1000ha of photovoltaic cells to produce the same sort of output as Huntly Power Station. The solar power would be fed into the national grid.
I was reminded of Amory Lovins’ claim in his recent book Reinventing Fire that renewables are already cost-competitive with fossil fuels and that good businesses are recognising this and getting on with profitably developing them. Jigar Shah of the Carbon War Room made similar comments in an interview which I reported a few months ago. He considers renewables are already cheaper for new capacity than natural gas, a reality denied only by the ignorant or the diabolical.
It’s worth also being reminded about what he had to say about the storage issue for renewables, since I have no doubt that as wind, and now hopefully solar, energy develops in New Zealand we’ll be subjected to all sorts of objections related to variability of output. Shah said there are lots of easy ways to solve that problem.
We don’t need baseload plants. Coal power plants are the opposite of baseload – 12 percent of unplanned outages each year just throws the entire system into a frenzy. Engineers are not too stupid to implement intermittent technologies. We know how to solve the problem, we just have a political problem with a bunch of people who haven’t figured out how to use the internet.
Here in New Zealand government is very much stuck in an “all of the above” mentality when it comes to energy production. They are in favour of renewables, but dead set on retaining a place for fossil fuels in the mix. This from their energy policy:
Renewable energy has an increasingly important role to play, but we cannot shift from using nonrenewables overnight. We need to ensure secure and affordable energy for our households and businesses and to achieve that we need to be realistic. For the next few decades at least, the world and New Zealand will need oil, gas and coal.
A very comforting assurance if your government’s focus is still on fossil fuel development:
Our geological history has provided us with rich mineral and petroleum resources, of which only a small proportion have been tapped to date. Developing New Zealand’s potential non-renewable resources is an opportunity that we, as a country, should grasp, provided that the very highest standards of environmental protection are applied. New Zealand’s oil and gas production could be substantially increased – potentially to the point where New Zealand becomes a net exporter of oil by 2030.
That appears to be the primary concentration of government, not solar arrays or wind farms or the electrification of transport.
However Lovins says it doesn’t much matter what government thinks or does. There’s movement building in the business world which is independent and ahead of political perceptions. Renewable energy is profitable.
Shah says it well, replying to a question about the gap between what’s now happening on the ground in the business community and the perceptions in politics and the press:
Yeah, I think that when you look at renewable energy, energy efficiency, clean cars and clean technologies, those technologies are moving forward unabated. It actually doesn’t matter what [anyone] says – doesn’t matter because those entrepreneurs, the thousands of them that are in every single city in every single country are moving forward as though they’ve never heard you and I speak. So they don’t actually care what you and I have to say. They’re moving forward.
This is the context in which I viewed the news of WEL Networks’ investigations into solar power in my part of the country. Perhaps I’m getting carried away, and the government’s blinkered vision of extracting all our mineral resources along with a slow development of renewables will remain dominant. But perhaps there really is an unstoppable wave of innovation which will leave fossil resources stranded.