Edwin Koot writes about the 10 major myths about solar energy.
1. Generating Solar Energy Is Only Possible In Countries With A Lot Of Sunshine
The fact is, the energy of the sun is the most evenly spread source of energy in the world. In any part of the world where there is light, solar panels will work. The world’s biggest market for solar energy is … Germany, a country not particularly blessed with long days full of sunshine, but a country with a smart government nonetheless. In the summer, more than 10% of the household electricity in the south of Germany is generated by solar panels.
Of course, when you’re living in the Sahara region, your ROI will be higher, but there are many other factors playing a role, such as the presence of a grid, the local consumer price for electricity, your energy usage pattern, the political stability in a your country, your need for independency from external sources of energy, and many more. As an example, in Northern Alaska it is smarter to invest in solar energy than to pull a cable from a far away power plant or grid connection point.
2. Solar Panels Are Only Attractive In Niche Markets
Solar energy is an attractive product in any place where people need electricity, which nowadays is anywhere in the civilized world - globally. That is a much larger market than just large-scale solar plants in desert areas, which are very competitive markets, because they need creation of new grids, are competing with wholesale prices for electricity and are crowded with many other power-generating enterprises.
When you concentrate on solar panels for household or entrepreneurial use that can be mounted on a rooftop, you can compete against the local consumer and corporate rates for electricity. You can compare this with the market for compact fluorescent lamps, where the consumer at the end of the day saves money by investing a small sum of money. The ROI is made at the end-consumer level: the height of the electricity bill. The investments are very simple, and no new grids or other types of costly infrastructure are needed.
3. Solar Energy Needs A Lot Of Public Financial Support And Could Never Become Competitive
“People will never buy laptops.” “Flat screens televisions are too expensive for the general consumer market.” “Mobile communication is too expensive in comparison with landlines.” These are some of the opinions that we have heard in the past, and how untrue they were! Laptops, flat-screen televisions and mobile phones are now everywhere, because people wanted them, needed them and were willing to pay for them, and finally the prices went down because of mass production methods that could be applied for the innovative products. The same is now happening with solar energy systems.
In the past three years, the prices of solar panels have gone down by half, as a result of the introduction of large-scale production methods. Marketing research shows that innovative consumers want solar energy now. In 5 years, your average consumer worldwide will want his solar panels, just like he wants his smart-phone and laptop. Your consumer will want them, because the solar energy from those panels will be cheaper and greener than the electricity from the grid.
Public funding was created in the past to accelerate this process of acceptance by the general consumer. In the largest markets, the subsidies are now in the process of being terminated. By next year, in Italy and Germany solar energy without any form subsidy will already be cheaper than electricity from the grid. The other European countries will follow this trend soon.
And other countries worldwide will follow, for the simple reason that the global market is getting bigger and bigger and solar systems are getting cheaper and cheaper. That is one thing for sure. The other side is that nobody knows what the costs for traditional energy will be in 10 years. Today, new nuclear plants won’t be even build without substantial government funding, because their future is so insecure.
4. The Efficiency Of Solar Panels Is Still Too Low
True, it could be better. Like cars getting more economical every year, solar panels are getting more efficient every year. Are the current panels not good enough? No, the technology is mature and the panels are good. What is at stake now, is not the efficiency of panels, but the price per generated kilowatt-hour. It is no longer about the type of motor in a car, but about how much fuel the motor consumes per mile.
There will still be new types of solar panels developed, with better efficiency, but the real success of solar energy in the future will lie in large-scale production matters and growth of the global market. A low purchasing price for a solar panel will be the determining factor for low-cost generation of solar energy for the consumer.
Are you waiting with buying a car because the models will be better, faster and greener in 2 years? Not if you need a car right now … In the same way, people need solar panels right now and buy them now, because they help them realize certain goals, such as independency from the grid, lowers costs for electricity and a carbon footprint shift. No new technologies are needed to create a breakthrough for solar panels. They are the breakthrough.
5. Solar Panels Have A High Carbon Footprint And Are Not Sustainable
Solar panels are usually made from silicon. Silicon is found in sand, one of the most widespread natural elements on earth. The ovens used to transform the sand into silicon use a lot of energy - that is true. But the payback time for the energy used to produce a solar panel is only 1 to 2 years. This means that in this time the panel generates the total amount of energy that has been used for its complete production - thanks to the free energy of the sun.
All power generated after the payback time is pure green profit, while solar panels can last 25 to 40 years! Other sources of energy have much longer payback times. Specifically, nuclear power plants have extremely long payback times, so long that it is questionable whether all the power that was generated during their lifetime is enough to pay for the energy used to build and disassemble them.
6. Solar Panels Are Unreliable, Because On Cloudy Days And During The Night They Do Not Work
Right now, the market for wind energy is (still) bigger than the one for solar energy, although the sun is a more reliable source of energy than the wind. But solar energy will soon surpass wind energy, firstly because solar panels can be used anywhere and secondly because they can be implemented in a modular way. This means that is very easy to expand the solar energy system in the course of months or years.
The combination of solar and wind energy is a nice option, but the future lies in the combination of solar energy with energy storage on a local and on a central level, especially now that the market for transport of electricity will grow further.
The market for central storage of energy is also going to be a phenomenal growing market. Central storage of energy in batteries creates the possibility to store the power generated during the day and use it in the night. An example is charging your electrical car at night. Energy storage is already a hot item - you only have to think of laptops, iPods, iPads and electric scooters and bicycles - but solar energy will give this market a big boost. The combination solar power generation and energy storage for later use is a perfect one.
The markets for central storage of energy and for solar energy systems will stimulate each other mutually, because when storage gets cheaper, it becomes cheaper to generate solar energy with the purpose of storing it and using it at a later time.
7. The Big Energy Corporations Do Not Believe In Solar Energy And Thus It Can Not Be Good
Shell finished their engagement with solar energy already. Exxon does nothing with solar energy. Many large energy corporations prefer to invest in coal power plants. But, don’t expect a wholesale slaughterhouse to specialize in gourmet green meat products. Shell has oil in its blood and their business is based on it. Large multinationals are like large tankers on the ocean: they are very difficult to maneuver and cannot make quick changes in course.
Solar energy is a sport for fast and flexible entrepreneurs, with a preference for innovation and sustainability. The market is volatile and ever changing, like the wind in the sails of an elegant and fast sailing ship. An entrepreneur in solar energy has to be like the shipper of such a sailing ship, sometimes tacking in headwind, sometimes easy-going down the wind, but never windless …
And as such, electronic market giant Sharp, a worldwide market leader in solar panels, shows us that some large companies do believe in solar panels. Sharp understood that mass production of solar panels would lower their price, and that ‘mass = cash’. The mass market for solar panels is about to come into existence – and not just in Japan.
Shell has predicted that in 2040, 50% of the worldwide energy will be generated by sustainable sources. Chances are big that sooner or later Shell will buy one of the consolidated winners in the solar energy market. Some of the ‘small’ solar panel producing companies have already grown into large corporations, with thousands of employees and turnarounds of a few billion dollars per year.
Google grew in 10 years to become one of the largest companies worldwide, so why not a company in solar energy systems?
8. Solar Energy Has No Role In The Global Generation of Energy
At this moment, solar energy contributes to only 1% of the worldwide need for energy. But, this contribution could be growing surprisingly fast. Germany is the guiding country, where it is expected that in 5 years, 10% of all energy used will come from solar panels.
And what Germany can do, other countries can do too. For emerging economies, it has already become useless to build large coal or nuclear power plants when solar panels are getting so cheap so quickly. You can compare this with the introduction of the mobile phone in India and other countries that didn’t even have a mature landline grid.
Those grids were never further developed and will never be, because they were made redundant by the introduction of the mobile technology. The same thing could happen with the introduction of solar energy on the markets of the emerging countries. The building of new, large power plants will become redundant, because individual, decentralized power generation is cheaper, more efficient and much more flexible.
The photovoltaic world market has grown in 2010 with more than 100% compared to 2009, and it already started to grow in this way in 2009. If this logarithmic growth percentage of 100% continues, then solar energy will cover the entire global energy needs in less than 10 years!
9. Solar Panels Are Unsightly And Take Up A Lot Of Space
That really depends on taste. Of course, there will always be people who believe a smoking chimney of a coal power plant is the apex of industrial technology and esthetics. Other people don’t mind showing that they are generating their own electricity and therefore have solar panels on their roofs. Anyway, there will always be enough space on earth for all solar panels ever needed.
Mind you, only a relatively small desert area of 200 by 250 kilometers (125 by 155 miles) filled with the solar panel technology of today would be needed to fulfill the total need for electricity of Europe. But, luckily, we don’t have to enter into those beautiful desert landscapes, because there is enough roof area available in Europe to realize this supply. And on a lot of roofs, the panels won’t even be visible.
Also, more attractive panels will be introduced on the market as production methods and innovations proceed. Compare it with the cars of today, which are so beautiful, compared to the vintage cars of the ‘60’s and 70’s … or not?
10. Solar Energy Systems Are Unreliable And Require Maintenance
Solar energy systems do not have moving parts and therefore require no or hardly any maintenance. The most fragile part in a grid-connected solar energy system is the inverter, which converts the DC from the solar panels into AC equal to the voltage of the grid.
An inverter costs about 10% of your total energy system costs. It consists of some pieces of micro-electronics, can last about 10 years, and can easily be replaced for a then probably even low price.
Only in dry and dusty climates, it can become necessary to clean the panels regularly with a little water. If you live in an environment where it rains often, you don’t even need to do that.
A recycling program for solar panels has already been put in place in many countries, so if after 25 years of loyal service you would need to replace your solar panel, the solar energy sector has processes to recycle all panels for 100%. And no coal power plant can beat that.