Is Solar Energy Totally Bogus or Something that Gives Hope?

I recently posted a simple Internet meme suggesting that if we subsidized solar energy like we subsidized fossil fuels that this could be good. I posted that on Google Plus an it engendered way over 300 comments, many of which attempted to explain, often rather impolitely, that solar energy was inefficient or in some other way bad. I'm pretty sure most of those comments come to us courtesy of the bought and paid for climate change denialist campaign, funded by Big Oil to the tune of many tens of millions of dollars to date. Most of the commenters were saying similar things, most of which were either incorrect or irrelevant, and far too many of them showed up on this comment at once to be explained by normal internet behavior, at least on my Google Plus page. This was a move made by the denialists, and rest assured ... they are doing this more and more often as time goes by.

What I found interesting about this is the fact that the main complaints were about how inefficient, expensive, or otherwise technologically poor those cheap Chinese photovoltaic cells are. I'm not going to argue about that here. I've got some friends who have put those photovoltaic cells on their homes and they are glad they did it. I take their word above random anti-Planet internet trolls. I also know that simple photovoltaic fuel cells are used in a lot of highly specialized applications where running a wire to some light or comm device or something is impractical, but a battery charged up by a solar cell will do. The detractors of solar energy are so vehement in their position on this that they would probably insist that building a miniature coal plant next to the remote airport up by the cabin, or next to the highway by some DOT electrical device would be preferable.

Here's the thing. When I say "solar" I mean energy produced by accessing radiation coming form the sun more or less directly. Wind energy is a form of "solar" because the wind moves around because of the sun. Fossil fuels are solar because it was photosynthesis that converted the Sun's energy to carbohydrates. But of course I'm not talking about that. I am talking about the hand full of different ways in which solar energy can be harnessed pretty directly including but not limited to cheap Chines solar panels.

The most obvious use of solar energy is passive heating. Back in the 1970s, we (in the US anyway) discovered that there was an energy crisis. We then promptly forgot about it, as various suficial patches were applied and energy seemed to not be an issue any more. But if we were not acting like total morons (which we tend to do) we would have gone ahead and added attention to passive solar to zoning regulations and to best practices in architecture. Of course, that did happen to some extent, but not in any comprehensive or meaningful way. Imagine if most buildings--residential, commercial, built over the last 40 years were built with attention to passive solar design. That would probably have resulted in a decrease in fossil fuel use for those buildings in the two digit percentage range. A lot of buildings have been built over the last four decades. We'd be using several percent less fossil fuel for our buildings today had we done that.

The professional and avocational naysayers of solar energy helped cause us to miss that boat, and they want us to keep missing that boat. They should be ashamed of themselves.

Then there's direct solar heating. This is another way to use solar energy in which you pass liquids through devices that are set out in the sun (i.e., on your roof). This may be used directly or indirectly to heat the water we use in our buildings. In areas where there is never a significant freeze, such devices can directly heat the water. Otherwise, a non-freezing liquid is used to capture and store the heat, which in turn is transferred to heat water or air inside a home or other building. This may be one of the best ways to use solar energy since it is relatively low tech and can be made of easily obtainable parts. Cheap devices can create essentially free energy. Imagine if most homes, commercial buildings, and other structures built over the last 40 years had a direct solar system to contribute to the heating of water and air in the building. Again, there'd be a few percent off our current annual carbon contribution to the atmosphere.

Then there's the rather esoteric and very experimental but very cool looking use of solar in which fluids stocked with organisms are passed under the sunlight up on the roof. In one such system, the CO2 rich exhaust from a gas or oil heating plant is passed through a liquid full off algae. The algae live off the CO2 and sunlight, and are strained out to produce ... I don't know, soilent green or something. You can probably burn the algae. This serves as a carbon sink. This is probably not a technology that will make a major contribution to anything until we have genetically modified algae working in concert with solar collectors to do something really interesting.

Then there are the high performance solar systems, of which there are two types. Both involved concentration of solar energy using mirrors or lenses. In CSP, of Concentrated Solar Power, piles of mirrors are used to focus the sunlight on a thing that gets heated way up and runs a turbine. There are many systems like this running around the world, and the general consensus globally is that wherever you have a lot of sun (arid regions, generally) this method of producing electricity is cheaper per watt than some other methods, and on par with the average fossil fuel plant. The other type of high tech system concentrates the sunlight on a device that converts sunlight to electricity.

And, then there are the grand schemes of solar power. Such as...

... TREC, which is a grand vision for connecting solar power in North Africa, wind power from the Eastern Mediterranean to the North Sea, bio-mass, and hydropower with a high-voltage direct current (HVDC) system of power lines to provide assured renewable electricity for the Mediterranean basin and Europe.

... written up here.

So those are several ways in which solar energy can be exploited. Photovoltaic panels is only one way. So when someone suggests that we should consider using more solar energy, maybe subsidize it to get the industry moving along, or simply to make it more common in recognition of the very high external costs of fossil fuels (which are not counted in the actual cost of running coal power plants or driving trucks with diesel, etc.) don't bring up cheap Chinese photovolatics first.

Every flat roof on a school, parking garage, shopping mall, or other commercial or industrial building that is not grabbing sun in some way and using it for something is an affront against the planet and an insult to our grandchildren.

Solar Furnace Photo Credit: pluvialis via Compfight cc

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Living on a boat I have been getting all my electrical power which covers lights, refrigeration, computers, and pumps from solar panels for 10 years now. I am in the tropics, where it sure works!
I will say this by way of a plug for Kyocera. I used their panels and after about 8 years they had lost way too much power. I did not keep receipts or any of that stuff. They replaced them at no cost to me. The new ones are great.

I'm one of those folks who put solar panels on his roof a year and a half ago. The efficiency of the solar panels was only an issue insofar as whether it would be possible for me to put a sufficient number of panels up to meet my energy needs (I was) at a cost that made good economic sense (it did).

Part of the reason why it made good economic sense for me was that my power utility had an incentive program that helped offset about 10% of the cost of me doing this. And there are Federal tax incentives that also helped, insofar as the cost of the installation wasn't subject to tax.

But even if those factors didn't come into play, all it would mean is that it would take more years for an investment to pay off - but given the warranted length of service of solar panels (20-24 years) and the cost of electricity here, and my power usage (high - I work from home and run servers 24/7) it's was always a certainty that it would. It just might take 10 years rather than 7, for instance.

The shorter that pay-off period, the more people who will have the means to be able to do this - and that's a good thing for them, a good thing for a community's carbon footprint, and a good thing for reducing the need to build additional polluting power plants.

Who could object to that? Oh, right… the folks who profit by selling us our energy.

By Malacandra (not verified) on 25 Feb 2013 #permalink

Malacandra, I was thinking about your particular project (among other things) when I wrote this post. In your case, it seemed that "subsidies" helped with the project, but that you also did it for other reasons.

You might find this interesting Greg

A new report from the US Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s Office of Energy Projects announced that 1,231 megawatts (MW) of new in-service electrical generating capacity came online in January 2013, and all of it came from a collection of wind, solar, and biomass sources.
Read more at…

By Doug Alder (not verified) on 26 Feb 2013 #permalink

A lot of what makes photovoltaic systems make sense, or not, comes down to consumption. Back in the day there was a small industrial warning and lighting system that was looked at as a candidate for solar. It was a small load. Little more than two 60w incandescent lamps averaging 12 hours a night and a couple of watts to run instruments. It was cheaper to run a couple of miles of power lines.

Now, the same situation, with a couple of watts of LED lighting and instrumentation drawing next to nothing the whole thing can run on a small solar panel.

It was much more the improvements in efficiency, as opposed to any great leap in photovoltaic output, that made the difference.

Consider that many houses built in the 50s and 60s were built with profound indifference to energy efficiency. Down here in Florida it is not uncommon to see essentially uninsulated buildings with huge picture windows placed to maximize heat gain. When energy was cheap ($.03/Kwh) the cheap and convenient answer was to just install a bigger AC unit instead of changing the facing of the house. You can't cure that by just slapping solar panels onto it. Shaded double-insulated windows, medium density cellulose insulation and other energy savers reduces the solar uptake to where even in sunny Florida the AC simply doesn't run much. Once you get there you can start to realistically talk about installing solar. You have to patch the holes in the bucket before talking about hauling water.

Of course there are always going to be odd cases. A friend up in the frozen north, heating season north of nine months a year, mentioned that he was thinking about saving money by switching from incandescent to LED lamps. Sounded good until I found out he was using resistance heating to heat the house. Incandescent lamps waste energy by producing heat. This was heat he needed. In that case spending money on more efficient, in terms of lumens per watt, lamps in heated spaces wasn't going to save much.

As far as government subsidized goes I think the first thing we need to do is set aside the free-market mythology. Fact is that most technologies were subsidized. Aviation was subsidized by government for defense and mail. For a long time it was the only way aviation could show a profit. Of course if you are flying bags of mail it makes sense that you might carry a few passengers. This was the start of the airlines.

Similarly the automotive industry was subsidized by government to establish reliable mail service, provide police and public health functions. Government had the need to do a job and money. Motor vehicles seemed a good way of getting the job done. Before Ford dropped the price of cars to the point an average family could afford it only the wealthy could afford a car. Government bought enough cars to keep the industry afloat and in doing so also founded the infrastructure and knowledge base necessary for their common use.

Pretty much across the board government has subsidized controlled, and helped organized the implementation of new technology. Establishing flexible but workable standards speeds development and decreases time-to-market. Most of the cases we left it to the market we see massive inefficiencies and a real lack of competition. Telecommunications and healthcare are two good examples of inadequate governance.

All you have to do to get a glimpse into how vehement pro-oil shills are is to scroll through the comments on any article mentioning EVs. Even extremely successful, advance, and functional EVs like the Model S have detractors flock out in droves. Where the facts don't suit their opinions, they just trot out the same hyperbole: "Inefficient," "Impractical," "Probably just as polluting as gas, anyway," etc.

You see the same thing with solar. I think there are a lot of challenges ahead when it comes to solar energy, but Greg's thought experiment is worthwhile: what IF we had invested in solar long ago? Where would we be today?

I live in the UK, and I have solar panels.. (bit like an AA confession..)

Anyway.. our 2.76kWp array generated roughly 2650kWh over the year (20% over projections), despite it being the worst year on record, rain-wise. That's against about 3100kWh total domestic use.

Although at the time we installed them we needed feed-in-tariffs to justify them, it's interesting to note that now, in good UK spots, a solar roof is just about financially viable without subsidies (return = 4-6% depending on exact costs and usage).

So Solar is basically viable across most of the western world.

By Andrew Dodds (not verified) on 28 Feb 2013 #permalink

I oriented my house very carefully so that the rear faced due south. I put sliding glass doors in the south-facing wall. On the coldest days (of which in NW Georgia we still have a few) as long as the sun is shining, we use zero power to heat the house. It can be 20 degrees with high winds, and the sun keeps us toasty. And the added construction cost was zero.

By definition "Sustainability" is ultimately characterised by way of a system which requires no subsidy in the long run. However, Photovoltaic and other forms of Renewable Energy sources will still call for a heavily subsidised system in place to let it progress and take roots to be able to ultimately have the opportunity of competing against fossil fuels along with the nuclear power which right now we rely so heavily upon. But for just how long?

I don’t reckon that anybody who actively entered into or enters the business either as being an investor, customer, company owner or installer considered that the original subsidies were sustainable or indeed beneficial for the industry in the long term but without them the industry would not be where it is today!

However, many individuals built their UK business models around subsidy guidelines in the form of the feed in tariff system that has been changed radically by government and caused many businesses to go bankrupt and made unemployed many of the workers that were drawn into the industry. This is all fact! After reviewing the electricity industry all together, the Economy and how best to integrate Renewable types of generation into the domain for the greater good of all i created the structure for a system which will result in “Grid Cost Parity” for renewables which will not need a subsidy system to work.

Briefly, The conceptual background for this patent application draws on the benefits associated with the practice of sharecropping by communities on a collective basis embedded within a competitive marketplace by directly attaching the rights and distribution to the output of the crop (In this case Alternative energy Electricity, farmed on a large scale basis) directly back to the owning individuals within defined limits for his / her own personal useage and therefore outside the monetary and taxation system. This financial approach being in line with the Governments current policy pertaining to the benefits obtainable within the current feed in tarrif system for domestic installations.

If you are truly an enthusiast of finding and supporting a way to make the world a greater place then take a look at my website and follow the tab towards Patent Application containing all the info of the design that is now at the publication stage with the Intellectual Property Office in the UK.Please be aware that this application is just for the UK and the design can be used as the basis for any project outside of the UK on an open source basis.

Full details of this application and other articles which i have written on the subject, including “Why and How the Government and the Energy Companies Sacrificed thousands of Jobs in the Solar PV Industry” are also open for discussion on my Solar blog page.

I truly believe the way forward is to keep installing but the Green deal is just another load of Green Spin Policy.

By Simon Hamblett (not verified) on 02 Mar 2013 #permalink

Solar energy is not at all bogus rather it is a great source to save the natural resources of the earth as this is a source of the renewable energy. People are becoming cautious in these days and for this reason they want to make an energy efficient home Brisbane in which they use all the energy saving devices.

By Mornyan Chank (not verified) on 03 Mar 2013 #permalink

Two things:

First, the oil industry world-wide receives a much larger subsidy than alternative/non-renewable energy sources.

Second, I don't have a problem with subsidies. As a homeowner, I'd like to both contribute to GHG reductions, and save money on energy. But I simply can't afford the startup cost of a reasonably-sized solar heating/PV system without help. If my government were to help me achieve my desire to lower GHG emissions and help prevent devastative climate change, I'd consider my tax dollars well spent.

Solar energy is truly the most efficient ways to save energy. It is the bst way to create energy and do your bit to save the planet.

As well as normal electrical expert services, Powersure Electrical are also the top solar power method authorities in Brisbane,
we are actually setting up these systems for many years and can assist style and design and put in photo voltaic techniques.

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By brisbane elect… (not verified) on 11 Feb 2015 #permalink