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What future role for solar energy?

Richard Perez, University of Albany’s Atmospheric Sciences Research Center
Posted 5/2/23

Can solar energy deliver an abundant, reliable, affordable, and environmentally benign energy future for New York? This is still a matter of debate for many.

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What future role for solar energy?


Can solar energy deliver an abundant, reliable, affordable, and environmentally benign energy future for New York?

This is still a matter of debate for many. Let’s look at the facts.

• Abundance: The sun powers the weather and life on earth without us paying much attention to it. New York receives as much solar energy in six hours as used annually for everything, so it is abundant indeed. A practical aspect of abundance is the technology — photovoltaics, PV — that can transform the resource into a usable form: electricity.

Remarkably, the amount of PV deployed worldwide has grown at a stable annual rate of 30% since the 1980s. The reason is the technology’s systematic improvement in efficiency, versatility, and cost, enabling it to capture new markets and grow. It is widely believed that this trend will continue for many years. Interestingly, projecting the 30% rate into the future implies enough PV to power all the economies of the world by the 2040s.

• Affordability: The Lazard Bank —the world’s leading financial advisory and asset management firm — periodically compares the cost of all technologies capable of producing electricity. Their numbers, based on a survey of newly commissioned installations around the world, show that utility-scale PV is now the cheapest technology, considerably cheaper than new coal, natural gas, or nuclear plants (4-6 times cheaper for nuclear).

When also considering that a new PV plant can be built within a few months versus many years for nuclear (notwithstanding well documented delays and cost overruns), the affordability argument for PV is a strong one.

• Reliability: Like wind, solar energy is a ‘run-of-the weather’ variable resource. What to do when the sun doesn’t shine is a valid question. However, this ignores the solutions that are taking shape to transform wind/solar into ‘firm power’ generators that can meet demand nonstop. These include [battery] energy storage, blending wind and solar (that tend to complement each other well) and retaining a small amount of conventional thermal generation (that could eventually be switched to 100% carbon-neutral e-fuels with negligible impacts on the overall bottom line).

Counterintuitively, the most effective solution consists in overbuilding wind and solar and shedding some of their energy – a strategy termed implicit storage. We have shown that these solutions can bring the cost of 24/365, firm, pure PV/wind electricity at levels that will be competitive with conventional electricity.

The International Energy Agency estimates that economies of the world can count on future firm, 100% renewable electric power generation at a cost of 3-7 cents per kWh, a number that will remain stable and last for generations.

Environmental footprint: While PV and its firm power enablers are not free of environmental concerns, they are considerably more benign than the climate, pollution, and accident risks associated with conventional fossil fuel and nuclear power.  

An important concern that has been fueling a growing opposition to solar farms is their footprint. While this is a legitimate concern, it does not come close to the exaggerated claims advanced by detractors. Let’s look at the numbers. A recent study I co-authored shows that, to deliver a 100% renewable PV/wind future for all of New York’s energy sectors, PV plants would have to cover 300-500 square miles. This is a large number, but that is less than 1% of the state.

Considering that a large fraction of deployments can occur on already built-up and/or impervious surfaces (e.g., roofs, parking lots, reservoirs, power lines’ rights of ways), the amount to be deployed on farms would remain reasonable — we have estimated that a 100% renewable New York solution would require only 1-3% of the state’s farm/open land while producing much needed revenues to upstate communities and farmers. It is enlightening to contrast this with an existing energy crop: industrial corn ethanol farming covers 250,000 acres in New York that could yield 50 to 200 times more clean energy with PV without requiring any pesticides.

Note: Richard Perez leads solar energy research at the University of Albany’s Atmospheric Sciences Research Center. He has served multiple terms on the board of the American Solar Energy Society and as associate editor of Solar Energy Journal; he currently serves on the board of United Solar Energy Supporters. Perez heads an International Energy Agency task force on firm renewable power and as authored more than 250 journal articles, conference papers, books and chapters.


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