Solar Myths

This page was originally put together as two posts, but dedicating a small space to dispelling solar myths makes sense.

There are many misconceptions about solar power floating around, and lately I’ve been hearing many of them repeated in the mainstream media.  Solar power is still a young industry, so that’s understandable, but these misconceptions will never go away unless people start addressing them. If you find any errors on this page, or if you disagree with something I say here, please, comment.

So, without further ado, and in no particular order – ten common myths about solar power, with the full description of each one below.

1 – Solar power needs some new additional technology to be viable

2 – Solar power needs storage

3 – Solar power is too expensive to be viable

4 – Grid parity is too far away, or grid parity is some specific number

5 – Coal power is cheaper than Solar power

6 – Solar power can only exist with subsidies/tax breaks

7 – Solar power needs extremely intense sun to work (solar isn’t for Canada, New York, the UK etc)

8 – The only viable solar power technology is…

9 – Solar is a bad investment compared to other alternative energy sources

10 – Solar power will save us from global warming

1 – Solar power needs some new additional technology to be viable

I talked about this somewhat in my last post about the MIT scientists and their hydrogen battery technology.  Solar power is basically a mature technology now – this is a multi-billion dollar industry with hundreds of millions in new investments pouring in every week.  The majority of that new investment is to ramp up production of existing technology, not in new research.That said, we’re developing new technology, and we’re going to have a profound impact on the CPV solar farm market as well as the BIPV market.

There’s a big space for new technology in solar, but if discoveries and new technologies stopped happening today, the solar energy market would still be thriving 50 years from now.

2 – Solar power needs storage

Solar power benefits from cheap, efficient storage sure, and on an industrial scale being able to control exactly when you get power is really valuable, the truth is for most users, solar power is producing peak electricity when people need it the most.  Storage would be great for all that cheap morning power that could be stored for use for a couple of hours after sunset, but the peak demand is 2 or 3PM to 7 or 8PM.  I covered this in detail in this post and I can leave it alone for now.

3 – Solar power is too expensive to be viable

Right now, if you compare the average price of electricity today, to the average price of a solar power installation today, it takes between 9 and 16 years for the system to pay for itself.  As an investment, at today’s energy prices, it doesn’t make sense.

Factors to consider:

  • The price of electricity is going up (it’s expected to double in the next five years)
  • The price of oil is much more volatile than anyone predicted 5 years ago, and people are talking about the possibility of $250 a barrel oil by the summer of 2009.
  • The electricity market was mostly insulated from the recent high prices of oil but that won’t last forever.
  • Cost overruns for current nuclear power projects are running into the billions, which means higher electricity prices or massive tax breaks for nuclear.
  • Many proposed coal fired plants are getting blocked by concerned locals.  Concerns voiced include carbon emissions, mercury toxicity and smog.  NIMBY activism against coal plants will only accelerate the increased price of electricity.  (That makes it sound bad, it isn’t, coal plants suck, oppose them where ever and whenever you can.)
  • We’re eventually going to put some kind of price, tax or disincentive on carbon emissions.  This is going to hit us at the electrical meter unless we’re in an area with a strong renewable portfolio.

These are literally just off the top of my head examples, there are literally hundreds of factors that can impact global, national or local electricity prices and energy security.  So, in a perfect world, it’s true, solar is just too expensive. Given the reality of the world we live in, solar isn’t such a bad bet.  Of course, the fact that solar is rapidly declining in price doesn’t hurt either.

4 – Grid parity is too far away, or grid parity is some specific number

Grid parity is the point where generating electricity through solar power costs as much or less than the average price of generating electricity.I’ve seen people refer to grid parity like it’s some fixed number, ignoring the fact that people living next door to each other in California aren’t necessarily paying the same for their electricity.  Never mind the price difference in electricity between Seattle and San Diego or San Francisco and Cleveland.The price of electricity is variable throughout the day (highest between 2PM and 7PM) and variable depending on where you are.  So grid parity is a moving target, and since the price of electricity is going up, it’s a fun target to shoot for if you’re a solar power company.

Also, remember that when solar power is producing electricity, the price is at it’s highest.  If you look at total output to average price, solar is a few years away still.  If you look at daytime output to compared to daytime electricity prices, some solar installations are at grid parity now.

5 – Coal power is cheaper than Solar power

Coal production in the US is so heavily subsidized in so many ways it’s frightening.  I won’t go into it here, but spend a couple of minutes at Coal-is-Dirty.com, or even just do a google image search for “Mountain top removal mining

Really, if you believe that this:

Mountaintop removal site near Blair

Mountain Top Removal Mine near Blair, West Virginia, original image found at: http://www.flickr.com/photos/nationalmemorialforthemountains/230179038/

and this:

are cheaper than this:

Solar Panels

Solar Panels, image licenced from Dreamstime Images.

You’re a sucker.

6 – Solar power can only exist with subsidies/tax breaks

Right now this is actually true in most places for most solar power technologies. There are probably some thin film installations and a few concentrated solar thermal installations that approach cost effectiveness, but in general without some sort of subsidy, solar can’t compete.

Yet.

The reason it can’t compete, yet, is partly because every other form of energy is heavily subsidized as well and partly because true, industry-wide economies of scale haven’t truly kicked in yet. Coal, oil, natural gas, hydro electric, nuclear… all of those industries get money from the government and lots of it. Solar companies would love a level playing field, either remove the subsidies from the competitors (not realistic), or give us a taste. Solar really only needs a little, and the ideal model is based on a feed-in tariff so the subsidies are power output driven.  Traditional energy also has decades, in some cases, centuries of industry establishment, solar is catching up, but it’ll take another few years.

That said, with the price of electricity in many parts of the US expected to double in the next five years, and the price definitely rising rapidly everywhere, combined with the falling price of different solar technologies, solar power won’t even need a level playing field soon enough. In as little as five years, unsubsidized solar will be a cost effective way to generate electricity in many places.

7 – Solar power needs extremely intense sun to work (solar isn’t for Canada, New York, the UK etc)

Edit: I have expanded on this myth in a separate blog post, with some additional detail and more analysis.

For now, the real cost considerations for solar are the regulatory environment and the price of electricity. I know this slightly contradicts what I said in myth 6, but note the clever inclusion of the words “for now“.  Barry Cinnamon, the CEO and founder of Akeena Solar, outlined this better than I ever could in this podcast (definitely worth a listen).

If you go to solar conferences, especially conferences in the US South West and California, they’ll show you these beautiful NREL Direct Normal Irradiance (DNI) maps.

http://www.nrel.gov/gis/images/us_csp_annual_may2004.jpg

NREL Direct Normal Irradiance US Map, original image URL: http://www.nrel.gov/gis/images/us_csp_annual_may2004.jpg

They’ll talk about land speculation in the Mojave desert and write off solar development in the rest of the US.  Here’s Germany’s DNI map:

Germany DNI Map

Germany DNI Map

Germany is the currently biggest solar energy market in the world.  If intense direct sunlight was an absolute requirement for a viable solar market, then that would be impossible.  Spain and Japan also have large and growing solar energy markets, and neither has sunlight like the Mojave. Spain averages between 6.0 to 8.5 kWh/m2/day depending on the region.) In every case it’s not the amount of sun, but a positive regulatory environment, and expensive electricity.

Having lots of intense sun is great, but Ontario up here in Canada is going to out pace many US states for solar (including Southern states), mark my words.

8 – The only viable solar power technology is…

I’ve heard enough versions of this many times, people who latch onto thin film or Concentrated solar thermal and treat all other solar technologies like they’re trivial sideshows or over hyped non-starters. Some people have this weird tendency to latch onto a single metric and then just over simplify the market and dismiss amazing or at least viable technologies.

Thin film is cheap and getting cheaper, but it’s not very efficient and needs lots of space to generate power. Concentrated Solar Thermal can store heat for use later, but needs perfect site conditions or the price goes up. No solar power technology is a one size fits all solution; all of them have their strengths and weaknesses. Basically, I’m not even going to waste my time on this one, if you really think there’s only one “real” solar power technology, then you’re wrong.

9 – Solar is a bad investment compared to other alternative energy sources

This one I’ve heard often, and it’s not as crazy as myth number 8. Solar is still the most expensive, although the degree to which that’s true is less every day.

Most solar technologies are on the high end of the price scale, but solar technology prices are falling fast so the graph below will be out of date very soon (it is already actually).

Costs of Different Renewable Energies in California

Costs of Different Renewable Energies in California

ALL renewable energy sources need to be explored, and all of them, including solar, have their strengths and weaknesses. Per watt, wind is cheaper than solar, but wind tends to produce more power in the evenings and at night than in day which doesn’t fit a demand curve as well as wind proponents would like. Geothermal is an excellent source of energy that we should explore more of, but it’s not appropriate for all locations. The beauty of solar, wind, geothermal and other renewable power sources is that once you’ve built the systems, the fuel is free.

As a society, we need all the energy we can get. Look at Google – right now they’re building data centres where the power is, not necessarily where the users are. Power availability is the key driver for them when choosing a data centre location. We need all the power we can get, and renewable energy absolutely has to be part of our power portfolio.

And finally…

10 – Solar power will save us from global warming

If only that wasn’t a myth.

But the truth is that no amount of renewable energy adoption and investment is realistically going to stop global warming. The US and the rest of the West have designed their entire economies around the idea that oil and coal are cheap and unlimited, and that burning them is a good idea. Emerging economies like China and India are working hard to copy the same model.

The fact that neither coal nor oil are unlimited, and that there’s nothing written in stone about them being or staying cheap means that we’ve built everything on a set of false premises. That we’re discovering now that there are long term environmental consequences really just means we need to examine a broken system sooner, and that the system was more broken than we expected.

Solar power and other forms of renewable energy, and the inevitable hydrogen economy that will follow in post oil days will do many things, but only a serious, wide scale and major commitment at a society and individual level will stop global warming (if it isn’t already too late). Renewable energy will help certainly, and solar power has a role to play in the solution.

Global warming is a cultural problem, and technology by itself won’t solve it.

24 responses to “Solar Myths

  1. Myth #7 is intriguing but was poorly explored. Very balanced treatment of the subject matter overall, but I wish the explanation of the DNI maps (U.S. vs Germany in Myth #7) should have been as well developed as was the coal and subsidy topic. “Positive Regulatory Environment” is either too jargonistic for this otherwise fine article or it belies a weakness in the argument.

  2. Completely fair comment – I’ve actually meant to come back to each other these and do a full blog post on each, or at least most. I’ve actually talked about solar resource in a number of other blog posts, but perhaps I’ll do a summary post that drills into the subject in more detail soon.

  3. Pingback: Solar Myth 7 Expanded - Solar Doesn’t need intense sun « The Unofficial Morgansolar Weblog

  4. Hello Nicolas,
    Cool blog. Do you know by chance what the sourse is for the world wide DNI map you posted? I see it everywhere, but don’t know the source (NREL doesn’t seem to have a world wide solar map yet).
    Many thanks
    K

    • @K – The map is from NREL directly, and I don’t think they’ve published a world solar map. Not sure which global map you’re referring to, but if I did post one, the source is probably in the image tags and metadata.

  5. Pingback: Matching innovation and investment in the solar industry « The Unofficial Morgansolar Weblog

  6. It seems “people are talking about the possibility of $250 a barrel oil by the summer of 2009” has turned out to be just scaremongering.
    Future ranges of energy costs can not only be budgeted, but they can be locked in. Even individuals can purchase energy futures in a brokerage account to insure against large increases in energy prices for up to 10yrs.

  7. @ Ralph – Fair comment, but the point stands that oil prices can be volatile and the recent trend has been for average prices to out pace inflation.

  8. While the layout of your blog is very nice and while I enjoyed reading it, you are generalizing over the most critical points.

    First, I don’t understand where you get the idea that we can just switch to a post-oil hydrogen energy economy. To extract hydrogen from water it requires electrolysis and therefore requires energy. Solar, wind, hydro– all of them combined cannot supply the energy needed to run such processes, not to mention that it puts heavy stress on water supplies. You show photos of strip mining but imagine dry river beds.

    I understand solar is hot for research and improvement, but solar’s development has been going on for decades. I just don’t understand how that can address real issues like global warming. Trust me I wish the world could switch over to solar, but it just can’t.

    I feel like the entire country needs a lecture on thermodynamics and thermochemistry. The media’s sensationalizing of ‘green’ is displacing viable options like fracking and nuclear power from our nation’s dialogue.

  9. as a follow up: silicon mines are not pretty either.

  10. @tbar – Couple of comments in reply. First, I don’t say anywhere that we can “just switch” to a post-oil, hydrogen economy, and where I mention a hydrogen economy is in the final point where I say that solar CANNOT avert climate change.

    In that point, I do refer to the hydrogen economy as “inevitable”, something I’m less sure of now, but to suggest that switching to hydrogen would result in dry river beds is absurd. The amount of water actually needed to produce hydrogen is trivial compared to the amount of water available, and it’s not clear that water is the only, or even the best source of hydrogen for a hydrogen economy. That said, I’m no longer convinced that a hydrogen economy is inevitable or even likely, but am certain that there will be a post fossil fuel economy eventually if only because fossil fuels are a finite resource. (I have little reason to guess at when that will come, or what form it will take. My change on hydrogen comes from a better understanding of the advances made in synthetic fossil fuels.)

    To be crystal clear, I think solar energy will continue to be an increasingly important source of energy, but don’t think the majority of energy produced will come from solar in our lifetimes, if that ever happens at all. Further, I don’t think solar will save us from climate change.

    I do think that it will become an increasingly profitable way to generate power in many regions, and many billions of dollars of investment pouring into solar would indicate that many people agree with me. Solar is good business, it isn’t some magic bullet.

  11. Hi Nicolas,
    Do you have any information on the embodied energy content and resource costs of manufacturing (water contamination, mine tailings, etc.) compared to the finite energy payback the solar panel gives throughout it’s lifetime sitting in the sun (assuming optimal solar gain, etc.).

    I don’t have any information on this, but the creation of photovoltaic cells seem to be a net energy sink. It has the potential to localize and thereby better remediate resources used in the manufacturing process and reduce pollution, but cannot keep up with our energy demands, insatiable as they are.

    Along with a well defined energy need, the challenge is to diversify the energy sources we use and how we use them, so that we use the most “un-refined” grade of solar energy for the application. For example, to use passive solar heat for household hot water, rather than use photovoltaic solar panels to generate electricity that powers a hot water heater.

    • Hi Stefan,

      Nic’s away at a conference right now – this is Emma writing. There’s a UC Berkeley presentation under the post ‘Environmentalists: A new challenge to utility-scale solar?’ that has some good data on the energy payback time and GHG per kW produced for CPV, Silicon PV, Thin Film PV, nuclear, wind, gas, and coal. Here’s the link:

      https://morgansolar.wordpress.com/2011/01/10/environmentalists-a-new-challenge-to-utility-scale-solar/ (see ‘Quantifying’ at the end of the post)

      However, the study doesn’t go back to the mine site – the data just accounts for manufacturing and transport to the project. In terms of energy payback time, the data shows that most solar panels ‘pay back’ the energy that went into them in 0.6 to 3 years. And it shows that 12 – 36 CO2 tonnes are emitted per kWh produced – depending on the solar technology – as compared with 400 for gas and 900 for coal.

      Just from looking at those numbers, I think there’s lots of room in there to still make solar compare well to fossil fuel-based generation – I’ll look into it more, but strongly doubt that most decently-efficient solar panels are net energy sinks.

      Our panels use acrylic, aluminum, glass, and a sliver of high efficiency PV cell. Yes, petroleum is an input in acrylic, but you’re putting that to use for 20 – 25 years in the field, versus combusting it for single, fairly short-term use.

      I do completely agree with you on using the right technology for a given application. I would strongly support any policy that gave incentives for solar hot water heaters, as California has done.

      Nic will likely have more to add once he’s back.

      – Emma

  12. Sandy Mc kinnon

    Wind power. We have missed the boat here! Helix system or the cone shaped generators are more efficient and enviromentally friendly. Now how do we get away from the windmill which is 1800’s technology?

  13. Pingback: The Cost of Renewables « flow of the process

  14. So all these government subsidies that have went into US solar power companies for the last few years have proven what? How many solar power companies have folded – even with gov’t help! And this page is way too biased and poorly written (e.g. #5, which claims that coal power is more expensive than solar power – yet provides not a single number….also posts a picture of a coal plant from Thailand as opposed to a much cleaner operating plant in the US).

    Perhaps you could use some numbers showing how much of the US would need to be covered with solar arrays to completely power the US…and try to get people to understand how much power we will ever expect to get from solar power – even if we cover the entire surface of our country.

  15. Wake up Gov. STOP putting money into government controlled projects and direct it to individual home owners. This approach is cost effective and has already proven itself!!

  16. The World Goes Solar. Japan’s FiT in July is among the highest in the world. It’s clear that Japan’s FiT will shake the solar market. Now, US has the same options. New solar technology will show in Japan. This is it!
    As you know, earthquake in japan is happening frequently. Floating solar panels installation is one of the best solutions for power crisis in Japan. So you have to reduce the vibration to install Floating solar panels. Because, it makes many kinds of problems! The vibrations caused by wind, waves and external forces. New Floating Body Stabilizer for Floating solar panels installation has been created in South Korea. The Floating Body Stabilizers generate drag force immediately when Floating solar panels are being rolled and pitched on the water. Recently, this Floating Body Stabilizers using to reduce the Vibration of Floating Solar Panels in South Korea. You can see New Floating Body Stabilizer videos in YouTube. http://youtu.be/O2oys_YHhCc, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nA_xFp5ktbU&feature=youtu.be.

  17. The biggest problem with all forms of power generation is money.As long as the power and control and money remains with fossil fuels alternative technologies will struggle to compete at there true potential.I would be very interested to see how many fantastic inventions have been covered up because of this.Remember the best way to hide the truth is surround it with lies i.e UFO,s for example even if 1 picture is true 1000 are not!
    The constant large profits and taxes made from present fuels make a powerful force to stop what could become FREE ENERGY competition.

  18. You have one post by f…you that should be removed – not because of an opposing opinion but because it offers nothing and is offensive. I appreciate all the information provided and the responses excepting the one mentioned. Keep up the good work!

  19. I’m considering a solar system for my home. I’d like to do it, and prices have come down to around $10-15k after the government rebate of 30%. However, it will still take 20 years to pay for itself. I’m looking at other improvements too, before going solar.

  20. By the way, for a 3-4 kilowatt residential system.

  21. No offense, but I do not understand what you are asking. Maybe you are foreign and using a text translator?

  22. Somehow I am receiving responses to questions that are not listed here, which is why I said the previous post. Anyone know what is going on? By the way, I pulled the trigger on a 3.675 kw system and over the past year agree it is the best home improvement project anyone can undertake. Worth it on so many levels.

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