Sicilian Sunshine

I have to say I do miss seeing, and hearing, Pasquale Pistorio on the semiconductor scene. He’s a creator of energy and a force for good in the world.


He gave a run-down on the development of renewable energy sources to the Maltese press earlier this week, and this is what he said:


"Wind renewable energy is now mature. It could soon be as cheap as fossil fuels. In most coastal areas, wind energy could be as low as €0.05 per kw/hour. This is even cheaper than fossil fuels. 20% of the energy needs in Denmark come from wind energy, 10% in Spain, 8% in Germany and from 3-6% in the EU as a whole."

"In 2009, wind energy produced some 158GWatts in the whole world, which works out at something like 55 power stations compared to the 375 nuclear power stations. But wind stations are increasing by 25% a year. By 2025, energy from wind will overtake energy from nuclear."

"Solar energy produced only some 25GWatts last year, equivalent to four power stations. But it has a 50% growth rate and the costs are falling. Last year in the US solar energy went below the $1 per Watt mark."

"Thermo dynamics create energy through using huge mirrors. Covering just two per cent of the world's deserts by such mirrors would solve all the energy needs of the entire world. The cost is still high but is falling."


Pistorio, a native of Sicily, added: "A Sicilian saying says that the sun that hits one square metre of Sicilian land is the equivalent of one barrel of oil."


We need more like him.



  1. Scunnerous, have you seen this for energy storage?
    By making the cold side -150C the Carnot cycle efficiency is 85% and the round trip efficiency 72% which is pretty amazing for a Stirling engine. 30MWh from 700m3 of gravel sounds good to me. Who has a spare £25M to bring it to production?

  2. Scunnerous is wrong about the difficulty of energy storage.
    The prototype for Desertec North African solar power near Madrid produces 17MW during the day and 9MW during the night using heat stored in phase-change salts. The whole scheme manages an average 9W/sq m (3 times that for wind power) and costs about £9.50 per installed average watt capacity, which is similar to UK wind turbines. This price will come down since this was a modest scale first prototype, so it is perfectly viable to use this scheme to replace coal, oil, gas and nuclear.
    Oil can be pumped thousands of miles, so no doubt sea water can be pumped hundreds of miles from the Med to the desert power stations, and some of the energy used for desalination.

  3. I’m not sure why it needs a continuous supply of water to wash the panels. My local car wash filters and recycles its water quite happily. Also does it even need to be pure water ? Could sea water be pumped in using some of the electrical energy produced ?

  4. The second para mentioned Denmark. Just a couple of years ago I read in The Scotsman that Denmark was the “dirtiest” electricity consumer per capita in the developed world due to imported electricity, mainly from German coal stations. They’ve banned electric home heating devices to mitigate their horrible numbers; if I recall correctly, current ban on sale with a view to future ban on usage.
    The trouble with both solar and wind is that to be viable you need massive amounts of storage, which is an essentially unsolved problem; otherwise all your doing is intermittently turning down the “wick” on fossil and nuclear which reduces their efficiency – i.e. increased overall costs. It really doesn’t matter a jot how cheap wind or solar is on the day if you still need the traditional infrastructure to fill the gaps.
    There have been a couple of spectacular failures of hydro pump storage in the US, not to mention the long term greenhouse gas emissions due to the flooding of vegetated land. The other method of large-scale pump storage, compressed air, loses the energy and requires energy input to get back the stored entropy. This problem is at least 40 years old and has been studied to death; I recall building it into long-term mathematical energy models in the mid ’70s.
    I’m afraid I don’t share the enthusiasm expressed in the article and comments for renewables as technology currently stands. What irks me most is that there seems to be some tacit assumption by the eco-crowd, which some of the media has latched on to, that fossil companies are evil; renewable companies are benign altruists… as if.

  5. Ian,
    I have seen only one small article on dissociating water into H_2 in mainstream media in the last 3 years. It strikes me that there is so little info about conversion from electrical to chemical power (the reverse of fuel-cells).
    We hear on the one hand about turning corn into oil to replace fossil fuel-oil, and on the other hand about energy/mass improvements for Li-ion batteries and such. I am ignorant on these matters, but the gap surprises me. At first sight electrical-to-chemical conversion, through redox or electrolysis, would appears as the obvious convergence path, so we would not need replace all internal combustion engines, storage and distribution infrastructures, et coetera.

  6. Ah yes Robert, as to the water needed to keep these Saharan solar panels clean – I found this little snippet. Apparently, there are three aquifers under the Sahara one of which has a surface area of 2 million sq kms containing 375,000 cubic kms of water. See:

  7. Yes, Ian, though I suppose all of those except air travel could, eventually, be powered by electricity reducing the proportion of the total energy requirement not covered by the term ‘electricity’. And as that proportion expands – so could the Saharan solar farm. There’s 9 million sq kms of Sahara to expand into.

  8. Read David McKay’s book again — 150x150km meets the *electricity” demand, 1000*1000km is needed to meet the total *energy” demand (including transport by air/land/sea, heating, manufacturing…) without fossil fuels.
    This is why a lot of the “solar power can meet all our energy needs” claims don’t add up, they really mean electricity needs which is a small fraction of the total.
    Which McKay of course points out, but this hasn’t stopped the same error being made time and time again, often by people who should know better… 😉

  9. Stooriefit is right on it being the energy companies paying the subsidy on renewables, and indeed the subsidy on home insulation and other energy savings measures. But this was chosen by these companies as the lessor of two evils when presented with the prospect of a windfall tax a few years ago.

  10. Whilst on the subject of hot air, don’t take any industry PR about tax payers subsidising renewables, and 100% backup requirements, at face value.
    The details are explained in New Scientist, 24th of July 2010,pp 24,25, but in summary:
    UK tax payers do not subsidise renewables. The renewables obligation requires suppliers to subsidise renewables which you might think is passed on to customers, but when the spot-pricing mechanism is thrown into the mix using renewables to provide base load when available actually has the effect of reducing prices. It also reduces profit margins for non-renewable base load suppliers, which could be why industry PR is so keen to get the public up worked up about the myth that tax payers subsidise renewables.

  11. I know we are all hoping for the same PV miracle but I don’t see any calculations for the water required to keep the PV collectors clean. In US solar energy efforts the lack of water, in desert regions, has been the main thing holding back solar electricity generation.
    Seems to me that a similar shortage of water problem might exist in the Sahara.

  12. That’s a pretty good authority, analogair, I wouldn’t like to disagree with Edison.

  13. David, I agree with you from a development perspective, a lot could be done to help poorer countries in the equatorial regions using solar technology to provide them income and spin off benefits such as cultivation. Even in the UK, building integrated photovoltaics could supply a significant proportion of our electricity if you look at the area occupied by business premises and the amount that could be generated if PV was fitted to these structures. Another advantage is its close to the centre of demand. Here is an interesting quotation I recently came across: “I’d put my money on the sun and solar energy. What a source of power! I hope we don’t have to wait until oil and coal run out before we tackle that.” – Thomas Edison, 1931

  14. Interesting, analogair, your estimate of a 22,500km2 solar farm is very close to what Arnulf Jaeger-Walden of the European Commission’s Institute for Energy, suggested in a talk to the Euroscience Open Forum in Barcelona in 2008 that a solar farm the size of Wales (which has an area of 20,779km2) in the Sahara could meet all Europe’s energy needs. A direct current cable would run the power into Europe. My own view is that we should offer Chad (area 1.3m km2) a roof over a fifth of its area siting it in the North which is desert and deserted with the Chadians mostly living in the Southern half. The roof would, of course, be covered in solar panels. The land under the roof could be irrigated and turned into something worthwhile, which it isn’t at the moment.Another good reason for choosing Chad is that it’s seventh from bottom in the international corruption league table, coming in just above Tonga, Uzbekistan, Haiti, Iraq, Myanmar and Somalia. So the rulers will do as they’re paid to do, and will stop popular protestors invoking issues like preservation, ancient rights, traditional tribal lands etc to protect their dire landscape.

  15. I have looked at the area of desert required for a PV installation assuming a modest efficiency of 10% and it was more like 150km x 150km to satisfy worldwide electrical generation capacity. How much area is taken in the world by supporting the petrochemicals industry? We would need efficient HVDC distribution but the real point is the potential. PV genererated electricity cost is now less than twice that of current grid costs over a 20-25 year depreciated lifetime and the gap is only going to reduce. The main stumbling block is the capital cost is all up front but at least it will be all be paid for when we are still wondering what to do with the waste consequences of nuclear and hydrocarbon sources.

  16. I found a figure for the cost for solar concentrators in the book, it’s about $100m per km2 which is $100 per m2 (10x higher than my optimistic guesstimate) — so $100 trillion for 1000x1000km, which is a bit more than the world GNP for 1 year.
    Still a bargain if it keeps civilisation going — and one of the few renewable energy sources which is really feasible on this scale without requiring ludicrous amounts of space and even more ludicrous amounts of money.
    So if every country in the world spends 5% of their GNP for the next 20 years on this, we might have a solution. What are the chances of this happening?…

  17. Oops, got the numbers wrong, how embarrassing — it’s the old US vs. UK trillion problem again…
    World income in 2008 was $70e12, so at $10/m2 it would only cost about 2 months of the entire world’s income — seems like a bargain, really :-)

  18. You need something over 1 million km2 (1000x1000km) of desert collecting area, which is 1e12 square metres:
    Even being *really* optimistic and assuming you can get the cost per square metre down to 10 dollars, this would cost 1e13 dollars which is about 100x the world’s annual GNP.
    As David McKay says, many of these ideas look attractive only until you plug the real numbers in…

  19. I fear a lot of this talk about windmills etc is smoke and mirrors. Denmarks actual USAGE of its massive windmill power is less than 10%, and Germany is looking to extend the life of it’s nuclear power, Britain is coming to the same (nuclear) conclusion (France realised long ago). Wind power, indeed any “renewable” source is erratic and expensive, costs a fortune in infrastructure and increases costs to industry and commerce through the bill-payer subsidising them. Maybe one day, if fossil fuels get expensive enough, they might make a useful contribution, but due to the need for 100% back-up when the wind doesn’t blow they lock generation into fossil fuels. Nuclear is clean, reliable, cost effective and produces a teacup of waste for the 70 year life supplying a house.

  20. Mr Pistorio is making the usual mistake of confusing electricity with total energy so “20% of the energy needs in Denmark come from wind energy” actually should read “20% of the ELECTRICITY needs in Denmark……”
    In terms of energy needs, total energy in Europe is 8 times electricity use, so now we find that
    “2.5% of the energy needs in Denmark come from wind energy”.
    That puts the usefulness of wind energy in a more realistic perspective.

  21. I see what you mean Ian – covering 10% of the UK with wind farms would produce 20kWatt hours per person per day, an off-shore wind-farm twice the size of Wales would produce 50kWh per person per day, photovoltaic panels covering 10% of the UK would produce 50kWh per person per day but a 50km car journey uses 40KWh per person per day, a flight uses 30KWh per person per day, and the average European uses 125kWh per person per day. That’s a powerful argument for changing our behaviour. But on the other hand there’s some statistic that says covering 10% of the world’s deserts with solar panels would generate the whole world’s energy needs. So the solution could lie in transmission rather than generation.

  22. Before jumping up and down saying “hooray, wind and solar power will solve all the world’s energy problems” — go to and download the book and read it.
    Apart from anything else, it shows what the real impact of things like reducing standby power of mobile phone chargers is (i.e. pretty much zero) — and I have to say, a lot of the “green” initiatives associated with electronics fall into the same category, saving even 80% or 90% of next to nothing saves — well, nothing.
    The only really worthwhile energy savings are the big ones, and these are also the politically difficult ones to make progress with because they impact people’s lifestyles — like the freedom to drive and fly where and how they want to, buy what they want made where it’s cheapest, and live where and how they want to…

  23. Thanks for this, Greenguy, it’s a very interesting presentation. About this time last year we carried Rene’s list of the top ten challenges facing the world .
    He’s clearly expanded on this quite a bit judging by the presentation. But it’s excellent stuff, thanks.

  24. David,
    If you like this, then check out also:
    And through IEEE Explore the plenary at ISSCC2008: Leaner and greener: Adapting to a changing climate of innovation
    In my humble opinion it presents a very positive message to the semiconductors industry and what we can do to enable a better future.

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