Friday, July 30, 2010

Solar is not the answer

From the 02 August 2010 Greater Niagara Newspapers

By Bob Confer

Knowing the struggles that my company faces in paying some of the highest electrical rates in the nation – double what our competitors pay – many people have asked me, “have you ever thought about solar energy?”

Yes, I have. But, you’d be surprised at what I discovered.

In my initial investigation into the concept a few years back I looked into a rooftop solar generation system for our warehouse where the electrical demand is quite limited; it’s basically lighting. I found the cost to be quite extravagant. Not counting the various and meaningless tax break/rebate/accounting gimmicks that solar distributors include in their sales pitches, the return on investment would have taken 20 years and the power produced by the system (at maximum efficiency, which is impossible) would have satisfied only one-twelfth of our needs at that building.

If you think that’s bad, realize that in order to meet the total demand of our production facility where all of our machinery is housed we would need a solar array that’s 13.75 acres in size. And, that would cover us only during the day time hours. We’re a 24-hour facility. What do we do when the sun sets?

Issues like those aren’t specific to my company. Any business or homeowner that would like to utilize the power of the sun faces those same problems.

The technology of the day has its limitations, based on site constraints and the inability of most home and business systems to track the sun. According to studies done by energy expert Ed Hiserodt, the capacity factor of a typical high-quality solar panel is only 18 percent. He notes that, in the larger scale, even the much-ballyhooed Desoto plant in Florida – touted as the nation’s largest solar plant – is rated for 25 megawatts yet only produces 4.79 megawatts.

Further tempering energy generation is the availability of sunlight. It’s simple: No sun equals no energy. The days are only so long (especially in the winter) and, here in WNY, they are quite cloudy. Over the course of the year we receive 48 percent of available sunshine. In comparison, Phoenix, Arizona gets 85 percent. Solar generation is primed for failure on the Niagara Frontier because, no matter how many panels are erected, backup sources must always be available for use in the day as well as the night.

Solar energy is quite costly, too. A perfect example is the situation that is set to occur in Arizona. APS, the state’s largest utility, will be buying all of the electricity that will be produced at the Solana solar plant at a rate of 14 cents per kilowatt hour. That’s 8.5 times the cost of electricity produced by the Palo Verde nuclear plant outside of Phoenix!

It’s obvious, in just the quickest of analyses, that solar energy is impractical, inefficient and expensive. That’s why it’s rather dumbfounding that elected officials continue to push for it in their drive to go green. Perhaps they are blinded by altruism and are unaware of solar energy’s weaknesses. Or - more likely - maybe they are aware and choose not address the problems associated with solar because they think their ever-so-popular green initiatives will win votes in the next election because the average voter (not to mention the average news outlet) chooses not to look deeply into the issues of the day. We live in a world driven by government’s quick fixes and inattention to long-term implications.

Even our President is guilty of playing this political game, with our money no less. A few weeks ago Mr. Obama announced that the government is handing out nearly $2 billion (yes, billion with a “b”) in corporate welfare to two solar plants, Abengoa Solar, which plans to build one of the biggest solar plants in the world in Arizona, and Abound Solar Manufacturing, which is building 2 US plants. Haven’t we given enough already to giant corporations (Wall Street, anyone?) with no return on investment and no benefit to the working class or the economy?

Solar energy is not the answer to what ails our economy, not now and not in the long-term. If logic prevailed, more efficient and inexpensive energy sources (like nuclear) would be allowed to flourish.

Understand that it is not the government’s role to choose winners and losers in the markets. Yet, it does and, once again, it’s obvious that the government is only capable of choosing losers and making them out to be winners, which, in turn, makes the consumer and the taxpayer the ultimate loser in the equation.

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