Nuclear and Solar: Bffs?

I know I give solar a hard time. I point out the flaws and failings of it on a semi-regular basis here, but only because I know it can do better. Solar right now is a victim of the success of the ideologies that it has been picked up by. A whole movement about how using less, and doing less, and pulling back is the way forward.

Now I’m not saying that efforts to improve efficiency, improve recycling and preventing needless waste are bad. I’m 100% in favour of doing more with less. That’s part of why I feel strongly enough about nuclear energy to run this blog. But the thing that the environmental movements seem to be forgetting is that in order to do more with less… The goal is still to do More.

So where am I going with this? I say I like solar but then dump all over how people think about solar energy? Well here’s the thing. Solar right now sucks. It sucks because it’s being made by people trying to use the least amount of effort in the largest manner possible. It’s like they heard “Less is More” and then mixed up which parts were supposed to be the less and which were meant to be the more.

This is not doing more with less, this is doing less with more. A 300,000m^2 (~75 acres) photovoltaic solar plant in Hungary that produces a whopping 18.5 MW, for an energy density of about 4.05 Acres per MW. Compare that to the US average for nuclear plants which is 0.901 Acres per MW
This is pretty neat. The Crescent Dunes Solar Project, a solar plant that stores heat in a tank of molten salt that allows it to power a steam turbine even at night using the residual heat. It has a footprint of 1670 acres and produces 110 MW which makes it 16.8 times less space efficient than the average US nuclear plant.
oh god, don’t even get me started on floating solar plants… All I can think of when I see these is the rotting stench of algae blooms when the microbiome in the water dies from lack of sunlight.

No, large scale solar installations are not the way to go solar. Solar energy is everywhere at the same time so why do people insist on putting all the generating capacity for it in giant eyesores of facilities? Distributed energy should be… well distributed.

Like this! But even this isn’t good enough sadly.

Rooftop solar. Minimize your personal dependence on the industrial grid, make it so that, in cases of emergency, residential districts can be cut from the grid to ensure places like hospitals and emergency services have guaranteed access to energy without plunging regular people into the cold and the dark. Sadly, These types of panels aren’t quite good enough. There is much better technology out there that would allow us to actually be able to produce the energy that our population needs for their personal use.

Sorry Ole Musky, The form factor is brilliant, but it’s the basis that is lacking.

The problem is what the panels are made of. The best silicon panels that the best companies are building nowadays only convert about 20% of the light that hits them into electricity. The standard ones that Everyone else is building are generally closer to 16%. And why is that? because making solar panels is Very energy intensive and making better cells requires more and more energy put into the fabrication process. Gee-golly willikers Batman, wherever could we get a source of high-intensity energy that can be delivered for low operating costs?

But what would we do with nuclear energy making solar panels? Wikipedia says that smart people say the theoretical maximum efficiency of solar panels is only about 29%. Well lucky for us that there are several groups of people that like hearing what smart people say and then taking that as a challenge. My favourite of these groups are These people:

Now, this picture is a bit of a red herring because behind that astronaut is, in fact, a silicon-based solar panel array. But the fun stuff is what is called Multi-junction arrays. What that means is that basically, they take multiple solar cells that are each tuned for a different part of the light spectrum. Say one for UV to blue, one for green through yellow, and finally one for red into infrared and stack them on top of each other in that order so that the longer wavelength cells are behind the shorter wavelength cells.

This allows each layer to absorb the wavelengths that they are most efficient at collecting and the multi-junction arrays easily blow past the 29% efficiency limit of silicon. The multi-junction cells on the ISS actually run at about 34%. In fact when I was on a tour at the Kennedy space center in Florida a few years back the tour guide told me that they have multi-junction arrays powering one of the flight control buildings and that the cells are so efficient that they are able to run the building primarily on those panels even when the sky is cloudy. Imagine not having to care about the sky being cloudy when using solar panels. That’s a huge boost to their usability.

Several companies are racing for higher and higher efficiencies using as many tricks as they can think of. more than a few groups have demonstrated efficiencies over 40% with the current record holder sitting proudly at an ass kicking 46%

The current various races for solar supremacy

The problem is that making these cells requires shit loads of energy to process, form, and package due to their unique chemistry and general rarity of their materials. To drop the prices of these cells we need enough energy at low enough costs that mining more of the base materials is considered viable and the production of chemical precursors is allowed to ramp up past the research scale. And in a catch 22, solar energy cannot provide that kind of energy density until it already has that kind of energy density. Remember up at the beginning of the post and how horribly space inefficient those solar plants were compared to an average nuclear plant?

But! If we can use nuclear energy to build up solar capability to the actual peak of its capability then we can start to lighten the load on nuclear in terms of supporting the entirety of residential, commercial, and industrial energy loads and can start reducing the impact of residential energy consumption on centralized energy sources. In short, nuclear energy can be used to create a future where you will never have to pay for electricity for your house again because it has actually useful solar panels that completely cover your electricity requirements. Another benefit of this is that if we can use nuclear energy to make solar panels to handle residential electricity loads then we would actually end up requiring Fewer nuclear facilities in the long run.

And That is the true essence of doing More with Less! If we build the nuclear energy now, we can reduce the need for centralized energy in the long run because it can be used to boost the capabilities of Solar in a harmonious way rather than the current antagonistic view that environmentalists seem to think that nuclear and solar are being forced to have.

Wind is still stupid though.

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6 thoughts on “Nuclear and Solar: Bffs?

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  1. The European Space Agency sent the spacecraft Rosetta to visit a comet, AND land its cargo Philae upon it.
    By comparison, any idiot can land a man on the Moon.
    But NASA did better, they sent the Cassini craft to study Saturn, its moons, and its rings.
    Here’s the sad part of heroic Philae , she was dependent upon solar panels, and when she landed, it was in shade. Her batteries allowed enough experimants to justify the expedition, but …
    Cassini used nuclear power, from plutonium 238.

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    1. Yeah it’s true, Cassini did use RTG electricity to great effect, but you are leaving out some of the deciding factors in that decision. the reason Philae was solar/battery powered and Cassini was nuclear powered was a function of their designed operating distances from the sun. Cassini was designed to operate for years at about 10 AU where, according to the inverse square relationship, there would be ~1000 (2^10) times less solar power than there would be in earth orbit, while Philae was expected to operate much close to the sun where it’s solar panels would have been more than enough to supply its equipment with energy. The unfortunate positioning of Philae is just that, unfortunate. But when you are trying to put advanced science experiments into orbit and you have a mass budget where every gram is precious sometimes it’s just not feasible or practical to use nuclear sources. Plus, if we ever start operating longer term experiments closer to the sun than earth then solar panels will definitely be the way to go for energy generation as they get significantly more effective the closer they get to the sun. Again, thanks to that inverse square relationship of solar irradiance to distance.

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    1. I remember reading this article. it’s definitely true that we won’t be able to power our whole world on just renewables, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t use nuclear energy to help solar reach its full potential and allow it to help out where it would work at what it can do well.

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