Why Solar Power is Looking Dim

If the American Clean Energy and Security Act, which passed narrowly in the House of Representatives this week, also passes the Senate, does this mean that we’ll soon replace coal-derived electricity with clean and green solar power? Don’t count on it. Solar has a lot of problems, and those relying on it for the promised “green jobs” will probably be let down.

The fundamental problem with solar power is that it takes a lot of collection. Sunlight may be free, but gathering it and converting it into power is expensive. How costly?

Very costly. According to findsolar.com, installing solar panels on my home in Virginia would cost me around $30,000. I can get about $9,000 of that back from various government incentives, in the form of a federal tax credit and exemption from property taxes.

Surely, I’ll make my money back in savings on my electric bill, right? Not really.

According to findsolar.com, my average monthly savings will be about $37. Over the 25 years of the panels’ useful life, then, I’ll save about $18,000. I’d only break even after 27 years, two years after I’d need to replace them.

On the other hand, solar power plants might be better than trying to power each house separately. Unfortunately, according to a report by the consulting firm McKinsey, the only place in the world today where solar power plants are cost-competitive without government subsidy is Italy.

To become genuinely cost-competitive with fossil fuels will require a continued drop in the price of the technology. McKinsey believes that this will happen and will lead to solar being cost-competitive in the southern states of the USA by 2020.

There are further complications. First, the most affordable option today – concentrated solar, where mirrors are directed to heat up a boiler or other such storage device – is the one that is least susceptible to price drops through advancing technology. This should not be surprising, as there were concentrated solar plants in Egypt a hundred years ago.

Secondly, those putative price drops rely heavily on outsourcing of manufacturing so that, for instance, the photovoltaic (pv) cells are manufactured in Malaysia rather than Arizona. So much for green jobs.

Most importantly, there is a big problem with actually getting the things built. As mentioned above, sunlight requires a lot of collection, which in practice means a lot of space. That means that, even in the deserts, a huge amount of animal habitat is going to be destroyed, something that solar-loving environmentalists draw the line at.

For instance, Senator Diane Feinstein of California has suggested plans for 12 solar plants in the Mojave Desert be scrapped because of their environmental impact. As Governor Schwarzenegger said in a speech at Yale, “If we cannot put solar power plants in the Mojave Desert, I don’t know where the hell we can put it.”

There are other problems. Cleaning off bird poop is actually a major cost component for pv solar plants. (Presumably the birds are objecting to habitat destruction.) And concentrated solar plants have an unfortunate tendency to catch fire.

These are just some of the practical problems which reveal why solar hasn’t been able to make the advances we thought it would. In 1980, the Wall Street Journal ran a headline to the effect of “Solar seen meeting 25% of energy needs by 2000.” We’re still waiting for it to meet one tenth of one percent.

Solar does have potential. Energy expert William Tucker, author of Terrestrial Energy, believes that the future of power generation is with nuclear power providing the baseload and solar providing the extra energy needed at peak times. We’re a long way from that now, however, and the energy bill will do very little to let the sunshine in.