A View From the Cheap Seats

June 6, 2007

Solar Sprawl

Filed under: Environment,National — trzupek @ 2:24 am


Solar Sprawl
By: Rich Trzupek

Fans of solar power marked a major milestone in development of the technology this year: construction of the largest solar power plant in the world.

Built by General Electric, the Serpa power plant is located about 20 miles south of Lisbon, Portugal. The plant covers 150 acres, almost 100 acres of which is covered by solar panels. It will generate more than twice the power of the next biggest solar power plant.

And that would be… 11 megawatts.

To put that in context, the engines on a 747 are capable of producing about 65 megawatts of power. And, according to our sources, a 747 doesn’t take up 150 acres of space. Hell most subdivisions don’t cover 150 acres.

Now let’s have some fun with math. One-hundred-fifty acres gets us 11 megawatts. If we do the division, we find that it takes over 10 acres to generate a megawatt of power from sunlight. To keep it simple, let’s just say that 10 acres equals 1 megawatt.

Typical electrical demand in the State of Illinois is about 20,000 megawatts. So, if we want to go 100 percent solar, we’d need a plant covering 200,000 acres, or a little over 300-square miles.

But wait, that’s not quite big enough. We’ve only dealt with typical demand. In the summer, people run a lot of air conditioning and that uses up a lot of juice. We’ve got to plan for that, or deal with a state full of sweaty, stinky bodies–which I don’t believe anyone is ready to do.

In the power industry, we call this “peak demand,” and in Illinois that equates to about 50,000 megawatts. Using our formula, that means we need about 500,000 acres of solar cells, or over 750-square miles.

This is one hell of a project.

Given the various legal and regulatory constraints in force, we won’t be able to use wetlands, or land with historical value, or land that contains endangered species, or that could possibly interfere with an endangered species. We could use farmlands, but taking 500,000 acres of farmland off the board is likely to enrage the agricultural lobby, and it’s never a good idea to annoy farmers.

Forests, state and federal lands can’t be considered either, for obvious reasons. There’s a few suburbs we could level in good conscience (Rosemont comes to mind) but that wouldn’t get us enough land and doing so would probably yank off residents in any case.

Those 750-square miles are going to be hard to come by. But, if we can find them, I’m calling dibs on the environmental impact statement work. I’ve got a kid to put through college.

But let’s assume we find the land. What’s the cost? The plant in Portugal costs about $80 million to build. Our solar plant will, by extension, cost about $400 billion. Given Illinois’ budget, we can probably rule out any state-guaranteed loans.

Which means that you and I, dear consumers, will have to pay the price in our electric bill. Figuring in the cost of operation and the cost of money, that will result in us paying more than double the cost of electricity than we pay today. Actually it would be more, but we’re being conservative here.

Unfortunately, we’re not through. It’s a scientific fact that the sun doesn’t shine every day, not even in Illinois. Accordingly, we’ll have to have back up power available. Oddly enough, those reserve power plants will want to be paid as well. So let’s just say that the price of electricity will triple. At least.

The point here isn’t merely to pooh-pooh solar power as an alternative energy source (with extra pooh), but to point out that this particular form of energy has it’s limitations. Yes the sun generates a lot of energy, but it’s not thoughtful enough to put all of that energy in one spot. It spreads it out and collecting all of that juice requires a lot of land and a lot of cash. Solar is great, in isolated applications–like generating hot water–but anyone who thinks its the ultimate solution to our energy questions ain’t paying attention.

We use a lot of energy. (And generate a lot of production, by the by.) That’s not going to change. If you’re concerned about energy prices or about greenhouse gases–the latter concern clearly indicating that you are not a regular Examiner reader–than you need to consider some solutions that are more realistic than solar power. We could generate more than 11 megawatts by collecting cow flatulence for crying out loud.

Fortunately, the realistic answer–the best answer–may be just around the corner. More nuclear power is on the way. Finally.

Nukes produce cheap, homegrown power. And don’t go “Three Mile Island” on me kids. Three Mile Island showed that the safeguards work. Thirty years later, nuclear power is as safe and as clean as a source of energy as we have.

And it sure beats the hell out of a 500,000-acre power plant.


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