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By Robert Rapier on Apr 30, 2007 with no responses

Vinod Khosla in a Solar Fight

Thanks to Bob Rohatensky for bringing this story to my attention. I got a real chuckle out of reading the response of Khosla’s opponent in this debate, PV solar advocate Herman Scheer, because I am all too familiar with some of his observations.

First, I want to make it clear that I am a big, big fan of solar energy. I don’t write much about it, because it isn’t an area of expertise, and I do know my limits. But solar power is #1 on my list of sustainable alternative energy technologies. In fact, when I talked with Mr. Khosla on the phone, I made that argument. He was not nearly as enthusiastic, suggesting that solar could not compete with cheap coal. Lately, it seems that he has come around, suggesting that thermal solar can indeed compete with cheap coal.

Anyway, here is Vinod Khosla’s side of his disagreement with Scheer:

“Scheer Nonsense” — The Damage Idealistic Environmentalists Can Do

He has a real way with words, doesn’t he? I will let Khosla’s essay speak for itself, but it was certainly ironic to hear him talk about Scheer’s idealism. I have said the same about Khosla with respect to cellulosic ethanol.

Now, for some of the comments from Scheer that had me chuckling. First, who is Herman Scheer? According to the story I am about to discuss:

A fight over the future of solar

Herman Scheer is a member of Germany’s parliament, general chairman of the World Council for Renewable Energy and president of the International Parliamentary Forum on Renewable Energies.

Scheer and Khosla debated the merits of various solar technologies earlier this year in a debate which, according to CNET News, was won by Scheer. So, Vinod Khosla responded with “Scheer Nonsense”, and now Mr. Scheer has responded. From his response:

My new book, Energy Autonomy has been one of the topics of the panel discussion with Vinod Khosla and Michael Peevey in February in San Francisco.

During this discussion, Khosla did not respond to the book and its theses. That was understandable at that time. He might not have had enough time to read the book beforehand. But what really surprises me is that he now discusses my opinions and concepts at length, obviously without having read a single line since. His comments thus are a little spooky to me.

Now for the good stuff:

Khosla is not only misquoting some of my contributions during the panel–violating one of the basic principles of scientific discourse. He is voicing opinions and assumptions that are often lacking any statistical or scientific basis. They can be refuted easily, and I will try to do so with some of them.

That line made me chuckle, because I said the exact same thing when he was promoting the virtues of ethanol. He was saying things that were on very shaky scientific footing. But to someone unfamiliar with the science, it probably sounded convincing.

I won’t go through his entire response, which delved into their disagreements over nuclear power. Scheer also pointed out that Khosla is arguing for something he has invested money into, similar to his ethanol positions. (This doesn’t necessarily make his arguments suspect, only his motives. Arguments still have to be addressed).

There was one more paragraph that was especially apt considering the conversations I had with Khosla:

The approaches I argued for have resulted in a total of 60,000 MW installed capacity of renewable energy in the electricity sector during the last years, alone 25,000 MW thereof in Germany. The approach Khosla is supporting led only to 400 MW of installed concentrated solar power in California during the beginning of the 1980s. The figures did not rise since. It amazes me that he does not ask himself why the concept that I advocate has developed dynamically, although it is supposed to be more expensive than the technologies he is supporting. Surely he must ask himself why his approach did not experience a breakthrough yet. Is that realism?

This is the same kind of approach he took toward cellulosic ethanol. Khosla believes that it is going to scale up and power the entire country, suggesting that cellulosic ethanol can be produced for less than $1.00 a gallon. In reality, it is 3 or 4 times that, and scientists have been working on it for decades.

Scheer’s conclusion really resonated with me, because I argued to Khosla that moving toward electric transport made far more sense than relying on the inefficient internal combustion engine. Khosla’s response was that a switch would be too expensive. As Scheer concluded:

These problems cannot be solved with the approach Khosla favors because it aims at conserving the existing conventional energy structures. Khosla’s approach is part of the problem–not the solution.

Jerry Unruh Responds

I sent my friend Jerry Unruh (who lives in a solar house) these links, and he responded. I asked for and received permission to post his reply. Jerry said if there are any errors in his argument, he would appreciate the feedback:

Mostly, I see a bias that certainly has some merit, but also what I consider some falsehoods. I will just mention a few so let me know what you think. First, nuclear power is killed less by environmentalists and more by NIMBY. As I have said many times, when those who want the advantages of nuclear electricity accept the risks, my opposition will go down. However, I simply don’t accept the idea of moving nuclear waste across the country on our vulnerable road and rail systems (witness the gasoline truck explosion in CA) to store it in Nevada where they don’t have the votes to keep it out.

When he talks of using his own money, I am sure he would not turn down all the subsidies, direct and indirect that go into nuclear. He also seems to ignore the fact that, as nuclear plants are currently configured, the uranium resource is no larger than oil and gas. The usual answers to this are extracting U from sea water, breeder reactors, or some yet undeveloped technology. And then there is always fusion which has been 25 years away as long as I have been following the issue. Of course, all of these options are costly and may not be viable.

When discussing thermal solar (which I think is generally a great idea), he mentions storage, but assumes you can’t do the same with wind or solar. We are discussing water pumped storage with the energy costs being about 1.5 kWh in to 1 kWh out. Xcel is looking at compressed air storage and there is always hydrogen. I don’t know the energy balance for his methods for thermal solar, but it is probably in the same range as the others (?). My understanding of thermal solar is that you do need clear skies to make it work efficiently. The only place in CO being considered for thermal solar (and a plant is already scheduled to be built there) is the San Luis valley where the solar insolation is about the same as the Mohave desert.

Spectrolab has just announced a concentrating solar PV efficiency of 40% which I think is approaching solar-thermal’s efficiency. They argue that an electrical cost of $0.03/kWh may be possible with this system. It is odd to me that people like Khosla casually assume that the technology for nuclear storage, CO2 sequestration, etc will be there, but manage to ignore the technology advances that are occurring in PV, wind, etc.

The most recent information I have seen is that “one sun” PV systems like ours has a probable limit of 30% efficiency (ours are 15%). However, they produce under most weather conditions. Of course storage is a problem. Another solution besides the ones above, may be the Vanadium oxidation technology from VRB (Corp, Ltd?), but I don’t know enough to be sure. Again, the tacit assumption seems to be that there are no potential technology fixes out there to deal with the problem. If manufacturers are concentrating on lower efficiency panels at the moment, it is probably because that is where the market is. He should understand that as a free market advocate. Ultimately, I suspect the cost of PV will be less than $1/peak watt.

The two most bothersome implications of what he writes, and ones that many seem to make are the following. The first is that we have to keep providing for ever increasing consumption/capita. As you know, I think that conservation must go hand in hand with renewables or there is no way out of the trap. Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute makes this his mantra.

The second is that, implicit in his discussion is that countries like India and China will make the decisions to have a country wide grid like the U.S. My understanding is that one of the reasons for pushing PV in many rural areas of these countries is that building the grid is economically out of reach for these countries. If you have an established grid like the U.S., his arguments make more sense. In mountainous country like we live in, the costs to extend electricity a house is in excess of $20,000/mile. High voltage lines would undoubtedly be more than this even in more favorable terrain. One of the big issues in the Western U.S. right now is the cost of expanding the grid; CO has just passed a law to help solve the problem. So the rural Indian, or Chinese family may be better off with a few panels and a small amount of storage than waiting for the grid that may never come.

I am interested in what you think.