Is Solar Going to be a big flop?
It is the dawn of a new generation of energy generation. We will wean ourselves off of petroleum and gain our energy from renewable, environmentally responsible sources. We will protect our environment, and get the energy we need from responsible sources.
A defense of solar? Nope: the sort of arguments for fuel cells (50’s) and ethanol (about a decade ago). It seems that every decade or two, someone reinvents the wheel and promises us a cheap, easy, universal source of energy and power that does not pan out. So it seems with solar.
There is a current shakeout with solar companies, such as Solyndra and Evergreen Solar and others. Further, this has been blamed on cut rate prices on panels made in China with the help of gov’t subsidies, and so forth. I do not think so. I point out that if these things were so wonderful and economically advantageous, people would be buying these things hand over fist. All manufacturers would be totally sold out and would have a backlog of orders. This situation does not exist. The demand for solar is small, and the supply is large.
A BIT OF HISTORY
#1) When I was in HS in the 70’s, I checked out a book from the HS library printed in the mid 50’s that foretold the future of cars. It attracted me by the funny car pictures that were supposed to be what we would be driving in 20 years (they kinda looked like the stuff from the Buck Rogers movies of the era). It further foretold that at that point, all cars would be using fuel cells for energy. It is now 60 years later, and I am still waiting for passenger sedans equipped with fuel cells (although I think the Governator had a Hummer powered as such).
#2) Archer Daniels Midlands. I drank the Kool-aid: I believed that ethanol was the fuel of the future, and besides, they are very efficient vacuum cleaner of gov’t subsidies, so I bought ADM. That investment lost money. I did not know that making ethanol from corn actually used more energy to manufacture than the energy you got from it. Further, there was not nearly enough excess corn supply to supply even a tiny bit of the US demand for fuel.
#3) Steve Jobs calls it cute. True. Even cheerleaders for solar admit that it will never be more than a miniscule source of energy for the grid.
SOLAR IS NOT ECONOMICAL
So why would anyone buy it? The second a country withdraws feed-in tariffs, the sale of solar plummets, because the numbers simply do not add up. Further, I would be willing to bet that theoretical maximum efficiency of solar panels is around 20%, which is almost where commercial manufacturing is at right now, so do not look for more dramatic improvements in efficiency.
Like ethanol, I wonder if the total energy used to make a solar panel is more than the energy from the solar panel over its limited lifespan. I do not know the answer, I am merely asking.
Another factor being overlooked is that you have to replace the solar panels regularly, since they do not last forever. So, it your installer says that you will have to replace them every 15-20 years, but that, even with gov’t subsidies, it will take 20-25 years to recoup your losses, would you buy them?
Just because solar energy appeals to you environmental or emotional or psychological sensibilities, it does not mean that the industry will be successful or ever become profitable.
Perhaps I am wrong. But you have been warned.
Thinking about the current state of solar, against the promise of fuel cells or ethanol of yesteryear, it might turn out to be OK, but it sure seems to be deja vu all over again.