THE FAILED PROMISES OF SOLAR ENERGY
by Harold Hough
In this issue’s Coal Bin, you will read about how coal based chemicals are being used to produce solar cells. That’s the good news. The bad news is that while the Obama Administration is pushing solar power and wasting taxpayer dollars in loans to unprofitable solar cell manufacturers, solar energy remains a niche power source. It can never offer the energy potential of coal.
The problems of solar energy go far beyond the failures of federally funded Solyndra and SpectraWatt. The fact is that solar energy has actually been hampered by government meddling and money.
The first practical solar cells were developed in 1954 at Bell Laboratories. Their first major application was in the space program, where they powered satellites like Telstar. But, their earthbound applications were limited to toys and novelties.
The reason for the lack of interest in solar cells was due to government interference. For nearly 20 years the government was the major customer for solar cells. Since these cells went into satellites, where the power to weight ratio was important, there was no demand for cheaper cells with lower efficiencies. The government was demanding Ferrari technology, while the world was looking for Chevy performance.
It was private industry that saved the solar cell industry from the government. As the computer chip moved from computers to toasters, watches, and clocks, the demand for manufacturing better silicon crystals grew. Since the traditional solar cell is made from silicon crystals, this drove prices down. At the same time, the industry started looking at making cheaper, less efficient solar cells that could be economically used here on Earth. Today, we have everything from sun powered sidewalk lights to solar powered calculators.
However, none of this is due to the government. Solar cells aren’t much more efficient than those sent up into space in the 1960s. The reason they are more practical now is that consumer electronics have improved so much that they consume less power. Today, a mountain climber can climb to the summit of Mount Everest, take a picture with his digital camera that was changed by a compact solar panel on his backpack, download the picture onto an I-Pad (also powered by solar cells), and then put it on his Facebook page via a satellite phone also powered by that same solar panel.
So, does this mean a brave new world powered by the sun? The answer is no. Solar power is definitely more useful for campers and others who need small amounts of electricity in remote places, but it can never do what coal does everyday.
Here’s an example. Goal Zero is the manufacturer of top of the line solar panels and electronics. They produce a “Solar Generator” that is designed for providing large quantities of electricity in remote areas. It costs $2,000, weighs over 100 pounds, and can provide household current.
Goal Zero’s solar generator can power an 8,500 btu window air conditioner for one hour. It will then take its 10+ square foot solar panels two to four sunny days to recharge the power pack so you can run your air conditioner for another hour. That’s the reality of solar power.
This is not to condemn Goal Zero. They produce good products and are considered the best in practical, light weight solar power production. It’s their solar panels that you find in remote, extreme environments like the top of Mount Everest. However, the reality is that modern civilization requires power – a lot more than solar energy can provide. Solar energy has found a niche in the marketplace. However, the idea that we can close all the coal mines and run a civilization under a canopy of solar panels has no basis in reality.
So, let’s keep the coal mines open and keep the government out of the energy business.