“Wind Is Taking Off,” Solar Lags Behind

Question: How viable are wind and solar energy, both now and in the long term?

Charles Ebinger:  The problems with our existing generation wind and solar technology is that they still remain relatively high cost in comparison to conventional technologies.  Now part of that is of course that we don't necessarily account for the full cost of the conventional technologies. We don't have a price on carbon for example, so we aren't reflecting the full cost to society of using coal, natural gas or petroleum.  But even that set aside, it's still a problem of cost, so there's really no alternative in the near term but to subsidize these newer fuels so that we can eventually get the cost down with greater dissemination of them and have them truly able to compete in the marketplace on their own. 

As you look farther out there are some so-called nanotechnologies in solar that offer the promises of very cheap power.  We have concentrated solar power stations which are already in a handful of locations around the world, but the significance of these plants is that they can be used for base load electricity and peaking as well so they really make solar not an intermittent resource any more, they're all so based on being able to capture the sun rays when the solar units are working and store the power for when the sun isn't there. 

So these types of things, wind is certainly taking off around the world, actually has made many more advances than solar has in terms of its absolute contribution to global energy supply.  And there are tremendous wind resources in many locations of the world, both onshore and increasingly in various parts of the world; we're looking for offshore wind farms.  These are controversial themselves because you know you're talking about many very, very large windmills you know 400 or 500 feet high in the air.  And since they're often in sites that compete with recreational and other uses, they're not free in the sense of not being subject to political debate.

Question:
What are other obstacles to the large-scale viability of these technologies?

Charles Ebinger: Well there are other obstacles that certain regulatory jurisdictions for example in the United States will argue that they're responsibility as regulators is to deliver reliable, the cheapest power available to the consumers for which they're responsible for overseeing the rates.  And they will argue that while it may have social benefits, that wind and solar very likely may raise rates in the near term and so you get some regulators that simply aren't as vigorous in championing these newer resources as they might be if they didn't see their mandate as different from a mandate to get as much renewable in to the system as possible.

Recorded on April 28th, 2010
Interviewed by Austin Allen

Wind is becoming a more viable (if still controversial) energy source, but effective solar power may have to wait until the nanotechnology boom.

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