Friday, February 21, 2014

Still a Question of Power

Those who argue that Wind and Solar are much cleaner, forget the cost of mining the materials needed, and the amount of energy (and in fact the petroleum they are trying to move away from) it takes to produce a turbine or solar panel.

The energy requirements of this planet are about 20 trillion Kilowatt hours annually last time I looked. The average large commercial solar array setup packaged for sale in extremely sunny areas produces, again, the last time I looked, about, 1750kWh a year, going down to  less than 7-800kWh a year in places like Europe. With our Sunny figure, we are still looking at like 12 billion such arrays, at a huge cost in both real estate, and actual cost to the environment.

Solar panels = strip mining. The production of poly-silicates is expensive, energy intensive, and requires large amounts of materials mined from the earth, and a large amount of waste to be produced. A good indicator of the actual cost of these products is to look directly at the cost of producing them. These commercial setups run a bit over 10 grand a piece in USD, this is the result of the energy and material requirements to produce them, and since solar panels don't grow on trees, we can go back to the old truism "If it can't be grown, someone mined it"

With the optimistic life cycle of a solar array at about 30 years, when someone says whimsically "wouldn't it be great if the whole earth was powered by solar panels" what they are really saying is that we should spend $400,000,000,000 every year ([cost of array] x [number of arrays needed] / [30 years])  to continually strip mine the planet so we can continue to build and replace solar panels. This is overly simplified, of course there are economic savings in systems of scale, but you get the idea. I'm not even touching on the idea that planetary energy consumption is growing at an enormous rate every year and you would continually have to be adding capacity to the grid. A grid that now covers huge portions of the planet, blocking light we could use for things like growing crops.

This may be an improvement over coal, but its hardly sustainable energy the way it is packaged and sold. The primary reason I can see that there is a large push for it (and countries like Germany have shown this), is because it is energy and labor intensive. It may not ever meet planetary requirements for power, it may drastically increase the cost of energy for everyone, it may change the landscape of the planet forever, but hey, at least everyone can have a job.