You either laugh or cry. You either crack a joke, or get mad. I awoke last week to the wave of broadcast hype surrounding Elon Musk’s announcement of the Tesla Powerwall, a wall-mounted lithium-ion electric battery for homes, and the Tesla Powerpack, a bigger version designed for utility-scale use. I noted with irritation Musk’s emphasis on solar power. He claimed that the videotaped press event at which he announced the batteries was entirely solar powered, from batteries charged by photovoltaic panels on the roof of the facility that housed it. He did not, during the videotaped announcement, which I watched later that day, mention how long it had taken to charge the batteries. There is a reason he didn’t mention it.
That reason may be related to the reason the event lasted less than twenty minutes. That reason is that if the event really were videotaped and broadcast using only electricity from batteries that had been charged by solar panels on the roof of the hosting facility, then there was simply not enough electricity to power the event for more than a short time.
It is of course likely that Musk was telling the truth that the event was really powered with stored sunlight. In fact I would be most surprised if he weren’t. That’s not my problem with what says. My problem is his emphasis on solar power, in the context of the Keeling Curve—the chart that shows the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide (CO2), which Musk showed during his presentation. He (properly) points to the skyrocketing CO2 concentration as an indication we humans must do something to reduce our dumping of CO2 into the air, but in the next breath he suggests we attack this problem by using the least efficient and least effective technology for reducing CO2 from power generation.
What would have really been amazing is if the event had been powered directly with solar panels—straight from the panels through an AC inverter—while a portion of the same panels’ output was charging batteries that could have taken over the powering of the remainder of the event had, say, a huge thundercloud obscured the solar photon flux so that the panels were not generating any current. That would have been amazing. But that was not how the event went.
For the event to have been powered in the way I mentioned, Musk would have to own, or purchase control over, more physical space so as to put enough solar panels to both power his event and charge batteries of sufficient capacity in order to instantly take over powering the event if the electrical current from the panels were halted.
And if everyone, not just ultra-rich PayPal entrepreneurs (who would never have made a dime on the Internet had the Internet been powered with solar panels, since the Internet is a 24/7/365 entity where customers demand 24/7/365 reliability) wanted to power say their homes with solar panels they would have to do the same: they would also have to go grab up space for the extra panels needed to both run their homes in realtime and charge batteries so the batteries can take over when the sun goes down and keep electricity flowing until it comes back up.
Something tells me that the acquisition of physical real estate for the purpose of building solar panels to power a home—which itself sits on real estate that is typically valued at a fairly hefty amount of money, usually hundreds of thousands of dollars—might present a financial challenge to the millions of homeowners who are not PayPal zillionaires.
Which is to say, Musk’s dream of a solar powered America running on his (or anybody else’s) batteries, is a pipe dream. If we take this pipe dream seriously, the curve at the extreme right end of the Keeling Curve chart above is going to keep spiking upward.
This all tracks back to the sheer inefficiency of solar power. As a commenter on this blog pointed out (see Morgan Brown’s comment on the article “Celebrating Earth Day in Ontario with favoritism and inefficiency”), solar panels get a very low capacity factor. Solar panels cannot run the grid. They can provide, if conditions are just right, power at the typical peak time of mid-afternoon. Now, should that power go into the grid (at peak time when it is surely needed), or into batteries for when the sun goes down? And if the latter, then what will power the grid at the time that power is being generated? Batteries, which were charged say the previous day by the same solar panels? What provided the on-demand power at the time the solar panels were charging the batteries?
The chart below gives an idea of what I am talking about. It is Ontario’s grid output by source on May 13. Zoom in to the bottom of the chart, hours 14 through 16. You might be able to see that solar output, minuscule enough at hour 14, declined in hour 15. If you cannot make out the solar output, it was 24 MW at hour 14 and 18 at hour 15.
The utterly cockamamie nature of solar power advocacy comes clearly into view when one asks these kinds of questions.
Maybe this is why Elon Musk kept the Powerwall/Powerpack announcement so short. Not only would he have run out of power, he would have run out of coherence. Not that any of the hooting and hollering Musk enthusiasts at the conference would or could have noticed the latter. But they would definitely have noticed the former.
In the southeastern part of California, there is a big solar thermal plant, called Ivanpah. It came online in 2013, and its output (it is rated at 392 megawatts, the base output of 3.9 million human beings) has been so dismal that it is not making a profit, even though sunlight is free. According to an article in the the Energy Collective this is because of a spate of bad weather in the first nine months of 2014.
Good thing there are reliable sources of power running California; otherwise people, including those who were buying things from the Internet using their PayPal accounts, might have noticed.
And good thing for Elon Musk’s solar ventures that his solar technology could not power his battery announcement for much longer than 20 minutes. Using such technology he has no hope of even approaching Fidel Castro’s record for holding forth in public (maybe he has no aspirations in that direction). If he went on for more than 20 minutes, his pitch would have collapsed under its own internal contradictions.
But unlike Castro’s speeches, Musk’s interests are not interminably boring. He is a risk taker and involved in very interesting spaces. I believe him when he voices concern over climate change and carbon dioxide. Who knows, maybe he could find enough to talk about to keep himself going as long as Castro. However, as long as he insists on staying hooked up to cockamamie solar power, his speeches will stay short and he’ll have to call Castro “Daddy.”
And if we make the mistake of taking his solar advocacy seriously, the Keeling Curve will continue spiking upward.
The United States fought a bloody civil war in the 1860s, over how to proceed in its economic and social development. The central question, over which half a million men fought and died and half a million more were maimed for life, was: should the United States be machine powered or slave powered?
The pro-machine side won, thank heavens. But sooner or later we humans, 150 years after the American Civil War, must face the fact that, no matter what Silicon Valley entrepreneurs tell us, solar panels cannot provide the power to run the machines that made slaver obsolete.