Solar Power on an Industrial Scale

Several new solar power plants are under consideration in such locations as California and New Mexico who have regular patterns of Sun. It is fair game to inquire, then, on the overall effectiveness and practicality of solar power systems on the large scale. To what extent can solar power be used to power America’s energy base?

The answer proposed is failry simple. Pound for pound solar power stations do not compete well with the raw output of a combustion based energy station. The energy locked up in combustible fuels such as coal, natural gas, and diesel is enormous. As long as these fuels can be obtained for a reasonable price, they will outperform the renewables market for many years to come.

Combustible fuels are nothing more than solar energy locked up and concentrated from millenia before, so don’t think of them as a bad thing. Without combustion, we would be without many modern technological developments, and we could not support our industrial base.

Most of our modern comforts and commercial activities are based on a foundation of several industries. This foundation includes the mining of ores from the Earth, and the manufacturing of raw materials such as aluminum, iron, steel, copper, and more. It includes manufacturing plants for automobiles, airplanes, tools, machinery, advanced electronics, and just about every other gizmo we use on a regular basis. It also includes sawmills and heavy machinery used for the harvesting of lumber and agricultural products.

To put it simply, humans use a lot of energy to accommodate our daily lives. This energy is embedded in the infrastructure around us, our industries, and is most easily supported by combustive energy.

Here in lies the fundamental problem with large scale solar power stations. They cannot supply enough energy to support America’s industrial base. This does not mean that they are undesirable or irrelevant. It simply means that solar power systems are much more in tune for residential and small scale commercial applications, where energy is consumed on a more moderate basis.

As an example, a 500 MegaWatt combustion power plant can fit in a relatively small space, less than a 1/4 square mile without much difficulty. When considering a photovoltaic solar power plant, nearly 1,140 acres (almost 2 square miles) of solar panels would have to be installed to equal this same capacity. This is 2 square miles of actual solar panels, and does not account for the mounting and maintenance space. Being that solar panels provide peak power only 5 to 7 hours per day, then apples to apples we’re only getting ¼ the total output with more than eight times the space!

In locations that make sense, we need to include solar power solutions as part of our energy portfolio. We must pay homage, however, to our modern combustion technologies. Modern combustion systems are cleaner and more efficient than ever before, and provide enormous amounts of power 24 hours a day. The energy density of combustion is simply too great to ignore as it pertains to powering America’s industrial base.