Solar PV


  • A good niche market
  • Solar PV ‘cheaper than grid’ claims
  • What about the Tesla Powerwall and going off grid?
  • 3 Powerwalls + 3 solar rigs = costs too much
  • 300 times more waste than nuclear power!
  • Solar PV is middle-class welfare
  • But what if an entire nation tries to backup solar PV storage?
  • But Amory Lovins says a smart grid doesn’t NEED storage?
  • But what about Germany’s solar?

A good niche market

First of all, I’m not against solar and think it is a niche energy product that might shave a little demand off the afternoon electricity peak in overloaded grids. It could prevent some ‘gold plating’ of the grid. But given that solar PV only works about a third of a sunny day (and only half that again if cloudy), it is simply not going to run our energy hungry society. Storage costs too much. Let me explain.

Solar PV ‘cheaper than grid’ claims

If you stick some Solar PV on your roof it will pay for itself in about 5 years. Assuming a 30 year lifetime before the panels really start to drop output, that’s a quarter century of free electricity. Sounds great! What’s the catch? The problem is that mindset only thinks about our electricity bill. We’re not counting what happens the rest of the day that the solar isn’t producing at maximum, or even at all. People that think they’re getting 25 years of ‘free electricity’ are not counting the cost of the coal fired grid, transmission lines, infrastructure, and climate change cost of their night time electricity. If their governments are letting them get away with this, it could even contribute to social injustice as a form of middle-class welfare at the expense of the poor. (More on that below).

What about the Tesla Powerwall and going off grid?

The Tesla Powerwall is not going to change things much according to The Breakthrough, and here’s why:


One Powerwall backs up your house for only 8 hours if the day is sunny. If the previous day was cloudy, the solar was charging at about half power and so the batteries will not be as charged and will not last as long. Then there’s the fact that you can only use 1 appliance at a time. If your dishwasher is running, your fridge motor cannot run. If you are cooking with electricity, you cannot use anything else. Just a few days bad weather and your Powerwall will be struggling to get you through the night. Really, you’d need to buy 3 Powerwalls to cover all weather conditions.

But buying just one Tesla Powerwall stretches the payback period out to 10 years. They may only last 15 years. But if you’re really going to disrupt the grid, you’ll need to go off grid. Given the facts in the chart above, 1 Powerwall will not do the job, but it gets worse. Nor will 1 solar rig.

3 Powerwalls + 3 solar rigs = costs too much

I’m not sure how much solar your house requires to run during the day. There are averages, but your house might be more efficient than mine. Or like me, you might run a business from home and need far more electricity. So let’s call however many solar panels will run your home during the day a ‘solar rig’. One rig will run your house for about 8 hours at full power. Now, if your solar rig is running the house, what’s charging the batteries? You actually need 3 solar rigs: 1 to run the house, 2 to charge the batteries. Remember, if  you get clouds, 3 solar rigs drops to 1.5 rigs. Half. You’ll have trouble making it through just two overcast days! The cloudy months we sometimes get in Sydney could require 4 solar rigs and many more Powerwalls.

Economics: if a 1 solar rig takes about 5 years to pay itself back, multiplying that to 3 or 4 solar rigs means it will take longer. Adding a Tesla Powerwall stretches that payback period out to 10 years. They may only last 15 years. A 10kWh Powerwall will only run the average American home about 8 hours, running only 1 large appliance at a time (fridge, dishwasher, drier, oven, take your pick you only get 1 at a time). If the day is cloudy and the Powerwall cannot charge, it will take about 3 Powerwalls to really take you off grid: but they only last 11 years.

This is why (former) Australian of the Year Dick Smith concluded solar and batteries would cost more than 4 times grid electricity over the life of the equipment. (Documentary: “Ten bucks a litre”. Drag the youtube clip to 25 minutes in and this section goes for about 3 minutes.)


300 times more waste than nuclear power

We found:

  • Solar panels create 300 times more toxic waste per unit of energy than do nuclear power plants.
  • If solar and nuclear produce the same amount of electricity over the next 25 years that nuclear produced in 2016, and the wastes are stacked on football fields, the nuclear waste would reach the height of the Leaning Tower of Pisa (52 meters), while the solar waste would reach the height of two Mt. Everests (16 km).

  • In countries like China, India, and Ghana, communities living near e-waste dumps often burn the waste in order to salvage the valuable copper wires for resale. Since this process requires burning off the plastic, the resulting smoke contains toxic fumes that are carcinogenic and teratogenic (birth defect-causing) when inhaled.
Waste Production per TWh.001.jpeg

The study defines as toxic waste the spent fuel assemblies from nuclear plants and the solar panels themselves, which contain similar heavy metals and toxins as other electronics, such as computers and smartphones.

Middle-class welfare funded by the poor

What makes it worse, under some government policies this self-indulgent attitude is encouraged by policies that ensure those wealthy enough to buy solar PV are actually subsidised by the poor. The poor end up paying for the grid and coal plants that keep the greenwashing Solar PV cheap for the middle class. Then various renewables advocates crow about the ‘death spiral’ of the grid, where reliable baseload utilities are losing customers and economic viability because of all the solar power offsetting coal. But is it a victory for the environment when we’ll never fully wean off coal or gas plants to backup when the sun goes down and wind stops blowing?  This all has social justice ramifications. It’s downright unfair! It becomes middle class welfare, paid for by the poor.

George Monbiot analyses the costs in the UK, which are crippling, for extremely poor outcomes for the environment.

So while the electricity you might generate from large wind turbines and hydro plants will earn you 4.5p per kilowatt hour, mini wind turbines get 34p, and solar panels 41p. In other words, the government acknowledges that micro wind and solar PV in the UK are between seven and nine times less cost-effective than the alternatives….  This means it will cost about £430 to save one tonne of CO2.

Last year the consultancy company McKinsey published a table of cost comparisons. It found that you could save a tonne of CO2 for £3 by investing in geothermal energy, or for £8 by building a nuclear power plant. Insulating commercial buildings costs nothing; in fact it saves £60 for every tonne of CO2you reduce; replacing incandescent lightbulbs with LEDs saves £80 per tonne. The government predicts that the tradeable value of the carbon saved by its £8.6bn scheme will be £420m. That’s some return on investment….

But it’s mostly because solar panels accord with the aspirations of the middle classes. The solar panel is the ideal modern status symbol, which signifies both wealth and moral superiority, even if it’s perfectly useless.

If people want to waste their money, let them. But you and I shouldn’t be paying for it. Seldom has there been a bigger public rip-off; seldom has less fuss been made about it. Will we try to stop this scheme, or are we a nation of dupes?

Those customers that are being reimbursed by utility money are wealthy enough to install the solar panels in the first place, and are being paid by either public money or private utility reimbursements, both of which largely come from those too poor to buy their own Solar PV. The rich robbing from the poor in a massive green-wash that actually does not reduce carbon emissions as efficiently as the state buying nuclear power and charging everyone the same, fair price for the electricity they use.

But what if an entire nation tries to backup solar PV storage with a smart grid?

I cover this on my storage page.

But Amory Lovins says a smart grid doesn’t NEED storage?

That discussion fit more naturally into my wind power page.

But what about Germany’s solar?

George Monbiot crunches the numbers:

An analysis by the Breakthrough Institute finds that the entire German solar sector produces less than half the power that Fukushima Daiichi – a single nuclear complex – generated before it was hit by the tsunami. To build a Fukushima-sized solar industry in Germany would, it estimates, cost $155bn. To build a Fukushima-sized nuclear plant would cost $53.5bn. And the power would be there on winter evenings.

For now I will hand you over to Tom Blees 2009 article on Brave New Climate, but I am looking for a more recent critique. I’ll announce in my blog pages when I update this page. Over to Tom!

So by 2013, Germany will have committed to spending €77 billion (that’s over $113 billion USD) for solar capacity equivalent to less than 2% of their 2006 electrical demand.

Now let’s look at the cost of nuclear power plants. Setting aside the legalistic and political quagmire that characterizes the nuclear power industry in America, we can look at the cost of the Advanced Boiling Water Reactors (ABWRs) that were built in Japan in the late 90’s at a cost of about $1.4 billion/GW, and the 
Chinese’ recent estimates for the final cost of their first two AP-1000s
($1.76 billion/GW), and come to the reasonable conclusion that Germany could build Gen III+ reactors for $2 billion/GW, especially modular units in the dozens.

At the moment, Germany’s Gen II nuclear plants have strong capacity factors, including probably the best one in the world with about a 94% CF. So let’s assume that Germany’s brand new Gen III plants could average a 90% CF. For $112 billion, they could build 56GW of new nuclear capacity, for an effective capacity at a 90% CF of about 48GW. Those plants would thus produce about 421,000 GWh annually, which is approximately 68% of Germany’s electrical needs in 2006 (I keep using 2006 figures to be consistent here because that’s the latest IEA data I can find for Germany’s energy stats). Compare that with the <2% expected from solar, and of course unlike solar, nuclear runs 24/7. Now figure in the expected lifespan of the systems: Nuclear: about 60 years. Solar PV: 20-30 years. Being generous and saying 30, that means you’ll get twice as much as the already astounding 34 times the energy that nuclear will produce compared to the same solar investment.

So Germany’s ill-considered (and, amazingly, continuing) national experiment with solar power is costing them roughly 70 times (in costs/kWh) what it would have cost them to build top-notch nuclear power plants, disregarding the intermittency problem with solar, which is no small matter. In other words, Germany could have gone France one better and gone 100% nuclear and saved a ton of Euros in the process. Instead, we have the example of environmental ideology run amok, with very real and seriously negative economic and environmental ramifications.

While I suspect that solar advocates might quibble with some of my figures above, perhaps pointing out that Germany might install even more solar panels by 2013 than I project here, but really there’s simply no comparison no matter how you massage the numbers. The statistics are there in plain sight.

So what will happen in Copenhagen come December? If the result of that conference is some cap-and-trade shell game along with solemn (and ultimately ignored) promises to cut down on CO2 emissions based on fantasies of wind and solar power, the end result will be as ineffectual as the previous conferences have been.

The people on this planet will not be satisfied with an energy-starved and desperately thirsty world. Before they settle for that they’ll yank every bit of coal and oil out of the ground and toss it on our unfortunately common (funeral?) pyre, solemn promises to the contrary be damned. Delusions about wind and solar coming to the rescue are ludicrous, especially in the face of the demographic landslide in which we find ourselves until at least mid-century.

There is only one source of energy currently available that can possibly provide an energy-rich yet environmentally benign future, including supplying the massive amounts of energy that will be required to desalinate water for literally billions of people. I fully realize that pro-nuclear people at Copenhagen will probably be about as popular as a porcupine in a condom factory, but unless these harsh realities—and their politically incorrect solution—are brought to the fore, just what effect is Copenhagen going to have? What we should be talking about there is how to ramp up nuclear power while putting in place an international regime to forestall nuclear weapons proliferation in the process.

Why do I have the sinking feeling that isn’t going to happen?