NPR Spreads Misinformation about Renewable Energy

Published January 1, 2004

It is one thing to lean left politically. It is quite another to look the other way in the face of out-and-out lies, fraud, and misinformation in the arena of environmental science.

The other day, I listened as my local National Public Radio (NPR) station gave a complete pass to a crackpot telling everyone in the listening audience that wind, waves, photovoltaic cells, and solar energy could easily replace fossil fuel.

So I wrote the station a brief tutorial with the help of Howard C. Hayden’s outstanding book, The Solar Fraud. (See “Debunking the Solar Energy Myth,” Environment & Climate News, November 2002.)

Wind farms, I pointed out to NPR, can generate electrical power at the rate of about 1.2 Watts/square meter (W/m2) of land surface for most sites, and as much as about 4 W/m2 at those rare sites where the wind always comes from one direction. As a practical matter, however, I have been unable to find any wind farms that approach even the lower figure.

Suppose the goal is to generate enough energy to average 1000 Megawatts of electricity (MWe) around the clock–the power output of one typical traditional power plant. At 1.2 W/m2, the land area requirement is about 833 square kilometers, or 300 square miles.

Imagine a one-mile-wide swath of wind turbines extending from San Francisco to Los Angeles. That land area is what would be required to produce as much power around the clock as one large coal, natural gas, or nuclear power station that normally occupies about 250 acres (less than half of a square mile).

Other Renewables

The collection of direct solar heat encounters a similar area-dependent problem. There are two major installations in the U.S. devoted to producing electricity from the heat of sunlight, in Barstow and Daggett, California. They use different arrays of mirrors and magnifying glasses. The most efficient of the two, if scaled up to the capacity of a standard 1000 MWe power plant, would require 127 square miles of mirrors.

Wave energy is really amusing. There was a small, 24-foot-long installation with floats that would rise and fall with the waves off the coast of New Jersey in the early 1900s that produced about 1.5 kW. This translates into about 1.2 MWe per kilometer of coastline. If the entire coastline on both Atlantic and Pacific coasts were to produce power at that rate, we would generate about 6000MWe, less than 2 percent of the average U.S. electrical energy production. It is highly doubtful environmentalists (or surfers or boat-lovers) would approve the project.

Photovoltaic cells large enough to be useful for solar applications are about 10 percent efficient. This is a built-in limitation due to the fact that at any given time one can use only a narrow band of the spectrum to produce energy with a photovoltaic cell. Small experimental PV cells made of exotic materials have achieved much higher efficiencies, some in the range of 20 percent.

The primary method of attack is to make the PV cell in layers. The layer facing the sun uses blue light but is transparent to all other colors. The next layer absorbs green light and is transparent to all longer wavelengths, and so on. Everything is engineered so that if a given amount of sunlight causes a million transitions in the “blue” layer, it will also cause a million transitions in each other layer. The current must be the same in all layers, and will be limited by the current in the weakest layer.

This “Holy Grail” of photovoltaics has remained elusive. The reward for developing reliable, inexpensive, high-efficiency PV cells will easily be in the billions of dollars. Yet, despite many decades of corporate and university research, such PV cells have not been developed.

Hope Springs Eternal

There is an old adage that if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is. That adage is especially applicable to solar energy. For decades, there have been delirious proclamations that the world would soon run on solar energy. Those statements have always sounded too good to be true–and sure enough, have always been false.

Every year Lucy promises to hold the football so Charlie Brown can kick it. Every year Charlie Brown has charged toward the ball only to have Lucy pull it away. Every year, Charlie Brown lands on his back.

Every year solar enthusiasts tell us solar energy is the answer to our problems. Every year the public fails to learn from experience.

Hope springs eternal. The news media continue to publish and broadcast–without question, without challenge–glowing stories about solar homes and wind farms … despite decades of failed predictions made by renewable energy enthusiasts. Apparently, the enthusiastic statements do not sound too good to be true to journalists and politicians.

Dr. Jay Lehr is science director for The Heartland Institute. His email address is [email protected].