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Streamers in the solar flux
August 18, 2014 7:35 AM   Subscribe

They saw "birds entering the solar flux and igniting, consequently become a streamer," for the smoke plume that comes from birds that ignite in midair. BrightSource concentrated solar plant is a "mega-trap" for wildlife, with the bright light of the plant attracting insects, which in turn attract insect-eating birds that fly to their death in the intensely focused light rays. Estimates range as high as one streamer every two minutes at a single plant, though this is disputed. A Federal report (PDF) is "occasionally gruesome".
posted by stbalbach (68 comments total) 14 users marked this as a favorite

 
Google Map image of the facility.
posted by stbalbach at 7:37 AM on August 18 [1 favorite]


Concentrated solar is unlikely to get a lot of traction. This is but one of several problems. However, at the quoted 700birds/day with this plant powering ~140,000 homes, about 120million homes in the US, so getting 100% of our energy would kill roughly 600,000 birds / year. I'm actually okay with that, compared to the alternatives that are killing ~13k/yr in the US by conservative estimates from air pollution. I'd say I value a human at > 46 birds, plus there is no accounting for the current number of birds killed from pollution.
posted by H. Roark at 7:49 AM on August 18 [7 favorites]


Concentrated solar is unlikely to get a lot of traction. This is but one of several problems.

Would you mind elaborating on that? I ask after reading this near the end of the first link:

Power-tower proponents are fighting to keep the deaths from forcing a pause in the building of new plants when they see the technology on the verge of becoming more affordable and accessible, said Thomas Conroy, a renewable-energy expert.
posted by mediareport at 8:00 AM on August 18 [1 favorite]


Just as a side WTF - why is there a golf course next to the plant, in the middle of the desert?
posted by R. Mutt at 8:07 AM on August 18 [1 favorite]


Just imagine the sand traps!
posted by Naberius at 8:15 AM on August 18 [1 favorite]


Hmmm. Figures are hard to come by, but it looks like around two billion birds are killed each year by around 100 million cats, in the US. So that's twenty a year, or one every two weeks. per cat.

Which makes this power station about as destructive as 7.3 kilocats.
posted by Devonian at 8:16 AM on August 18 [74 favorites]


Would you mind elaborating on that?

The problems I've heard about are higher-then-expected environmental impacts, vulnerability of the systems to modest seismic activity, dangers to pilots from bright lights, and a general lack of scalability. Turns out that a combination of free money (3 cheers for ZIRP) and higher utility rates means decentralized, traditional PV arrays are just simpler, cheaper, and better.
posted by H. Roark at 8:16 AM on August 18 [2 favorites]


roughly 600,000 birds / year

You forgot to multiply by 365-- that calc would work out to about 220,000,000 birds/year (but it also assumes 24 hours/day of sunlight, which is also not the case).

How disappointing-- this mostly seemed like a very clever idea except for the amount of land it requires.
posted by Dixon Ticonderoga at 8:23 AM on August 18 [1 favorite]


Wait- so we built a giant heat ray out in the middle of the desert? Why not just build a "Terror Drome" while we're at it?
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 8:23 AM on August 18 [4 favorites]


Seems like if there weren't human activities in the area that involved irrigation, and subsequent plant growth, the amount of food attracting birds to the vicinity would decline, and with it the toll on the birds.
posted by ocschwar at 8:24 AM on August 18 [8 favorites]


I suddenly remembered the Sunflowers from The Ringworld Engineers which work on precisely this principle: flowers with a reflective surface which create their own fertilizer by cooperating to incinerate anything that flies over.
posted by George_Spiggott at 8:28 AM on August 18 [4 favorites]


Just as a side WTF - why is there a golf course next to the plant, in the middle of the desert?

Because many people have moved to the desert to get away from the cold, and from allergens in the air.

Those people also like golf. So, they built golf courses, and they built them like they thought they should be -- green grass, needing lots of water. They also put green lawns around their homes, because what's a home without a lawn?*

Of course, a number of them are now complaining about their allergies again.

We never said that people were smart.



* It's a home without yard work, which is EXACTLY HOW IT SHOULD BE.
posted by eriko at 8:30 AM on August 18 [19 favorites]


So when reading this I first thought the bird 'steaming' was the intention of the solar array, not a side effect. Perhaps some low-environmental-impact animal control. Alas, was not to be.
posted by splen at 8:52 AM on August 18


I'm totally not OK with wildlife and habitat destruction, but cats kill over 1 billion birds per year. How many birds and other animals per year do, say, coal power plants kill? Probably quite a large number. So a relative risk calculation is needed.

All that said, localize it. Centralized solar plants seem to be trying to duplicate our current system with a sustainable energy source. But why do that? The great thing about solar is that we can have a zillion much smaller sources at the home-to-community scale.
posted by mondo dentro at 9:20 AM on August 18 [8 favorites]


I flew past this thing in my airplane last year. Not expecting it or knowing what it was at first, I found it quite an odd sight. Thought about getting closer for a better look, but didn't want to get Icarused.
posted by exogenous at 9:23 AM on August 18 [9 favorites]


But that's much less profitable to the energy industry, mondo dentro. They don't want you producing your own energy, they want you dependent on them.
posted by tavella at 9:26 AM on August 18 [3 favorites]


"the Sunflowers from The Ringworld Engineers"

yeah, when I was reading the blurb, misinterpreting the word "plant" led me to a very scifi interpretation
posted by idiopath at 9:36 AM on August 18 [1 favorite]


Centralized solar plants seem to be trying to duplicate our current system with a sustainable energy source.

But concentrated solar--with its ability to run at night--isn't really a localizable option, is it? It seems like it needs a lot of room for storage and turbines, that needs a certain scale to make sense. How do you replicate the benefits on a small household-to-community level?
posted by mittens at 9:42 AM on August 18


Centralized solar plants seem to be trying to duplicate our current system with a sustainable energy source. But why do that? The great thing about solar is that we can have a zillion much smaller sources at the home-to-community scale.

This form of electrical generation isn't that close to economic at the moment. Trying to make the generating units smaller will mean missing out on some significant economies of scale as halving the size of the installation will not halve the cost. I'm not even sure how localisable it would be in terms of scaling down the turbines and such. You would be much better off using PV at the local level.
posted by biffa at 9:45 AM on August 18 [2 favorites]


mittens and biffa: I'm sorry, I wasn't clear. I didn't mean that we should distribute/localize steam-cycle solar. I don't know the numbers, but I'd agree that that's not likely to make any sense. I just meant use PV in a distributed way, as pointed out.
posted by mondo dentro at 9:55 AM on August 18 [1 favorite]


But that's much less profitable to the energy industry, mondo dentro. They don't want you producing your own energy, they want you dependent on them.

Even if I get solar (I'm shaded, so really I can't count on much solar), I don't want batteries inside my house.

I'd much rather pay a connection fee, let my juice go out when needed and flow back in when needed. I already
pay a connection fee for telecom, for water, for sewer, and for the street oustide my house.

The utilities that are lobbyng against residential solar are doing so because they are vertically integrated with their sources of fossil fuels.
posted by ocschwar at 10:02 AM on August 18


I would guess that the birds are attracted to it not because of insects but because it looks like a vlei /water pan.

But anyway, the compensation idea is ridiculous, considering that the majority of birds killed by cats are human-habituated and abundant types like sparrows and starlings, not the 'wild' species that would be living in or passing through this area. I mean it's not like sparing the life of a sparrow is going to make up for the loss of a rare transient songbird.
posted by Flashman at 10:13 AM on August 18 [4 favorites]


Even if I get solar (I'm shaded, so really I can't count on much solar), I don't want batteries inside my house.

I'd much rather pay a connection fee...


You're describing grid-tied solar. Without the batteries the capital cost is much, much lower. That's the dominant mode of PV use in Germany. I don't have PV (yet; aspire to have it), but I think I'd like a hybrid system--mostly grid-tied, but with relatively small amount of battery backup to run the fridge for a day or so (say).
posted by mondo dentro at 10:14 AM on August 18 [2 favorites]


They should just buy one of those big plastic owls from the hardware store and put it on top of the tower.
posted by mittens at 10:21 AM on August 18 [16 favorites]



This form of electrical generation isn't that close to economic at the moment.

No, not yet. Solar Towers are still in the prototype stage, but they are showing some promise at reaching GW scales on not-too-much land. The more you scale an individual tower up (that is, higher up and/or having more heliostats focusing energy on it) the more you lose in heating atmosphere (and things that happen to be in that atmosphere at the time) rather than the collect, so there's almost certainly a sweet spot in sizing these things. Too small and you don't get enough heat on the collector to be efficient. Too large and you're spending too much energy making the air hot instead of the collector.

There are also questions on longevity. The capital cost of a plant is amortized out over the run time of the plant, burt if you have to replace everything in a couple of years, then the run time is short and the amortized capital cost is horrifically high. The collector, in particular, leads a hard life basically at the center of the furnace, and you have to have a safing system that will get the beams off the collector if the working fluid starts flowing, or it melts quickly and there goes your tower. To be fair, any plant running on steam has this problem -- if the water stops, you have to get the heat off the boiler, or the boiler will be damaged or destroyed.

Indeed, really, the *only* significant costs to these plants are the initial capital costs to build them and maintenance costs. The sun is free. If these plants can run for 50 years with only regular maintenance, they'll be vastly cheaper than coal and oil simply because you're not paying for fuel. If they need constant maintenance and part replacement, then they'll probably never be cheap. The only proven plant where this is the cast nowadays is hydro, and if solar towers can get close to that, then they'll be worth building.

A rule of thumb -- shit that moves is shit that breaks, and a solar tower has to have things that move -- the heliostats that focus the light on them. If you can't make them reliable, you have a problem in making this work out over the long haul. PV Solar has this problem as well, and it's been such a problem that most PV plants don't try to aim the panel at the sun and accept the rather big loss of efficiency that results most of the day.

As to steam -- the hotter it is, the more power it can deliver. The more steam you can deliver, the more power you can deliver. The most modern power plants operate with superheated steam at 600°C, and 20 bar pressure. Those plants are very efficient, but it's hard to run steam at that level, and if the piping fails, it's dramatically bad. The question is how hot can they get/keep the collector at, which will determine how hot and how much steam they can generate with it.

So, those are the real question of the technology. If the current setup here can generate 300MW during the daytime hours, and last 50 years with minor maintenance, I suspect it would be a *very* profitable solar plant design, one that would only get cheaper as we built them. But that's the big if, and that's why these were built -- to prove if they can run long enough to pay off the capital costs and support the maintenance costs selling power at a cost per kwH on par with other technologies. The more light they can get on the collect implies that they can either make more steam or hotter steam or both, and that's more power at the generator end. So, finding out what the sweet spot of these plants is is another reason for these trial plants.
posted by eriko at 10:27 AM on August 18 [9 favorites]


Which makes this power station about as destructive as 7.3 kilocats.

Well when you're talking about electrical power generation the correct units are kilocat-hours, of course. But it's an easy mistake to make.
posted by Western Infidels at 10:31 AM on August 18 [8 favorites]


I could see all three bright mirrors in the desert on my last flight to OC in the distance and took some blurry photos because it just looked like blazing orbs of brightness in the middle of nothing. I thought it must be either this or some Dr. Evil death ray shit. Month later I see this headline and think "Oh that's what I saw indeed." First saw the one in Spain through science channel or something. Thanks science channel. You still explain a thing sometimes.
posted by aydeejones at 10:39 AM on August 18


I'm still not sure how the energy cost compares to PV.

I imagine that this plant is selling into the California market (everyone builds to sell into California - even Canadian wind farms - but no-one builds in CA as the chances of getting approval for a power plant there is tiny), so being slightly east of California doesn't help your time of delivery. Sure, solar thermal can time shift generation a bit, but all energy storage ends up in a loss of efficiency.
posted by scruss at 10:51 AM on August 18


Yes, saving the heat for later use means sacrificing some. But you're still getting better efficiency than PV.
posted by ocschwar at 11:01 AM on August 18


Speaking of such things, I got curious about whether the idea of solar power satellites had any traction with SpaceX, which seems like a natural fit. Found this quote, which is at least succinct:
One thing we learned today: While Musk loves electric cars and spaceflight, there’s one thing he hates: space solar power. "You’d have to convert photon to electron to photon back to electron. What’s the conversion rate?" he says, getting riled up for the first time during his talk. "Stab that bloody thing in the heart!"
posted by George_Spiggott at 11:01 AM on August 18 [2 favorites]


The "economics" arguments that tell us how solar "isn't quite ready yet" are pretty much rubbish. Home ownership didn't become a wide-spread phenomenon after the WWII because housing technology got cheaper. It became widespread because financial instruments were developed (long term mortgages) that made it happen. Likewise, the rapid growth of solar in Germany isn't because they somehow are getting their hands on cheaper PV. They're installing more PV because they as a country introduced financing and rate structures that made it possible for the great mass of German citizens.

And I'm not even including the externalized costs of fossil fuels that don't ever get counted.
posted by mondo dentro at 11:08 AM on August 18 [7 favorites]


Oh noes, electron to photon and back. It's like, the nature of baryonic matter and energy transfer. Leh stab it it lulz
posted by aydeejones at 11:22 AM on August 18


Here's a slightly more detailed quote, which suggests that he's actually done the analysis and shit:
Elon Musk: No, I don’t believe in space solar power. It will never be competitive with ground solar power. The cost of converting the electron energy to photon energy and then back again on the ground overwhelms the 2X increase in solar incidence. And that’s before you consider the cost of transporting the solar panels and converters to orbit!”
I'm not going to quarrel with his arithmetic, but I will take issue with his assumption that we'll be boosting this stuff from Earth. We should be mining asteroids and building them in space.
posted by George_Spiggott at 11:35 AM on August 18


Elon Musk: No, I don’t believe in space solar power. It will never be competitive with ground solar power. The cost of converting the electron energy to photon energy and then back again on the ground overwhelms the 2X increase in solar incidence. And that’s before you consider the cost of transporting the solar panels and converters to orbit!”


I'm not going to quarrel with his arithmetic, but I will take issue with his assumption that we'll be boosting this stuff from Earth. We should be mining asteroids and building them in space.


He's right except for the whole pesky day/night thing. Turns out that night time is real big downer and greatly limits continous output for earth based solar (or moon based for that matter). The big idea behind space based solar is
1. gets it off the earth
2. in Geosynchronous orbit you only get a few hours of darkness every year (for the right orbits anyway) while remaining in LOS to a receiving station on earth
3. PV solar to microwave to a receiving antenna on earth back to electricity is actually pretty efficient. and the microwave power transmission can be focused to be diffuse enough to not cook any life and not spend much energy on heating up the atmosphere (or the clouds) unlike laser
transmission.
4. It isn't going to work if you try to build it and maintain it with ground launches from Earth (at least not without a skyhook). It is going to work fantastic as part of a large, ongoing, permanent space based economy and industry.

There are a LOT of really smart, tech savvy people who really, really believe in space based solar. I am sad to hear Elon Musk isn't among them. Maybe he knows something the rest of the proponenets do, but I doubt it.
posted by bartonlong at 11:55 AM on August 18 [3 favorites]


Yeah, my take is that even if the conversion is lossy, so what? Why do we care about throwing away some fraction of free power? Look at all the solar radiation that dissipates into space that we're NOT capturing: how lossy is that? (Besides, if it's lost it's lost as heat. So build a greenhouse or habitat there and use the heat to help sustain the environment.)
posted by George_Spiggott at 12:13 PM on August 18 [1 favorite]


"7.3 kilocats! Einstein, where am I going to get 7.3 kilocats!?"

posted by mmrtnt at 12:23 PM on August 18


Countdown until coal companies, I mean think tanks, come up with research and 'data' showing this is even worse and that it's going to make people subject to government mandated cat leashing, declawing, and euthanasia in order to make up for the bird deaths. Solar program will face protesters from no-kill shelters and PETA. Fossil fuels will power the bulldozers that level it after the publicity hit, as well as the homes of those driving said bulldozers thereafter.

Everybody laugh. Roll on snare drum. Curtains.
posted by RolandOfEld at 12:30 PM on August 18 [2 favorites]


In judging the relative efficiencies, you have to look at the relative costs involved. Orbital solar had the problem in that it costs a minimum of $4000/kilogram to lift anything off Earth. That's either the solar panel system itself, or the mining rig, factory and robots to assemble one. A 2-4x increase in efficiency just isn't worth it.

That's also not going to change with any technology we can reasonably foresee. Even if cost-to-orbit falls to $400/kilogram, it's not worth the expense.
posted by happyroach at 12:37 PM on August 18


I've driven past these things (Ivanpah) many times on I-15 between Southern California and Las Vegas

You see what appears to be suspended balls of light in the air offset from the towers. Like the sun's reflection on a clear piece of glass.

Doesn't look like any of the linked stories has a photo.

Fascinating and a bit unnerving.

posted by mmrtnt at 12:44 PM on August 18


Oh no, a new technology causes problems! Will I take this over mercury-spewing coal plants? You betcha.
posted by A dead Quaker at 12:45 PM on August 18 [1 favorite]


Orbital solar had the problem in that it costs a minimum of $4000/kilogram to lift anything off Earth. That's either the solar panel system itself, or the mining rig, factory and robots to assemble one.

You also build your mining rig, factory and robots in space. The only thing you boost from earth is a self-replicating nanobot the size of a cold virus. You just have to wait a really long time.
posted by George_Spiggott at 12:48 PM on August 18


There are a LOT of really smart, tech savvy people who really, really believe in space based solar.

Apparently, Japan is all in. A Fukushima disaster or two tends to change people's cost-benefit calculations.

But what happens when a bird (or a 777) flies into the power beam of one of those babies?!
posted by mondo dentro at 12:54 PM on August 18


Oops, didn't read bartonlong's item #3.
posted by mondo dentro at 12:57 PM on August 18


You also build your mining rig, factory and robots in space. The only thing you boost from earth is a self-replicating nanobot the size of a cold virus. You just have to wait a really long time.

And if you clap three times, Tinkerbell will lift your SPS into orbit for you. Bet Musk didn't account for THAT, did he.
posted by happyroach at 1:00 PM on August 18 [1 favorite]


You forgot to multiply by 365-

Uh 2 birds a minute = 600 a day, assuming 20hrs. 600*365 =~ 220k a year, not .2 billion.
posted by smidgen at 1:00 PM on August 18 [2 favorites]


I imagine that this plant is selling into the California market (everyone builds to sell into California - even Canadian wind farms - but no-one builds in CA as the chances of getting approval for a power plant there is tiny), so being slightly east of California

Ivanpah is still (barely) in CA. There are a fair number of folks who've gotten approval. If anything it looks like there are three times as many abandoned projects as denied ones.
posted by Ogre Lawless at 1:09 PM on August 18


Flippancy aside, SPSs are unlikely until we have one or both of a space elevator and some space based industrial capacity in place. Convincing the public that modern nuclear reactor designs properly sited have none of the safety issues of the Cold War contraptions they're only too familiar with would be a lot easier and more practical.
posted by George_Spiggott at 1:09 PM on August 18


Space-based solar certainly seems doable physically. It's politically that would be the problem. Just imagine redirecting all of that incoming microwave energy to a target. No, you probably would not be able to fine-tune it Real Genius style, but my guess is you could do rather a lot of damage, at least in the range of those weird concave reflective buildings that end up melting parts of cars. "oh hai we want to put this radiative transfer plant into the sky and we totally will never use it for the badz" might be a hard sell.
posted by adipocere at 1:13 PM on August 18


Topic aside, these sort of stupidly "data"-filled articles piss me off to no end.

"If implemented, this plan would cost the state over $200,000!" Um, OK. How much of the state's annual budget is that? Without that info, the figure is nearly meaningless.

"This thing will kill X birds per day!" OK, how many birds does the existing technology kill? If two people die drowning in a hydroelectric reservoir, but 2,000 didn't die of emphysema because of displaced coal power production, that's a 1,998-life improvement.

Stupid outrage-raising article is stupid.
posted by IAmBroom at 1:18 PM on August 18 [4 favorites]


Uh 2 birds a minute = 600 a day, assuming 20hrs. 600*365 =~ 220k a year, not .2 billion.

Sure, that's for a single power plant. I was referring to H. Roark's estimated number of birdkills if we were to build enough of those solar plants to provide 100% of our national electric generation.
posted by Dixon Ticonderoga at 1:21 PM on August 18


I'd say I value a human at > 46 birds....

Well, Mr. Roark, that is exceedingly magnanimous, considering that your namesake would have probably used a sliding ratio something like this:

Me (and other human individuals in whom I find utility) > all birds ever
One bird in which I find utility > all other humans ever
posted by General Tonic at 1:34 PM on August 18 [1 favorite]


The birds being impacted are specific species and likely have less than 600,000 individuals in that desert ecosystem. Meaning if nothing is done, the bird deaths will drop sooner or later.
posted by stbalbach at 1:43 PM on August 18 [2 favorites]


But what happens when a bird (or a 777) flies into the power beam of one of those babies?!

Planes you can just not send through the beams. When this was going around in the 70s and 80s, the various plans assumed a pretty low power density dirtside coupled with very large (like more than a km radius) rectennas. They postulated power densities lower than sunlight, low enough that you could still do agriculture on the land under the rectenna, even if you wouldn't want to live there. And that would mostly not bother birds or other critters very much.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 2:07 PM on August 18 [1 favorite]


Planes you can just not send through the beams.

Though of course even now we frequently bathe aircraft in fairly intense microwave radiation, so's we can larn where in the sky they are. I don't know the power density of an SPS beam at 40,000 feet compares to, say, an airport radar near the airport itself, or (though this doesn't happen very often) being in the fire-control radar beam of a fighter a few klicks away.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 2:10 PM on August 18 [1 favorite]


The key thing about solar power is that the adoption is being driven from the left. That means that the main interest is not gigawatts of cheap power per se, but saving the environment, and the crucial goal is getting below the cost of coal. Once that is achieved, in a decade or two for local PV, the main constituency for big solar projects evaporates, including both space- and earth-based. The market will still rule, and these things will succeed if they can undercut local PV on cost, but now the main driver for government subsidies, pilot projects, etc, will shift over to the right (big businesses). So by the time space projects, and perhaps even solar towers, becomes feasible on a large scale, the constituency asking for such things will have dramatically changed, and presumably with the lost of the left, dramatically shrunken.
posted by chortly at 2:43 PM on August 18


Frankly, desperate measures for desperate times. Mercury is the least of our problems even if we meet the absurdly optimistic reductions needed to minimize climate change. A big question is going to be exactly what we're willing to accept when faced with the probable extinction of entire ecosystems.

Not to mention that coal mines change the local environment, so do coal-fired plants since all that heat has to go somewhere.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 2:54 PM on August 18


The key thing about solar power is that the adoption is being driven from the left.

It's a sad time when not being self-destructively short-sighted is a fringe left-wing position.
posted by acb at 4:01 PM on August 18 [3 favorites]


The market will still rule...

The market is not a single thing. It's malleable. Does Germany have a different "market" than we do? Because they're kicking major ass with renewables. Under a center-right government, by the way.
posted by mondo dentro at 4:06 PM on August 18 [2 favorites]


The key thing about solar power is that the adoption is being driven from the left. That means that the main interest is not gigawatts of cheap power per se, but saving the environment, and the crucial goal is getting below the cost of coal.

This is only partially true. The main driver for most of the R&D concerning wind energy was security of supply, initial work in Denmark following WW1, then in the same place around WW2 since there was no way for the Danes to get fossil fuels. The next big push was following the oil crises of the 1970s, this was when the US, Denmark Sweden, Germany and the UK started trying to push wind power to industrial scale with Danish companies being the most successful.

If you look in the literature this was also when a number of countries also started pushing on solar research, not just PV but thermal and esoterica like solar ponds and ocean thermal.

It was the success of Danish wind turbines which led to the next key motivator. The world's key market for a time in the 1970s was in California, which provided a state level subsidy to go with a federal US subsidy, most likely driven by a mix of environmental and future security grounds. When the Californian market for wind turbines collapsed it took down most wind turbine companies. The Danish government stepped in to stimulate a small domestic market and kept their own companies alive. Again this might be linked to environmental reasons (a strong anti-nuclear lobby who were keen to have an alternative to promote) but also because of a belief that there was potential for growth in industrial capacity. It was likely the latter that persuaded the Danish government to stick with strong policies for the next two decades, by which time international demand had blossomed. Crucially, the success of Danish wind companies and their complete domination of domestic wind demand emphasised that there was potential to give an advantage to companies on home turf if this was desired. This is an interesting point: industrial strategy that focusses on environmental technologies makes it easier to access the exceptions to controls preventing protectionism of domestic industry.

Germany saw that Denmark had its companies had captured a substantial fraction of this new demand and applied its fairly similar innovation structure to exploiting both the wind sector and what it predicted to be the next big thing, the PV sector. As with Denmark, this suited the Green element of the political spectrum, but was also a good fit for German companies, financial institutions, skills providers and other stakeholders. This was enough motivation for the German national and regional Governments to provide substantial tariff subsidies and soft loans to attempt to both stimulate demand and to encourage German companies to cater for it. Essentially then, Germany had some environmental motivation and some industrial policy motivation in supporting renewables, and these two were applied synergistically to ensure a range of benefits which produce environmental benefits but where these are not the primary motivator.

This tends to explain mondo dentro's last point above, that it does not require a left wind government to support renewables. What it seems to have required so far is a coordinated market economy (ie like Denmark, Germany, Japan) rather than a liberal market economy (like the US or UK) and there are all sorts of questions as to whether these are truly better suited to supporting and exploiting new technologies or not. The adoption of different and more suitable instruments for industrial exploitation rather than simply trying to install at minimum price may well mean they are, but this is a complicated question to answer meaningfully.

However, it now looks less likely that Germany will get all the payback for this. Chinese PV is so cheap that German market share may not be too substantial in the future.
posted by biffa at 4:44 PM on August 18 [3 favorites]


Whatever their relative positions within the countries in question, the ruling parties/coalitions in Denmark, Germany, and Japan were well to the left of the ruling parties in the US and UK on numerous policy dimensions. Nor is there a clean way to distinguish liberal market economies from those countries' consistently more right-leaning governments. And clearly industry lobbying and security-based R&D do play a large role in all of these places. But my understanding of the internal politics of Germany, Japan, and Denmark is that, in addition to the greens and other explicitly leftist parties, pro-environmental interests within the other parties and groups also played a significant role in encouraging government subsidies, particularly in Germany's PV, but also the other countries and in wind.

Others are probably more knowledgable about all this than I, but in any case, I am agreeing with mondo dentro that just as the market is not a monolith, nor is a country or a party; a center-right government in Germany may well reflect the interests of the left in some regards, particularly in coalition settings. The left is not the same as a left-wing government, and my original speculation was whether, once the price of coal has been undercut by renewables, the grass-roots public (whatever you want to call them) who are pushing for renewables to save the environment will continue to push for industry-scale projects once their main goal has been achieved -- particularly given the industry-scale problems (eg, frying things) that traditionally turn off these same people. I agree industry and other interests have played, and continue to play, a large role. But inasmuch as these policies and projects are significantly affected by popular support, I suspect that support will lessen once the thing that appeals most to the populace -- a low-carbon economy -- comes to fruition.
posted by chortly at 5:08 PM on August 18 [1 favorite]


Wait- so we built a giant heat ray out in the middle of the desert? Why not just build a "Terror Drome" while we're at it?

Can't we just get beyond Terror Drome?
posted by JHarris at 7:02 PM on August 18 [2 favorites]


Yesterday, 75% of Germany's power needs could be met with renewables. I think that demonstrates what a "can do" attitude accomplishes.

Meanwhile in Australia, Abbot is pushing a "goddamn well won't do" attitude. In a country that has more sun than the Sahara.
posted by five fresh fish at 10:56 PM on August 18 [3 favorites]


Sure, that's for a single power plant

Ooops, I missed the reference, sorry about that.

Ya, like a lot of things, it seems like an interesting idea when considered in a vacuum.
posted by smidgen at 11:10 AM on August 19


If I could ask a silly question -- couldn't they just put up a tall fence around the concentrated solar plant?
posted by JHarris at 12:00 PM on August 19


exogenous: "I flew past this thing in my airplane last year. Not expecting it or knowing what it was at first, I found it quite an odd sight."

Oops, my mistake - that was a different plant in Coalinga, California, and not the solar plant that is the subject of the post. The plant I saw is directed at generating steam for oil recovery rather than power generation.
posted by exogenous at 12:20 PM on August 19


Does Germany have a different "market" than we do? Because they're kicking major ass with renewables... Yesterday, 75% of Germany's power needs could be met with renewables

Just to blunt the misleading utopian stats, Germany, despite a massive solar and wind buildout, resulting in electricity rates ~50% higher than other European countries, gets most of its electricity from fossil fuels[pdf], and most of that is from coal (gas prices having shot up in Germany due to the increased demand). Renewables may supply 75% of the power yesterday, but they spend a lot more time supplying < 25%. Thus the requirement for backup fossil power has meant that, despite the costs, Germany's CO2 emissions from electricity production have hardly budged. We should not look to them as beacons of a clean future (to stretch a pun).

On topic - could there be a technical solution to this? I'm thinking big nets strung between towers around the heliostat field - like those nets you see at urban driving ranges. (unless the birds are attracted down into the light)
posted by Popular Ethics at 1:53 PM on August 19 [1 favorite]


Thus the requirement for backup fossil power has meant that, despite the costs, Germany's CO2 emissions from electricity production have hardly budged. We should not look to them as beacons of a clean future (to stretch a pun).

Germany does have some issues with its coal use, which it subsidises quite heavily for political reasons, but its emissions staying high (or as high as in your link) is not really a result of RE.

First: The diagram is for emissions from both electrical and heat generation. Developed countries like Germany will use about twice as much heat energy as electrical and heat will account for at least as many emissions as electrical generation, probably more like 1.5 times as much. For various reasons support for renewable sources of electricity is far ahead of support for renewable sources of heat. This is true not just in Germany but in pretty much every other country in the world that has any kind of renewable energy policy. Simply, supporting renewable heat is harder and so it has taken about 2 decades longer to come on to the agenda. Germany has been making efforts to lead in this area over the last 6-7 years. This absence of renewable heat policy means that emissions on that side of things haven't come down and a table showing all emissions will tend to lose any benefit relating to changes in electrical generation source.

Second: Having intermittent generation does not mean having to have the entire capacity backed up by 'firm' power. There are multiple reports on what fraction of power you do need but it is far from 100%. However in the German case, intermittency is actually balanced using dispatchable power from neighbouring states, so there is no need to keep coal power stations ticking over to balance for wind and solar, the problem does not arise there.

There is a problem with oversupply in Germany. The utilities have long been against renewables in Germany in a way that is relatively unusual in Europe, going as far as trying to get RE tariff subsidies banned across the whole of Europe in the period 2000-2002. Germany has lots of coal power and the utilities have been plugging along with operating them as much as possible, even if not really necessary to meet German needs, because again they can sell outside the country. This has been exacerbated since a number of nuclear plants were shut down post-Fukushima and prices have gone up, and this may well have had some impact on emissions. it may change as prices are currently lower than expected but this may depend on the German regulator or government providing some incentives to do so.
posted by biffa at 2:30 PM on August 19 [1 favorite]




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