“Molten Salt” Solar Produces Piddle Power Day and Night

July 26th, 2010
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Molten salt is great for nuclear reactors, but it can’t do much for solar…

Via Business Green:

What is claimed to be the world’s first solar thermal concentration plant to use molten salt as the heat transfer fluid has been opened by Italian energy company Enel in Sicily.

The 5MW Archimede plant – named after the rows of huge parabolic mirrors used to capture the sun’s rays – is also claimed to be the first to integrate a combined-cycle gas facility and a solar thermal power plant for electricity generation.

The solar thermal power plant comprises a field of about 30,000m2 of mirrors that concentrate sunlight on to 5.4km of pipe carrying the molten salt fluid. The thermal energy harvested by the system produces high-pressure steam that is channelled into the turbines of the power plant to produce electricity, reducing the consumption of fossil fuels and, as a result, enhancing the environmental performance of the combined-cycle plant.

The solar collectors (the parabolic mirrors and pipes or receivers), together with a steam generator and two heat storage tanks – one cold and one hot – make up the solar portion of the system.

When the sun shines, the thermal fluid drawn from the cold tank is circulated through the network of parabolic collectors, where it is heated to a temperature of 550C and injected into the hot tank, where the thermal energy is stored. The fluid is then drawn from the hot reservoir to produce steam at high pressure and temperature, which is sent to Enel’s nearby combined-cycle plant, where it contributes to electricity generation.

The molten salts used in the system are a mixture of sodium nitrates and potassium, which can retain heat for prolonged periods. This enables the plant to generate electricity at any time of the day and in all weather conditions until the stored energy is depleted.

To be precise, this is not the first time molten salts have been used in a solar power application. The supposed claim to fame here is that molten salts are being used for heat collection, heat transfer and storage, where as in the past they were usually limited to heat storage. Also, this is supposed to be a real “power plant,” as opposed to a research facility, as this has been done before in various prototype and pilot plant locations.

The use of molten salt allows higher temperatures which should improve thermal efficiency. More importantly, it allows more efficient storage of heat for power generation at night or during cloudy weather. Solar thermal power plants have long been touted as having this feature, but thus far, it’s been rather lackluster. The high temperatures and molten salt fluid should make nighttime power generation at least a little more viable.

The actual plant is enormous. It contains over three miles of primary loop pipeline, occupies over thirty thousand square meters and costs sixty million euro just to build (never mind the operating cost of keeping those mirrors shiny and the pipes free of leaks and clogs.) For this enormous price the plant generates five megawatts.

Of course, that’s not why the plant is there. It makes a perfect window dressing for the much much smaller, yet much much more powerful gas-fired power plant that is located at the same site. Officials like to talk about how the solar collectors are “integrated” into the gas fired power system and allow for less gas usage, as some kind of transition. They don’t mention that the gas fired power plant is 752 megawatts, a lot more than the five megawatts of the solar power station. But hey, with all the glare of those solar collectors, you might not even notice the big gas burner next-door, right?

One other thing that should be noted: the plant is rated at five megawatts, but that doesn’t mean it actually generates that much power.

The “five megawatt” number is a reference to the peak capacity of the power station, which is much much different than its true output. During the mid day, on a perfectly clear sunny summer day, when all systems are functioning at their optimal performance, it may get up to five megawatts. However, it will be lower much more often.

To get a better idea of what this plant is actually supposed to produce, or at least what the estimates of the builder are, we need to figure out what the average power output is. According to one site, the plant is supposed to produce “9 million kilowatt hours a year.” That’s nine thousand megawatt hours. There are 8,760 hours in a year (non leap-year), so as it turns out, the actual output of the plant averages just a little over one megawatt. This is, of course, assuming the estimates are correct and not more rosy than the reality of things.

Or to put it another way, if this were a fossil fuel power plant, it would look something like this:

In other words, not exactly huge. No, we’re not displacing very much of a power station here.

This is about enough power to provide the all the parking lot lighting at a large shopping mall. It could also power a single metropolitan region television transmitter or a small data center (definitely not the kind of data centers Yahoo or Google use though, those would require dozens of such power plants.) A passenger train might also use about one megawatt of power while cruising, though it would likely use more when accelerating.

Using “number of homes” to demonstrate how power is produced is an especially bad way of measuring energy, since the demands of a “home” vary quite a lot from home to home and depending on the time of day.


This entry was posted on Monday, July 26th, 2010 at 5:57 pm and is filed under Bad Science, Enviornment, Politics. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.
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37 Responses to ““Molten Salt” Solar Produces Piddle Power Day and Night”

  1. 1
    Nick P. Says:

    You know, certain smart people keep telling me that molten salts work a lot better for energy production if you dissolve some uranium and thorium into them.

    Maybe someone needs to tell these folks that also…


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  2. 2
    DV82XL Says:

    I recall being in Sicily one summer. The sunlight there was so intense, it bordered on heavy particle radiation. If solar can’t make it in places like this, it can’t make it anywhere.

    It must also be noted that the desert oil-states, seem much more interested in nuclear energy, despite ideal solar resources.


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  3. 3
    spudbeach Says:

    Thanks for the pictures — those mirrors are HUGE! I hope they don’t have hail, or windstorms, or degradation of the foundation, or leaky pipes, or . . . or . . . or . . . !


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  4. 4
    Gordon Says:

    The standard for rating these facilities should be power at average capacity factor or maybe kilowatt hours per year, if they give some context to the yearly energy from other sources.

    Five megawatts is unimpressive but one megawatt is rightly called “piddle power”


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  5. 5
    David Says:

    So, why build it? Why not spend the money on a bio-fuel plant, or as you point out a diesel generator? I am sure they use more power maintaining the solar facility than they are producing from it. Cleaning alone would take a fair amount of energy.

    Yes, window dressing.


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  6. 6
    DV82XL Says:

            David said:

    Why not spend the money on a bio-fuel plant, or as you point out a diesel generator?

    For the amount of money they spent on this turkey, they could have built a CANDU 6 nuclear power station.


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  7. 7
    Q Says:

    Wow. That picture of people standing by the collectors gives some sense of scale. So basically the rows of those total three miles of troughs and pipes. Geez! It must be quite a task to keep those all shiny and free of any windswept dirt and dust.

    I assume the troughs must tilt to follow the sun? And do all these pipes just run in one big loop or are their valves and manifolds and stuff? it seems like it would be a good idea to have valves and bypasses so you could isolate any one section that had a problem, although that would complicate things even more.

    Rube Goldberg would be very proud!


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  8. 8
    Scott Says:

    That works out to approximately $60,000 USD per kilowatt adjusted for capacity factor. The same people whom promote useless technology such as this are the same people that turn around and call Nuclear expensive (which costs $4500 USD per kilowatt).


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  9. 9
    Scott Says:

    Sorry… that would be a staggering $80,000 USD per kilowatt adjusted for capacity factor.


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  10. 10
    Matte Says:

            Scott said:

    Sorry… that would be a staggering $80,000 USD per kilowatt adjusted for capacity factor.

    At least something that is impressive about this facility…

    What was the loadfactor of this plant anyway?


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  11. 11
    Soylent Says:

    “Sun power is now a fact and no longer in the “beautiful possibility stage” … [it will have] a history something like aerial navigation. Up to twelve years ago it was a mere possibility and no practical man took it seriously. The Wrights made and “actual record” flight and thereafter developments were more rapid. We have made an “actual record” in sun power, and we also hope now for quick developments” – Frank Shuman, 1914, Scientific American.

    Shuman had built a fairly large parabolic through array in Maadi, Egypt before the first world war. The through are a little bit sturdier built than modern ones and not as large, but other than that they look about the same.

    Picture and newspaper clippings from an Egyptian news-paper of the time:
    http://www.egy.com/maadi/solar-energy.pdf

    (I’ve had environmentalists suggest to me with a straight face that if it wouldn’t have been for the first world war we’d already be using solar power instead of fossil fuels.)


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  12. 12
    Soylent Says:

    Also fun is the 1876 prediction by famous inventor John Ericsson:

    “Due consideration cannot fail to convince us that the rapid exhaustion of the European coal fields will soon cause great changes with reference to international relations, in favour of those countries which are in possession of continuous sun-power.”

    By then we had mined only a utterly insignificant fraction of the coal we would go on to mine over the 20th century. The problem is not running out of coal, that would be a blessing; the problem is that there’s so much of this semi-combustible dirt everywhere that is still accessible with relatively little effort.


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  13. 13
    drbuzz0 Says:

    Yes, there’s no doubt this not new at all. They constantly talk about it as a “new kind of solar power” or something like that.

    The fact is, there have been projects with solar concentrators used to drive a thermal engine (usually steam) as far back as the 1800′s and possibly earlier. Every couple of decades it comes up and there’s a big todo when a small steam engine is demonstrated running from sunlight with a big parabolic collector.

    There was another small craze over it shortly after the first world war, then in the 1950′s it got some attention and then in the 1970′s. Each time it’s supposed to be new and brilliant and just around the corner.


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  14. 14
    Peter Says:

    DV82XL, or anyone else,

    Would you be able to help with a ‘Loss of Load Probability” assessment for the “Zero Carbon Australia by 2020″ plan. The plan assumes that all Australia’s power will be provided by wind power and solar thermal towers with 17 hours of molten salt energu storage. The plan can be downloaded from here:
    http://media.beyondzeroemissions.org/ZCA2020_Stationary_Energy_Report_v1.pdf

    It is being discussed with one of the authors here:
    http://www.climatespectator.com.au/commentary/2020-vision#

    We would like comments and constructive criticisms of the plan posted here so we can draw together a reasonable critique of the plan: http://bravenewclimate.com/2010/07/14/zca2020/


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  15. 15
    Peter Lang Says:

    I noticed in the article [Note 1] Soylent posted on the first solar power plant (completed in 1913 in Egypt) that the capital cost of that plant was about twice that of “a similar horse power coal plant”. That was in 1913. Ninety seven years later the capital cost of solar is nearly 10 times the cost of a coal plant. Now tell me about learning curves for solar thermal.

    Note 1: http://www.egy.com/maadi/solar-energy.pdf


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  16. 16
    drbuzz0 Says:

            Peter Lang said:

    I noticed in the article [Note 1] Soylent posted on the first solar power plant (completed in 1913 in Egypt) that the capital cost of that plant was about twice that of “a similar horse power coal plant”. That was in 1913. Ninety seven years later the capital cost of solar is nearly 10 times the cost of a coal plant. Now tell me about learning curves for solar thermal.

    Note 1: http://www.egy.com/maadi/solar-energy.pdf

    It may have to do with the scale of things. A coal fired steam engine of a small size still requires a lot of support and plumbing and because of this, the cost is not linear.

    The article describes the installation as being one hundred horsepower. A one hundred horsepower reciprocating steam engine with coal fired boiler, chimney, coal bunkers and such of the type used in this time period would be a fairly expensive installation. A 200 horsepower coal fired steam engine would not cost twice as much – it would probably only cost marginally more. A 1000 horsepower coal fired steam engine might not even cost twice as much.

    It may also be a rough estimate or may leave out some costs.


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  17. 17
    JIK Says:

    Wow.

    I cant believe what I am reading. I have never seen another page that ever was against solar power. Solar power is the best for earth and clean renewable. Everyone loves solar and just talk about how much more we need and how soon

    What is wrong with you people?


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  18. 18
    DV82XL Says:

            JIK said:

    What is wrong with you people?

    We suffer from the ability to do mathematics and understanding physics.

    It is just so easy for people to say that solar is the way of the future, and because of that, lay people will accept that, and puzzle as to why people actually try and speak against it.

    We caution against these renewable plants not because of a political agenda, or an anti-environmentalist approach, but from a technical viewpoint, which as can be seen from your comment, is not readily understood.


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  19. 19
    matthew Says:

            JIK said:

    Wow.

    I cant believe what I am reading.

    I have never seen another page that ever was against solar power. Solar power is the best for earth and clean renewable.

    Everyone loves solar and just talk about how much more we need and how soon

    What is wrong with you people?

    We like our energy sources to (a) produce a useful amount of power (check the numbers on any solar plant) and (b) like our energy sources to have minimal impact on the environment (take a look at how much land area goes into solar plants, and the materials needed to build and maintain them).

    Yeah, we’re horrible people because we like things hat work.


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  20. 20
    Peter Lang Says:

    I posted this on the “Climate Spectator” web site http://www.climatespectator.com.au/commentary/2020-vision#comment-496 and though it migyt be of interest here too.

    “This might be of interest: http://ecogeneration.com.au/news/windorah_solar_farm/011780/

    This is state of the art solar power (although it is PV not solar thermal). It shows what the current state of the art is and confirms the high costs of solar that have been mentioned by me and others on this thread.

    The major difference between this plant and the 220MW concept that the ZCA2020 is using as the basis of their plan, is that this is technically proven (it is built and working). However, it is not commercial (it is not economically viable).

    So what are the costs? Well here they are:

    Capacity (nominal); kW; 130
    Energy pa; kWh/a; 360,000
    Capacity Factor; ; 32%
    Capital Cost; A$; $4,500,000
    Unit cost; A$/kW; $34,615
    Unit cost per average kW; A$/kWa/a; $109,500

    So the unit capital cost is A$35/W (A$35,000/kW). This compares with the cost from estimate NEEDS (2007) of A$20,000/kW for solar thermal tower with 16 hours of energy storage. The cost per average kW supplied is A$110,000/kWa/a average power. That compares with the $80,000/kWa/a average power for the new solar thermal trough with molten salt storage that has just been commissioned in Sicily.”


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  21. 21
    realworld Says:

    An ongoing critique & open debate on the Beyond Zero Emissions – Zero Carbon Australia 2020 report is here ->

    http://bravenewclimate.com/2010/07/14/zca2020

    This site is run by Prof of Climate Change at University of Adelaide, Barry Brook. A final report and executive summary will be put together in the next week or so. The short answer, as any sensible person who reads it will realise, is that most, if not all, of what is in this report is pure nonsense.

    I would also suggest looking at the comments below this article ->

    http://www.climatespectator.com.au/commentary/2020-vision

    where one of the authors James Hutchison has totally failed to answer any direct questions relating to some of the problems with the ZCA 2020 report.


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  22. 22
    Satan_Klaus Says:

            spudbeach said:

    Thanks for the pictures — those mirrors are HUGE! !

    Actually they are not. Don’t be fooled by the propaganda picture. They are 30000 square meters, which is just about 4 international football fields in size or a big parking lot. They just cut the photo so it looks like the mirrors go on to the horizon when, in fact, they end right where the picture is cut. I think Mr. Buzzo is right when he says the tiny 5MW solar plant is windowdressing for the 750 MW Gas power plant. Was probably easier to get a permit when they said they would tack on a little bit of solar or something. Might have been worth the small investment of 60 million euros just to make the project permit go through fast and easy. Who would dare stand in the way of a solar power plant, after all?

    Satan_Klaus


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  23. 23
    Solar Energy Still Has a Long Way to Go | Energy and Metals Says:

    [...] Cranium takes a careful look at a new solar thermal plant in Sicily, and decides that the plant provides only “piddling” energy for the enormous cost of [...]


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  24. 24
    Bob Stedi Says:

    Solar Power is going to be a major revolution, despite all the smug comments above from the guys who think that they are so clever at maths and whatever.

    There are several new plants being built around the world, and they are getting bigger and cheaper all the time:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_solar_thermal_power_stations

    This South African 100MW development is particularly interesting:
    http://www.engineeringnews.co.za/article/eskoms-concentrated-solar-power-ambition-2010-06-18

    Note that Eskom technology strategy and planning manager Barry MacColl believes that during the life span of this project, which is estimated at about 20 years, the lines will cross where solar becomes more cost efficient than coal.
    And this is from a company that is also operates coal and nuclear plants.

    Photovoltaic systems are going through an even more spectacular revolution:
    http://guntherportfolio.com/2010/07/racing-to-photovoltaic-grid-parity/

    In about a decade, ie less time that what it takes to build a nuclear plant, I expect that we will see that in dry areas most power during the day will come from photovoltaics and at night time most power will come from solar thermal molten salt systems. The balance will be a mixture of wind and a few fossil-fuel peaking-plants. I predict that no new nuclear plants will ever be built in the Southern USA.


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  25. 25
    Byron Raum Says:

    The problem with this entire methodology is that it doesn’t seem to understand how new technologies work. Whenever we have a new way of doing things, it will, at first, be considerably worse than the old way of doing things. It will be more expensive and often more messy. Over time, as people think about it, it gets more efficient.

    It is true for any engineering field, and it is how science and engineering advance. The same sort of argument used here could have been provided to explain why steam was a much more superior technology. Or, why some idiot with an internal combustion engine thought he could beat a reliable and fast horse-driven carriage. Why would I ever need a telephone? I can send a letter whenever I want.


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  26. 26
    DV82XL Says:

            Byron Raum said:

    The problem with this entire methodology is that it doesn’t seem to understand how new technologies work. Whenever we have a new way of doing things, it will, at first, be considerably worse than the old way of doing things. It will be more expensive and often more messy. Over time, as people think about it, it gets more efficient.

    It is true for any engineering field, and it is how science and engineering advance. The same sort of argument used here could have been provided to explain why steam was a much more superior technology. Or, why some idiot with an internal combustion engine thought he could beat a reliable and fast horse-driven carriage. Why would I ever need a telephone? I can send a letter whenever I want.

    What is clear sir, is that you have swallowed the propaganda of the renewables supporters uncritical and without bothering to check if it is historically accurate.

    The fact is, the greatest gains are at the beginning in any field like this. In other words, the leaning curve has the greatest slope as things start out and tappers-off to incremental gains as the technology matures. There are no huge gains to be had with wind power: energy extraction is just about maximized because there is over a century of airfoil engineering that can be drawn from the aviation sector. Any gains will be very small.

    Solar thermal is another technology that draws on basic thermal physics, long understood. Again there is little room for real gains. While there may be greater improvements in photovoltaics in the future, the fact remains that theory puts an upper limit on effective conversion, and that limit is fast approaching.

    Look at hydroelectricity, the poster-child for renewables. There has been no major improvements in this technology for over a century, only the installations have gotten bigger, and more disruptive to the local environment and ecology. Is this the type of improvement you are waiting for with wind and solar? Vast areas in permanent shade, or rendered unfit for other use by huge wind turbines is the inexorable result of growing these technologies, because size is the only route to further gains.


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  27. 27
    matthew Says:

            Byron Raum said:

    The problem with this entire methodology is that it doesn’t seem to understand how new technologies work. Whenever we have a new way of doing things, it will, at first, be considerably worse than the old way of doing things. It will be more expensive and often more messy. Over time, as people think about it, it gets more efficient.

    It is true for any engineering field, and it is how science and engineering advance. The same sort of argument used here could have been provided to explain why steam was a much more superior technology. Or, why some idiot with an internal combustion engine thought he could beat a reliable and fast horse-driven carriage. Why would I ever need a telephone? I can send a letter whenever I want.

    And if this was a remotely new concept, you might have a point. This is very old, very well understood technology. The only thing new about it is the claim that it is useful.


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  28. 28
    drbuzz0 Says:

            Byron Raum said:

    The problem with this entire methodology is that it doesn’t seem to understand how new technologies work. Whenever we have a new way of doing things, it will, at first, be considerably worse than the old way of doing things. It will be more expensive and often more messy. Over time, as people think about it, it gets more efficient.

    It is true for any engineering field, and it is how science and engineering advance. The same sort of argument used here could have been provided to explain why steam was a much more superior technology. Or, why some idiot with an internal combustion engine thought he could beat a reliable and fast horse-driven carriage. Why would I ever need a telephone? I can send a letter whenever I want.

    First, it’s not new – even remotely new. Secondly, there are certain things which are just inherent to the technology, like the need for huge areas of collectors. You can’t get around that, it’s just not possible. It’s the nature of the beast.


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  29. 29
    drbuzz0 Says:

            Bob Stedi said:

    Solar Power is going to be a major revolution, despite all the smug comments above from the guys who think that they are so clever at maths and whatever.

    Solar power technologies have already been revolutionary – for satellites, remotely located low-power systems (such as seismic sensors, weather relay stations, railroad track break detectors, temperature-measuring bouyes and navigational hazard strobe lights) they’re absolutely unbeatable.

    Rock outcroppings in navigational channels, for example, are hazardous enough that they have lights on them to warn ships at night. Decades ago, this required either a submarine cable be run to them or the Coast Guard or other entity had to visit them every few days to refuel generators or replace large batteries.

    Solar power has revolutionized such things.


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  30. 30
    Krzysztof Kosiński Says:

            Byron Raum said:

    The problem with this entire methodology is that it doesn’t seem to understand how new technologies work.

    The problem is that renewable energy advocates don’t understand that no amount of innovation can change the laws of nature.


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  31. 31
    Krzysztof Kosiński Says:

            Bob Stedi said:

    In about a decade, ie less time that what it takes to build a nuclear plant,

    It takes 10+ years only in the USA. In other countries it takes 4-5 years.

    The cost escalation of nuclear projects in the USA is unparalleled in the rest of the world. In China, a first-of-a-kind American design can be built at around $2200/kW, on time and under budget. An indigenous Chinese design was built for $1700/kW. In USA the costs have already escalated to more than 6000$/kW. Clearly there’s something wrong.
    http://www.world-nuclear.org/info/inf02.html

    Incidentally the USA is probably the only country in the world with a fossil fuel lobby powerful enough to convince a substantial portion of the population that global warming doesn’t exist, or is a political issue. This might or might not be relevant.


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  32. 32
    BMS Says:

            Krzysztof KosiÅ„ski said:

    Incidentally the USA is probably the only country in the world with a fossil fuel lobby powerful enough to convince a substantial portion of the population that global warming doesn’t exist, or is a political issue.

    Gee, I guess the Britons must have come to their own doubtful conclusions.

    Poll: most Britons doubt cause of climate change

    Climate scepticism ‘on the rise’, BBC poll shows

    UK grows more skeptical on climate change: poll


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  33. 33
    Peter Lang Says:

            matthew said:

    And if this was a remotely new concept, you might have a point. This is very old, very well understood technology. The only thing new about it is the claim that it is useful.

    Matthew is the CEO and lead author of the “Zero Carbon Australia” by 2020 plan. The plan is fraudulent but has gained the endorsement of many politicians and many important academics.

    The plan proposes that all Australia’s electrcity generation can be converted to baseload solar and wind power by 2020. The authors estimated a cost of $370 billion. See the critique here:

    http://bravenewclimate.com/2010/08/12/zca2020-critique/

    Comments would be most welcome (85 so far).


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  34. 34
    Matthew Says:

            Peter Lang said:

    Matthew is the CEO and lead author of the “Zero Carbon Australia” by 2020 plan. The plan is fraudulent but has gained the endorsement of many politicians and many important academics.

    The plan proposes that all Australia’s electrcity generation can be converted to baseload solar and wind power by 2020. The authors estimated a cost of $370 billion. See the critique here:

    http://bravenewclimate.com/2010/08/12/zca2020-critique/

    Comments would be most welcome (85 so far).

    Say what? No idea what you’re talking about. Not that I’d turn down a CEO salary. mind you – but unless you’re offering me the cash, please don’t give me a false identity.

    Really not sure where you’re getting this, especially since I was pointing out tht solar tech is well understood, and not particularly useful in large scale, baseload operations.

    Doc, I hate to ask, but you know where I’m posting from, could you please confirm that I’m in Prince George, BC, and not in the land of deadly snakes, spiders, and wallabees?


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  35. 35
    Peter Lang Says:

    Matthew,

    My apologies. I thought you were the Matthew Wright, CEO of “Beyond Zero Emissions”, lead author of “Zero Carbon Australia – Stationary Energy Plan”. (our critique here: http://bravenewclimate.com/2010/08/12/zca2020-critique/) . So I beg your pardon.

    By the way, how are you progressing with that damned dam? I was in the investigation adits about 30 years ago!


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  36. 36
    Matthew Says:

            Peter Lang said:

    Matthew,

    My apologies. I thought you were the Matthew Wright, CEO of “Beyond Zero Emissions”, lead author of “Zero Carbon Australia – Stationary Energy Plan”. (our critique here: http://bravenewclimate.com/2010/08/12/zca2020-critique/) . So I beg your pardon.

    By the way, how are you progressing with that damned dam? I was in the investigation adits about 30 years ago!

    Accepted, though you might want to review a poster’s history before making an ID based on a common first name (I’m decently active here).

    To which dam are you referring? I only moved here in March from Montreal, so my knowledge of local issues isn’t really up to snuff.


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  37. 37
    Meeting Room Says:

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