Solar Inefficiency Is Economically Ruinous

Published May 31, 2015

In a previous post we pointed out that alternative energies (solar, wind, ethanol and other biofuels) bump up against implacable physical realities which no amount of government spending or research can overcome, and which are environmentally destructive despite propaganda to the contrary. Ethanol in gasoline, for example, according to EPA’s own data, increases key pollutants such as volatile organic compounds and nitrogen oxide by as much as 7 percent. Yet it was on the basis of phony scientific claims that ethanol would reduce pollution from automobile emissions that it use was mandated by the government.

Biofuels have a power density of only 0.3 watts per square meter, and modern solar voltaic panels about 6 watts per square meter. An average oil well producing 10 barrels per day is at 27 watts per square meter, and an average nuclear plant more than 50 watts per square meter. Biofuels used 247 million acres of land—that’s more than twice the size of California—to produce less than one-half of one percent of the world’s energy, according to Robert Bryce, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, in 2014.

Now I have come across a book that really drives home how impractical it is to talk about replacing fossil fuels, which comprise 87 percent of the world’s energy, with any meaningful amount of these alternative sources. The book is Green Illusions: The Dirty Secrets of Clean Energy and the Future of Environmentalism. Significantly, it is not from the fossil fuels industry or based on its data or research. Rather, author Ozzie Zehner assembles his case “from government offices, environmentalists, and scientists promoting solar photo-voltaics.” References for the quotations below can be found in the abundant footnotes in his book.

Zehner calculates what it would cost to replace the world’s use of fossil fuels with solar power using today’s technology. He writes:

By comparing global energy consumption with the most rosy photo-voltaic cost estimates, courtesy of the solar proponents themselves, [emphasis added] we can roughly sketch a total expense. The solar cells would cost about $59 trillion; the mining, processing and manufacturing facilities to build them would cost about $44 trillion; and the batteries to store power for evening use would cost $20 trillion; bringing the total to about $123 trillion plus about $694 billion per year for maintenance.

For comparison, GDP (gross domestic product) of the entire world is now $74 trillion, and U.S. GDP is $17 trillion. This includes all food, rent, industrial investments, government expenditures, military purchases, exports, etc. “This means,” writes Zehner,

that if every American were to go without food, shelter, protection, and everything else while working hard every day naked, we just might be able to build a photo-voltaic array to power the planet in about a decade. But, unfortunately, these estimations are optimistic.

If actual installed costs for solar projects in California are any guide, a global solar program would cost roughly $1.4 quadrillion….Mining, smelting, processing, shipping and fabricating and their associated hardware would yield about 149,100 megatons of carbon dioxide. And everyone would have to move to the desert; otherwise transmission losses would make the plan unworkable.

The cost of solar cells has dropped markedly, but Zehner says the panels

account for less that half the cost of an installed solar system, according to the industry. Based on research by solar energy proponents and data from the California Energy Commission …cheaper voltaics won’t offset escalating expenditures for insurance, warranty expenses, materials, transportation, labor and other requirements. Low-tech costs are claiming a larger share of the high-tech solar system price tag.

Finally, unforeseen limitations are blind-siding the solar industry as it grows. Fire departments restrict solar roof installations, and homeowner associations complain about the ugly arrays. Adding to the burden, solar arrays now often require elaborate alarm systems and locking fasteners; without such protection, thieves regularly steal the valuable panels…For instance, California resident Glenda Hoffman woke up one morning to discover thieves stole sixteen solar panels from her roof as she slept. [Replacement cost $95,000, was paid by insurance.]

There is no reason to believe a smaller program or a graduated one would be any more workable than worldwide replacement of fossil fuels. The losses would be smaller but would still be outweighed by costs in proportion. The only “benefit” of a smaller scale might be to make it easier to hide the costs in a labyrinth of subsidies and budgetary gimmicks and push the cost onto future generations by adding it to the national debt.

It is worth noting, too, that the losses are not limited to the direct cost of the inefficiencies of solar energy. The financial increment consumed by overpaying for energy results in that increment being spent less optimally, too. For example, the argument is made that the solar industry creates jobs; however, those jobs will be in areas such as producing more solar panels for an artificially created demand for an uneconomic product, rather than for the needs of consumers which would be better met by jobs in other fields.

It also means that consumers who are forced to overpay for energy have less money available for other purchases.