How the erroneous worship of photvoltaic developed

by Ginosar  

In 1978 Paul Maycock, the manager of the photovoltaic (PV) program at the U.S. Department of Energy during the president Carter pro-green administration, funded an evaluation of economic and technical aspects of PV by the Aerospace corporation. That report erroneously claimed that PV prices will go down rapidly with time like computer chips.


As manager of the Solar office at the California Energy commission I knew that that prediction was wrong since we did two careful and independent evaluations that arrived at the opposite conclusion. The first evaluation was done by experienced electrical engineer at CEC, the writer. However, CEC management that did not have relevant technical experience could not shake their belief that PV is a highly promising green technology. After all, NASA was using it successfully for space applications for years, they told me. NASA had no price limitation; the situation was not in the same ballpark. Also, "everybody" was saying PV is the promising green technology.


CEC management, therefore, funded another, fully independent study to verify the conclusions by an outside evaluator, a professor of Electrical Engineering at CSU - Sacramento. Both studies had identical conclusions that distributed PV (small roof systems for example) made of silicon panels, the main PV technology used for the last forty years, and today, would continue to be exceedingly expensive and would not be able to supply much electricity to the grid. In remote locations without connection to the grid, and requiring very small amount of electricity PV could be very useful.


When I read the Aerospace study I flew to Los Angeles, met with the two authors to discuss their report. It was disappointing to see how little they understood the technology and economics of PV or that type of technology, and how little effort they put into understanding the issues. As a long-term, experienced electrical engineer who worked intimately with integrated circuits (silicon chips) I lectured and wrote a corporation manual to encourage their use. I become adviser to several corporations on the potential use of integrated circuits. I knew the chip technology well and consulted to several corporations about their expanded use. Among the many companies I advised were the two inventors of this technology: Texas Instruments and Fairchild. I also had an hour discussion with Dr. Robert Noyce, one of the founders of Intel later on future trends.


My detailed discussion with the Aerospace staff indicated that they knew very little about the silicon chip technology, not even the basics. They had a price/time curve for PV showing just one valid point at the top-left-- then current price of PV. The rest had no reference points. They explained to me it is "just similar to price drop that computer chips had" -.


I believe it was a serious mistake not to use a peer review before releasing this report


Here is the basic fallacy re price comparison of PV and computer chips:

Contrary to the permanent statement that computer chips went down rapidly in price with larger quantity, actually computer chips did not go down in price once out of R&D and into large production. In facts chip prices went usually up! The chips became bigger and more complex with more computing capabilities. What went down is the price- per - computing - function. That  is, the number of miniscule transistors they could put on a chip increased dramatically with time.

Each transistor was smaller, and used considerably less energy to function. This miniaturization allowed to increase the number of transistors within a single chip to achieve a higher performance with similar chip size.


This continuous transistor miniaturization and the mandatory energy reduction per function of computer chips have absolutely no relationship to PV POWER operation. PV is a power instrument. It is rated in kilowatts (a thousand watt), while computer chips are miniature devices that must consume very little electricity, in the order of fifty watts, to be useable.


The basic, crucial mistake most people make here is that since they are unaware of the technology, not of computer chips or PV, they jump to conclusions that have nothing to do with the facts. Even most so called "scientists" have no idea what they are talking about if they see similarity between the two. One- for computers, the aim is to make transistors as small as you can- the other, PV: make it as large as you can to capture more sun energy.

In a typical silicon PV system only 18% of sun energy is available to the PV silicon surface. Then just 40% of that 18% is possible to convert to electricity because of the energy distribution of the sun spectrum. The end result is that only about 10% of the sun radiation near the surface of the earth is converted to electricity. That is, for each one kW / sq. m sun input, we can get about 100 watt average output per square meter of silicon PV.


R&D must continue and sponsored by both government and private sector. Increasing silicon PV efficiency is very useful but may be limited, since it also dictates increasing the purity and therefore price.

In addition only 40% of the cost of a finished roof PV system is for PV panels; the rest is labor, other materials, insurance, and profit.


The same mistake of comparing silicon chips with PV was made two weeks ago by V. P. Al Gore on Charlie Rose. They were discussing the new Al Gore book on green technologies. When asked about PV high prices V.P. Gore said that like computer chips the price of PV will fall down in production. Now thirty years later this mistake is still propagated up to the advisers of the good man himself - Gore and spread on public TV.


By the way, the PV industry is not inclined to be truthful. In a major White paper a few years back made for the California Legislature, and pushing the CA Governor's Solar on a Million Roofs initiative, the paper claimed 50 years life for a PV system, double what even the industry claim. Using this false claim they "cut" the electricity cost by one half. A patently, and intentionally, a false claim.


No wonder Germany spent $73B on a mirage and claim they are leaders in PV. We want to be like them- blind to reality. No one ask what Germany achieved - just a third of a percent of their electricity.

At this rate replacing their 50% coal-produced electricity by PV, for example, would cost many Trillions of dollars. An unrealistic, impossibly high cost. Several times larger than Germany total GDP.


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