RISC’s Martin Wilkes discusses misleading claims about solar power’s apparently soaring investment

Solar claims ‘misleading’: RISC

A RISC Advisory expert has cast doubt over celebrated claims about solar power’s apparently soaring investment, telling Energy News that some analysts fawning over renewables are giving out misleading information.

Anthony Barich | Monday, 09 January 2017

Last week, Energy News reported that Bloomberg New Energy Finance had revealed solar investment had “gone from almost nothing in 2010 to becoming a huge new source of power generation”, particularly in China, which is not only rapidly deploying solar in its own market, but which is financing developments around the world.

“Renewables are robustly entering the era of undercutting” fossil fuel prices, BNEF chairman Michael Liebreich said in a recent note to clients.

BNEF expects that when the numbers are tallied, solar investment for the year will exceed that of wind generation for the first time.

The firm said renewables were more attractive in emerging countries than in wealthier nations, where electricity demand is flat or falling and new solar must compete with existing coal and gas plants.

Yet in countries that are adding new electricity capacity as quickly as possible, Liebreich said renewable energy would “beat any other technology in most of the world without subsidies”.

However, RISC’s Perth-based principal advisor, Martin Wilkes, told Energy News that one of the key issues in the discussion that is misunderstood time and time again is the difference between “capacity” and “power generation”.

Wilkes said the claim that “solar investment has gone from almost nothing in 2010 to becoming a huge new source of power generation” was misleading.

He noted that since 2010, renewables in total have grown at an average rate of around 4.5% per year, or about 30% in total.

Admittedly, this growth has been dominated by wind and solar, whereas the historical base was more hydro-generation dominated.

More importantly, however, is the fact that the surge in wind and solar has resulted in renewables growing from around 10% of the global power generation in 2010 to just over 12% in 2015 – is “hardly a huge new source of power generation”, Wilkes said.

“In absolute terms all fossil fuels each grew by almost as much as renewables, coal growth in particular has been remarkable given that everyone has been writing it off for the last 10+ years,” he said.

“The issue is that by installing Variable Renewable Energy Systems (VRES) Capacity you do not, and cannot, match the power generation of a fossil fuel or nuclear plant.”

The Barcaldine facility cited in the report was a prime example, he said.

A 25 megawatt solar tracking system is estimated to produce 57,000MWh of power per year – this represents a load factor of around 26%, which is very good for a solar generation system as most home (fixed) systems are well under 20%.

By comparison, a 25MW gas-fired co-generation plant could produce about 210,000MWh of power per year, assuming it was used all year with an availability of about 95-96%.

“So to install the same amount of power generation capability you need to install over three times the amount of solar generating capacity … and then you have the problem with intermittency,” Wilkes said.

“As the sun doesn’t shine for half the time you need to have some fast acting backup to kick in when the solar panels aren’t producing – and at the moment the best for this would appear to be gas-fired generation.”

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