Select your localized edition:

Close ×

More Ways to Connect

Discover one of our 28 local entrepreneurial communities »

Be the first to know as we launch in new countries and markets around the globe.

Interested in bringing MIT Technology Review to your local market?

MIT Technology ReviewMIT Technology Review - logo

 

Unsupported browser: Your browser does not meet modern web standards. See how it scores »

{ action.text }

Last week’s news in the New York Times about massive new solar installations in California is both good and bad news. The good: Solar power plants are at last beginning to rival conventional plants in terms of peak power production. Two new installations will combine to produce 800 megawatts of power when the sun is overhead, the amount a small to midsize nuclear power plant produces at its peak. About two years ago, Technology Review reported on plans for solar farms of unprecedented size, but those would produce only 100 megawatts or less. The new installations increase this output by almost an order of magnitude. Clearly, solar power is on its way to becoming a significant source of electricity.

The bad news: It’s still not that much electricity. The very fact that 800 megawatts of solar power is big news indicates just how far we’ve still got to go. For one thing, 800 megawatts of solar is not equal to 800 megawatts of nuclear or coal. That’s because solar works only during the day–and even then it doesn’t generate peak levels in the morning and evening. Nuclear can keep cranking at near peak output day and night. The new solar installations will produce far less electricity than a comparably sized nuclear plant.

What’s more, we’re still talking about megawatts of electricity. To supply anticipated energy needs, we need to be thinking not just in thousands of megawatts–that is, gigawatts–but in thousands of gigawatts, or terawatts, of power. According to one report, all of the solar panels produced so far can only generate about 12 gigawatts.

This is all just to say we’ve got a problem of enormous scale on our hands. There are also concerns about cost–solar is still more expensive than electricity generated from fossil fuels.

But enough of the negative. The new installations are yet another sign of a rapidly expanding solar industry. This expansion will fuel itself by bringing down the cost of making solar panels. Meanwhile, technology continues to improve. That includes the development of cheaper ways to store solar power, so it can be used at night.

16 comments. Share your thoughts »

Tagged: Energy, energy, solar, electricity, solar power plants

Reprints and Permissions | Send feedback to the editor

From the Archives

Close

Introducing MIT Technology Review Insider.

Already a Magazine subscriber?

You're automatically an Insider. It's easy to activate or upgrade your account.

Activate Your Account

Become an Insider

It's the new way to subscribe. Get even more of the tech news, research, and discoveries you crave.

Sign Up

Learn More

Find out why MIT Technology Review Insider is for you and explore your options.

Show Me