Q. What is solar power?

Solucar PS10 is the first solar thermal power ...
Image via Wikipedia

A. Solar power is a simple, sensible way to boil water and generate electricity (among other things). By contrast, nuclear power and fossil fuels are insane ways to boil water and generate electricity (or anything else).

Myth: Solar power is practical only in outer space.

Fact: Solar power is practical today at most places on the earth’s surface.

“Over the course of a year the average solar radiation arriving at the top of the Earth’s atmosphere is roughly 1,366 watts per square meter[2][3] (see solar constant). …The Sun’s rays are attenuated as they pass though the atmosphere, thus reducing the insolation at the Earth’s surface to approximately 1,000 watts per square meter for a surface perpendicular to the Sun’s rays at sea level on a clear day.” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Insolation) The sunlight available at the surface is MANY, MANY orders of magnitude greater than required for civilization’s power needs. Why go to orbit for something that is available in vast surplus on the ground? The same goes for obsessing about the efficiency of solar conversion for terrestrial applications. In space it matters–on the ground its often moot. It only affects the surface area requirement, which in many terrestrial applications is not a limiting factor.

(Picture above: “Concentrated Solar Thermal Power – The map shows how large of an area of desert would have to be covered with mirrors to produce all the electricity currently used by Europe (small square) or the entire World (larger square). Concentrated Solar Thermal could replace all nuclear power plants tomorrow. The sun’s ray are concentrated to produce high enough heat to drive steam turbines. This is the same technology as used in nuclear power plants, where the heat is supplied by highly radioactive uranium/plutonium fuel rods, except that here the heat is supplied directly by the sun’s rays…The technology is available. All we need is the political will to finance this one instead of the fossil fuel (& nuclear) based plants used today. Photo and text from Sepp Hasslberger’s Photos – Wall Photos on FaceBook. )

Myth: Solar power is a futuristic high-technology that requires more R&D to become a practical and competitive industry

Fact: Solar energy has been harnessed since ancient times. Ancient accounts also mention water-lifting devices and moving mechanical statues that were powered by the sun’s heat. Concentrated sunlight powered some of the earliest steam engines in the 19th century.

“As early as 212 BC, the Greek scientist, Archimedes, used the reflective properties of bronze shields to focus sunlight and to set fire to wooden ships from the Roman Empire which were besieging Syracuse. (Although no proof of this feat exists, the Greek navy recreated the experiment in 1973 and successfully set fire to a wooden boat at a distance of 50 meters.)”

“100 AD to 400 AD – For three hundred years, the Romans use solar power to heat waters in bath houses.

“On September 27, 1816, Robert Stirling applied for a patent for his economiser at the Chancery in Edinburgh, Scotland.  This engine was later used in the dish/Stirling system, a solar thermal electric technology that concentrates the sun’s thermal energy in order to produce power.”

Mouchout engine -click image for source

“The first active solar motor was invented by Auguste Mouchout in 1861 and utilized solar power to entirely provide a fuel source for a steam engine.  In the same period, scientists in Europe developed large cone-shaped collectors that could be used to produce locomotion and refrigeration based upon the heating of ammonia. ”

“In the United States during the Civil War Swedish-born John Erickson, the famed inventor of the USS Monitor that greatly assisted the Union in naval battles, was also able to develop a trough collector that could function in a similar way that many solar cells developed nearly one hundred years later do.

1913-The first solar thermal power station

“Frank Shuman built the world’s first solar thermal power station in Meadi, Egypt. Shuman’s plant used parabolic troughs to power a 60-70 horsepower engine, which pumped 6,000 gallons of water per minute from the Nile River to adjacent cotton fields. Identical technology with relatively minor refinements is used today. The first electric dynamo capable of delivering power for industry was  built by Hippolyte Pixii in 1832. Thus, engineers had mastered every technology needed to generate unlimited mechanical and electric power anywhere in the world over 100 years ago. There is one reason the world does not run entirely on solar power today — the captains of industry from the 1830’s until now have invested their capital in coal, oil, gas, and nuclear energy for one reason: they could minimize competition and control availability. They could not control the availability and profitability of sunlight.

Their personal gain is mankind’s loss.

“We are like tenant farmers chopping down the fence around our house for fuel when we should be using Nature’s inexhaustible sources of energy — sun, wind and tide. … I’d put my money on the sun and solar energy. What a source of power! I hope we don’t have to wait until oil and coal run out before we tackle that.” Thomas Edison in conversation with Henry Ford and Harvey Firestone (1931); as quoted in Uncommon Friends : Life with Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, Harvey Firestone, Alexis Carrel & Charles Lindbergh (1987) by James Newton, p. 31

The most amazing thing about solar-thermal technology is that the basic parts involved existed several thousand years ago–they just weren’t combined in the smartest way until the 20th century. If a knowledgeable craftsman had traveled back in time (as Mark Twain’s Connecticut Yankee did) to King Arthur’s court, he could have built a concentrated solar-thermal power plant with the tools and materials of that day. All we are talking about is 1) mirrors, 2) plumbing, 3) a steam engine, and 4) a basic electric generator. Home-made examples of the latter two items are common in high-school science fairs.  Yet these systems, engineered to full scale and modern specifications, are capable of replacing coal and nuclear power plants, can be constructed by an existing class of contractors in less time than a coal-burning plant, and once built could operate safely with zero pollution for hundreds of years. These facts suggest that higher education has become principally a conduit of disinformation in the service of our corporate masters.

solar power station 1913 – click image for source

(List compiled from US Department of Energy – Solar History Timeline, Solar energy history by Max Rutherford, and A brief pictorial history of solar powered technology.)

Myth: Large solar power plants take up too much land, can only be situated in desert areas, and require inefficient, impractical, or unavailable energy storage and long-range transmission technologies.

Fact: Large scale solar power stations can be placed anywhere that cost-benefit constraints are met. They can be placed on any land unsuitable for other uses. Various designs are compatible with mixed land uses. They have the added placement flexibility over most other generating methods that no water supply is required and no public hazard is created. No evacuation plans or discharge scrubbers are required. No fuels must be mined or processed at enormous cost in land and energy resources. No large energy storage capabilities are required in countries with modern electrical distribution grids.

Myth: Solar power is inefficient and cost-prohibitive.

Fact: Its true that the solar-electric “panel” or “module” for stationary terrestrial use is largely a 1960’s-era technology that is nearly obsolete or inappropriate for many residential and commercial applications today. They are typically heavy, bulky, resource intensive, manufacturing intensive, and expensive at perhaps $5.00 per watt. Such panels are a pet “straw man” of the energy industry used to divert public attention from the appropriate solar power technologies of the present. The true state-of-the-art solar technologies for most  terrestrial applications (including charging electric vehicles) today are:

1. Solar-electric power production integrated into building materials: The entire exterior envelop of residential and commercial buildings including roofing, siding, and window glazing can be constructed from materials and coatings with solar-electric generating capability built in. Some interior surfaces can also be used to convert ambient interior light into electricity. The use of this technology is limited only by investments in manufacturing capacity and the active obstruction of the legacy energy industry.

Ancient Roof Tiles Can Solar Power Your Entire Home

These gorgeous Solé Power Tiles are designed to capture and convert sunlight into cost-saving electricity without compromising aesthetics. They incorporate UNI-SOLAR thinfilm flexible solar cells shaped into traditional clay tile shapes. The tiles are rated at 1 KW per 200 sq. feet. Most houses would have the space to fully power themselves using these solar tiles.

2. Solar-thermal power plants: A typical plant is an array of flat, conventional mirrors that concentrate solar radiation on a central heat exchanger. A heated fluid  drives a turbine and electric generator. Such plants can be scaled to serve anything from single family or farm to an entire citiy (and anything in between). Some designs are so simple they could have been constructed with 19th century technology. They can easily be built with the current level of engineering and construction expertise available in any city today.

Solar Towers PS20 and PS10, Spain

Large solar-thermal plants are commonly known as “solar power towers“. The land use impact of power towers is less than that of nuclear plants if the impacts of nuclear fuel mining, processing, disposal, and cooling are considered. Solar power towers need no cooling water and can be built on dry, non-arable lands. They need no complicated safety systems or backup and/or off-site electricity to prevent them from melting down or exploding. They represent no environmental or public health risk and have less environmental impact than a parking lot of comparable area.

Compared with the life cycle cost of a nuclear plant and its fuel, a solar power tower is far cheaper to build and to operate. Such plants can go from blueprints to operation in a single year. The deployment of this technology is limited only by capital availability and the active obstruction of the legacy energy industry.

It bears repeating that plants like these could have been built 150 years ago. This is concrete, glass, steel, plumbing, steam engines, and electric generators. All these components and materials were available, and all the engineering knowledge was widespread in 1860 or even earlier. Since the factory machines and transportation vehicles were built to use oil, coal, and gas populations were forced to purchase those fuels from the small number of robber-barons who accumulated monopolistic control of the supplies. Thus the worlds population was held hostage to energy czars for at least seven generations, while enough sunlight to power human civilization was wasted. This was not a result of “human error”.

List of solar thermal power stations

Myth: Photovoltaic systems require expensive parts, professional installation, and high-tech manufacturing facilities.

Fact: There is a wide variety of do-it-yourself options for residential photovoltaics. For example:

However, assembling solar panels or systems from purchased materials may not be the only option. I’m also interested in basic manufacturing technologies for photovoltaic film, ink, paint, etc. that can be adapted to a small-scale, low-capital, low-tech cottage industry.

I know enough about photovoltaic technologies (amorphous thin films, bio-dyes, polymer inks, etc) that I feel pretty certain a low-tech, low volume manufacturing process is possible. Such a process could allow small-scale entrepreneurs to make photovoltaic materials and devices in the garage. It doesn’t have to be high-efficiency. It just needs to be cheap and safe to make.

If it exists, it could be a game-changer. It might even be the most disruptive technology yet because of the number of people who could establish low capital, low tech local cottage industries around it.

Miscellaneous facts:

Wind is also an indirect form of solar energy, and there are numerous ways to capture the wind’s energy to supplement direct sunlight.

The combination of these solar power technologies are sufficient to meet nearly all terrestrial power needs. Both are safer, simpler, and cheaper than other renewable sources of energy such as large hydro dams, ocean waves, and geothermal.

Going off the grid

A combination of these solar power technologies are sufficient to meet nearly all terrestrial power needs. All the solar options are safer, simpler, and cheaper than other renewable sources of energy such as large hydro dams, ocean waves, and geothermal.

For small residential and farm applications that want to have complete energy autonomy it is often useful to combine solar technologies with complementary systems like small windmills and micro-hydro systems. Simple solar water heating systems may have a role as well.

Another indirect solar energy technology, cellulosic ethanol in various blends with conventional fuels, is appropriate for the installed base of gasoline-burning vehicles until the existing fleet can be retired.

The legacy energy industry spends a fortune on public propaganda and scientific disinformation and on political and academic bribes to retard and control the impact of these solar technologies. The continued promotion of, use of, and investment in nuclear and fossil-based power constitutes a crime against humanity and against all life on earth.

Poor Richard



Heliostat improvements for solar power towers
h/t Abhijit Anand Prabhudan

Madrone and Griffith realized that they could cut down on the heft required of the heliostats by using a huge number of small mirrors to replace what would normally be a smaller number of big ones. Small mirrors hug the ground and thus carry smaller wind loads. And small, light-duty heliostats could be built from plastic, following an approach that’s similar to the way certain flowering plants track the sun’s daily movements. “Originally, we were origami inspired, and now we’re bio inspired,” says Madrone.

Her latest prototype aims a mirror by varying the pressures within pneumatically inflated plastic chambers, which can be mass-produced with the same tooling used to make plastic bottles. “If we keep using heliostats that have been around for half a century, there’s no way the price is going to go down,” says Madrone. “If we don’t start taking advantage of new technologies, we’re just going to lose the solar game.”


9 Responses to “Q. What is solar power?”

  1. Some Simple Solar Power Projects Even You Can Do to Start Saving Money | Home Contractors Blog Says:

    […] Q. What is solar power? (almanac2010.wordpress.com) […]

  2. Natural Lefty Says:

    Richard, have you caught wind of my wife’s likely deal to sell the land she bought near Blythe, CA for solar energy development? I have been mentioning it on the internet lately, but don’t know if you saw that. I agree that nuclear energy, is toast, so to speak, or should be, and solar should probably be our largest electricity source in the foreseeable future, with wind, wave, hydro, geothermal and perhaps some other ones in the mix. I feel good about the prospect of proudly pointing at “our” solar energy plant, although I believe our energy supply is part of the “commons” and should be publicly owned, not privately. A large solar company is trying to make a deal with us to buy my wife’s land, and there is some sort of annual deadline for applications to develop the land for solar energy, which is March 31.

    • Poor Richard Says:

      NL, I saw one of your comments about the possible solar deal somewhere. I hope it works out!

      Personally I’m opposed to most hydro, wave, and geothermal except at very small scale. I think several solar technologies scale up with the fewest risks and impacts. Wind is probably the next best thing and sometimes a good compliment to solar, especially off the grid. Micro hydro is great on the farm or homestead, but I’m not a fan of big dams. Geothermal is fine for heat pumps and such, but big geothermal has some tectonic and ground water risks as well as the usual risks of any deep drilling.

  3. Natural Lefty Says:

    I agree that solar is the primary source of direct, clean energy which we can use without harming the environment or at least with relatively little harm to the environment.

    The deal is pretty much signed, sealed and delivered I think. Eunice and I spent yesterday afternoon working on making the agreement official, having it notarized and faxing it to our attorney. We also are having it mailed to her (pretty young Chinese American lawyer gal named Sandy Chang). Our realtor is in Taiwan at this time, but everything seems pretty much set. The contract mentions that Fortis Solar plans to put a solar energy plant on the property, to erase any doubt, so I feel good about that, but I still think our energy supply should be in public hands. In the future, perhaps all houses or properties will be equipped with solar energy, wind energy etc. generators, but since we could use lots of electricity, there will probably still be a place for solar energy plants in our system. The solar company is paying us slightly over $1 million dollars totally, if they complete the deal, which is a whole lot of money compared to anything I am used to!

    • Poor Richard Says:

      NL, I share your preference for “utilities” to be public rather than private, and distributed rather than centralized, but if the private sector is stepping up– “more power to them”. I’m happy for you and Eunice coming into some real dough, too. Hooray! Now everybody will be asking for loans and pitching investments….

  4. Natural Lefty Says:

    I hope loans askers and investment pitchers have no idea about our situation. “More power to them” — that is a clever one there, PR. Yes, the private sector is “stepping up” because of the Obama administration’s energy stimulus package which is helping subsidize the project. It seems to me that since the government is helping build the project, it should also profit from it. Why is it that the government helps private corporations earn money, then the corporations complain that big government is bad and don’t want to pay taxes? That seems insane to me. I hope the solar corporations will be responsible, grateful citizens, pay their taxes willingly and work for the common good and the health of the environment. After all, they are solar companies, but that may be too much to expect from any corporation.

    • Poor Richard Says:

      Good points, NL. Most corporate tax breaks, liability exemptions, etc. are outright gifts from those of us who struggle to make a decent living. We are absorbing the corporate risks and losses but the corporations are keeping all the profits. Not only don’t they pay us anything for our investment in them, but 2/3 of them don’t pay any taxes on on their profits, either. Instead, the public should just hire a company to build a solar plant for us. When its finished they should hand us the keys. Or better yet we could have the Army Corps of Engineers and a Civilian Conservation Corps do the job.

  5. Natural Lefty Says:

    I agree. I think the term “privatizing the profits and socializing the risks” of business comes to mind. I heard Nicole Sandler the other day read a list of 10 large corporations that got tax money from government instead of paying taxes, or paid very little in taxes, despite billions of dollars in profit. After all that, they blame government deficits on wasteful government spending and call for cuts in government programs and public employee pay and benefits. It’s all a power play by the rich. It’s class warfare using deception to gain support from people who vote against their own self-interests. If corporations paid their share of taxes and for their use of government supported education and infrastructure, our government budgets would be far better off and we wouldn’t have big budget deficits.

    • Poor Richard Says:

      “Privatizing the profits and socializing the risks” says a lot. Another fitting phrase might be “Having their cake and eating ours, too.”

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