Thursday, May 28, 2009

The Solar Fraud

I was perusing a rummage sale a couple weeks ago when I came across the book “The Solar Fraud: Why Solar Energy Won’t run the World”. Always interested in hearing both sides of an argument, I had to pick it up, and I’m very glad I did. The author, Howard C. Hayden, is a theoretical physicist, with no ties to the energy industry (renewable or otherwise). It was so refreshing to read a straight-forward, logical evaluation of renewable technology – an absolute pleasure and a reminder of why I chose mathematics and physics as my undergraduate fields of study.

Born in 1970, I was raised (along with the rest of recent generations) listening to the siren’s song of renewables, which would soon be raining down limitless free energy and breaking our dependence on foreign oil. “Solar will soon be cost effective”, “The answer to our energy problems comes up every morning”. I went to graduate school at UW- Madison and spent a year and half in the world renowned Solar Energy Laboratory. I listened to speeches and lectures about the “promise of renewable energy” and sat in on the Wisconsin Utilities Advance Plan sessions where they set goals of 20% of our state energy production to be generated by renewable energy at “some point in the future”.

Well, here we are in 2009, with a president and congress moving aggressively to punish producers/consumers of conventional energy, and it is a scientific fact that renewable energy is still unable to provide a significant portion of our energy needs. According the Energy Information Administration report released May 15, 2009, “other renewables” (biomass, geothermal, solar and wind) and miscellaneous energy sources generated only 3.5% of our country’s electric power. 3.5%!!! How can you hope to run a technologically advanced nation on only 3.5% of its required power? Would you be happy if you went into a restaurant and they gave you only 3.5% of your requested food purchase, because the “restaurant experts” know better than you how much you should be eating?

Even at 100% efficiency for solar conversion (that is, full daylight at noon in the tropics being completely converted to energy), you would need a land area roughly equivalent to the state of Minnesota completely covered with solar panels. How could a project with that large of an environmental impact ever hope to be developed when faced with current regulatory hurdles? Couple this with the inherently unpredictable nature of solar (the sun doesn’t always shine and the wind doesn’t always blow - only Al Gore and his ilk are a predictable source of hot air) and the difficulty of tying production from the best resource locations to where the energy is needed, and it is blatantly obvious that we are not ready, and may never be ready, to run our country completely on renewable energy.

It is my impression that the majority of those who rabidly advocate renewable energy and nothing else are either (a) incapable of basic math or (b) those who have never gone without energy/tried to live solely on renewable or (c) both of the above. I have met some exceptions to this rule, people who walk the talk, generally living a very modest Luddite-type lifestyle in one form or another. They are few and far between.

I have traveled a fair way down the “renewables only” road. I have used an outhouse at night with a -40F windchill barking at my backside. I had friends who tried out sawdust toilets for a while. Have you ever seen a five gallon poopsicle? That’s what happens when you set a full sawdust toilet bucket outside that can’t be emptied right away because you’re in the middle of a snowstorm. No thanks – I’ll stick with indoor plumbing. I’ve relied primarily on firewood for heat in a Wisconsin winter. You don’t feed the stove, you freeze your house (including your indoor plumbing, if you’re a radical like me) and you once again freeze your backside. It’s a lot of work to cut and haul firewood and an inconvenience to be tethered to your home. I really like that nifty propane tank in the backyard that protects my house from freezing if I can’t be there to keep the home fires burning. (The robins like it, too. They’re raising their second brood of babies under the tank lid.)

I have built a passive solar super-insulated home and installed a solar water heater. A “passive” home means an active homeowner. If you don’t open and close your window insulation at appropriate times, you will lose more than you gain. And when the sun doesn’t shine for a month (for instance, last December) I am once again very fond of that nifty propane tank that I’ve got for backup. I’ve baked in a wood stove and a solar oven, too. I’m sure I could probably get used to it if I absolutely had to, but, wow, it is so much easier to touch a button or turn a knob and have temperature controlled cooking surfaces at the ready. It’s like magic – honestly!

Despite all its warts and its critics, our utility system gives us a quality of life only dreamed about by many people. Energy is life. It keeps us fed and clothed and housed, it entertains and educates us, expands our horizons.

While I continue to be a supportive of renewables and an environmental steward, I know the limitations of the technology, which were eloquently summed up in Dr. Hayden’s book. (BTW, a lot of the reviews on amazon.com that trash the book site anthropogenic global warming as a reason for supporting renewables regardless of their expense and other issues. My response is that AGW is a load of horse pooey. See "Watt's Up?" on the side bar.) I encourage you to do your own research and become an educated energy consumer.

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