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A Doomer's Guide to Solar -Saviour or So-called Renewable?

Solar appears very promising (but it's actually not) for the following reasons:

Solar PV (photovoltaic) is becoming more efficient over time.

The cost of solar PV is becoming cheaper over time.

The cost of the extraction of fossil fuels (FF) is becoming more expensive over time as it becomes rarer. This helps make renewables like solar PV more attractive. New technologies like fracking (actually, fracing for those in the know) have allowed us to keep up with increasing demand, but at a dramatically increased cost. The fact is renewables like solar just keep getting better.

Renewables became the world’s cheapest energy source in 2020. The future looks bright. It seems inevitable that solar will soon become so cheap that it can be plastered virtually everywhere, solving our energy crisis. At the same time, we should switch over to electric transportation all the while updating our electric grids. The dream of powering our electric cars with solar panels on our roofs seems near.

Every year, solar is getting better and cheaper. At the same time, FF are becoming more expensive. Moreover, our environment is getting trashed. The earth is getting warmer and our oceans, clogged with ever increasing plastic waste become more acidic. Eventually, we are going to run out of fossil fuel reserves anyway as they are a non-renewable resource. The answer seems obvious. Free energy. So, what's the problem? What's not to like?

Well there is a lot. Let me show you.

What do you notice about the graph? Which country is trending? You got it. It's China!

Manufacture of Solar PV by country (MDPI Energies)

It's important to take a closer look at why the cost of solar PV has fell by 80% since 2010. The reasons are probably not what you think. In the late 2000s, China begain heavily subsidizing Chinese solar PV companies. They were given a huge, unfair advantage over their international competitors. In 2012, they were even accused of dumping underpriced solar panels into the world market putting their competitors out of business. China is able to produce solar panels at a similar quality to other countries but at a vastly cheaper price. The problem is this is mainly because of highly unethical practices. Unfortunately, practices that are known, but ignored by the west.

China's labour costs are much lower than other countries. This is common knowledge, but not only are regular workers paid a low wage, China uses Uyghur forced labour to make solar panels. The report In Broad Daylight: Uyghur Forced Labour and Global Solar Supply Chains is worth reading. China keeps costs down using actual slave labour.

China also have very little in the way of health and safety and environmental protections. Chinese firms rely on coal powered electricity to produce solar panels. A solar panel made in China has nearly double the carbon footprint as a similar one manufactured in Europe.

Additionally, solar panels are manufactured using hazardous materials including sulfuric acid and phosphine gas. They also contain toxic metals like lead, chromium, and cadmium, which can be harmful to humans. China does not have anywhere near the environmental safety, manufacturing, and recycling standards that are in Europe or the US. Worker's health and the health of the environment are sacrificed for profit.

The final reason is the value of Chinese currency. The yuan is pegged to the U.S. dollar. It does not have a floating exchange rate that is determined by market forces like most countries. This approach keeps the value of the yuan low compared to other countries. The effect on trade is that Chinese exports like solar PV are much cheaper.

As you can see, the dramatic price reductions of solar over the last 12 years have hidden costs. Using unethical business practices, slave labour and destroying the environment -in order to save the environment is not something to subscribe to. It's not sustainable and it's certainly not worth celebrating.

There are many other problems with solar. I will list them, because each one could easily have its own seperate article:

  1. Solar panels require high heat to manufacture. Heat generated from renewables is not near hot enough. Thus, fossil fuels are required to manufacture solar PV.

  2. Solar panels require sunlight. Sunlight is variable depending on the time of day, season and geographic location. Energy generated from solar panels are difficult to store. Batteries have their own issues and are not near good or cheap enough.

  3. Solar panels are highly sensitive and have reduced function in non-optimal conditions such as when there is haze or humidity, the panels are not angled properly, or if there are any obstructions such as bird droppings, dust or snow.

  4. Solar panels have a lifespan of only 20-30 years. As mentioned above, solar panels contain many dangerous materials and are not easy to recycle. This could be a huge waste management problem in the future.

  5. Solar has a low energy return on investment EROI. Solar PV is currently 2:1 while 14:1 is necessary to maintain economic growth. Where is the energy going to come from to to fully transition to renewables if not from FF?

Unfortunately solar is not going to replace fossil fuels. What we read about in the news is a greenwashed version of the status quo. There is a myth that green energy will allow us to continue business-as-usual by alternate means and nothing will have to be sacrificed. This belief is not grounded in reason, but in faith. It is a comforting myth that if challenged is met with disbelief and sometimes anger. Welcome to the life of a doomer.

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