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The recurring myths and amazing potential of solar energy

Despite the bright promise solar energy presents to power our homes and automobiles, myths are frequently promoted sullying the green cachet of the industry by media concerned with something besides truth, justice and the American way.
Posted: January 26, 2013 - 2:11AM
Author: Don Bain


Research into some of these myths by Media Matters reveals, despite the efforts of conservative media to denigrate solar energy by denying sustainability and ignoring success, the booming industry has the potential to become a major national power source especially given the progressive policies it needs to flourish.

Is solar energy dirty?
There are certainly those who want to you to believe it is. Take for example, Drew Johnson, writing on behalf of Taxpayer Protection Alliance erroneously stated in a Washington Examiner op-ed, "It turns out that it takes a lot of power (and a lot of carbon) to build solar panels and wind turbines."

Then the Wall Street Journal, famed for buying into the fruitless WMD search that launched the Iraqi war, now wants you to believe the benefits of solar power are negated by the post holes needed to mount the collectors, flatly stating it, "really doesn't reduce greenhouse gas emissions." This, we are told, will negate years of clean power because the holes dug in the desert will disturb caliche deposits that release carbon dioxide.

Meanwhile, Kenneth Green, blogging on the American Enterprise Institute site, suggested, "Solar cells do not offset greenhouse gases." He cites the dubious proposal that the production of solar cells create fumes that would make carbon dioxide run away whining.

Solar energy can greatly reduce greenhouse emissions
Media Matters looked to a report by the International Panel on Climate Change's Working Group III who examined hundreds of reports on greenhouse gas emissions (including the rare gases AEI cited from biopower, photovoltaic cells, concentrated solar power, geothermal production, hydroelectric, oceanic energy and wind power. The results show such renewable form of power production and even nuclear energy produce tiny fractions of the pollutants resulting from natural gas, oil, and coal in ascending order.

This in part results from the lifespan of the installations – whatever is stirred up by the construction of a solar generator, it will produce clean power for the next 30 years, replacing power currently produced by coal and other fossil fuels and thus the CO2 those processes would release.

According to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), between 87 and 97 percent of photovoltaic solar output will be emissions free, compensating far above and beyond any emissions caused by construction.

Operated under the auspices of the Department of Energy, NREL further stated a solar PV pays back the energy required to build it within about two years." For the next "28 remaining years of assumed operation," a system that "meets half of an average household's electrical use" would avoid emitting carbon dioxide emissions equivalent that of two cars for each of those 28 years.

According to the EPA, a typical passenger vehicle produces 19.57 pounds of C02 for every gallon of gas. If the car gets 25-mpg across 10,000 miles annually, the photovoltaic collector would prevent the addition of nearly eight tons of CO2 every year. The totals would be over 10 percent higher with a diesel vehicle.

It is not easy to conceive of a ton of a colorless gas. It must be a one foot column soaring a mile overhead or something like that. Nearly 10 million cars were sold globally last year and in 2013 that milestone could be passed.

Solar gains far outweigh losses
The Wall Street Journal and others used a report by the University of California-Riverside, stating a solar plant could cause the loss of approximately 6,000 metric tons of CO2 annually by disturbing desert caliche deposits, omitting the data that the solar generator built with such a surface disturbance would prevent the emissions of roughly 560,000 metric tons of CO2 each year.

A professional gambler would tell you any risk of a dollar that’s sure to pay back $90 is a good bet.

The report also showed how a temperature increase of a single degree could greatly impact endangered species, as the recent habitat changes of polar bears and killer whales readily demonstrate, though ambient temperature increases in their habitats are probably well over one degree.

Solar energy imperative to a new paradigm
If the international agreement endorsed at the 2010 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Cancun, Mexico, the efforts needed to comply were defined by The International Energy Agency. To insure global warming does not exceed 3.6°F from the pre-industrial level, solar energy will have to produce more than 10 percent of the world’s electricity by 2050. Further, solar and wind energy are the most expandable of all renewable forms of energy, lacking the intrinsic limits likely to be encountered with other sources.

10,000 square miles of desert
NREL released a fact sheet in 2003 asserting that the electricity needed to power the entire nation could be produced by a square of Nevadan desert 100 miles per side. In addition, most of that area could come from abandoned industrial sites.

The BLM and the EPA have programs to identify disturbed and abandoned lands suitable for such development, partially funded by the 2009 stimulus package. Those concerned with the impacts of energy development on species and the ecosystems in general prefer prioritizing these areas for development.

In fact, the nonpartisan Energy Information Administration has stated, "Covering 4 percent of the world's desert area with photovoltaics could supply the equivalent of all of the world's electricity. The Gobi Desert alone could supply almost all of the world's total electricity demand."

Solar uses less land than coal
A 2009 study found solar photovoltaic ground installations in areas with plenty of sunlight generally use less land than surface mining of coal, without even considering the consequences of coal-fired energy production. Nor did the study note the effects of "contamination and disruptions of the ecosystems of adjacent lands, and land disruptions by fuel-cycle-related accidents."

The study was published in Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews by Dr. Vasilis Fthenakis and Dr. Hyung Chul Kim, also discovered "estimates vary with regional and technological conditions, the photovoltaic cycle requires the least amount of land among renewable-energy options."

Solar rooftops
NREL published a fact sheet in 2004 that concluded the US need only apply solar photovoltaics to 7 percent of cities and residences "on roofs, on parking lots, along highway walls, on the sides of buildings, and in other dual-use scenarios," to supply all of our energy needs. Another report in 2008 by the agency stated, "The land-use requirements for wide-scale deployment of PV are modest when considering both the large area of rooftop availability and when compared to other uses of land in the United States."

Multiple uses
Land converted to solar of wind power generation frequently can be also used to produce food in sun or shade, as well as grazing and other uses.

Other solar myths that can’t stand the light of day (in italics)
Solar power is too intermittent – Have you been to a desert lately? Would you call the sun intermittent? Besides Germany is the largest producer of solar energy in the world and we have far more clear skies and sunny days than they do in the Bavarian Alps.

In fact, the potential of solar power in the American Southwest is greater than anywhere in the world.

Solar energy requires massive storage banks
– It’s simply not true. The IEA notes, "All electric systems already have flexibility to meet variable demand" and power station breakdowns. It simply requires more generation, using available storage capacity, connecting with other electric systems or demand-side management. Most forms of renewable energy are variable, but using multiple technologies can overcome the impact of this.

If it’s not sunny here, it’s windy. If it’s neither here (go figure), it’s sunny or windy somewhere nearby. The reality of a smart grid negates the need for storage. The IEA study found "the variability of PV, which matches demand peaks better than wind power and is relatively predictable, is unlikely to raise substantive issues for managing grids." Meanwhile, the use of back-up energy in managing this variance does not negate the climatic benefits of solar energy.

Frankly, the weather is more predictable than many things and by planning around weather forecasts, continuing to improve storage capability in addition to modifying demand with smart meters and other efforts, renewable energy can play an ever larger role in the future while maintaining a reliable electric supply, according to Professor Jenny Nelson and Dr. Robert Gross of the Imperial College of London.

The $4.5 billion President Obama invested in building a smart grid may not have gotten the job completely done, but it provided a giant step towards that end. When complete, the system will allow regional sharing of the electrical supply to more efficiently incorporate renewable energy sources into the grid.

Solar Power is too expensive – In reality, as solar panels have gained in efficiency, the cost of peak output in wattage has dropped from five to six dollars in 1989 to one to two dollars today.

Still not convinced?
A study by Bloomberg New Energy Finance shows manufacturers reduced the expense to power ratio of solar energy by 50 percent from 2008 to 2009, thanks to cost reductions of "scale and advances in wafer, cell and module manufacturing processes, as well as to improved performance resulting from better cell efficiencies and lower electrical conversion losses."

Bloomberg continued to predict, "Technological advancements, process improvements, and changes in the structure of the industry suggest that further price reductions are likely to occur in coming years."

Furthermore, Computer scientist Ramez Naam, looking at the continuing drop in solar energy prices from NREL data, believes projecting this trend, solar energy will be as cheap as our current electricity by 2020, while everything else gets more expensive.

The solar industry is failing
– Not on your life. Last September, the Wall Street Journal (whose left hand doesn't seem to know what the right hand is doing) reported, "The U.S. is on pace to install as much solar power this year as it did in this century's entire first decade: at least 2,500 megawatts, the equivalent of more than two nuclear-power plants."

A report by the Brookings Institution last July stated from 2003 to 2010, job growth in the solar thermal industry grew at 18.4 percent yearly while photovoltaic industry jobs expanded by 10.7 percent annually, while the rest of the country eked by with a 4.2 percent national economic growth rate.

The solar industry is going through a maturation process and naturally some firms couldn’t finish the race. Just as hundreds of early automakers went by the way side or were engulfed by larger corporations as the industry grew.

In Conclusion
Chances are there is no electric car in your garage and you probably don’t have bank of photovoltaic cells or modules on your roof. Nobody is planning to force you into either of these things, but don’t let anyone try to tell you solar and wind power aren’t a big part of the future.

The greening of America involves a great many of our choices, including electric cars and solar garages. What’s wrong with a lifestyle choice that pays half the power bill along with most transportation costs? It sounds just great to us.

And the sun just keeps on shining…

Image source: Panneaux photovoltaïques, Centrale solaire de Mont-Soleil, St-Imier (Photovoltaic panel, Solar Center of Mont Soleil) courtesy of Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.


G.R.L. Cowan (not verified)    January 26, 2013 - 12:39PM

"Chances are there is no electric car in your garage and you probably don’t have bank of photovoltaic cells or modules on your roof. Nobody is planning to force you into either of these things ..."

That's very commendable. If there were plans to force majorities of citizens to pay feed-in tariffs to support such kit in a minority of households, that would be wrong, and I trust Don Bain is proud that such plans as these, too, are not afoot.

They aren't, right?

John Goreham    January 26, 2013 - 1:14PM

In reply to by G.R.L. Cowan (not verified)

Things must have changed dramatically. A two year payback of the energy used to create, transport, and properly install solar PVs seems inaccurate. In fact, if I remember correctly, many studies estimate that just the transportation and mounting use up about two years of the output of the solar PVs used on buildings. Many of the PVs used in the US come from China, is that right? So how sure are we that the energy debt estimations are correct? Bear in mind that aluminum (or steel) is very energy intensive to mine, mill, and process - and don't forget about recycling the units at EOL. Concrete, which is the base for all solar installations not mounted on roofs, is also very energy intensive to produce. So much so that many cement plants actually have on-site electrical generation. Both of these materials are required to create the support structures for the panels themselves. Also, in the Northeast and much of the upper mid-west, the payback would be considerably longer, wouldn't it?
It is very frustrating to read the hype about solar having worked in power generation. Most frustrating of all is when you visit your kid’s new school at the grand opening and there is an LED TV with a display of how much energy is presently being saved by the brand new PV’s on the roof. No mention at all of the energy debt. Bad science and bad education.
Combining a discussion of a dedicated, solar energy plant in the dessert with a discussion of PVs mounted on homes seems purposefully misleading. The two have vastly differing paybacks of energy compared to their energy debt incurred when they are created.
In the late 1990s I visited the plants that made the substrates, Spin on glass (SOG) and other components for PV arrays. They could not, and did not use PV power alone to create their products. Many had small arrays for show, but they couldn’t run the factory on solar, not even close. Is there a PV company that uses solar alone to create its products you know of? If not, why?

Don Bain    January 26, 2013 - 6:14PM

In reply to by John Goreham

The source materials for this article were extensive. If you really want to pursue this click on the Media Matters link in the second paragraph. They address Chinese and American production of PV panels as well.
Yeah concrete production contributes about 5 percent of the CO2 in the atmosphere. But coal-fired electric generation produces much more. Everything we do uses energy. So we should just consume finite sources until they are all gone before we wonder what comes next?

Rob (not verified)    January 26, 2013 - 6:36PM

In reply to by John Goreham

Whats frustrating is reading the baseless muck raking renewable energy is subjected to. Phrases such as "in fact, if I remember correctly, many studies show" is nothing but a weasely attempt to try and justify the rest of your comments as being evidence based. Can you link some of those many studies or a basis for any of your claims for that matter?
Here are a few studies to back up mine, their findings are that it takes between 1 and 3 years to pay back the energy used to create solar panels and that ground mounting adds ~1 year of additional embodied energy.

E. Alsema, “Energy Requirements and CO2
Mitigation Potential of PV Systems,” Photovoltaics
and the Environment, Keystone, CO.
Workshop Proceedings, July 1998.

R. Dones; R. Frischknecht, “Life Cycle Assessment
of Photovoltaic Systems: Results of Swiss
Studies on Energy Chains.” Appendix B-9.
Environmental Aspects of PV Power Systems.
Utrecht, The Netherlands: Utrecht University,
Report Number 97072, 1997.

K. Kato; A. Murata; K. Sakuta, “Energy Payback
Time and Life-Cycle CO2 Emission of Residential
PV Power System with Silicon PV Module.”
Appendix B-8. Environmental Aspects of PV Power
Systems. Utrecht, The Netherlands: Utrecht
University, Report Number 97072, 1997.

K. Knapp; T.L. Jester, “An Empirical Perspective
on the Energy Payback Time for PV Modules.”
Solar 2000 Conference, Madison, WI, June
16–21, 2000.

W. Palz.; H. Zibetta, “Energy Payback Time of
Photovoltaic Modules.” International Journal
of Solar Energy. Volume 10, Number 3-4,
pp. 211–216, 1991.

So essentially even taking utility ground mount systems into account numerous studies show the time to energy payback is between 2 and 4 years, this summary article's claim of around 2 years to payback the embodied energy seems within the ballpark.

No I don't think it is misleading for your kid's school not to include a complicated technical discussion about embodied energy when the reality is that the system will continue generating for ~25 years after the embodied energy has been repaid.

No rooftop vs ground mount systems don't have vastly different paybacks, ground mount adds ~30% to the embodied energy. considering we have a mix of both discussing solar as a whole seems perfectly appropriate.

It is not surprising that in the late 1990's when solar panels were still a high priced boutique item that really only made sense in remote off grid applications where they displaced the need to use and transport expensive diesel for generators that no large manufacturing plants were powering themselves with their own solar panels, they would have been far more valuable sold then offsetting cheap grid power. In the 1990's solar panels averaged about $7 per watt for the modules alone, in 2012 we cracked $0.70 for the modules.

Don Bain    January 27, 2013 - 1:28AM

In reply to by John Goreham

All the source material quoted was linked if in a online format, including some that wanted $20 to download the document. Many of the claims in the article are backed up by pdf documents which I did not link. Again if you click on the Media Matters link it will take you to all these documents.
It's a very long and well documented retort to the widely repeated fallacy that solar investment makes no sense.

Tre Deuce (not verified)    January 27, 2013 - 1:17PM

It's a 'No Brainer', Coal and garbage fired energy generation versus PV's. It is intuitive, you don't need all the studies too understand that.

Thanks for all your work putting this article together, Don.

Due regard..Tre