McGraw-Hill, Google To Add Solar Megawatts

A new IEEE report says solar photovoltaic power worldwide has increased by about 40% a year for the last decade. In the U.S., new solar projects are getting started in California and New Jersey. Alternative energy expert Alexis Madrigal discusses the state of solar power.

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IRA FLATOW, host: You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. Up next, the quiet, but steady growth of solar power. You may not be hearing much about it, and it's quite surprising. For example, take a guess where the site is for the largest solar-power facility in the world. It's just being developed this week. Would you guess Germany, China, Spain? Nope. In California. Ground is being broken today in California near Palm Springs for what is being billed as the world's largest solar power facility. The project will deliver 1,000 megawatts of power. That is enough for 300,000 homes, and putting it on par with a conventional coal-fired fossil fuel plant or a nuclear-power reactor.

And on the other side of the country, McGraw-Hill announced plans to build what it says as the largest privately owned solar system in the U.S. at its headquarters in New Jersey. And Google is back at it again with a new solar venture. This time, they're tackling residential solar. Joining me now is my guess Alexis Madrigal, author of "Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology." He's also senior editor at The Atlantic. Welcome back to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

ALEXIS MADRIGAL: Oh, thanks for having me on.

FLATOW: That's a huge project out there in California.

MADRIGAL: It's massive, and I think really what it shows is that solar really is starting to scale up in ways that, I think, people have hoped for and anticipated for a long time, but that never actually panned out in the past, you know, say, during the 1970s.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. This is the Solar Trust of America's Blythe Solar Power Project. Is it out there in the desert?

MADRIGAL: Yeah. It's out there in the Mojave. I mean, I think the Mojave is, as people like to say, the Saudi Arabia of solar in a sense that it's got a great solar resource. They get tons of sun. And it's close to major population centers in Las Vegas and the Los Angeles metro area. And, even better, it matches the peak load of those cities. That is to say, when the sun is shining the most during the day and people have their air-conditioners on, that's when you're producing the most solar power. And so it makes sense as a business proposition, too.

FLATOW: Yeah. And there - are other transmission lines in there? Do they have to build that as part of the structure?

MADRIGAL: Yeah. A lot of the time, they have to put in improvements to the transmission line. But it's not quite the same scale of problem as you see, say, with wind power in the Midwest where, you know, you've got these big wind farms in the middle of nowhere, and you've got to get that power to Chicago, or you've got big wind farms in West Texas, and you've got to get it east.

FLATOW: And how many jobs? It must be creating a lot of jobs.

MADRIGAL: Yeah. You know, during the construction phase of these big solar projects - say, you know, it's like 1,200 jobs are in construction. But when they're running, it's probably more, you know, in the low triple digits.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Is there any special engineering challenges here?

MADRIGAL: Well, you know, it's interesting. The engineering jobs used to get it cheap as possible. I mean, the technology, particularly being used at Blythe, is actually really well-known. I mean, during the 1980s, this was called parabolic trough technology. Imagine, like, a paper towel roll made of glass, but, like, cut in half. And that can actually concentrate the sun's rays on a tube of liquid that can be heated up, which then is like run to a boiler. The boiler, you know, creates steam. The steam drives the turbine, and that turbine runs a generator. And that's how you actually get electricity. I mean, we've actual been doing that since the 1980s. In fact, the solar electric generating stations built by Luz have been cranking out 350 megawatts of solar since then.

FLATOW: Wow. And so this is not a great engineering challenge. It's more of an engineering design challenge.

MADRIGAL: Yeah. It's an engineering design challenge. It's also sort of a financial engineering challenge. It's kind of difficult to finance these things, largely because it requires pretty substantial upfront investment. And - so really, what people are looking for is what they call bankable technologies. Can you get people to give you a loan using this technology? And that's - Solar Trust of America, that's one of their big pitches, is that they're using this well-known technology. I mean, parabolic trough, even in 1913, was being used as - to pump water in Egypt.

So, I mean, this is a technology that, really, we know how it works, and we know that even though it might not be getting that much better that quickly, it doesn't need to. It's pretty close to a level it needs to yet, given the sort of incentives in California for creating solar electricity.

FLATOW: Let's talk about the other side of the country. New Jersey, we don't think of that as being a solar power giant, but McGraw-Hill...

MADRIGAL: Sure.

FLATOW: ...is planning to build the largest private solar facility.

MADRIGAL: And I think, you know, what you're seeing there, and I think what's really significant about that is that for a long time, it's been seen that the power system in the United States was very centralized. And so it was about having these big power plants run by utilities that that then would feed you electricity no matter what your business was and no matter where you were. And that's really been the way that it's been since the early 20th century.

But really, when you see someone like McGraw-Hill, like, putting in a big photovoltaic installation, really, it has to - that shows that we're decentralizing our power system and that more commercial and corporate users are going to be putting in their own power facilities. And they're using the grid, essentially, as a back up. It's called net metered. So there, they can pull power from the grid when they need it, and they can put power in when they're - when the solar panels are producing more than they're using.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And Google is taking on a new solar project. They've announced they're going to invest $280 million to help...

MADRIGAL: Exactly.

FLATOW: ...to help private owners install solar panels?

MADRIGAL: Right. So this goes to the even more extreme end of decentralization, which is not just companies and, like, sort of doing it in the megawatt scale, but individuals putting things on their homes. The big problem there has been - say, you want to put a four kilowatt system on your roof, you know, you got to come up with some tens of thousands of dollars to pay for that upfront, even if over the life of the system it makes economic sense for you.

So some of these companies has sprung up - SolarCity, SunRun, Sungevity - that try to lease you solar materials, essentially. They'll put the panel on your roof, you pay a certain amount per month and you don't have to pay anything upfront. And this has been identified as a huge challenge for solar getting over these high upfront costs. And so, what Google is doing is giving them $280 million that they can use to put those systems in place.

FLATOW: Is solar getting cheap enough to compete?

MADRIGAL: Yeah. You know, it's tough. I mean, it's one of these things where - you know, if you listen to someone - just this week, actually, IEEE, the electronic engineers' professional association, put a report saying that, you know, within 10 years - you know, this kind of magic number that we like to put out there - you know, within some foreseeable but not quite distant future, solar will be cheaper than fossil fuels. And they're looking, mostly, at the efficiency of the materials, the actual converting protons into electricity.

And so, you know, if you look at the trend line, solar has been getting cheaper for a long time. It's still not as cheap as burning, you know, coal in a dirty, old power plant that was built in 1960; but it certainly not completely out of the ball park as it would have been, say, you know, in 1975.

FLATOW: Even General Electric said this week or last May that they thought that the solar flat panels will soon be getting cheap enough to compete.

MADRIGAL: Well, I think that's the thing. You know, there are a couple of ways that people who study technology, (unintelligible) can really bring the price or something down. Right? Some of it is scientific innovation. It's more like R&D stuff.

The other part of it is deployment, just getting stuff out into the field. And particularly say, with photovoltaics. There's really two big chunks to the cost, right? There's the panels themselves, and then there's what's called the balance of system cost. That's like all the other stuff that goes into getting a panel onto your house.

And what Google is really trying to juice by partnering with SolarCity in giving them all this money, is to drive scale into that business of installation. Because it's a sort of thing where it's not really a technical problem, it's a business problem, like, there aren't big companies that do it and there aren't big companies that do, you know, tons and tons of installations, although they've been growing over in recent years.

FLATOW: Right. There was a story in The New York Times this week, about taking - there were satellite pictures taken of New York City and seeing the tremendous potential they could have in making electricity on the roofs of all these homes and industry there.

MADRIGAL: Yeah.

FLATOW: You know, there are - aren't there million home projects going on or million roof projects?

MADRIGAL: There are. There have been projects run by the DOE, you know, where they set a goal of, you know, getting a million roofs and getting these sorts of things. I mean, the difficulty is the real decentralized systems. I mean, so take a one gigawatt plant, right? So that's - it's a lot of power. So in order to get the same amount of power, you know, by putting stuff on your roof, you need to get hundreds of thousands of people to commit to doing that. And that really is kind of a business challenge, right? It's about getting the word out. It's about bringing down the upfront cost by doing the installation programs. It's about getting - you know, lobbying governments to provide the right kinds of incentives for people to do this sort of thing.

And so, it's just a little bit more complicated than it would have been, say, in 1960, when they were building a lot of the infrastructure that we now use. Or, basically, the utility went to their utility board who rubber stamped it and then they put, you know, a new polluting power plant up. So I think, really, what we're seeing is a sort of the difficulty of changing this massive technological infrastructure that, because we've already sunk the cost in it, producing the power from it is relatively cheap now.

FLATOW: Let's go Anne(ph) in California on the phone. Hi, Anne. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

ANNE: Thank you for taking my call. I'd like to ask the question about this big plant in California. Is the panels - the workers making these panels from China, or are they from California?

MADRIGAL: You know, that's an - it's an interesting question. I mean, there have been a lot of questions raised about whether or not American jobs are being generated by using green technology. On the Blythe Plant, I'm not sure, although we're talking about big mirrors, right? And big mirrors are kind of expensive to ship around, so I, actually, wouldn't be surprised if it is made - if they are made here in the U.S. And I think that's certainly something that - you know, at the governmental level, they can attach riders to certain types of (unintelligible) to say, we want these things to be done here, just like you could do with wanting - making sure that their jobs are union jobs or whatever.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. All right, thanks for...

ANNE: All this - well...

FLATOW: Yeah.

ANNE: I don't think that they're completely - that's completely true. But, you know, I think you need to look into that because they're our jobs.

FLATOW: All right. Thanks for calling.

ANNE: Okay.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255. There isn't a lot - amount of federal money there went into some of these projects.

MADRIGAL: Yeah. I mean, there were two other big plants that got DOE backing - basically got loan guarantees to put in big Mojave solar plants. And the interesting there, is really other energy industries have gotten similar types of backing for a long time. I mean, that was a big part of the growth of nuclear power. And I think it shows that with this current administration, they're kind of backing all kinds of stuff. They've been giving loan guarantees to both nuclear and solar plants.

FLATOW: We're talking about solar power this hour on SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow, talking with Alex Madrigal, author of "Powering a Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology." Isn't one of the reasons why California is in the forefront of alternative energy is that their legislature, their government has said, we need a certain percentage of renewable energy within a certain number of years?

MADRIGAL: Right. Exactly. I mean, in the kind of short term, that's what's been driving a lot of this action. And in California, the California Utility Commission and all - a lot of the - their governmental forces have been, kind of, really drawing on the private industry thing. Look, we'll do what we can to help you out because we want to have a certain amount of our power come from low carbon sources. That's actually created some controversy, because you are putting these big plants out in the desert that take up thousands of acres.

And though the Mojave Desert is vast, you are, in fact, destroying the habitat of certain types of wildlife, particularly, like the desert tortoise. You're taking out certain types of trees and other, you know, kind of desert-specific flora. And I think one of the big problems is we don't really have a methodology for evaluating the costs and benefits of these projects, right? So we're getting low-carbon power out of it, but we're giving up habitat. Like, how do we compare those two things, which are qualitatively so different?

FLATOW: But they did investigate the tortoise issue, and they find out that they can safely, for the tortoises, build those power, those (unintelligible) there.

MADRIGAL: Right. And I think, you know, there are a lot of solutions and workarounds to these types of things. I just think that we're, you know, this is new territory for us, you know? Putting in power plants that take up thousands of acres is something that we really haven't had to do before. And in particular, the environmental movement has sort of really wanted to see green technology take off, but some of the repercussions of that success, I think, maybe we haven't thought all the way through.

FLATOW: And not as easy as we thought it would be.

MADRIGAL: Right. Yeah.

FLATOW: Let's go to James in Phoenix. Hi, James.

JAMES: Hello. Hello, and thanks for taking my call.

FLATOW: Hi. Go ahead.

JAMES: Yeah. I've got five kilowatts worth of solar panels sitting on my roof. I don't know why everybody, in Phoenix at least, doesn't have them. It's cut my annual electric bill in half - more than in half. And last two months, my cost for electricity has been zero.

FLATOW: Wow. And how much did it - when did it pay for itself. Has it paid for itself yet?

JAMES: It's supposed to take four years to pay for itself.

FLATOW: Wow. Just four years.

JAMES: APS gave me a rebate of about half the cost, and the federal tax credit and the state tax credit resulted in me being in zero taxes. And in fact, I've got a tax credit leftover that I get to use next year.

FLATOW: Did someone help you figure this all out? The power company or the solar power maker?

JAMES: Yeah. I contacted a couple of solar power installers here in Phoenix. And they sat down, and we went over all the numbers. Oh, by the way, they're all American-made solar panels as well, so all the jobs are here in America. In fact, SunPower, I believe, is putting in a plant here in Phoenix.

FLATOW: Wow. So if you want to do it, you can certainly find people out there, and construction people, who can run the figures and show you how it might work.

JAMES: They can.

FLATOW: And help you do it. All right. Good. So you're knocking on your neighbors' doors now to tell them to do this or....

JAMES: Well, I talk to them all the time, and apparently money is a little bit tight for a lot of people right now. But if you can come up with $16,000, you can get five kilowatts. And for me, it's a good deal.

FLATOW: Paid for itself in four years. Thanks for talking with us, James.

JAMES: Okay. Thank you.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255. So, Alex, in about - Alexis, in the half-minute I got going here, you think this is a positive sign or...

MADRIGAL: Oh, I think it's definitely, definitely positive sign. I mean, I think as we heard from the last caller the informational friction has come down a lot. Companies on the Internet now are able to let you use Google Earth to position panels on your roof and see how much power you get off them, and there's just a lot of ways that getting and going solar has become easier over the last, you know, couple of years.

FLATOW: All right. Thank you for taking time to be with us today.

MADRIGAL: Absolutely. Thank you.

FLATOW: You're welcome. Alexis Madrigal is author of "Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology." He's also a senior editor at The Atlantic.

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