Solar Expert Leads Energy Discussion

March 14, 2019

Vasilis Fthenakis, one of the world’s foremost experts on solar energy, spoke in March at the Santiago Center regarding future development for the solar energy industry.

A specific area ripe for development is employing solar energy for water desalination, said Fthenakis, who is also the Founder and Director of the Center for Life Cycle Analysis (CLCA) at Columbia’s Department of Earth & Environmental Engineering.

“Regions that suffer from water stress are rich in solar irradiance and often rich in metal and mineral resources,” as is the case in Chile, where copper mine operations require high amounts of water and energy and in fact the country is a leader in solar desalination, he noted. “Traditional desalination uses a lot of fossil fuel-based energy, which generates carbon emissions. Water desalination relying on solar energy is a sensible approach. And the clean, inexhaustible solar energy has become cost competitive. Inexpensive solar energy is an enabler for resolving water and environmental challenges.”

However, a tool is needed to simplify integration between the desalination process and solar energy generation, as experts in each respective sector are often unaware of the other’s field.

Fthenakis also dedicated part of his presentation to debunking myths regarding solar energy; namely, that solar energy makes the power grid unstable, that photovoltaic (PV) power is too costly and that it uses up too much land.

On the first point, the expert asserted that variable energy resources provide essential reliability services to reliably operate the grid. In fact, tests have shown that with the use of smart inverters, solar can actually enhance grid resiliency in terms of voltage control, frequency control and flexible capacity.

Secondly, “it’s always about economics but [the return on investment for PV development] has to be looked at over the longer term,” Fthenakis said. While recognizing that solar generation requires a sizeable up-front investment, he noted that all predictions have been conservative for solar development as they have been met and surpassed. Solar will allow for reductions in retail electricity rates in the US to the tune of US$30-50 billion a year between 2030 and 2050, “and Chile could have better pricing than the US, thanks to its high levels of irradiation in [northern Chile’s] Atacama Desert.”

Regarding photovoltaic plants’ use of property, “PV uses less land than coal mining and it doesn’t disturb the land,” Fthenakis said, adding that plots where PV panels are located can be put to dual use, with the development of vegetable gardens, landfills, parking lots, or land for animal pasture and shade.

The event was chaired by Paula Estévez, a Columbia alumna (SEAS ’06) who heads the international affairs division at Chile’s Ministry of Energy. The government official highlighted that Chile has abundant solar capacities – 2/3 of the total solar capacity in Latin America which provides 10% of electricity in the system. Thirty-two percent of the power generation projects under construction are solar, she added, and this source of energy may be the main supply in the system by 2030. She called for collaboration with other countries, driving innovation and sustainability of solar development. (See the Pictures Gallery here).

Professor Fthenakis also participated of the International Investment Conference and Exhibition Desalination Latin America where he moderated the round-table called “Solar Technology: Desalination and Reuse”, and talked about prospects for solar-enable desalination on the “Energy Efficiency in Desalination: Solar VS Hybrid and Thermal technology vs. Membrane technology” panel.

During his visit to Santiago, Fthenakis met with CEO of major energy companies operating in Chile at an event held at the Chilean-American Chamber of Commerce, AmCham and chaired by Claudio Seebach, Executive Chairman at Generadoras de Chile (see Pictures Gallery here).

To download professor Fthenakis presentation click here