Solar Energy: Can It Run the World?

In Climate Change, Economics, Energy, Environment, The Big Picture by Kyle Jorstad

Solar power has for many environmentalists become the standard of environmental salvation.

Since 1880, average global temperatures have risen by roughly 1.4 ˚ F. Manmade greenhouse gas emissions in the form of carbon dioxide, and to a lesser degree methane and other minor gases, have contributed to this increase, though their ultimate significance in temperature alterations is debated.

Environmentalists foretelling catastrophic global warming as a consequence of man’s reliance on hydrocarbon fuels such as coal, oil, and natural gas urge the rapid transition to alternative ‘green’ energy sources such as wind, geothermal, and biofuel. Solar power, however, remains at the forefront of the Green energy revolution as the herald for a sustainable future.

So what is the truth regarding solar power’s viability for modern society?

A closer look into the solar industry reveals several factors eschewed from mainline discussion regarding green energy. One serious consideration is the water usage of solar power plants, especially given the common location of solar fields in arid, desert climates ideal for sun exposure. The average solar plant requires millions of gallons of water for cooling processes, preferred over more expensive and less-efficient dry-cooling options.

Solar Millenium, a German solar company planning the installation of two plants in Nevada, will require 1.3 billion gallons of water annually, or 20% of the area’s water supply. Additional water is required to clean the panels at least twice annually of accumulated dust. Demands on the water supply are especially harmful to western states already facing severe droughts and water restrictions.

Solar energy will also cost numerous jobs from the energy sector. A study commissioned by the University of Juan Carlos and the Juan de Mariana Institute revealed that in promoting renewable resources, Spain spent the equivalent of $633,000 per green energy job since 2000. Only 10% of “green jobs” are permanent, leaving environmentalists’ claims for employment largely transparent. Yet most significantly, in Spain each green job eliminated 2.2 jobs in other energy sectors, such as the natural gas industry.

Employment deficits, instigated by the green energy industry, are not isolated to Spain. Germany, a leader in the energy revolution, has established “priority dispatch” for renewable electricity sources, prioritizing the distribution of energy from green sources before conventional sources. This prioritization inherently ostracizes coal and natural gas-powered plants by preventing profitable operation, thereby eliminating jobs and decreasing cumulative power output as conventional energy plants are forced out of the market.

Ironically, due to the inherent irregularity of renewable energy production (the sun doesn’t shine, or the wind doesn’t blow), the German government has been forced to issue ‘capacity payments’ to ensure that enough non-green plants remain operational to meet energy deficits and provide back-up energy sources, which amounts to a double subsidy. Additionally, standard solar plants include natural gas-powered generation systems to supplement the power grid when output is insufficient due to weather.

The Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems ISE conducted a study of German solar and wind electricity production in 2012 which reinforces the irregularity of green energy as compared to conventional sources. Monthly solar production (p. 13) demonstrates that photovoltaic power output varies greatly over the course of a year, producing up to 4 terawatt-hours during summer months, but as low as 0.44 TWh over the winter.

Conventional energy sources, on the other hand, average a steady production of 30 TWh annually (p. 15). When compared to conventional-source power output, solar and wind form less than 15% of total potential power output annually (p. 17).

In other words, even if a green energy grid could be developed for the entire nation, we would remain dependent on coal and natural gas to support the energy economy.

What is clear is that without massive government subsidies and incentives, green industry such as solar simply is not viable enough to be competitive in the energy industry.

An example familiar to Americans is that of Solyndra, a solar company steadfastly supported by the Obama administration via $535 million in loan investments through the clean-technology program in 2009. Just two years later in 2011 the company collapsed due to profit loss from increased competition, operating costs, and poor investments. Or Abound Solar, a solar panel production company which received a $400 million loan from The Fed only to announce bankruptcy around the time of the Solyndra collapse due to foreign competition. Overall, 19 companies receiving federal grant funds from the Department of Energy have declared bankruptcy, with another 15 in severe financial straits.

So what are the obstacles to even partially implementing green energy sources into world economies in the near future? Conventional energy sources continue to decrease in price, and increase in availability. Hydraulic fracturing and oil production from tar sands have greatly increased the availability of oil and natural gas within the United States and Canada.

Additionally, record-low oil prices correspondingly decrease interest in green energy research and development. A recent MIT study notes that natural gas costs half as much as solar and wind power.

In the long run, green energy simply cannot compete with conventional energy sources outside of its own merit as a renewable energy source, an advantage insufficient in the modern economy to gain a significant foothold in the energy industry. Short of a cataclysmic climate change event to galvanize world nations into immediate dedicated green energy investment, renewables simply are not a viable or affordable course for our economic future—and let’s be honest, all predictions of such an event have so far been completely wrong.

Kyle Jorstad is a student at Grove City College studying political science with minors in Spanish and economics. Passionate for writing and educational discourse, Kyle plans enrolling in law school following graduation.