Solar energy pt 1

This is my first diary on Solar energy of many.

In this entry I’ll cover the solar basics, and cover some of the economics.

I’ve seen many, many comparisons of the energy independence issue to the space race. If we could land on the moon, we can certainly overcome this problem, right? Well its not that simple. When it came to landing on the moon, only 34 Apollo Command/Service Modules were built, even fewer Lunar Modules. While still a difficult task to research, design and build these units, the issue was manufacturing them fast enough to meet the ambitious launch schedule – and not so much on making them cheaply and in large quantities.

Which is the problem we face when it comes to energy. We have the technology. We just need the ability to manufacture it in massive quantities and to do it cheaply enough to make a difference. In 2007, the United States had about 1TW (1 terawatt, or 1 trillion watts) of generation capacity. So how do we go about replacing that with renewable energy? Solar is one avenue, for those in the south and southwest.

The best property of solar power is that it matches peak demand so well. Peak demand is largest in the summer months (May through September) where the grid’s power demand increases dramatically over the “base load”, or the amount of power the grid is always demanding. For example, on July 1, 2008, the peak demand in the areas of California controlled by CAISO was 39GW (GW = 1 billion watts) at around 5PM local time, and the base load was 24GW. So not only is solar power fuel-cost free, it also generates the most expensive power – peak power. Wholesale rates can approach $340/MWh (34c/kWh) during the highest period of demands in California, and even $130/MWh during summer peak periods, whereas off-peak power can cost as little as $35/MWh (3.5c/kWh).

On to the technology…

There are two general forms of solar power – PV or photovoltaic, which converts energy from photons directly into energy, and thermal, which uses the sun’s heat, concentrated to heat liquids to transfer that heat, boil water and turn a turbine. There are variations on these themes, such as concentrated PV, where a lens can focus more sunlight onto a PV cell, and Stirling-engine based solar thermal which uses a Stirling engine to generate the power through a large temperature gradient (e.g. concentrated sunlight and ambient air temperature).

Traditional PV solar modules (or panels) come in a range of sizes and power ratings. Some of the most recent advances include a 224 Watt panel from Sharp, and a double sided solar panel from Sanyo useful for carports and other elevated installations that can produce up to 215 Watts. SunPower Corp. has even announced a 300W solar panel that measures the same 3.5’ by 5’ industry standard panel size.

The problem is that a PV panel is expensive, about $4/Watt. After other factors like additional parts needed – like inverters to convert the DC energy the panel puts out into AC energy your appliances use, and a new power meter than can spin backwards to track your production – and installation of the panels, the cost of the entire system will be about $7-8/Watt. At this price, a reasonable 5kW system that you might install on your roof is about $35,000-40,000, though the cost can be reduced through various rebates and tax incentives. In a sunny environment like my hometown of Las Vegas, the system would pay for itself in about 12-15 years after rebates, the cost of the loan and escalating energy prices.

So you can see that a rooftop PV system is fairly expensive. Even large-scale PV systems on the order of MWs (Megawatts, or millions of watts) are in the same $7/Watt price range.

Solar thermal is also expensive as well, though less expensive than PV-based solar power. The Mojave Desert in the southwest is home to the largest solar thermal system in the United States, SEGS or Solar Energy Generation System, which has a total capacity of 354MW. The most recent solar thermal installation is Nevada Solar One at 64MW and was constructed for about $266M, or just over $4/Watt. Of course, you cant put one of these systems on your roof, and to make the project sufficiently cost effective you’ll need a large swath of land to build on. Finally, solar thermal can also address the biggest problem with solar – it only works when the sun shines. There are projects to store the thermal energy in various heat transfer mechanisms (molten salt) to provide for power generation after the sun sets, until about midnight.

Which brings me to the next point – late last month, the BLM put all solar projects on hold in lieu of a Programmatic EIS (Environmental Impact Survey) to asses the environmental impacts of large scale solar impacts on the desert. Well early this week, they reversed course and said they wlll continue to accept and process applications. Now whether or not its just words on paper or if they really intend to process these applications wont be known for a while since they take so long to process in the first place.

So I think that’s enough for part 1. I went over the costs and the technology. Next I’ll talk about what gets me interested in solar – what developments are coming down the pike, for traditional PV, thermal, and thin-film technologies. And what problems and opportunities those developments unlock. After that, what it could mean for transportation technologies.

Macworld 2008 Predictions

For months predictions about what will be unveiled at MWSF have been circulating around the Internet. Here are my predictions of what we will and wont see at MWSF this Tuesday.

Here are my predictions for each category from most confident to least confident. At the end I’ll list any rumors that I don’t think we will see at MWSF.


iTunes 7.6 – Practically confirmed via the Family Guy Blue Harvest rumor. This release will support movie rentals, copying movies off DVDs (possibly ripping like Handbrake, or copying off a seperate Fairplay enabled version stored on the DVD), and purchasing iPhone applications.

iPhone Firmware 1.1.3 – Extremely likely, though I think the final name for the firmware will be 1.2.0, not 1.1.3 (its way more than a .1 release).


Thin MacBook – Very likely, .6″ thick and 13″ screen. Priced between MacBook and MacBook Pro ($1500-$1800). Comes with 32GB SSD, integrated graphics and external DVD+DL burner. Does not come with Dock. Possible “nifty feature” no one knows about yet.

Apple Dock – Likely. For use with Thin Macbook, the one with the monitor and the laptop sliding in and out. Apple will also offer a monitor-less dock, but its not as pretty and doesn’t get but a brief mention.
16GB iPhone – Likely. Revised 8GB and 16GB models that will reduce costs a bit, along with making it harder to tamper with for unlocking (see my previous post on iPhone laundering). Prices stay at $399 for the 8GB and $499 for the 16GB. This is the “minor” upgrade in Apple’s Major, Minor, Major iPhone release cycle. Could possibly include one new minor feature, along the lines of real GPS, slightly longer battery life, etc.

Revised, Cheaper AppleTV – slightly possible. With the addition of movie rentals, the AppleTV cant afford to stay at its $300 price bracket, at least not if it cant do better than 720p. A cheap DVD player and a Netflix subscription beat it hands down. Apple can take this product in any number of directions. The most likely scenario I see is taking the Airport 802.11n model and removing the wired ports and bolting on an H.264 encoder than can do 1080p and a HDMI port and optical/coax out. The most likely alternative to that would be an AppleTV replacement that has 4GB of flash instead of a 40GB HD, and 1080p support. Either model will price out around $200, but if they push the High Definition aspect of it, Steve will be happy to tout that its the cheapest way to get High Def movies on your television (Blu-ray players are $300+).

What we wont see

New MacBook Pros or MacBooks. Apple will unveil a new MBP design in early/mid February available immediately. A small chance they would launch a xMac (headless mid-range tower Mac) along side the new laptop, the xMac wouldn’t ship until early/mid March (when Intel launches their quad core penryn chips). MacBooks (and the Mini, if its still around) don’t get the Penryn bump until April or May.
New Displays. Yes, I’m beating a dead horse here. But as long as displays keep selling, there is no need to change them.

Sunday, June 9, 2002

More updates here at Sequence Omega. I’ve changed the front page a bit, and since one of my supposed assignments for my upcoming english class is to make a webpage, then I am trying to clean it up and make it nicer. Maybe I can devote all the homework time to making the comments system work. Although I’ll have to wait and see.

The whole situation with the comments and login system are still up in the air. Its taking me a lot longer than I expected, and to complicate that, I’m having a lot less freetime than I had expected. I’m getting away from my computers more and going out with friends. Plus I’m spending time playing PS2, and soon I’m going to start looking for apartments or houses, plus my summer school class. I wish I could just flip a switch and have it running but its not that easy.

April 28, 2002

I’ve got the shell for the comments system in place, its going to be a week or so before I have time to finish this stuff off again, as I have a project in one of my classes due this week. But they will be done soon!! Also, I’ve added the column on the right that will randomly display RSS (Rich Site Summary) for websites of my choice, mostly tech sites that openly publish their RSS/RDFs.