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Solar’s too expensive even if we give away the panels

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Solar’s too expensive even if we give away the panels

Zehner 12

Green illusions,

Ozzie Zehner is the author of Green Illusions and a visiting scholar at the University of California, Berkeley. His recent publications include public science pieces in Christian Science Monitor, The American Scholar, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, The Humanist, The Futurist, and Women’s Studies Quarterly. He has appeared on PBS, BBC, CNN, MSNBC, and regularly guest lectures at universities. Zehner’s research and projects have been covered by The Sunday Times, USA Today, WIRED, The Washington Post, Business Week and numerous other media outlets. He also serves on the editorial board of Critical Environmentalism.

Zehner primarily researches the social, political and economic conditions influencing energy policy priorities and project outcomes. His work also incorporates symbolic roles that energy technologies play within political and environmental movements. His other research interests include consumerism, urban policy, environmental governance, international human rights, and forgeries.

Zehner attended Kettering University (BS -Engineering) and The University of Amsterdam (MS/Drs – Science and Technology Studies). His research was awarded with honors at both institutions. He lives in San Francisco.
Free Panels, Anyone? Among the ceos and chief scientists in the solar industry, there is surprisingly little argument that solar systems are expensive.46 Even an extreme drop in the price of polysilicon, the most expensive technical component, would do little to make solar cells more competitive. Peter Nieh, managing director of Lightspeed Venture Partners, a multibillion-dollar venture capital firm in Silicon Valley, contends that cheaper polysilicon won't reduce the overall cost of solar arrays much, even if the price of the expensive material dropped to zero.47 Why? Because the cost of other materials such as copper, glass, plastics, and aluminum, as well as the costs for fabrication and installation, represent the bulk of a solar system's overall price tag. The technical polysilicon represents only about a fifth of the total. Furthermore, Keith Barnham, an avid solar proponent and senior researcher at Imperial College London, admits that unless efficiency levels are high, "even a zero cell cost is not competitive."48 In other words, even if someone were to offer you solar cells for free, you might be better off turning the offer down than paying to install, connect, clean, insure, maintain, and eventually dispose of the modules—especially if you live outside the remote, dry, sunny patches of the planet such as the desert extending from southeast California to western Arizona. In fact, the unanticipated costs, performance variables, and maintenance obligations for photovoltaics, too often ignored by giddy proponents of the technology, can swell to unsustainable magnitudes. Occasionally buyers decommission their arrays within the first decade, leaving behind graveyards of toxic panels teetering above their roofs as epitaphs to a fallen dream. Premature decommissioning may help explain why American photovoltaic electrical generation dropped during the last economic crisis even as purported solar capacity expanded.49 Curiously, while numerous journalists reported on solar infrastructure expansion during this period, I was unable to locate a single article covering the contemporaneous drop in the nation's solar electrical output, which the Department of Energy quietly slid into its annual statistics without a peep.

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