Is solar a slam dunk?

| 06 May 2014 | 01:01

Solar's promise is a dangerous sleight of hand

Like many people, I was once excited about solar cells. But I have reluctantly come to realize that they are merely illusions. And if you think that's an unlikely or worrisome prospect, it gets worse.

To start, when I say solar cells are illusions, I don't mean they aren't real. They clearly exist, on rooftops and cleared land, trickling an electric charge. But their promise is a sleight of hand. A seductive performance sold by corporate America but dreamt up by all of us in the environmental movement through some combination of romanticism, manifest destiny and wishful thinking.

We believe we have a choice between fossil fuel and clean energy. But solar cells rely on fossil fuel through every stage of their fabrication, installation and maintenance as well as for their decommissioning and disposal into specially-sealed toxic waste landfills. Furthermore, after spending that precious fossil fuel on deploying solar cells, we are left with intermittent power that requires concurrent fossil fuel power or batteries – yet another round of destruction.

We might think such destruction is justified if solar cells then produce free energy for 20 to 30 years. Indeed, sunlight is free. But why then is solar electricity so expensive? Why does this free energy require billions in subsidies, tax breaks, and incentives? After years of research, I've learned that the high costs of installed solar systems reveal the hidden fossil fuels behind the curtain, which go toward aluminum, copper, labor and other low-tech requirements that remain stubbornly energy intensive despite technical developments.

Sunlight is renewable. Solar arrays are not (especially not using solar power).

Some argue smaller scale solar is better, but localized solar is simply piecemeal destruction, with a little added storytelling, which brings me to how this gets worse. Solar cells aren't just illusions; they are dangerous distractions. By succumbing, we waste precious time and energy that could be spent thinking about our very real predicament – a finite planet with too many humans consuming too much (and indeed many without enough). Once we shed our clean energy illusions, we can get real about these challenges we face and the questions that really matter.

Ozzie Zehner is the author of Green Illusions. His full chapter on solar is available for Dirt readers at:

Where electricity is pricey, solar's a no-brainer

To have something that generates power with no fuel other than sunshine? You can't ignore something like that. Any physicist will tell you to generate something from nothing is unbelievable.

But is solar a slam dunk? The answer varies depending not only upon your perspective — if you're trying to preserve the pristine wildness of a National Park, it gets tricky — but also upon where you live. From a financial perspective, New York is a slam dunk. Florida is not.

Solar is a slam dunk in states where electricity is expensive, generally greater than 18 to 20 cents a kilowatt-hour. In New York State electricity is fairly expensive, 14 cents a kilowatt-hour, and New York also has an incentive program in place which gives customers a dollar per watt. That's enough to make solar very feasible. Typically, in New York you get your money back in four years. Without the rebate, it would be a tough sell, because 14 cents is not that expensive. Without the rebate, we're kind of borderline.

If you're in a place where electricity is cheap, solar is hard to justify. I was just down in Florida, where electricity is really cheap, I guess because they have a boatload of methane screaming out of the subsoil. They have a lot of free gas.

But when you go out west – California, the Midwest – and you pay 40 cents a kilowatt-hour? Any place that lacks water and lacks methane gas [also known as “natural gas”] as a resource tends to have expensive electricity. Power plants need to be cooled with water: no water, no power plants. Solar does not need water, so in those places, solar is a no-brainer.

Furthermore, solar systems last a long time. They are hermetically sealed solid state electronics, which are one of the most reliable things we know today. Not even my driveway lasts that long. Maybe the foundation of my house. Everything else will fall apart, and we'll still have solar panels. If they didn't last, then they couldn't compete, even if they were cheap. Even after 60 years, it's going to produce better than 50 percent of its power from the day it was turned on. To own something that's going to generate electricity for 60 years is a slam dunk.

Howard Aschoff is an electrician, physicist, and owner of Novel Approaches Solar Applications in Middletown, N.Y.