Why Solar Is The Best Alternative

There’s sort of an 11th commandment in the renewable energy sector–‘Thou shalt not speak ill of another renewable form of energy’. So I’ll have to phrase all of this carefully.

Without speaking negatively of other forms of renewables I want to speak about why solar is the best of the lot.

Nah–I’m not going to get away with that.

We in the solar industry are not any nicer or better-behaved than professionals in the wind power industry. We’re not kinder to small animals and we don’t eat better food.

But the reason we’re going to win is inherent in the properties of solar as it is offered on the market. Let me explain.

Wind power as it stands today is marketed by large, multi-national companies (usually divisions of really, really large companies like GE) to equally large government bodies or utilities. It’s big business. It operates on big business timelines and is subject to the constraints that normally make big business difficult. If government starts to frown at wind power, it hides under a rock until things change.

For many of the multinationals, wind power is almost a sideline–they don’t live or die on wind. For some, in fact, it’s there to provide a green sheen to their reputation. So they don’t pay as much attention to it. And this has led them to ignore important pricing and supply signals, which led them to raise prices at really inopportune times, halting the momentum of their particular sector.

Wind is more expensive to install–but it’s also more expensive to maintain. You can’t put it up and forget about it. And when it fails, it does not fail gracefully–there are pictures of burning wind turbines all over the intertubes.

As I said, we in the solar biz are not better people than those in wind. But we can sell smaller scale systems to homes and businesses. We’re not exclusively tied to the same dinosaur customers. There isn’t the same concentration of manufacturers–there are maybe 10 serious wind turbine manufacturers. There are thousands (for now) of solar manufacturers. That’s why innovation is helping us more than wind right now–we’re not brighter than they are. We’re just under greater pressure from the competition.

Finally, although the big solar farms in the desert get the publicity (when it isn’t being lavishly bestowed on solar companies going out of business), solar’s footprint can be small enough to grow quickly without attracting hostile attention from the real forces that would fight us–the fossil fuel industry and (until recently, when they finally woke up) the utility companies. We snuck in under the radar, letting fracked natural gas and offshore wind farms get all the ink while we kept slapping small systems on your neighbor’s rooftop and the warehouse down by the strip mall.

So now we’re here. Imagine that.

3 responses to “Why Solar Is The Best Alternative

  1. Hi Tom,

    I think both wind and solar are needed for a low carbon energy infrastructure. There are some key differences in their economics though: Per kilowatt hour of electricity produced, solar PV is (a lot) more expensive than windpower (the difference being greater with onshore wind than with offshore wind). However, rooftop PV typically competes with household retail prices, whereas large scale wind farms compete with the wholesale prices, which are much lower. In Holland I think the difference is about a factor of 4 (don’t quote me on that; wrote this by heart).

    The prospects for grid parity though (solar PV reaching the same price as retail electricity prices) are looking quite good, even in cloudy Holland: http://www.ecn.nl/docs/library/report/2012/n12002.pdf

    For large scale electricity production, I think that wind has the better cards (economically speaking), whereas for local (household based) production, solar does. If the latter could make as big of a dent in the total as the former remains to be seen though.

    • Hiya Bart!

      Glad to see you finally made it over here. Your points are logical, especially in the Netherlands. But what I’ll be pushing for here is the idea that rooftop solar is the joker in the deck that can grow to meet the unexpected energy needs I’ve detailed here. Wind is programmed in to everybody’s equations, so there is little in the way of new capacity there. The same is more or less true for the big solar farms. So I think we’d all better hope for good growth from home solar…

  2. Tom, I also feel very positively toward solar (all I have are some outside trattoria lights, tho!). It’s the rushing headlong into large projects, largely based on the huge sums of money available, with the attendant group think (the woman who is mandated with protecting this piece of the world can only say she must sacrifice it in the name of climate change).

    It’s this Damn the tortoises, full speed ahead mentality, fueled not by fossils but by groupthink, dogma and “free money.”

    It might have been you when you had your Examiner column, but the idea of within at least high sunshine cities, every parking garage, etc., would have them – no problems with transmission lines, right there in the city for the city (or town of course) and perhaps some of the environs. But this?

    This sickens me

    http://www.latimes.com/news/local/la-me-solar-desert-20120205,0,762414,full.story

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