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Issues & Insights

Solar Energy: Good For Virtue Signaling And Not Much Else

I&I Editorial

There’s a great future in solar, the fossil-fuel haters have been telling us for some time. They might be right. One day. But they’ve been saying that for quite a while, and the future continues to be out there … somewhere.

Not so long ago, the French even thought paving their highways with solar panels was a good idea. But “Three Years Later,” says a Popular Mechanics headline from late last week, “the French Solar Road Is a Total Flop.”

How can this be? Solar, we’ve long been told, will save us all.

“It’s too noisy, falling apart, and doesn’t even collect enough solar energy,” says PM.

France’s Sun Road, known locally as the Wattway — what, nobody thought of Voltabahn or Wattastrada? — was an “experiment that seemed ingenious in its simplicity: fill a road with photovoltaic panels and let them passively soak up the rays as cars drive harmlessly above.”

However, its “most optimistic supporters have deemed” it a “failure,” says PM. It couldn’t handle the weight of heavy trucks, the surface made so much racket that the speed limit had to be lowered to 43 mph, and it’s failed to deliver the power that had been promised.

Flaws include poor location (“Normandy is not historically known as a sunny area,” says Popular Mechanics, to which we add, no area is sunny at night); storms (the climate alarmists will blame global warming for their existence); and questionable design (solar panels work when best directed toward the sun, not arranged flat on the ground as a road bed).

Critics, according to PM, say the group that built the road “pursued the project too quickly before fully investigating its cost effectiveness.” That can happen when virtue signaling is given priority over sound investment.

France’s Sun Road is not an isolated bitter experience in dabbling in solar and other renewable energy sources. There have been, and will be, others:

Germany. Chancellor Angela Merkel announced in 2011 that the country was shutting down its nuclear power plants — the only genuinely green power source on Earth — and replacing the lost energy with renewables. A few months ago, Der Spiegel reported that since the announcement, “progress has been limited” and “Berlin has wasted billions of euros and resistance is mounting.”

McKinsey & Company analysts have noticed that under renewables, Germany “is far from meeting the targets it set for itself.” Then last December, an energy engineer, a petroleum engineer, and a physicist who is also a university researcher wrote that Germany took on the challenge “to show the world how to build a society based entirely on ‘green, renewable’ energy,” then “hit a brick wall.”

“Despite huge investments in wind, solar and biofuel energy production capacity, Germany has not reduced CO2 emissions over the last 10 years. However, during the same period, its electricity prices have risen dramatically, significantly impacting factories, employment and poor families.”

Nevada. If voters ultimately approve a constitutional amendment — Question 6 — that would require wind and solar to provide 50% of the state’s energy by 2030, “the consequences of this could be tragic for” the state, says Hoover Institution scholar Richard Epstein.

Epstein also included this gem in his Las Vegas Review-Journal op-ed: “Supporters of Question 6 presume that the world may well burn to a crisp if immediate and prompt steps are not taken to deal with rising carbon dioxide levels, rising temperatures and rising seas. But this causal chain is broken at every link.”

Ivanpah. The titanic solar thermal plant eats up 3,500 acres in the California desert nearer Las Vegas than Los Angeles. On average, says Forbes energy writer Michael Shellenberger, “solar farms take 450 times more land than nuclear plants.” Ivanpah is also an ecological menace. The mirrors that reflect sunlight toward the plants’s towers create such extreme heat above them that they have killed thousands of birds.

Australia. A solar project in South Australia similar to the Ivanpah avian skillet will not be moving forward because “the company behind it failed to secure commercial finance for the project.” Private investors tend to stay away from projects and developments that are likely to fail.

Solyndra. A signature government solar panel initiative stoked by politics failed and left taxpayers with a $500 million bill. Why did the company flop? Cato Institute Executive Vice President David Boaz has compiled a handy list of reasons:

  • Officials spent other people’s money with little incentive to spend it prudently.
  • There was political pressure to make decisions without proper vetting.
  • Political judgment was substituted for the judgments of millions of investors.
  • The enthusiastic embrace of fads like “green energy.”
  • Political officials ignoring warnings from civil servants,
  • Close connections between politicians and the companies that benefit from government allocation of capital.
  • The appearance — at least — of favors for political supporters.

Shellenberger says “one big reason” solar panels, as well as wind turbines, “appear to be making electricity so expensive” is “their inherently unreliable nature, which requires expensive additions to the electrical grid in the form of natural gas plants, hydro-electric dams, batteries, or some other form of standby power.”

The fossil-fuel haters, which include the agenda-driven media, will point out that solar has become cheaper since he wrote that a little more than a year ago. But as Shellenberger asked this year, “if solar and wind are so cheap, why are they making electricity so expensive?”

“Between 2009 and 2017, the price of solar panels per watt declined by 75% while the price of wind turbines per watt declined by 50%,” he wrote in Forbes in March. “And yet — during the same period — the price of electricity in places that deployed significant quantities of renewables increased dramatically.”

This has happened, says Shellenberger, because the value of wind and solar has declined “significantly” as they have become “a larger part of electricity supply.” They still have a “fundamentally unreliable nature.” 

One day solar and wind just might be the cheapest and most reliable energy sources. But the innovation has to advance on its own. No amount of hoping, legislating, subsidizing, lecturing, and eco-exhibitionism will accelerate the process.


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The Issues and Insights Editorial Board has decades of experience in journalism, commentary and public policy.

4 comments

  • Wind and solar are the Utopians road map to a better, cleaner World. What they do is make people colder in Winter, hotter in Summer and poorer, with electricity rates that will necessarily skyrocket (Obama).

  • I disagree. Solar is great. I always hang out my clothes and they dry real quick. My green family who I get lecture about saving the earth prefers spending lots and lots of hours using the electric dryer “cause the clothes feel softer”. And lets waste our precious water too. Use a towel one time and it needs to be washed. They’re all talk. Like Gore and Decaprio on smaller levels. Save the whales.

  • Try giving the monetary incentives the fossil fuel industry has been enjoying for decades, to the renewable industries. It’s a twisted system and part of key is to get panels on people’s home and other buildings. NY & NJ have great tax rebates both state & federal that is making solar much more affordable. This article does not address what’s going on in our country home by home.. be part of the solution or get out of the way..

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