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Book review: Taming the Sun

mblakele

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Mar 7, 2016
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Taming the Sun: Innovations to Harness Solar Energy and Power the Planet. By Varun Sivaram. MIT Press

The future of solar energy

The book is not gloomy. It lays out the history, promise and pitfalls of solar technology with an easy-going lack of wonkishness. But it offers a sobering message that may be as prescient—and as readable—as Robert Shiller’s “Irrational Exuberance” was before the dotcom and housing crises of the 2000s.

Sounds interesting. I may have to read it.

Google books preview: Taming the Sun
 
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mblakele

Safety Score: 100
Mar 7, 2016
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It's been a while, but I finally got through this book. Here's my summary.

Sivaram's thesis is that we are, globally, at risk of locking ourselves into silicon-based solar PV and that this could preclude stabilizing climate change. His proposed solution is investment in various forms of innovation: to develop alternatives to silicon cells, but also financial and other forms of innovation. He discusses various options and offers specific policy proposals to boost innovation. Some of those proposals sound good to me, but I think they'll have to wait for a receptive government.

According to Sivaram, silicon-based PV is risky because of various drawbacks that will prevent it from taking over more than 5-10% of energy production. He acknowledges that California and Germany already exceed this level, but calls that unsustainable without ongoing subsidies. He points to Germany already winding down its subsidies for solar. He describes this 5-10% limit as a result of modeling the economics of the duck curve. As the duck gets taller and fatter, the economic incentive to install more solar goes to zero. He acknowledges that the cost of silicon panels will continue to go down, but says that rate won't be high enough to avoid that "diminished value" trap. However at one point he seems to say that improvements could raise the limit by 5%, presumably to 10-15% of total energy.

I like Sivaram best when he explains technology. He went into detail about photoelectric efficiency, perovskites, quantum dots, and other solar technologies. I also took an interest in his discussion of carbon-neutral fuel, concentrated solar power, and grid technology.

Criticisms:

Sivaram seems to have a blind spot around Li-ion battery storage. Early in the book, just when he's explaining why solar PV lacks dispatchability and why that's important, he dismisses lithium-ion batteries without any real discussion. He points out that there aren't many battery deployments compared to hydro storage, but fails to present any technical or economic analysis to explain why it won't grow. Much later in the book he takes up the topic again, and he seems to argue that Li-ion batteries are obliged to empty themselves within an hour or two of sunset. This is puzzling because elsewhere in the book he expresses great faith in smart grid technology.

At times he seems to view engineering applications of silicon solar PV and Li-ion batteries as an enemy, arguing that they crowd out academic research. It's true that "good enough" can be the enemy of perfect. Whether that's a problem or not depends on how convincing you find his arguments against silicon solar and Li-ion batteries.

He takes hydrogen much more seriously than Li-ion for energy storage, and glosses over its logistical challenges. To be fair he provides good details about the challenges around generating hydrogen in a sustainable way. But he seems to take transport and storage of hydrogen for granted.

Finally, I believe Sivaram could have improved this book by making it shorter. At times a surplus of adjectives and adverbs get in the way, obscuring his message.

Notwithstanding these criticisms, I think it's a book worth reading.
 
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nwdiver

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Feb 17, 2013
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Sivaram's thesis is that we are, globally, at risk of locking ourselves into silicon-based solar PV and that this could preclude stabilizing climate change.

Too late. Why does this preclude stabilizing climate change any more than other types of PV? We've spent the last ~40 years achieving economies of scale with Silicon... we don't have the time to shift now. There are no real resource bottlenecks with silicon and it's more than efficient enough to provide all our energy needs.
 

mblakele

Safety Score: 100
Mar 7, 2016
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Too late. Why does this preclude stabilizing climate change any more than other types of PV? We've spent the last ~40 years achieving economies of scale with Silicon... we don't have the time to shift now. There are no real resource bottlenecks with silicon and it's more than efficient enough to provide all our energy needs.

You may be right. I had similar thoughts. Sivaram's argument appears to be that, because the duck curve dictates diminishing economic returns, solar will plateau at 5-15% of energy production. He contends that 5-15% solar won't be enough to stabilize the climate, and that Li-ion is only useful for grid stabilization.

Personally I suspect he's wrong about the ability of Li-ion to scale, even though I still see the need for inter-seasonal and even inter-annual energy storage. Anyway if Li-ion can scale, then the point of diminishing returns for silicon PV ought to rise — maybe by enough to avoid the trap he foresees.

Perhaps the argument boils down to:

Scientist: silicon and Li-ion aren't good enough: we need more money for R&D
Engineer: let's see how far we can push silicon and Li-ion​

I don't see the dilemma, because I think we can afford to do both. But since I disagree with Sivaram, and he has impressive academic credentials... you may want to read the book for yourself.
 
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nwdiver

Well-Known Member
Feb 17, 2013
8,297
10,972
United States
You may be right. I had similar thoughts. Sivaram's argument appears to be that, because the duck curve dictates diminishing economic returns, solar will plateau at 5-15% of energy production. He contends that 5-15% solar won't be enough to stabilize the climate, and that Li-ion is only useful for grid stabilization.

Personally I suspect he's wrong about the ability of Li-ion to scale, even though I still see the need for inter-seasonal and even inter-annual energy storage. Anyway if Li-ion can scale, then the point of diminishing returns for silicon PV ought to rise — maybe by enough to avoid the trap he foresees.

Perhaps the argument boils down to:

Scientist: silicon and Li-ion aren't good enough: we need more money for R&D
Engineer: let's see how far we can push silicon and Li-ion​

I don't see the dilemma, because I think we can afford to do both. But since I disagree with Sivaram, and he has impressive academic credentials... you may want to read the book for yourself.

It's a bit of a red flag anytime someone tries to narrowly focus on two technologies for a complex solution. There's dozens of different storage technologies, demand response, wind, hydro and eventually power to gas. There's no question that silicon-based PV can proved >1000% of our energy needs cost effectively just with the non-arable land, 'brown spaces' and rooftops; then there's STILL wind, hydro AND tidal. I find it absurd that we won't be able to find a way to store enough of it for later use as storage technologies including power to gas improve.
 
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ggr

Expert in Dunning-Kruger Effect!
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Happened to fly over this yesterday, delivering 4 old dogs whose owners had died to their retirement home for Pilots'n'Paws. It's one of three.
IMG_5442.JPG
 

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