Solar Energy Badly Harms the Environment. It Must Be Taxed, Not Subsidised

  • Date: 02/09/19
  • Sanjeev Sabhlok, The Times of India

Solar energy can do a few useful things. It can power a radio in an off-grid location. But it can’t support our day-to-day life.

solar energy badly harms the environment

The Modi government has been shovelling scarce taxpayer resources into solar energy, with a further $6.5 billion promised till 2022. This is over and above indirect subsidies that people pay through higher electricity bills because of renewable energy certificates. And while Donald Trump did the right thing by walking out of the Paris Agreement, Mr Modi unthinkingly remains committed to it and Niti Ayog has been touting subsidised electric vehicles.

Our party disagrees with this approach. First, because we oppose subsidies for any industry. But second, because we believe there is a strong case to impose Pigovian taxes on solar energy given the economic and environmental harm it causes.

Solar energy can do a few useful things. It can power a radio in an off-grid location. But it can’t support our day-to-day life.

The sun’s incoming energy is extremely dilute, requiring panels spread over vast swathes of land to absorb it, thus pushing out forests and harming biodiversity. The 648 MW Kamuthi solar plant in Tamil Nadu covers ten square kilometres. A tenth of that land would have been sufficient for a larger capacity nuclear facility.

A much bigger problem is that solar energy is only available when the sun shines. I installed a rooftop system last year. As expected, this system dies at night. But it is a complete joke during winter when it generates less than 10% of its capacity for days on end. It is simply not fit for purpose.

While the benefits to society of solar energy are close to non-existent, its costs are huge. Just by reading newspaper headlines you would never know. “Grid parity” and “cheap solar” has become part of the propaganda cleverly crafted by solar lobbyists and “researchers” to bilk taxpayers. Next time you read about cheap solar energy, insist on getting the full costs.

Rooftop solar is a massive drain. My rooftop system is a good example. Even after a taxpayer subsidy of $3,888 it cost me $10,730. And after a year’s use it has generated far less electricity than I was promised, so instead of a 6-year payback period it will now take 11 years – but only if I never spend any money to maintain it, the inverter never goes bad, the system somehow lasts 11 years and feed-in tariffs don’t reduce. Hard to think of a more effective way to burn money.

But what about large-scale solar projects which allegedly generate peak daytime electricity at a cost comparable with fossil fuels? Such claims are half-truths and hide much more than they disclose.

The only way to compare the costs of solar power with regular energy sources is to include all the costs of solar energy, including battery storage. And when that is done, solar turns out to be a deadly attack on the economy.

Batteries store almost no energy compared with regular fuels and this won’t get much better. Advances in battery technology are innately constrained by physical laws. In a March 2019 report, Manhattan Institute scholar Mark P. Mills showed that “$200,000 worth of Tesla batteries, which collectively weigh over 20,000 pounds, are needed to store the energy equivalent of one barrel of oil”. And that “the energy equivalent of the aviation fuel used by an aircraft flying to Asia would take $60 million worth of Tesla-type batteries weighing five times more than that aircraft”. Imagine the ticket price for such a flight even if such a plane could take off.

Battery production processes consume vast amounts of energy, with “the energy equivalent of about 100 barrels of oil” required “to fabricate a quantity of batteries that can store a single barrel of oil-equivalent energy”. And the natural resources needed for batteries are extremely scarce. A dramatic escalation of mining would be needed to build a solar grid with its own batteries.

But even then it would take a thousand years. “The annual output of Tesla’s Gigafactory, the world’s largest battery factory, stores [only] three minutes’ worth of annual U.S. electricity demand. It would require 1,000 years of production to make enough batteries for two days’ worth of U.S. electricity demand”.

The idea of mass adoption of electric vehicles is a hallucination. EV batteries can hardly store any energy and need vast amounts of time to re-charge. And time is never free. These vehicles are not fit for purpose.

But don’t we get huge environmental benefits from solar? Not at all. Instead, solar energy is one of the worst enemies of the environment, even excluding the massive loss of natural habitat. Solar waste is extremely toxic. Michael Shellenberger has found that “solar panels create 300 times more toxic waste per unit of energy than nuclear power plants”.

The National Geographic reported in 2014 that almost all solar PV modules use at least one rare or precious metal like silver, tellurium or indium. Most of these can devastate wildlife and even kill humans when they leach into ground water. And Elon Musk is frustrated about his inability to get toxic cobalt out of batteries. One shudders to imagine how a country like India, with no capacity to manage even normal waste, will deal with kilometre-high mountains of lethal solar waste.

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