Industry Kills What Industry Touches: Now Solar Power

Concentrated solar power — in which sunlight is focused to boil water, for example, which then is used to generate power — is the highest industrial form of renewable energy. And is turning out to be a very big mistake.

When a practice arises that is detrimental to the profits of industry — you know, any practice that helps to heal the planet and its human occupiers — industry has a long-practiced, graduated response. First it ignores, then it attacks, and if all else fails it co-opts, and having co-opted, advertises heavily.

Organic farming, for example, was first ignored as a fad, then derided as “no way to feed the world,” then co-opted. Now every other box and package in any supermarket, including cow milk and chicken parts, bears the label “organic.” And by this stage, you know it’s a lie. When asked if he would seek federal certification as an organic grower (federal certification follows industrialization, as the flies the garbage) Joel Salatin famously replied that he would never lower his standards that much.

Another example: Do you remember what happened to the first mass produced electric car, General Motors’s EV1, when the idea was first recognized by industry back in the 1990s? Yeah, me neither, and I drove one.

And so we come to renewable energy, despised and derided by industry for years, until some bean counter measured the market and realized there was real money involved. All they had to do was scale that puppy up, which is what industry does first and best, and pretty soon you would have something worth doing.

(I got schooled in this when I went to BP Solar’s ginormous solar panel factory in Maryland some years ago seeking support for a seminar on sustainable living. You could have cut the disdain with a knife. We aren’t interested in selling solar panels one at a time, I was told. We’re interested in the big projects. They did a few, and then BP departed from the business and the factory closed.)

Others persisted, however, and now we have blizzards of news stories about the declining cost of (industrial scale) solar power, its increasing contribution to the power supply of (insert name of state or country here) and isn’t that great for the planet. Well, no.

Much of this industrial solar power comes from the (artfully labelled) solar “farms” that BP Solar loved so much. As Fortune Magazine swooned last fall,almost 14 gigawatts of solar panels could be installed in the U.S. by the end of 2016, and over 70% of that will come from what they call “utility-scale” solar farms. These solar farms generate energy using thousands—or even—millions of panels, often piping energy long distances to residents and companies to use to power homes and offices.”

The first problem, from the point of view of the earth, is the installation of those thousand or millions of solar panels in a remote California desert, where many of them have been located. The road in is a major disruption of the fragile ecosystem, as are the hundreds of acres of bulldozed and trampled land. Then there’s the small city, first for construction crews, then for tenders, with its water-supply and sewage-disposal needs.

Then there’s that “piping” that Fortune referred to. The construction of massive power lines connecting the “farm” to the grid. With all this massive expense, how could the cost of solar keep going down? Well, the 30% federal tax credit for investment in solar power is a major factor. (Federal subsidies follow industrialization as the flies….well, you know.)

Even more beloved of industry are the vastly more complicated — and of course expensive — concentrated solar plants. These plants used focused sunlight to boil water, generating electricity with the steam. The first known review of how six of these mega-projects are doing finds them to be plagued by breakdowns, operating far below advertised expectations, and consuming far more natural gas (they have to jump-start the systems every morning) than predicted.  Despite their enormous expense (thank you, tax credits) they are only slight improvements on your standard gas burning power plant.   

Like wind “farms,” solar “farms” are a hideous industrial hybrid that transformed a mildly hopeful prospect for a cleaner way to get energy, into a world-destroying cash cow. The only way renewable energy can make a significant contribution to what’s left of the planet’s health, and that of its occupants, is if the energy is distributed — that is, made where it’s used. (I’m leaving aside, for this discussion, the whole knotty question of the impact of manufacturing any solar panels or wind turbines, on any scale.)

There’s no solution for this, of course, except the solutions you and I can implement in our households or farms. Thinking outside the boxes built by industry and maintained by industrial might will be possible only after the boxes have collapsed under their own weight.

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9 Responses to Industry Kills What Industry Touches: Now Solar Power

  1. Tom says:

    And collapse they will, Mr. Lewis – it’s practically guaranteed by either resource depletion, pollution effecting the biosphere (so, no demand) or prohibitive costs. It’ll probably be some combination of these (and a ‘black swan’ event like a storm or war or a solar EMP taking out a vital part of the electrical, for example, infrastructure.

    My bet is on the biosphere becoming too erratic (or too hot, cold, windy, dry or wet) in the (very near term) to support the growing of crops.

    Most, if not all, of the problems stemming from human civilization arose (and continue) due to too much human stupidity. Here’s a brief synopsis (from a short article):

    The five universal laws of human stupidity

    Stupid people, Carlo M. Cipolla explained, share several identifying traits: they are abundant, they are irrational, and they cause problems for others without apparent benefit to themselves, thereby lowering society’s total well-being. There are no defenses against stupidity, argued the Italian-born professor, who died in 2000. The only way a society can avoid being crushed by the burden of its idiots is if the non-stupid work even harder to offset the losses of their stupid brethren. [more]

  2. Rob Rhodes says:

    I think one of the reasons large scale ‘solutions’ are so regularly pursued is that they support the fantasy we can keep living as we are with just some modest adjustments to our source of energy, food and etc. THEY will fix it, not us. We needn’t grow our own nor do without lettuce in the dead of northern winters, THEY will grow it for us and wrap it in plastic marked organic and truck it from Mexico to Canada. THEY will harness sustainable electricity to drive our electric cars and nothing else need change, not how far nor how much we drive, not where we live or work nor what work we do. THEY will do something about IT.

    Another issue ignored in the excitement about the growth of solar energy is that while solar growth happened, so did our use of fossil fuels. Likewise wind.

    We have begun using a solar oven recently shipped to us, so far with good results. Ours has a borosilicate glass vacuum tube with heat concentrated by parabolic mirrors that fold in to become the storage cover and pivot to adjust for the sun’s altitude, the whole unit is turned to meet sol’s direction. It holds two bread pan sized pans. We got it through a go fund me type of purchase from a small US manufacturer. It is the sort of distributed energy alternative that might actually help and of course the always difficult storage issue is skirted by direct use. Interestingly the manufacturers seem to be selling more into the barbecue/outdoor cooking market than the perhaps more limited alternative energy market.

  3. BC_EE says:

    Should read One Second After, Forstchen. An EMP Who dunnit. More importantly, how the seemingly ordinary things in life become life threatening necessary; and, how quickly can a society break down into feudal and tribal chaos.

  4. Brian says:

    A quote from the inimitable Wendell Berry seems appropriate here, so I will leave it!
    “The heroes of abstraction keep galloping in on their white horses to save the planet — and they keep falling off in front of the grandstand. What we need, obviously, is a more intelligent – which is to say, a more accurate – description of the problem.”
    P.S.: And thanks especially for this part: “…or farms.” Indeed, some of us still do live on farms.

  5. Liz says:

    Good points. I was just a few minutes ago reading my company’s “commitment to green” web page and was willing to believe they might genuinely mean well. At this very minute, however, the construction of a new building is revving up and I wonder if they have planned any on-site power generation or even passive solar. LEED efficiency? I’m afraid to ask.
    And the companies that DO want to incorporate these techs need off-the-shelf scaled solutions. But utilities hate decentralization; it goes against the very core of their being.

  6. Liz says:

    And concentrated solar is a laugh. Convert photons to heat, heat water to phase change, use motion (steam) to make electricity… with 20%+ efficiency losses at each step. Talk about over-complexity.

  7. Russ Day says:

    Tom – agree with you on the commercial solar. We (ux&uxor) went the home-solar route. In 1988 we installed a solar hot water system that in 3 years paid for itself in savings. Home is all electric with a heat pump for summer and winter. In 2003 with the aid of state rebates we installed 5kw solar voltaic. My wife kept excellent records of our power bills on a spreadsheet before we had a computer and so we have been able to compare our electrical usage from 1975 to date. We have added insulation, caulking, double pane windows and additional solar voltaic during this entire period. The savings in our electrcal bills have paid for all of this (including a new heat pump this last year) and we’ve even made a profit, The back-up battery system came in very handy during the Sandy storm that devastated NJ. We were without power for 9 days but fared quite well.
    When we moved here in 1975 we planted a bunch of trees to remind us of our home state (Oregon) and we have used some of them in our fireplace during the cold winters. The one problem, of course, is that the solar doesn’t produce enough kwhs during the winter to run the home; and, it will not permit a solution to ‘business as usual’. Best Regards, Russ

  8. Denis Frith says:

    Missing from this discussion is the fact that around the globe there is a vast array of physical infrastructure (cities, roads, cars, ports, factories, etc. etc.) that irreversibly use irreplaceable natural resources for their construction, operation and maintenance during their limited life times while producing irrevocable waste. This is an unsustainable process regardless of what mitigation procedures the people instigate using the services provided by the exisitng infrastructure.

  9. venuspluto67 says:

    If the embedded energy involved in manufacturing wind-turbines and solar panels (including the cost of mining the raw materials) were subtracted from the amount of electricity these artifices generate over their useful lifetimes, I wonder how much net energy you would end up with? Not a whole lot, I’m guessing.