The green future has arrived.
The Obama administration is now accepting applications for $3 billion in government grants to spur renewable energy projects throughout the country, the Business Facilities blog reported last week. The president has pledged to double renewable energy production in three years. Yet the president doesn’t seem to realize how far from reality are his hopes for replacing fossil fuels with “renewables.”
In particular, Obama naively seems to think that solar and geothermal energy will make America secure one day. “We know the cost of our oil addiction all too well,” he said in a May 27 speech specifically touting solar power at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada, home of the largest solar electric power facility in the country.
To cure the country of its “addiction,” Obama promised that the government would spend $467 million from the $787 billion economic “stimulus” package to expand the development and use of solar and geothermal energy throughout the United States.
There certainly is money left unspent in the stimulus funds, since only about 10 percent has gone out the door so far. But it is wise use of taxpayer funds to spend it on renewable energy projects?
The president certainly seems to think so. In Nevada, Obama proudly pointed that “more than 72,000 solar panels” constructed on a portion of a land fill “provide 25 percent of the electricity for the 12,000 people who live and work here at Nellis. That’s the equivalent of powering about 13,000 homes during the day.”
The president’s inspired sales pitch aside, the actual promise of solar energy is much more limited. Consider that in terms of energy-generating capacity, solar energy is the smallest of all the renewable energy sources, with a bare .95 gigawatts of capacity in place in 2009. A gigawatt is one billion watts of power. This compares with a total electric generating capacity from all sources (coal, petroleum, natural gas, nuclear and other renewals) of 4,069 gigawatts, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA). Energy from geothermal sources, meanwhile, was calculated as a mere 2.4 gigawatts in 2009.
The long-term prospects for renewable energy aren’t much better. Solar power—both in its solar thermal and its solar photovoltaic forms—is expected to total only 1.24 gigawatts in the year 2030. Similarly, the EIA projects electricity generated by geothermal sources at 2.4 gigawatts this year and only 3.01 in the year 2030 by the EIA. An EIA spokesman explained that the projections did not include any extraordinary future investment in solar. But such investments would have to be enormous to make solar a sizeable component of our electrical energy needs.
Undeterred, President Obama remains committed to creating a “green industry” that will increase energy efficiency at a cost of $16 billion. The industry will also create “green” jobs, including installing solar panels. These green jobs will reputedly pay up to 20 percent more than other jobs, and are more likely to be union jobs.
In 2009, state and federal governments are even offering tax credits to buy solar panels for homes. It may take as long as five years, however, for a homeowner to recover the cost of panels in terms of energy savings.
California has more homes with solar panels than any other state. Since 1998 rebates have been given for installing solar panels. In 2004, Gov. Schwarzenegger announced the Million Solar Roofs program.
Solar is a growing industry. But all is not sunshine and happiness when it comes to solar energy. There are little-publicized solar panel dangers. Even with its positives, solar energy has major drawbacks that could cause considerable harm to our environment. The big problem is in the production and disposal of the solar panels. Solar panels currently are made with various toxic chemicals including silicon. It is a major component in their construction and is the reason that they must be carefully manufactured and recycled.
That’s why the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition recently released a report urging the industry to pursue more sustainable materials to build its products to ensure that solar energy is truly as green as advertised. Other green groups are alarmed, as well. “If precautions are not properly taken then there can be dire consequences. There have been many deaths and communities destroyed due to the toxic byproducts of using silicon,” declared the website “Pays to Live Green.”
China serves as a model of the possible dangers of the green industry. The Chinese company Luoyamg Zhonggui High Technology is a major producer of polysilicon used in solar panels around the world. A byproduct of its production is highly toxic. One town in China was so polluted by a silicon byproduct, the land became unusable.
In a paper written for the Centre for Research and Globalization, geologist Dale Allen Pfeiffer examined the outlook for various forms of energy. He wrote:
“Using photovoltaics, the U.S. would require 17 percent of the planet’s entire surface area, or 59 percent of the land surface [to produce enough solar energy] to replace its current daily oil consumption....While we certainly should expand our usage of renewable resources, we cannot realistically expect them to replace hydrocarbons....we will be dependent upon oil and natural gas for the majority of our energy needs.”
So far, the hype behind renewable energy has not matched the reality. The president may have hopeful visions of a sun-powered country, but Americans should understand that, for the time being at least, our main source of energy is likely to be the bugbear of the green movement: good old fashioned fossil fuels.