Is Solar Power Worth The Cost?

I participate in the energy business these days, and I’ve taken a good look at the alternatives. Solar, wind, hydro, biomass generators, fuel cells and several others. But solar has caught the eye of Google and I just have to ask “Why?” Hey Google. Is it really worth it? Pour that cup of coffee and let’s talk about this.

“The world is changed. I can feel it in the water. I can feel it in the earth. I smell it in the air. Much that once was is lost for none now live who remember it.” Lord of the Rings opening soliloquy.

Do you realize that for the entirety of man’s existance on this beautiful blue/green planet, up to about a hundred and fifty years ago, man relied on renewable energy sources? Did you really think that renewable energy is a new idea? Well, none now live who remember those days. Maybe the energy sources were not as clean or convenient, but they were definitly renewable and plentiful. Olive oil still grows on trees.

You may not know that at the turn of the century around 1900 there was a solar hot water heat movement. Several companies competed. They were on the rooftops of New York City, San Francisco and other places. But cheap electricity also became available and the public exchanged reason for madness. Solar hot water was dead.

So, now we hear that Google is investing in renewable energy. They are investing $280 million in SolarCity solar roof fund – reuters reports on June 15, 2011. It sounds like a great idea, on the surface. But …

My concern is the line in the report that states “a typical 5-kilowatt system will generate about 7,000 kilowatt-hours of power in a year. Hey, that sounds like a lot; 7 megaWatts in a year. But …

That is really inefficient. Only 16% efficient. They say that is good for a solar system. I say that is not good enough for me. Why should I spend $25,000 to $30,000 on such inefficiency? And it does not matter whether the solar panels of tomorrow become 99% efficient in converting light into electricity, the overall solar system efficiency may achieve 50% but it still limited to ‘when the sun shines’. So it can not compete with a biomass generator or a fuel cell that runs 24×365.

Compare Google’s solar solution with a good biomass generator which can produce 6 kilowatts 24 hours a day and 365 days a year from an existing waste stream. Add that up and you get 42,300 kilowatt-hours (yes, that is 42.3 megawatt-hours) of electrical power in a year, not to mention the many thousands of BTUs of hot water heat which is the main output of the device, and the waste that never reaches the landfill. That is more than six times better than solar with a cost that is not only comparable but likely to be much less. In my book, solar is not worth the effort and certainly not worth the dollars.


P.S. Thanks to the Solar Warrior for the photo. You should read their story.

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