The problem with solar energy goes far beyond the failure of companies like Solyndra. Never mind the waste of over $500 million in taxpayer money the Department of Energy happily gave to bail them out. Never mind that the administration is trying to control the energy market by picking winners and losers.
The problem with solar energy is that it is just not a viable technology right now.
In the wake of the Fukushima disaster in Japan last year, nations across the EU pledged to phase out nuclear power to usher in a new age of renewable energy. Germany decided to phase out nuclear by 2022 and immediately shut down 8 of their 17 reactors. The Germans have boldly pushed forward with their renewable energy agenda and are now the world’s largest producers of solar energy:
While our German friends were furiously installing solar units, they forgot to check the weather. The average German city receives about 1,541 hours of sunshine a year; that adds up to about 64 days. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that there are 301 days and over 7,000 hours left in the year.
Germany’s massive power shortages this past winter came as no surprise. To avoid power failures, the country had to import electricity from nuclear plants in France and the Czech Republic, along with cranking an old oil-fired plant. These shortages happened even after their production of solar power by increased 60% in 2011.
Solar energy is wildly unpredictable and unreliable. Even the best solar systems out there only run at a 25% capacity factor. In layman’s terms that means the system doesn’t produce energy 75% of the time. To put that in perspective, the average nuclear reactor operates at 89% capacity. It is very difficult to create a reliable and stable energy source out of something so dynamic as nature herself.
Then there’s the issue with energy storage. Now this problem exists for almost all energy technologies but it is particularly detrimental with solar energy and in a minute you’ll see why. Currently, there is only one method for storing energy. The energy captured during off-peak hours is used to pump water uphill into water reservoirs. Then, at peak-times the water flows back downhill turning a series of turbines, which returns about 70% of the energy collected. A 30% energy loss for a high capacity technology like nuclear is not a huge issue, but for a solar system that only has a 25% capacity factor to begin with, it is. Furthermore, the geographical areas conducive to solar plants and energy storage are mutually exclusive.
Don’t get me wrong, I have no doubt that human ingenuity will eventually discover solutions to solar energy’s fatal flaws. The nerds just need to keep plugging away at it until they find a fix that is marketable and economically sound enough so that investors will be willing to take the risk. Unfortunately though, President Obama has decided that since private markets haven’t helped out solar, the federal government should become solar energy’s biggest fan. Yet despite, the billions of dollars the administration has poured into solar energy, we still hear about solar companies going under or announcing layoffs all the time.
The government has no business investing in the market to push their renewable energy agenda. Not everyone will agree with this strict adherence to free-market economics and that’s ok. But regardless of your chosen economic philosophy, there is still a problem with the federal government investing $14 billion in taxpayer money in a technology that produces only 1.2% of the nation’s electricity.