Lets ask a simple question: Considering everyone seems to think installing a solar panel to one’s roof is the best damn thing for the environmental you can do, does it have any potential to really effect things? The contention by most is that “somebody has to start it” or “the price will come down” or the worst “but every little bit helps.”
Unfortunately, putting a solar panel on your roof can’t do it. It couldn’t do it if everyone did. If prices were cut by 90% it couldn’t and if effeciency were doubled it couldn’t. It is such a fruitless way of going it’s hardly worth perusing.
Does it do something? Sure. But there seems to be a bit of disproportional excitement considering everyone thinks it’s the future and few enviornmental groups would like to mention that there are thousands of coal fires burning worldwide, there are tens of thousands of tons of perfectly good gas being flared every day and methane is seeping out of landfills at a rate nearly as great as all natural biological decay in the world. And yet… solar panels are what seem to get a LOT more attention.
Lets look at the numbers for the United States
(sorry international friends, but it’s just too difficult to start doing the whole world. Numbers are avaliable for the US. It’s a good example)
Given the following:
1) There are about one hundred million households in the United States.
2) The average household household income in the US is aboiut $46,000 a year before taxes.
3) There are a significant number of households which have less than $15,000 annually after taxes and fixed expenses like mortgage or rent, taxes and other expenses.
Therefore, asking all households to spend about $2,000 would be about the most one could reasonably expect. This would be a huge financial burden for some and a considerable expense for most. The total national expenditure would thus be two hundred billion dollars. This equates to a very significant portion of the gross domestic product.
If each bought a $2,000 then that would be enough for two nominally sized solar panel (about 200 watts peak total and about a square meter), voltage regulator and grid synchronized inverter and installation. In reality if everyone did this it would have a huge market effect, but just for simplicity’s sake all things being equal that is about what they would get for that.
Here are some examples of what two grand could buy you:
Exactly how much energy such a system would generate anually is going to vary by quite a bit, but a generous estimate might be 150 kilowatt hours per year*. Thus we have 15,000,000,000 kilowatt hours of energy or 15 terawatt hours. (again being generous).
The annual consumption of electricity is something like 4000 terawatt hours. Thus the expenditure has resulted in a decrease of needed electricity to 3985 terawatt hours. A drop of just slightly less then 4.% FOUR TENTHS OF A PERCENT!
The bottom line:
If anything, this estimate is beyond the actual reality of what one could expect for adoption. Two hundred billion dollars is a lot of money and two grand is a lot for many households. Even if the burden were carried mostly by the wealthy, it’s still an unfathomable amount of money. Worth it? Perhaps, if it produced a reduction in electricity that was more than what it would. It’s a lot of money to pay for less than half a percent. All things considered, one would be lucky to get a tenth of a percent of overall greenhouse gas reduction.
This of course does not include the realities since the real world would be non-linear and it’s unlikely industry could keep up with such massive demand. Nor does it take into account the massive amounts of materials and energy needed to produce these solar cells. Mobilizing the entire nation to produce such solar cells at a huge cost per person and a cost that would exceed the anual spending on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan combined would be quite a drain and would likely produce as much pollution as it displaced.
Now I know what someone is going to say “Well if we can mount a war why not…” Again, remember that this is .4%. In theory it *could* possibly be done, but if you wanted to do something like have 20% of electricity from solar (enough to make a small but somewhat noticable reduction in greenhouse gas production) you would need at least fifty times as much money. Thus about ten trillion dollars. Want to actually make a real difference? Well then you’re looking at tens of trillions more. Imagine World War II, Moonshot, the Marshall Plan, Hurricane Katrina, Star Wars, the development of the entire budget of the DOE since it’s creation, the EPA’s superfund and all the gold in Fort Knox combined. That might be enough… all things being equal (which they won’t be)
And yes, before it even comes up, conservation would help. Buying effecient appliances and adding insulation would also decrease the overall usage of fossil fuel electricity. However, the results will be similarly small for a high expenditure. Even if you assume all persons spend a significant amount of money on a number of the more high profile means of saving energy the results are nearly squat. There are ways of saving energy effectively and realistically, but stuff like solar isn’t it. And yet… everyone seems to think it’s what we need more of.
Oh… one other thing. This is photovoltaic. The panels that heat water: those actually can save a decent amount of energy especially in the summer and they’re comparatively cheap. They’re pretty simple and work well. Yeah, when was the last time you heard anyone get excited about those?
*This estimate is based on several systems which have operated around the US. Most are larger and thus the result is divided. This is only an estimate but it considers most of the better performing systems. It is a GENEROUS estimate that is more than reasonable. In reality, it would almost certainly be less.
This entry was posted on Sunday, February 3rd, 2008 at 3:54 pm and is filed under Bad Science, Culture, Enviornment. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.
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