Solar Power: Too Good to Be True

Published June 1, 2005

The Solar Fraud: Why Solar Energy Won’t Run the World (second edition)
by Howard C. Hayden
$20.36 paper, 281 pages; Vales Lake Publisher LLC, January 2005
ISBN 0971484546

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 always have sounded too good to be true … and, sure enough, they always have been false.

In the famous “Peanuts” comic strip, each year Lucy promised to hold a football so Charlie Brown could do a placekick. Each year as Charlie Brown charged the ball, Lucy pulled it away at the last moment, and Charlie Brown landed on his back. Likewise, each year solar promoters with no serious scientific credentials tell us solar energy is the answer to our problems.

Solar’s Failed Promises

Hope springs eternal, however, so the news media continue to publish glowing stories of solar homes despite years of failed predictions. Coincidentally or not, most high-profile solar enthusiasts tend also to be anti-capitalist collectivists who wish every family unit operated off its own individual windmill or photovoltaic cell instead of the 1,911 U.S. power stations containing 9,493 power generating turbines driven by steam provided from water heated by coal, natural gas, nuclear energy, or liquid petroleum.

The usual socialist suspects have been polyannaishly predicting the success of the futile wind/solar venture for more than 40 years. Examples abound.

  • In 1977 Dennis Hayes, founder of Earth Day, predicted that by the year 2000 40 percent of global energy would be from renewable sources.
  • In 1978 Ralph Nader said all power would be solar in 30 years. In 1997 he repeated that claim.
  • In 1996 Senator Ted Kennedy (D-MA) predicted solar energy would be the primary source of energy in the twenty-first century.

Beneficiaries of Tax Breaks

Experience tells us the wind in most places does not blow steadily enough and predictably enough to be an economical power source. Moreover, the sun’s energy is too widely dispersed and the land area required to collect it too vast for solar to become a large-scale power source. At best, a pleasant niche exists in the remotest of places and for the most affluent enviro-zealots.

In reality, solar and wind power remain on today’s radar screen only as a result of wasteful tax breaks to appease the green community.

But don’t take my word for any of this. Read the second edition of The Solar Fraud by the Mr. Wizard of academic physics, Howard C. Hayden, professor emeritus of the University of Connecticut.

Fun to Read

Hayden’s book is a fun read that can bring you to tears of laughter and embarrass you with the simple things you never thought of when many of us naively believed the world could run on solar energy. Additionally, all the complex physics and supporting math is there for those who choose to read it.

After a warm introduction to the subject, where we get to know Hayden, Chapter 2 tells the history of U.S. energy supplies. Hayden defeats the solar zealots on their own premises throughout Chapter 3. Then in Chapter 4 he poses all the questions you would like answered but never thought to ask.

Hayden writes, “Many people evidently see solar energy only as a political or economical question. Some imagine, perhaps, that we simply lack the political will to make solar energy happen. Some others think that if we would just throw money at the problem, we’d become a solar nation. There is an oft-repeated adage that if we would give Exxon a solar depletion allowance we’d be using solar energy tomorrow.”

However, solar energy is first and foremost a topic of science and engineering. It is worth exploring how solar energy actually works in all its various manifestations. The subsequent chapters deal with those questions. Chapter 5 discusses the light that arrives at the Earth from the sun. We have only one sun, and all of the solar energy manifestations ultimately depend upon that light. It is worthwhile to understand sunlight itself.

Natural Energy Collection Inefficiencies

Chapter 6 deals with conservation and efficiency. These topics are related to solar energy only in that they can improve the use of solar energy. The oldest use is the burning of firewood, which is responsible for about 3 percent of U.S. energy. Chapter 7 discusses the production of biomass from sunlight and the production of ethanol from corn. Hydropower is the subject of Chapter 8, and wind power is covered in Chapter 9.

When we put up a dam to produce hydropower, the water that generates our power has been evaporated from all over the Earth and has fallen as precipitation somewhere in the collection area upstream from the dam. Similarly, the wind that drives our wind turbines picked up its energy from remote places. However, when we use solar energy directly for heat or for production of electricity (Chapters 10 and 11), we must collect it ourselves with devices we manufacture for that purpose. Our collection area is only as large as our collector devices.

In Chapter 12, Hayden discusses other ways of harvesting solar radiation–including ocean waves, tides, and geothermal energy, all of which have proven almost totally inefficient.

Heating Degree Days

Do you really understand what a heating degree day is? Have you been embarrassed to ask? Among the many lessons you will learn in this book is this simple concept:

“One measure of the heating requirements of a given geographical area is the number of degree-days. When the average temperature for a day is below 65 degrees F, it will be necessary to provide some heat for the home. (If the average temperature is above 65 degrees F, the heat from the human inhabitants, the lights, and the appliances is adequate to keep the house warm).”

If the average temperature for a day is 40 degrees F, then 25 degree days (the difference between 65 and 40 times one day) are recorded. By the end of the heating season, there may be 1,000 degree days in one location and 8,000 degree days in another. A similar total is kept for cooling degree days, a sum that determines how much air conditioning a house will need.

Energy Efficiency

The United States today consumes 100 quadrillion BTU or “quads” of thermal energy each year. In 1950 the figure was 35 quads; in 1910 about 7 quads, not counting horses and other agricultural sources of energy.

Hayden quotes Peter Huber, author of “The Efficiency Paradox” (Forbes, August 20, 2001): “The efficiency of energy-consuming devices always rises, with or without new laws from Congress. Total consumption of primary fuels arises alongside. The historical facts are beyond dispute. When jet engines, steam power plants, and car engines were much less efficient than they are today, they consumed much less total energy, too.”

But the efficiency paradox is nothing new. In the nineteenth century, the efficiency of steam engines was steadily improving as a result of James Watt’s steam engine. For a while, the consumption of coal decreased by as much as one-third, but in the subsequent 33-year period, Hayden tells us, the consumption increased tenfold. English economist Stanley Jevons commented on the paradox in 1865:

“It is wholly a confusion of ideas to suppose that the economical use of fuel is equivalent to diminished consumption. The very contrary is the truth. It is the economy of its use which leads to extensive consumption. It has been so in the past and it will be so in the future,” Jevons noted.

Wind Power No Answer

Because air must leave a wind turbine with some velocity and hence some energy, only some of the kinetic energy of the wind is taken by the turbine. It turns out that only 59 percent of the energy carried by the wind could be extracted by a perfect wind turbine; the very best real wind turbines peak at about 50 percent efficiency, and then only under ideal conditions.

With the elegance of Einstein’s equation of relativity and the delight of a Mr. Wizard, Hayden explains the physics and complexity of turning the wind’s kinetic energy into electricity.

Wind farms, he writes, can generate electrical power at the rate of 1.2 watts per square meter (w/m2) for most sites and up to about 4 w/m2 in the rare sites where the wind always comes from one direction–though Hayden has been unable to find any.

Now suppose the goal is to provide enough energy to average 1 billion watts of energy (1,000 mw) 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.

Imposing Inefficiencies

Hayden puts that land area into perspective. He writes, “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 one square kilometer.”

Hayden makes it clear that if wind were a viable power source, utilities would be champing at the bit to use it. Utilities use every technology available to cut their fuel costs; they would gladly use photovoltaic and wind turbines if they were economical.

Solar Cells Unworkable

There are not many people left who believe acres and acres of mirrors following the sun will ever answer any of our energy needs. Some of us still cling to the idea that we can efficiently heat a swimming pool or hot water for the home with direct sunlight, though the numbers of such solar-collecting devices are declining.

However, because few of us understand the magic of the photovoltaic cell that runs our pocket calculators, many still hold out hope for them.

A short description of the solar problem is that no matter how you design the system it will always be inefficient and capture only a small, uneconomical amount of solar energy. The best solar cells available on a large scale have an efficiency of about 10 percent–they can only capture about 10 percent of the solar energy that strikes the cells.

There is a seductive fallacy about solar cells: that more exotic materials and increasingly clever computer-type designs will cause the price of the cell to drop dramatically. However–unless you are still dazzled by the old alchemists’ idea of turning lead to gold–Hayden will easily convince you this just is not so.

Hydrogen Not the Answer

The last tidbit of this book I want to share with you regards hydrogen as a form of energy. By now, most of our readers know hydrogen is not a new form of energy but only a conveyer of energy, and not a very efficient one at that.

With current technology, the process of removing hydrogen from water or methane and then burning the hydrogen as fuel results in a net energy loss of 38 percent. Similarly, fuel cells typically are 60 percent efficient, meaning only 60 percent of the 140 megajoules of energy within each kilogram of hydrogen can be usefully squeezed out.

Hydrogen, in short, shows no promise of being a near-term power source.

Finally, it is worth noting that the wonderful energy conversion table that can be found in Appendix A is by itself worth the cost of this book.

Jay Lehr ([email protected]) is science director for The Heartland Institute.