No Joke: Extending Solar's Lease on Life

If solar panels last decades longer than expected, all bets on grid parity could be off

2 min read
No Joke: Extending Solar's Lease on Life

A notorious economics joke has optimistic implications for solar energy and its decades-long dreams of matching the cost of the electricity now flowing on power grids -- the vaunted grid parity that is most renewable energy advocates' image of the singularity that will free us from climate change and the anti-democratic effects of centralized power. In the joke an economist, physicist and chemist are stranded, starving, on a remote island when a can of soup washes ashore. The physicist proposes smashing it open with a rock, and the chemist wants to build a fire, heat the can and blast it open. The economist offers a simpler solution: “Let’s assume," he says, "that we have a can opener."

The joke isn't the work of a frustrated, underfunded physical scientist, but rather the Nobel-prize winning American economist Paul Samuelson. His joke provides an admission: Economists rely on a bevy of assumptions about people and their tools to reduce a complex world to dollars-and-cents and those assumptions can be wrong, rendering economic theories and projections of limited practical value. Solar advocates have begun to argue that its time for economists to reassess an assumption underpinning cost estimates for power from photovoltaics: the expected lifetime of a solar panel.

Accelerated-aging tests of solar panels installed a decade ago with 20-year lifetime warranties predict that 90% will still be operating at the 30-year point according to this BBC report on research by Heinz Ossenbrink at the EU Energy Institute. Ken Zweibel, director of George Washington University's Solar Institute, tells me he's betting that panels produced today warranted for 30 years will be working decades longer--albeit at roughly 30% lower power output. "My belief is that it will be 60 years," says Zweibel. 

If researchers such as Zweibel and Ossenbrink are right, the up-front cost of producing and installing photovoltaics today should be amortized over a longer useful lifetime, and a much larger number of kilowatt-hours of power generation. That will lower the estimated cost per kilowatt-hour. Combined with remarkable reductions in manufacturing costs achieved in recent years -- a 40% reduction since just the middle of last year according to authors from Applied Materials writing last month in Photovoltaics World magazine -- Ossenbrink predicts that solar will hit grid-parity across Europe within a decade.

That would be one heck of a can opener.

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Smokey the AI

Smart image analysis algorithms, fed by cameras carried by drones and ground vehicles, can help power companies prevent forest fires

7 min read
Smokey the AI

The 2021 Dixie Fire in northern California is suspected of being caused by Pacific Gas & Electric's equipment. The fire is the second-largest in California history.

Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

The 2020 fire season in the United States was the worst in at least 70 years, with some 4 million hectares burned on the west coast alone. These West Coast fires killed at least 37 people, destroyed hundreds of structures, caused nearly US $20 billion in damage, and filled the air with smoke that threatened the health of millions of people. And this was on top of a 2018 fire season that burned more than 700,000 hectares of land in California, and a 2019-to-2020 wildfire season in Australia that torched nearly 18 million hectares.

While some of these fires started from human carelessness—or arson—far too many were sparked and spread by the electrical power infrastructure and power lines. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) calculates that nearly 100,000 burned hectares of those 2018 California fires were the fault of the electric power infrastructure, including the devastating Camp Fire, which wiped out most of the town of Paradise. And in July of this year, Pacific Gas & Electric indicated that blown fuses on one of its utility poles may have sparked the Dixie Fire, which burned nearly 400,000 hectares.

Until these recent disasters, most people, even those living in vulnerable areas, didn't give much thought to the fire risk from the electrical infrastructure. Power companies trim trees and inspect lines on a regular—if not particularly frequent—basis.

However, the frequency of these inspections has changed little over the years, even though climate change is causing drier and hotter weather conditions that lead up to more intense wildfires. In addition, many key electrical components are beyond their shelf lives, including insulators, transformers, arrestors, and splices that are more than 40 years old. Many transmission towers, most built for a 40-year lifespan, are entering their final decade.

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