Janus Revealed – The Mythology of Solar Energy

The deity associated with twin perspectives, Janus (Roman mythology) frequently symbolized change and/or transitions. A single being with dualistic vision, oversees the progress of past to future, from one condition to another, from one vision to another, and growth to adulthood. Janus is afforded a unique perspective in that the past and the future is known, and therefore the present is seen through a lens of wisdom and understanding that those living it, in real-time, may not share. The absolute convictions under which we perceive our reality may, through this omniscient lens, be less absolute than we can imagine. Complicated systems are very difficult to describe, yet we are involved with them daily.  We use our perspective, born of the age into which live, as a means to organize our world, and we utilize our language to provide fancy labels.  All too frequently, these labels mislead us into a “fact space” that may not be consistent with reality.  We would greatly benefit from having an enlarged perspective to avoid this type of pitfall. It is too bad that unlike Janus, we cannot see into the past and future with sufficient clarity to sharpen our focus for the here and now.

A prime example of this problem is that of the “Green” movements love affair with Solar energy, they believe it to be simple, free, plentiful, and harmless. Yet, it is very complicated, and certainly not as available, economically or environmentally friendly as they would have everyone believe. Nevertheless, the sycophants who sit at the feet of the Solar oracle are imbued with absolute conviction, that the greenest of the green solution for electrical power are solar photovoltaics (PVs). As the story is told:

Once upon a time, in a world made magic with the largesse of creation, a device, springing from the mind of man, has reached out to harness the power of divinity.  Tapping into the very essence of creation, the glare of a solar furnace from which all life springs, eternally showering our planet with the life force bequeathed to man by the divine.  It is there for the taking!  Freely available to all who choose to partake.  And partake we do!

Nature has soaked up this essence and provided us with stored solar power for millennia.  The very food we eat – finds the wellspring of energy from this fount.  Further; as civilization advances, and as our per capita appetite for energy grows unsated, we advance our means to directly tap into the free spray of cosmological essence.  

The culmination of this effort is the PV power cell. These talismanic devices, quietly, with a high-tech glint of blue/black panache, convert the shower of gold from SOL into free electricity.  Just shore of plugging an extension cord directly into divinity!

Unfortunately, magic doesn’t exist, and, alas, PV’s are not the panacea that one would hope for.  Yes, all must acknowledge that solar PV’s are important in specialized niche conditions.  But as a significant solution to our appetite for energy, they fall very short of the mark.  Worse, PV’s are an environmental and economic Trojan-horse (yes, now a Greek mythological reference!).

What is Solar?

In totality, Solar-Energy encompasses various embodiments: Peat, Wood, Hydro-Electric, Ethanol, Biomass, Coal, Oil, Natural Gas, Wind, Heliostat thermal, Panel Thermal, BioCarbons, and Photovoltaics.  Each of which has a place.  Beyond solar, there exists a more limited milieu: ie. geothermal, fission, inertial taps and NRPT (not ready for prime time) fusion, and zero-point quantum energy (admittedly these are a stretch as they have yet to provide any energy return).

But, back to solar.  Other than heliostat thermal, and PVs, all other derivative solar energy solutions are the result of biological activity which convert solar irradiance into high density chemical storage.

It is true that our Sun presents abundant, reliable and emission free power. Indeed, stored Solar-Power, in the form of bio-carbons (coal, oil, and natural gas), have been the driving force of industrialization and advancement.  However, Sun alone cannot do the magic to provide useable power.

By the Numbers

It is convenient to view solar panels as harmless fancy glass windows that, with no negative effect, convert the free sunlight into useable electricity.  But, they are constructed from a variety of materials and chemicals which, in their manufacture, harm the environment. With a smile; users proclaim this to be a clean energy solution; but they forget the life cycle involved in harnessing solar energy.

Our Sun continuously bathes the earth with light energy (irradiance) with only modest interruptions by solar eclipses. The illuminated area (at any given time) of the earth is 255 million square kilometers (or 98.5 million square miles.) Of these, 74 million square kilometers (or 28.5 million square miles) is land. The rest is ocean.

These oceans are teeming with single and multicellular organisms that convert sunlight into chemical energy.  So too are the land area rife with photosynthesizing flora. From these activities, a chemical cornucopia of compounds provides the foundation for life, through the storage and transport of vital energy.  These activities began about 3.4 billion years ago!  The bounty of which is stored-solar-energy ready for our use.

Allowing for the incident fall-off of the sun’s irradiance (insolation), it follows that, at any moment, the earth receives, on average, 6.375 petawatts (a petawatt is 1,000,000,000,000,000 watts) of solar energy at the surface of the planet (or about 56,000 petawatthours annually.) However, the mean efficiency for deployed Photovoltaic devices is about 13 percent (to be fair, there are tested devices with maximum efficiencies of about 23% under ideal conditions). Therefore, if one could cover the earth with photovoltaic cells, the solar energy could continuously power 780 billion toasters or about 100 toasters per person living today. But, most of the planet is water.  Therefore, the maximum area available for practical use is significantly less. It is estimated that restricting the use of land only to that utilizable for solar irradiance would produce, at best, 1.855 peta watts, or annually 8,760 petawatt hours of electricity.

The current Annual power consumption of the world at the time of this writing is 200 petwatthours or about 1/43rd the theoretically maximum recoverable amount of solar energy.  To achieve this goal at least 2,000,000 square km or 800,000 square miles would need to be covered with photovoltaic cells. Unfortunately, since the world rotates the actual land area needed to provide the continuous power would be nearly 20 times larger. Roughly 16 million square miles or about 41 million square kilometers. This is about 11 times the size of the entire United States.  Worse, this would have to be evenly spread out around the Globe. It would take a capital investment more than   $13,325,000,000,000,000.  About 300 times the entire economic output of the planet for 2016!

Facts would help understand the significant issues. It is universally acknowledged that a large amount of land is required to produce power from solar plants.  But it is necessary to first look at the land use for conventional power plants.  A non-solar utility scale power plant (Coal, Nuclear, etc) requires an average of 2 acres to generate one megawatt capacity of power. But as the scale of the power plant increases, the land use ratio drops dramatically. The site for a 1 gw, (1,000 mw) power plant is only about 12.5 times large at about 25 acres. The extent of the reservation for some installations (security perimeter) is of course potentially larger, but that is normally primitive conditions and does not count as used area.

PV solar farms require about 10 acres to produce 1 mw and 1,000 acres to produce 1 gw. Yet this is not the whole story. A 1 mw solar farm needs to be six times larger just to produce the daily production of a 1 mw conventional power plant. This is because the peak solar power is only available for about 2-4 hours per day, without considering weather.

If the Solar Farm is large, it must, like conventional plants, manage the power to grid delivery.  Solar facilities must store this power on site and regulate its delivery to the grid demand.  This requires either large scale battery storage, gravity, pressure, or inertial storage.  All of which are under 65% efficient. That means the size must go up by an additional 25% for the solar field and must now include an area budget for the storage and grid matching substations.

Whew, now the 10-acre site has grown to about 80 acres just to reliably produce 1 mw of continuous power. This does not include contingencies for inclement weather!

The site estimates for solar farms when they represent small additions to a dynamic grid are easy.  When they are used to produce significant power, the site design must mirror the dynamics and reliability of conventional power generating plants.  The solar pundits try to hide this problem by quoting maximum power density instead of levelized use. Solar, and other intermittent energy sources, must be regularized so as to compete with and supplement existing power generating schemes.  Merely stating a peak power availability (overhead sun, low angle of incidence, clear sky, low ambient temperature) is meaningless. That condition, is at best, only realizable for 2-4 hours a day.  With storage and regeneration, the peak number equates to more than 8 times the average power. This is smoke, and mirrors designed to hide the poor economies of Solar.

Electric power is usually sold by the “kilowatt hour” (KwH) which is the product of power in kilowatts multiplied by running time in hours. Typically, solar farms do not provide a rating in commercial power units.  They merely provide a watt rating which is 1 joule of energy per second.  To have value, it is vital to know for how long the power generation facility can provide the rated power.  Conventional power generation plants can provide their power, continuously, over their entire economic life, save for brief scheduled maintenance.  On the other hand, Solar facilities can provide their rated power for less than 1/8th of their projected economic lifespan. Moreover, since the power is cyclic on a daily basis, going from zero for over half the time, to a peak that only lasts for 2 to 4 hours, the solar yield rating is of no consequence.

The siting of a solar farm must include provisions beyond the mere power insolation area.  The lands are also used for access roads, transmission lines, maintenance areas, energy storage and grid integration. This is unavoidable baggage that accompanies each solar panel.

Manufacturing considerations

Manufacturing a solar panel is an energy and resource consuming process, which will eventually lead to scarcity.  To produce photovoltaics capable of producing 1 mw of power from the Sun, 13 tons of “solar grade” polysilicon is used.  This equates to, roughly, 20 tons of silicon quartz before processing to PV grade silicon. Other more specialized materials are also used in the manufacture. Some are process materials that do not actually find their way into the device itself.  Metals, including rare earths are major considerations as well.

Demand for energy consumption involved in the manufacture of solar panels continuously increases. A one megawatt – peak power – solar plant, using 19% efficient solar technology, uses nearly 3,240 solar panels with the average panel area at about 1.626 square meters. The total area of solar cells required to provide a 1-megawatt capacity is 5,268 square meters. Approximately 0.25 megawatt hours of power is required to produce a 1 square meter panel.  This is a total of 1,317 megawatt-hours to produce the panels for one megawatt of solar. Assuming other forms of energy support the production process it is apparent that the carbon footprint is not minimal in solar energy’s life cycle. To repay this manufacturing energy debt, the solar farm would have to operate continuously for 1 year. Adding in the installation energy and ancillary equipment necessary to operate the farm, the energy payback time budget easily exceeds 3 years.

Yes! Solar energy is green, clean and emission free but at what cost?  Problems associated with solar energy are vast and mostly blindfolded.

Solar energy is harvested using solar panels, solar panels are not available freely, they must be manufactured – just like any other electronic device. This involves a dirty and energy consuming process. Firstly, raw materials have to be mined to remove quartz sand for silicon cells. A series of chemical stages are carried out to make silicon as a semiconductor which can conduct electricity. Finally, upgraded materials must be manufactured into solar cells and assembled into modules.

Upgrading silica sand to electronics grade silicon, and on to polysilicon results in the emission of hazardous materials and by products such as chlorosilanes, hydrogen chloride, silicon tetrachloride, carbon dioxide and sulfur dioxide which are harmful.

All these processes produce air pollution, emissions of heavy metals, consume energy and encompass environmental impacts like land deterioration, loss of biodiversity, pollution, logistical infrastructural damages, deterioration of ground water and natural drainage system.

Minnesota Department of Health says that “the recent increase of silica sand mining in Minnesota is raising community concerns about possible environmental impacts from silica sand mining.”1

Assembling individual solar cells typically involves soldering copper wire coated with tin, some manufactures use lead and other metals. This results in release of harmful gases into the environment and pose problems to global warming.

The mere installation of solar panels requires tons of metals like aluminum, steel, plastic, and rubber for infrastructure. Production of these components need raw materials which have to be mined and or synthesized.  These industrial scale efforts cause considerable damage to the environment and use a great deal of energy.  The harmful gases and materials released during the process, are dumped back into the environment presaging calamitous consequences as capacity ramps up.

Dustin Mulvaney, an assistant professor of environmental studies at San Jose State University working for the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition (SVTC) in an advisory capacity opined that “It would be difficult to find a PV module that does not use at least one rare or precious metal.”2

From this chart it is obvious that Solar PV uses more materials per energy capacity than any other.  Of course, this does not include the fuel.  Solar’s fuel is 93,000,000 miles distant, while the others are earthbound.

“Solar panel releases harmful chemicals into the environment at the beginning of a solar panel’s life during its construction life and at the end of its life when it is not handled or disposed properly.” 3 The toxic chemicals in solar panels include cadmium telluride, copper indium selenide, cadmium gallium (di)selenide, copper indium gallium (di)selenide, hexafluoroethane, lead, polyvinyl fluoride and crystalline silicon. Lastly, silicon tetrachloride, a byproduct of producing crystalline silicon, is highly toxic and requires special disposal techniques.

There are potential negative environmental and health impacts from PV modules throughout their life cycles, ranging from raw-materials extraction and procurement impacts, toxic and hazardous materials use in manufacturing, and the disposal and recycling of modules at the end of their useful lives,” according to the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition’s “Solar Scorecard 2011.” 4

Environmental Progress (EP) researchers Jemin Desai and Mark Nelson, observed that developing countries like India, Ghana and China frequently “burn the e-waste in order to salvage the valuable copper wires for resale, Since this process requires burning off plastic, the resulting smoke contains toxic fumes that are carcinogenic and teratogenic (birth defect-causing) when inhaled.” 5

The article from EP on “Are we headed for a solar waste crisis” found that solar panels create 300 times more toxic waste per unit of energy than nuclear power plants. “If solar and nuclear generate the same amount of electricity over next 25 years that nuclear produced in 2016, and the wastes are stacked on football fields, the nuclear waste would reach the height of the leaning tower of Pisa (52 meters), while the solar waste would reach the height of two Mt. Everest’s (16 km)”.6

The Associated Press investigated and determined that from 2007 to 2011, the manufacture of solar panels in California “produced 46.5 million pounds of sludge and contaminated water. Nearly 97 percent of it was transported to hazardous waste facilities in the state, whereas more than 1.4 million pounds were transported to nine other states.”5

It is accepted amongst renewable energy analysts that “it would take one to three months of electricity generated from solar panels to pay off the energy invested in moving the hazardous waste emission out to a safe place.”

Also, “it would take 19 years for Toshiba Environmental solutions to finish recycling all of the solar waste Japan produced by 2020. By 2034 the annual waste production is estimated to increase 70 – 80 times larger than that of 2020.6

The Press Enterprise observed that “the giant Ivanpah solar thermal power plant(s) in the California Mojave Desert, use natural gas as a

supplementary fuel when the sun wasn’t sufficient or available.”7 The plant burned enough natural gas in 2014 in its first year of operation to emit more than 46,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide and methane emissions.

 

How Solar Farms affect the ecology

Flat green land of thousands of acres is cleared and used to develop ever glistening solar power facilities.  Such installations, adversely affect native vegetation and wildlife and add imbalance to the environment resulting in loss of habitat, interference in rainfall and drainage.  Indigenous fauna is injured or killed by direct contact with Solar farm installations.  Worse, the land is not available for use, or for access.  It is a fenced reservation.  A virtual parking lot with the same albedo.  It will adversely affect the local climate in dramatic fashion.  These are massive, contiguous, impervious hot zones that do not find similarity in nature.  It is the embodiment of instant urbanization.

Fox News8 and HOT AiR9 have branded Ivanpah, the world’s largest solar-thermal power plants, a “carbon polluter” by pointing to its CO2 emissions having exceeding the top federal threshold that mandates reporting as a greenhouse gas emitting facility. “Ivanpah solar project has direct influence in killing more than 3,500 birds of 83 different species of birds during its first year of operation.”9

Nearly 6,000 birds are killed each year by the Mojave Desert solar plant. Even after taking all necessary precaution to avoid birds flying in and around plant.10

Argonne researchers estimated that large solar farms are responsible for somewhere between 37,800 and 138,600 bird deaths in the United States each year.11

Solar development projects in the Ivanpah Valley are not the kind of wildlife-friendly renewable energy projects one would have expected. California and Ivanpah valley are most suitable habitat in the Mojave desert for the beleaguered and threatened desert tortoise which is also suitable locations for solar development projects, so much so that the region’s ability to support wildlife has been compromised and this has negative ramifications for the tortoise’s future.12

Climate Change

Solar power plants require a large amount of sunlight and find attractive siting in arid regions. However thermal solar plants are designed to use water to run wet cooling towers and turbines. These water usages may result in difficulties in arid regions. A plant which generates 50 MW of power consumes 0.4 – 0.5 million cubic meters of water per year for cooling alone.

All solar power technologies use about 20 gallons per megawatt hour for cleaning solar collection and reflection surfaces like mirrors, heliostats, panels, trough and dishes.

There are no global warming emissions that are formed during the power generation by solar energy.  But the change in albedo resulting from giant Solar Farms areas does significantly fuel climate change.  Also, there are harmful gases associated with other stages of solar life cycle, including manufacturing, materials transportation, maintenance, installation and during recycling. Yet the interruption of flora growth below the installed panels can and does impact the take up of greenhouse gases normal to a thriving ecosystem

Land Use

Solar Farms require vast tracts of land.  Typically, these are found far from the market where power is most needed. Expensive transmission lines are deployed to bring the power to a distant market. This too can impact surrounding land and wildlife. Merely clearing and grading the land results in soil erosion, compaction and alteration of drainage channels.

While the sun shines continuously, unfortunately our planet is not solar synchronous.  It presents a changing face to the sun throughout its 24-hour diurnal cycle. Also, it is not only the hours of daylight that matter, but various places receive less energy at times which changes with the weather, and the season. Therefore, every solar/alternative energy installation requires co-generation facilities, which are installed to run in concert with Farms and are designed to run continuously.  This consideration must also be factored into any project cost analysis.

Storage is another major problem solar industries face today. They have the equipment to harness energy but not to store it.  The cyclic nature of the sun and the unknowable weather requires significant expense to have off-generating capacity. Storage facilities in a matching capacity may exceed the cost of the solar farm itself.

Not enough recycling plants to serve future waste!

“Solar panel waste will become a major issue in the coming decades as old solar panels reach the ends of their useful life spans and require disposal.” The Japan environmental Ministry issued a warning that the amount of solar panel waste Japan produces each year is likely to increase from 10,000 to 80,000 tons by 2040.12

“Right now, solar panel recycling suffers from a chicken and egg problem: there are not enough recycling units to recycle old solar panels nor there is enough defunct solar panels to make recycling them economically attractive”13 Because of limited recycling facilities, Dustin Mulvaney said, those metals which can be recovered are dumped to waste: “Companies that are reporting on a quarterly basis, surviving on razor – thin margins – are not thinking 20, 30 years down the road, where the scarcity issue might actually enter the conversation.”

The LCOE – Cost per kilowatt comparisons

Powerplants have an economic lifecycle that is governed by the cost-per-kilowatt. The comparisons are called “Levelized Cost of Electricity” or “LCOE”.

The levelized cost of electricity (LCOE) is calculated by the following expression:

 

 

LCOE projected for 2020 using heuristic date from 2010 – 2016

As notated in the above chart (which uses averaged data from US, France, Japan, and Germany); Solar and Offshore Wind are outliers for the most expensive power production.  While Advanced Cycle Natural Gas, Onshore Wind, and Geothermal represent the other end of the cost spectrum.

It must be noted that Solar Photovoltaic has an average LCO of 125 compared to Solar Thermal at 240, Coal at 95 and Natural gas at 73. Taken alone this is only a 30% – 40% increase.  However, this does not include power leveling storage facilities which are necessary for grid scale solar farms.  Adding them in, the LCOE jumps to 198! Taking out the government incentives for solar initiatives, adds an additional 31 to bring the total to 229.  Certainly, this economic landscape is bleak.  Worse, it does not contain the decommissioning costs at the end of life.

Ignorance is not Bliss

Solar panel manufacturers are not aware how much damage they could cause to the environment and society if Solar becomes a significant component of our energy formula. Solar companies must adopt sustainable procedures and techniques from manufacturing to disposal before making the claim …. “Solar Energy is Really Clean and Green.”

As a small complement to conventional power plants, Solar Thermal and Solar PV is both desirable and needed. In remote locations where grid access is not feasible, but other factors work, solar may present a solution.  For low power consumption devices attached to a rechargeable storage media, it is a great solution.  But, for powering our civilization as a significant adjunct, it will portent a nightmare. Placing solar power farms in a common solar orbit would resolve most of the concerns.  But such an endeavor is currently too expensive and too technologically arduous to implement.

Like Janus we must look beyond in order to comprehend the affects of a Solar economy.  Our Earth is not ready for the pain Solar will bring!