Not Such a Bright Idea After All

By Rebekah Rast -

For those who are advocates of clean, renewable energy, the sun couldn’t shine brighter on solar panels.

Through government incentives for homeowners and through grants and loans for solar companies, one would think that the production of solar energy electricity in the U.S. would be increasing exponentially.

Yet it still only accounts for 0.02 percent of net electricity generated in the U.S.

Ouch. It seems like that number should be higher with more homeowners and businesses installing solar panels on their rooftops, but solar electricity has a few obstacles still to face.

“Solar energy electricity still has a lot of questions marks,” says Bill Wilson, president of Americans for Limited Government (ALG). “Right now solar panels aren’t a viable part of the market.”

The use of solar to create electricity is not a bad idea. But the federal government creating a false market using taxpayer’s money is. Before Americans take to solar panels as a valuable product a few kinks need to be worked out with the technology.

First of all you need sun. Because sunlight isn’t constant other forms of electricity are needed as backup. Even when the sun is shining, changes in atmospheric pressure, pollution, dust and the earth’s positioning to the sun can affect the productivity of photovoltaic solar panels.

In a summary of solar power, the Institute of Energy Research (IER) states, “Though solar technologies are improving, meeting current U.S. electricity needs with today’s PV technology would require about 10,000 square miles of solar panels — an area the size of New Hampshire and Rhode Island combined.”

The summary goes onto say that considerations would have to be made for power lines needed to get the electricity from the sunny desert to other areas of the nation that don’t have as much sunlight. If electricity had to travel great distances across these transmission lines to get to its final destination, then much of it would naturally be lost along the way.

Avoiding power lines and lost electricity, homes and businesses are investing in this relatively new technology as part of their infrastructure.

Gary Gerber, president and CEO of Sun Light & Power and president of CALSEIA in California, says for an average-sized house in California a solar system carries a price tag of about $30,000. That does come down some through various state rebates and federal government incentives, but it is still a costly investment — especially when factoring in the need for backup electricity.

Gerber stands by the benefits of a residential solar system. “It is a simple job of math,” he says. “There is great certainty about what kind of savings you will produce; the real unknown is what the energy costs will be in the next 20 years.”

He’s absolutely right. In California energy prices have been steadily rising year after year, Gerber says, but that doesn’t mean that trend will continue. It’s a gamble. And it’s a gamble that can cost you $30,000 if you make a wrong decision.

If you decide to buy a solar system for your home, how long can you expect the panels to last?
“Solar systems on average last 30 years,” Gerber says. “A 30- to 40-year lifespan is not out of the question at all.” Gerber has a strong warranty on his solar panels for 25 years.

There are still concerns about how long solar systems will last and what happens to them if they no longer work or break. Gerber admits that the industry is young and growing. “People are looking into and doing research on what the long-term solutions are,” he says.

While most solar panels are made of silicon, a well-used and understood material in the U.S., other types of solar modules contain chemicals like Cadmium Telluride, which can be problematic. Cadmium is primarily used for the production of rechargeable nickel cadmium batteries and also can be used in coatings and plating and as stabilizers for plastics, as indicated by the U.S. Geological Survey.

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) is nominating Cadmium Telluride to be included in the National Toxicology Program (NTP).

Treehugger, an organization focused on green news and product information, had this to say about the chemicals, “How can we conscionably posit that cadmium telluride is fine in solar panels just because that technology is ‘green’ relative to electricity production, without having seen a full-blown risk management evaluation that encompasses how cadmium is produced and incorporated into the CdTe matrix, and, then, how it will be reclaimed at product end of life? Well,…‘we’ can’t do that, is the answer.”

Because the technology of solar panels is so new, the recycling methods are still unknown. For the “green” market especially, this poses a heavy risk to the environment. Gerber is confident that the technology will be way beyond what it is now by the time these modules need to be recycled.

It seems the environmental-friendly solar panel industry still has some details to work out. Not to mention most production, about 90 percent, of photovoltaic solar panels takes place overseas and requires electricity in the production methods, thus resulting in the release of greenhouse gases.

Regardless of the fiscal costs to homeowners and the posed environmental costs to Mother Nature, the federal government continues its heavy push for solar energy through the use of solar panels. So much so that because production costs in the U.S. are so high for making solar panels, federal stimulus (taxpayer) money is being shipped overseas along with the manufacturing of the modules. This doesn’t sound like a big win for U.S.

“The American people want an end to government picking winners and losers in the energy sector with subsidies to politically favored industries,” says ALG’s Wilson. “If there was a market for solar panels, the free market would create it on its own. Until then, we should continue producing nuclear, oil, coal, and natural gas resources that provide the foundation for meeting the nation’s power needs.”

Until there is a bigger demand for solar panels in the U.S. and until the job market and economy are back in stable conditions, maybe the government should focus its efforts elsewhere.

Just because the federal government thinks it has a bright idea, doesn’t mean the sun shines on it 24 hours a day.

Rebekah Rast is a contributing editor to Americans for Limited Government (ALG) News Bureau.

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