Friday, 9 June 2017

Do solar panels have a dark side?

While browsing through the battlefield of prejudices and preconceptions that is the internet, I came across the graphic below, proudly showing how much better coal and oil are than solar power. This was a retort to Bernie Sanders boasting about the great contribution solar power was making to job creation. They cite the broken window fallacy, which is the mistaken belief that breaking a window is good for the economy, because of all the work it for glaziers, carpenters and painters. I can't help feeling that the broken window that this metaphor really applies to is the global environment, which the economy has been breaking for the past couple of hundred years, and has yet to seriously think about repairing. ​Anyway, the author's conclusion was ​that it takes 79 solar workers to produce the same amount of electric power as one coal worker produces.
Of course, he is missing the fact that almost all coal workers' 2016 efforts have now been burnt, while most of the solar jobs were installing production capacity. If all of these workers stopped for 2017, then coal and natural gas would produce zero kWh. Solar, on the other hand, would produce more or less the same amount. In fact those panels installed in 2016 will still be producing power for at least the next quarter century. In addition, many of the jobs in the solar industry are leading directly or indirectly to increasingly efficient solar panels and better ways of using them, so when those panels eventually need replacing, their replacements will be more efficient, cheaper, lighter, less energy intensive and with a lower environmental impact in their production and disposal.

This guy has a similar story, and once again it seems to be coming from the right, and firmly putting renewable energy on the left wing, and the left field. "Our lives are improved by finding ways to reduce the amount of labor in them, not increase it​," they both claim​.

​Of course, a lot of labour-reducing measures have not lead to a reduction in labour but an increase. In the 1930s John Maynard Keynes predicted that ​his grandchildren would be working 15 hour weeks. He didn't actually have any grandchildren, so that part of his prediction was wrong to start with. But his sister's grandchildren, interviewed here and now retired, worked a lot more than fifteen hours a week. In fact one claims it was more like fifteen hours a day. Work has expanded to fill the available time. Computers have not yet liberated the masses from work, but have enslaved millions behind their keyboards. Cheap products have just allowed people to buy more. One of the​noble aims of the industrial ​revolution was to provide every man with his own shirt, but it has just led to many overflowing wardrobes. ​A kind of Jevons paradox exists here too, as we spend all our time using these labour saving devices. But I digress from the solar issue.

​The bottom line is, of course, that solar panels do require work, energy and resources in their production, and looking backwards it's difficult to argue that they are using less carbon. Looking forward there is a different picture, and solar power and other renewables make zero-carbon energy production possible. Burning fossil fuels does not. There is no reason to ever build another coal plant in the United States​, or anywhere else for that matter.