Solar photovoltaic (PV) panels are rapidly dropping in cost, but they are still considered one of the most expensive ways to produce energy. Although the fuel cost is free, an expensive manufacturing process and long term payback makes solar an unattractive option for many investors. At the levelized $150 per MWh, solar PV require over double the financial investment as a natural gas power plant. Accurately pricing sources of energy is difficult though. Even after taking into account social and environmental factors, the methods of business vary widely by energy source. Isolated events in the energy industry give an effective idea as to why some energy sources are currently cheaper than solar.
The use of solar energy dates back to 7th century BCE, when magnifying glasses were used to make fire. Solar cells were first invented by Charles Fritts out of selenium wafers, and the technology has been constantly improved to incorporate panels into space exploration equipment and on the roofs of homes. Other than rumors of solar panel’s popularity in the 1980’s is attributed to pot growers, the technology has had a very amicable history of development. Coal mining, on the other hand, contains a much darker history. In addition to terrible conditions in the mines, workers were paid in scrip, not cash, to spend on expensive food and housing. Labor organization did not fare to well either. Causing the only event in U.S. history where the military deliberately bombed its own citizens, mine owners forcefully tried to break up union organization of coal miners throughout the nation. The miners marched on Blair Mountain to revolt in a deadly shootout. The practice of union busting of coal miners continues to this day, with comparable deadly consequences. Improvements to the different industries occurred at different times, yet coal companies have done little to make up for their past.
Fossil fuel production is still riddled with unpleasant business practices. Construction of the Keystone XL pipeline requires using eminent domain to tear up residents’ land across the country, whereas solar installations raise the value of homes past the panels’ worth. As protesters try to interrupt construction of the pipeline, workers try to drop a tree on them. When confronted with protesters against solar panels, the companies promise to clean up the mess. Coal companies have accused protestors of child pornography. Shell launched pre-emptive lawsuits against environmental NGO’s anticipated protest, which failed to carry out in court. Solar is expensive because it does not extract fuel by leveling enough mountain range to cover Delaware in the United States and trampling the sensitive Great Barrier Reef in Australia. It does not require illegal mining of materials, but instead can provide power after mining has stopped. Photovoltaic panels do require mining of materials, yet with one ton of sand, panels produce as much electricity as 500,000 tons of coal. When consumers pay the premium for solar installations, they are merely providing insurance against these types of actions.
The industry is not the only entity that could abandon fossil fuels and embrace clean energy. Former President George Bush requested “$2.1 billion for protection and rehabilitation of Iraqi oil facilities as part of the $87 billion occupation and reconstruction package” in 2003. Money and lives are required to protect oil facilities and pipelines in sensitive lands, and those costs are not always reflected in the price of oil. As a distributed energy source, photovoltaic panels need minimal protection and cannot be used as an explosive against itself. Bush catered to the coal industry, despite public opposition, by deceptively altering mountaintop removal regulations. Furthermore, Bush later refused to support a clean coal plant that would produce zero emissions. As Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune put it, “If the Bush administration isn’t supporting a big plan for a new coal-fired power plant, you know that it has problems. Solar technology has been the recipient of a large amount of government subsidies, albeit lower than those from fossil fuels, and it can substantially lower emissions with current technology. Legislators have selectively discussed the negative effects of fossil fuels, and overemphasized the potential of clean coal. In Florida, lawmakers have outright lied about solar panel’s effectiveness and refused to pay the solar rebates to residents. Despite this, solar installations have grown enormously. The successes would be even greater if the laws and tax codes would promote clean energy and effective pricing. Over the past 23 years, Chesapeake Energy has paid less than 1% in taxes, while the CEO of Duke energy received $44 million for one day of work. Solar energy is expensive in a fossil fuel dominant country, but that probably won’t last forever.
Despite the numerous benefits, solar panel manufacturing certainly has a number of necessary improvements before becoming a principal energy source across the world. Some toxic substances in the production are not handled properly, and large projects can cause some harm to local species. The EU Parliament recently declared that photovoltaic panels are considered e-waste, and they should be regulated as such. These issues will induce a large opportunity for innovation research, but the problems miniscule in comparison to established energy generation technologies. The regulation of panel e-waste will reduce fewer toxins than legally declaring radioactive coal fly ash as more than simple trash. Better regulation will minimize these problems, and new developments such as organic solar cells. Also, powering solar panel manufacturing buildings with solar could reduce the environmental impact of solar by half, and the symbolic practice would also draw more support.
Here is the kicker: solar is not so expensive. Without the federal subsidy, a 100W panel over its lifetime costs less and generates more energy of two barrels of oil. The oil is energy dense, but polluting. Solar market cost is not less than the social costs it imposes on others. Panels will likely require replacement about three times over a person’s lifetime; yet doing so will save many tons of natural resources. Local production will allow consumers to see the process from start to end, instead of encroaching other peoples’ lives. Fewer carbon emissions will stay in the atmosphere for hundreds of years, and less nuclear waste will be buried for thousands of years. Most importantly, it will keep the air clean and save lives. Just for the reasons listed above, either panels should be priced even lower or other energy types should be expected to account for their actual costs.