BP Solar Means Sun Power

If the whole world consumed 500 quadrillion BTU’s of energy in 2000, and that’s only a bit generous, than a square of photovoltaic cells 200 miles on a side would have produced 100% of the world’s energy requirements in that year. That’s assuming 8 watts of output per square foot of PVs, 6 hours of sun a day year-round, and 70% efficiency after transmission and conversion.

When I visited BP Solar’s photovoltaic manufacturing plant in Fairfield, California, I hadn’t done the math in time to ask Mac Moore, Director of Building and Utility Markets for North America, how much it would cost to buy a square of PV’s 200 miles on a side, capable of producing annually 16,700 gigawatt years (500 quadrillion BTU’s) of electric power. But if it were up to BP Solar, photovoltaics would be well on their way to producing a substantial share of the world’s energy.

BP Solar Building
Mac Moore at BP Solar

Currently the total world manufacturing capacity for photovoltaics, according to Moore, is about 400 megawatts. Of that BP produces 60 megawatts, or 15% of the world output. When the Fairfield plant goes into full production early next year, another 10 megawatts per year will be added to BP’s share. Despite dramatic lowering of costs to produce photovoltaics in the last decade, and skyrocketing overall energy cost, photovoltaics remain a minor player in global energy supply.

Photovoltaic cells take their place alongside wind and geothermal energy as “non-hydro renewables.” It is the goal of Sir John Browne, the Chairman of British Petroleum, for “renewables to contribute 5% of the world’s energy supply by 2020.” That seems like a modest goal, until one considers the staggering increases in manufacturing of PVs and wind systems that will be required to achieve it. At the current rate of world PV production, it would take 175 years before photovoltaics supplied just one percent of the world’s energy requirements.

Moore did get a chance to answer some questions about prices for more modest systems, because while PVs are not likely to totally replace conventional fuels anytime soon, they are now cost competitive with conventional electrical energy during periods of peak demand. At $10 per watt installed (assuming a 25 year life), PV generated electricity costs $.35 per kilowatt hour, which is under peak costs which frequently exceed $.40 per kilowatt hour and have gone much higher. This means that a relatively small percentage of electrical power from PV arrays can exert a powerful downward pressure on peak prices by contributing power to the grid when demand is highest.

According to BP’s Moore, the lowest installed cost right now of PVs for large scale commercial orders is about $6 per watt, which is $.21 per kilowatt hour. Recent California baseline prices have now gone up to $.15 per kilowatt hour, putting PV costs within striking distance of conventional electrical costs. Ironically, the viability of PVs has increased their price to the end-users, because current demand to purchase PVs is far beyond supply, and there is no end in sight.

BP Photovoltaic Plant
BP Photovoltaic Plant

Over the next decade, it appears that PVs and renewables may have to compete with one more surge of fossil fuel power electrical generating capacity, at least in the U.S. That makes rapid expansion of PV manufacturing capacity a risky business. If natural gas production and distribution capacity is dramatically increased in North America, and it probably will be, the price of electricity could drop back down to under $.10 per kilowatt hour, or even lower. If conventional sources of electricity come down in price for a sustained period, BP and other major solar players could end up being able to make more PVs than they could sell at a profit.

Not only supply and demand affects the drive toward increased PV production, however. Greenhouse gas emissions are increasingly recognized as threats to change the global climate, with the potential to wreak catastrophic changes in sea level and global ecosystems. In 1996, BP’s Chairman Sir John Browne broke with the other major oil companies in committing BP to comply with the Kyoto protocols, which are an attempt by the nations of the world to cooperate to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. To this end, BP is developing many types of renewable energy, not only PVs, but also wind power. BP is a member of the California Fuel Cell Partnership, a consortium that is deploying prototype cars that operate using fuel cells, which rely on chemical reactions instead of combustion for power, meaning they emit little or no carbon. BP has also begun to retrofit all of its filling stations to have canopies over the pumps that are covered with PVs. For that matter, at the Fairfield plant, a PV array along the southwest side of the building and built into the windows has been installed to provide much of the power requirements.

Photovoltaic Arrays
Photovoltaic Arrays

In the U.S., the challenge BP Solar faces is not just to bring the price down on their PVs, through thin film technology and other processes where they are the world’s leader. If BP Solar is to continue selling PVs as fast as they can make them, at the same time as they increase their manufacturing capacity to make a real impact on the world’s energy supply, they will have to produce compelling evidence of carbon emissions causing global warming, and present their case to the American people.

The United States trails the world in complying with the Kyoto protocals, and may scrap them entirely. BP can bring the price of PVs down to a fraction of what they cost today, and they still will not be able to compete, at least in the next few decades, with the short-term dollar cost of coal, nuclear, and natural gas energy solutions. To grow their business, as well as for the welfare of the planet, BP has to join the war for the hearts and minds of the American people.

Is global warming an inevitable result of carbon emissions? If so, what are the consequences? Answer that question with clear, undeniable facts, and convince the public that PVs, wind, fuel cells, and hydrogen power is the answer. That is BP Solar’s marketing challenge.

So how much would the giant square of PVs 200 miles on a side cost? An array large enough to power the world? At today’s price of $6 per watt, about 50 trillion dollars. What’s the planet worth?

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