Sunday, March 25, 2012

Why are we supposed to support solar panels again?

Mike Munger nailed this issue last week. Solar panels are supposed to be about providing clean energy, not make-work jobs to keep idle hands busy. So why did the Commerce Department recently announce an upcoming tariff on Chinese solar panels?

As I wrote back in September when U.S. Rep. Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) was beating the same war drums:

This is the kind of garbage you get when you put economic illiterates in positions of power. Wyden is just the latest in a long line of fools who say they want Americans to use environmentally-friendly energy sources, but when Chinese tax payers offer to pay part of the bill, these so-called environmentalists spaz out and threaten to place higher taxes on American consumers.
Solar panels are being implemented recklessly. They cause pollution when they are manufactured and break down within a few decades. Some of the regions they are put in aren't particularly sunny, so they never provide much electricity. It's a technology with a lot of potential, but installing them now is like spreading frosting on cake batter.

But Munger doesn't think any of that matters. He submits that solar panels are not about generating electricity.
This is not an environmental policy at all. It is an industrial policy (thinly) disguised as an environmental policy. We have decided that US corporations need to receive lots of extra dollars from consumers, and from taxpayers, so they will have enough cash to contribute to the Obama reelection campaign.
Is he right? It depends on one's perspective. From the view of the ordinary people I know who support solar, they really are motivated by environmentalist pipe dreams. However, from the perspective of the dark crypts of Washington DC, I think Munger's view is correct.

Remember loyal reader, there are Baptists who want to do well, but there's usually a few bootleggers hiding behind them pushing them along.


  1. If you're concern over solar power is due to policy decisions, I can sympathize. Although it seems to me that you should avoid using the word "pollution" when it comes to solar power panels. I mean, you know ... fossil fuels and all. That's pollution. It might be best to describe it as "litter" or "refuse" of the environment.

  2. Pollution is a perfectly good word in this case. The machinery that made the panel, the ship that moved the finished piece and its raw materials, the truck that brought it to the warehouse out of which it was sold, the truck that brought it home, the men who came to install it all very likely used fossil fuels and so solar panels do pollute.

    Not even to mention the fact that they contain mercury and lead in many cases, so there is even pollution coming from the panel itself later on while it is shifted around a dump by the diesel powered dump monster.

    And I didn't even mention the lead acid batteries usually installed to store energy for the not so sunny days and the night time.

    So, solar panels pollute. That's just what they do.

  3. Well in that case, so do laptop computers, barns, and hundreds of other products that people use in their lives. So when you define pollution in the way you do, the point becomes fairly weak.

    If I'm wrong, I apologize, but I think you're using "pollution" to equivocate with the pollution that comes from fossil fuels. I'd like to see a comparison of evidence between harm/death due to solar panel pollution than fossil fuel pollution. I'm fairly certain it'll be a very significant difference.

    To be clear, I'm not disagreeing that solar panel implementation is likely being done in a half-ass'd manner. But criticizing it for causing pollution seems rather trivial.

  4. It's not trivial at all. If solar panels, and other things, are being touted as a clean fix, then you have to include all of the externalities and every step of their manufacture, transport. installation, and disposal when figuring out whether they are a good idea or not. Plus, with a life expectancy of 20 years or so, its still cheaper for people to buy electricity from a mass provider.

    Simply put, if you want to make a claim of "no pollution", you can't just shift the pollution to someone else's back yard and claim it's gone. I'd also like to point out that wanting to put them on everyone's homes instead of in a massive plant has all the hallmarks of localism, including the inefficiencies. Besides, lets face it, commercial solar plants do not have any solar panels, because they are inefficient, short lived and expensive among other things. They usually collect heat rather than converting light into electricity.

    Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.

  5. "Well in that case, so do laptop computers, barns, and hundreds of other products that people use in their lives."

    And you are right, all of these things pollute. That electricity running my computer right now likely came from coal and the truck that brought it burned gas, I'll even bet the employee that made it worked in a factory powered by fossil fuels of one kind or another. The plastic was made from byproducts from oil refining too.

    You might want to look up the "I, pencil" essay.

  6. CW, to your original question, I was referencing the pollution that's caused in the manufacture process photovoltaic cells, which is higher than the normal products you referenced.

    Oil also pollutes. We all know that. The solar panel pollution is non-trivial and equations should not be left out when the two are compared, which is sadly the case.

  7. know i'm a month late. researching this topic and came across your blog. Just thought data might be useful.

  8. The "pollutants" caused by the creation of the solar cells is comparable to the creation any thing else that will sustain power. This small amount of "pollution" is heavily outweighed by the benefits of solar power.

  9. Al, there's no need to use italics because that is actual pollution.

    I am not saying that solar panels cause more pollution than oil, I am saying the pollution should not be ignored. There is also a difference between calculating solar panels in ideal conditions versus actual conditions, such as people in shady New England towns putting them on the side of the roof where their neighbors can see them.