Pictured above: An industrial power plant complex. Major transitions from one energy technology to another have historically taken 50 years or more. Our civilization will need fossil fuel and nuclear power plants for several decades to come. But the sooner we start a massive shift to clean, renewable solar power, the sooner we will start to reap the environmental and economic benefits. And solar power is cost-effective today.
Myths about solar power abound. Some are due to lack of awareness, while others are actively promoted by fossil fuel interests and the electric utility industry. We discuss and debunk a few of these myths below.
While this might have been true 10 years ago, it isn’t true today. Today’s rooftop solar power systems produce electricity that costs about one third less per kilowatt-hour than the typical retail cost of electricity in Florida, when considering the total cost of ownership during the term of the performance warranty on the solar panels. But rather than making sweeping statements, let’s take a look at a specific example system, and see if the “too expensive” claim holds up to scrutiny when using real world numbers.
We’ll consider a 32 panel solar power system with 285 watt panels, installed on a south-facing, Northeast Florida roof. The system’s electricity production would be slightly better in Central Florida.
Like the “too expensive” myth above, this one isn’t true either.
With today’s solar equipment prices, the 30% solar tax credit, typical Florida electric rates, and assuming that just the historical average rate of inflation in U.S. residential electric rates for the last 45 years (3.968% per year) continues, the typical payback on a financed solar power system purchase is between 11 and 12 years.
The simple payback for commercial solar power systems is even faster. In addition to the 30% solar tax credit, accelerated depreciation over five years is also available. With accelerated depreciation and a 35% corporate income tax rate, a roof-mounted commercial solar power system pays back its original cost in about six years. If a carport or trellis structures will be constructed for the solar panel array, the payback increases to about nine years.
No, today it really doesn’t make sense. The cost to install solar power has dropped by 73% since 2006. A solar power system for a home or business is more affordable today than ever.
As for improving solar panel efficiencies, current production solar panel efficiencies of 19–20% are approaching the theoretical limit of about 24%. (The actual theoretical efficiency limit is higher but is not achievable in real world operating conditions.) Stories about solar cell efficiencies of 30–40% or higher refer to concentrating solar cell assemblies that would not be either cost-effective, spatially practical, or sufficiently attractive for residential rooftop installation.
Now is the best time to install solar power.
Solar energy systems can work well in a wide variety of places, including foggy and cold climates, and on overcast days. Germany, a Northern European country not exactly known for sunny weather, leads the world in installed rooftop solar power capacity.
Actually, the opposite is true. Several independent studies have shown that a solar power system increases a home’s resale value. The reason is really pretty simple: Homes with solar power systems have significantly lower electric bills. The electric bill is the largest monthly cost of home ownership after the mortgage payment, so buyers are willing to pay more to obtain lower electric bills.
The largest independent study to date on resale values for homes with rooftop solar power systems found that homeowners typically recovered the entire net cost of their solar power systems when they sold their homes. (“Net” cost just means the cost after the 30% solar tax credit.) Another study found that homes with rooftop solar power systems also sell faster; as much as 2.5 times faster than similar homes without solar power in the same area.
While we (and the most credible scientific evidence) don’t agree with these statements, agreement or disagreement is really beside the point. Governments and individuals must base their decisions on the precautionary principle. That is, they must follow the common sense axiom, “better safe than sorry.” Put another way, when uncertainty exists about a future event with potentially extreme negative impacts, it’s smart to prepare for the worst.
This is why the insurance industry exists. This is why nations pay to maintain expensive military forces during peacetime. And this is why solar power is a vital part of our future. Solar power is a common sense response to electric rate increases that averaged 3.968% per year over the 45 year period from 1970 to 2015. A solar power system is an insurance policy against the very real risks of increasing fossil fuel shortages and extreme carbon emissions controls and taxes… either of which alone will inevitably drive future electric rates much higher.
The idea here, pushed by critics of sustainability initiatives and renewable energy technology, is that the amount of energy needed to manufacture solar panels is greater than the amount of energy they produce. This idea is silly on its face.
Why? Because raw material refiners, product manufacturers and wholesale distributors in the solar power industry must include their energy costs in the prices they charge for their products in order to earn a profit. And their customers, in turn, won’t buy those products—solar panels—if the prices are too high in relation to the energy savings the solar panels produce.
Germany’s prestigious Fraunhofer Solar Energy Research Institute studied this issue. The Fraunhofer institute found that solar panels installed in northern latitudes (areas like Northern Europe and New England in North America) need around 2-1/2 years to produce the same amount of energy as the amount needed for their manufacture. Solar panels installed in middle latitiudes (areas like the Mediterranean region and the U.S. sunbelt states) need about 1-1/2 years or less. A good quality solar panel should produce at least 20 times the energy required for its manufacture during its 25 year power production warranty period. And today’s production solar power panels should produce electricity for 40 to 50 years.
Solar power critics also argue that solar power is not environmentally friendly because of toxic wastes produced during the manufacture of photovoltaic solar cells.
It is true that acids and toxic metal wastes are produced during the manufacture of solar photovoltaic cells. In North America and Europe, these wastes are buried—just like the toxic byproducts of computer chip manufacturing—in specially designed waste management sites.3
In stark contrast, the toxic wastes produced by electric utility power plants—arsenic, mercury, chromium, cadmium and chlorine—are dumped into sludge ponds and spewed out of smokestacks into the sky. As for the amount of waste, the toxic waste produced to generate one megawatt of solar electricity is an order of magnitude less than the toxic waste produced during the generation of one megawatt of electrical energy by a fossil fuel-fired industrial power plant.
The environmental criticism of solar power is also disingenuous. The vast majority of solar photovoltaic cells manufactured today are made by the same process used to produce computer chips. And yet, solar power critics are not arguing that we should do without computers, cell phones, smart TVs, automobiles, or appliances, all of which rely upon the same silica-based wafer manufacturing technology as solar panels.4
It is true that subsidies like the solar tax credit (and accelerated depreciation for commercial solar power projects) are vital to widespread adoption of clean and renewable energy technologies. But it is not true that these subsidies give an unfair advantage to solar power.
According to an independent research study, government subsidies worldwide for oil, gas and coal production exceed $452 billion a year.5 The same research study puts total U.S. government subsidies for oil, gas and coal production at $20 billion a year. By comparison, according to a U.S. Energy Information Administration report, U.S. government subsidies for solar and wind energy in 2013 were $5.33 billion and $5.94 billion, respectively. The same EIA report put all other U.S. government subsidies for energy in 2013 at $17.99 billion.6
Critics do acknowledge that subsidies for solar and wind are less than subsidies for fossil fuels. But they argue that solar and wind subsidies are still excessive, when compared with fossil fuel subsidies, on the basis of energy produced per dollar of subsidy. The problem with this argument is that the critics compare only the energy produced during the year a subsidy is received. This method of comparison is grossly misleading when applied to solar and wind energy. Why? Because it ignores the fundamental advantage of renewable technologies: 40–50 years or more of fuel-freeenergy production following a one-time investment and subsidy.
- The most popular solar loan purchase financing is structured as two separate loans. The first loan, for 30% of the purchase price (the same amount as the tax credit), is a 12 months “same as cash,” or zero interest, loan. The homeowner has a year to pay off the same as cash loan, using the extra income received as a result of the 30% solar tax credit. The second loan, for the remaining 70% of the purchase price, is a conventional unsecured installment loan.
- This electricity production is based upon a typical year’s weather for the area, a DC to AC power ratio of 1.14 and normal system performance losses.
- It may be true that you can reduce your environmental footprint by purchasing solar panels manufactured in North America or Europe, rather than China. China leads the world in solar panel production but lags in environmental protection standards, including enforcement of waste disposal regulations.
- Incidentally, the primary raw ingredient for silicon solar cells, silica, is found in sand. Literally the stuff at the beach.
- Bast, E., Doukas, A., Pickard, S., van der Burg, L. and Whitley, S. (2015). “Empty promises: G20 subsidies to oil, gas and coal production.” Overseas Development Institute, London and Oil Change International, Washington, DC. November 2015. Available online at https://www.odi.org/publications/10058-production-subsidies-oil-gas-coal-fossil-fuels-g20-broken-promises.
- “Direct Federal Financial Interventions and Subsidies in Energy in Fiscal Year 2013.” U.S. Energy Information Administration, U.S. Department of Energy, Washington, DC. March 2015. Available online at http://www.eia.gov/analysis/requests/subsidy/pdf/subsidy.pdf. Subsidies include funds for research, direct grants, loan guarantees and tax expenditures. “Tax expenditures” are subsidies delivered through the tax code in the form of credits, deductions and income exclusions that reduce the amount of tax households and businesses owe.