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Clean Power cost of war versus solar

Published on October 24th, 2011 | by Guest Contributor


Cost of War.. Spent on Solar Power Instead

This is an awesome guest post from yet another one of our awesome readers, Rich Loomis. Rich offered the data and idea, and then, with a little nudge, actually went ahead and wrote the whole post. While he points this out below, I just want to highlight that while there’s an initial cost to the solar power alternative, the savings that result from it are tremendous, as well as the jobs that would be created and would feed back into the U.S. economy. Also, mass deployment of solar would bring the cost of solar down (actually, probably the best solution to bring the cost down at this point), so I think his 2nd scenario is likely to be much more realistic than the 1st.

cost of war solar

When the US engaged in war with Afghanistan, and then Iraq, the bill started running and hasn’t stopped. The wars have cost over $2.33 trillion and will cost over $4.53 trillion before they’re over. The cost is so unbelievably large, it’s hard to grasp.

In order to get some context on what $2.33 trillion means, let’s look at what the money could have achieved for Americans, if spent differently. Let’s use the money to install solar panels on every home in America. Is $2.33 trillion enough money to give every home in America a solar panel system? If so, how much solar power would every home in America get?

First, let’s look at the cost of a 3kW solar system for a single home. I’m using the Sharp NU-Q235F4 Mono-crystalline Silicon solar panel for price and efficiency calculations. The Sharp panel is made in the USA. The panel is neither the most efficient nor the least efficient panel on the market. I found the Sharp solar panel for $405.38 each. Using $3.85 per watt to cover labor and panel hardware/inverter, the cost of a 3kW system installed (panels + installation) would run $17,032 per home. This cost does not include tax incentives. The price is around $5.57/watt installed. There are 130,590,000 homes in the US. At $17,032 per home (retail price), the cost to install a 3kW solar system on every home in the US would be $2.22 trillion. Remove this cost from the $2.33 trillion we started with and we’re left with roughly $107 billion that could be used for government administration and fraud prevention.

OK, so the US decided to go down the fossil-fuel-energy-independence path instead of war and has installed a 3kW solar panel system on every home in the country. What did we get for our $2.33 trillion?

What does this mean to the average home owner? Using the Sharp solar calculator in a conservative solar radiation state, a single home will save 3,576 kWh/yr. Using a cost of $0.10 / kWh, the average home in the US will save $357/year in electricity for the next 20 years.

What do we get as a nation? Using Google stats from 2008 (the newest available)

   USA Solar panels manufactured 1,697,670,000
   Solar Nameplate capacity in MW 398,952
   Nationwide solar home electricity generation in MWh/yr 466,989,840
    Electricity usage per capita kWh/yr – 2008 13,654
   U.S.A. population – 2008 304,060,000
   Nationwide electricity usage in MWh/yr 4,151,635,240
   % of nationwide electricity generated from home solar panels 11.25%

Yep, that’s right. The United States would have manufactured and installed 1.7 billion solar panels and would have reduced fossil fuel energy used for electric generation by 11%. All of the numbers used so far are based on retail costs and current panel efficiencies.

The real fun starts when you look at what could have been done. What if the President said the US will only buy solar panels that are 40% efficient and will only pay $2/watt installed (achievable through economies of scale). The picture dramatically changes. Installing a 6kW solar system installed on every home in the US would only cost $1.67 trillion (which includes the 107 billion for administration). The home solar panels would generate 62.5% of electricity usage in the United States. Each home would benefit from a $1,986/year reduction in electricity costs for the next 20 years.

I’ll vote for the person pushing the $2/watt installed, 40% efficient, Made in the USA, 6kW solar systems on every home in the USA Act. References:

  1. Cost of War Watson Institute For International Studies Conservative ($2,331,100,000,000) Moderate ($2,657,300,000,000) Middle Ground ($2,494,200,000,000)
  2. Google population in 2008
  3. Electric usage per capita — Google
  4. Solar panel cost
  5. Solar panel efficiency

Image Credit: United States Marine Corps Official Page

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  • Rich

    While everyone is fantasizing about spending trillions on solar panels instead of war there is one other issue. The trillions were all BORROWED! The cost factor of interest on the national debt isn’t appearing in any of these “efficiency” calcs. How about just staying outta useless wars and the energy and the borrowed money they consume. That would be good for the environment in and of itself. You wanna go solar than do it. If it’s great you don’t need a government (taxpayer) subsidy to prove it’s efficiencies while picking my pocket in order to prove it.

    • Woods and Water

      You are currently subsidizing the oil industry and the military industrial complex, much of which is about resource control…it would be much better to decentralize our power structures, have US factories which create energy efficient appliances, rebuild our cities (instead of spending billions upon billions each year on roads for automobiles) and rural areas so local communities, people living very near where they work would become a reality.

      Taxes should return to the Clinton era, as should defense spending…and there should be taxes imposed on Wall Street financial transactions…and speculation should either be outlawed or highly taxed.

  • Bruce Brummitt

    We have been supplying our power off grid with photovoltaics since 1984….slowly adding as we had the cash…we purchased a sunfrost refrigerator in 1999 and have a SunDanzer Freezer…our home was built with energy efficiency in mind and conservation is our watch word. We live simply, but elegantly. If half the cost was put in solar applications and the other half in conservation methods we could save far more…and build vastly more efficient appliances and housing. Win/Win all around…jobs with meaning…

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  • Bruce Miller

    Uncle B approves of this article! Now: tackle the “Prairie Wind Corridor” and be honest! Use cheaper, better Chinese built Wind Turbines only of you have to!

  • random

    I like this article but why is there no name or sources. This topic has seriously the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever researched, energy is obviously very political. Try finding good sources that compares oil and renewable energy and then try to find sources for the amount of money spent in the wars, both are close to impossible. The other source I have for the costs of these wars is the New york times and the number is drastically different.

    • Anonymous

      In the body of the article:

      ” Google stats from 2008″

      Right there at the end of the article:

      Cost of War Watson Institute For International Studies Conservative ($2,331,100,000,000) Moderate ($2,657,300,000,000) Middle Ground ($2,494,200,000,000)
      Google population in 2008
      Electric usage per capita — Google
      Solar panel cost
      Solar panel efficiency”

    • Anonymous

      As Bob says. And the name of the author is in the first line.

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  • Ruben

    This article is genius enough to make people think what a peacful planet can bring. Learning from what has not worked in the past and going forward with a sunny solution is intelligent. So why is there so much intelligence abroad being funded by negligence here where clean energy is needed the most?

  • Breath on the Wind

    Interesting sort of alternative reality wishful thinking. Presently silicon solar cells have a theoretical efficiency of 28%. You simply will never get 40% from current commercial technology. It is only extremely expensive (think nasa) cells of a different design that can be over 40% efficient. So it is unlikely you will see both highly efficient and cheap cells in the near future.

    In economics 101 we speak of spending money on guns or butter (military projects or domestic goods.) Each can have their benefits though I am also inclined to go with the butter. Not everyone agrees and it is unlikely under present political realities that we would ever come close to such a path.

    An individuals power comes from collective action. This could be through the model of the corporation or communities. The corporation often has an easier time selling its benefits. A model that promotes collective action in a community that sells as well would first be required.

    • Rich Loomis

      In regards to solar efficiency, Spectrolab, Inc was able to achieve 40.7%. I saw an interesting article on solar3d recently that shows promise. The question isn’t if solar can achieve 40% efficiency, as they already have. The question is, can solar achieve 40% efficiency at $2/watt installed. If the US puts a 1.7 trillion dollar bone out there, I bet we would see all kinds of solutions come out of the woodwork.

      • Breath on the Wind

        Even slightly higher efficiencies have been achieved, but upon closer examination I think you will find that these are triple junction cells and not the far simpler solar panels that are commercially available. It is like comparing an inexpensive bicycle to a Ferrari. No matter how much you improve a bicycle it is not going to be a Ferrari and you are not going to achieve a bicycle cost with the car’s performance. Tremendous increases in performance while decreasing cost will come but todays technology has theoretical limits and we will have to find innovations that take us outside of present of present PV technology possibly including thermoelectrics or making a wider use of metamaterials.

        Just as the science is not magic or devoid of economics so also human nature is not suddenly suspended with the advent of new technology. The success of failure of new technology will always hinge upon its utility to make money until we develop different motivations in our society. We have to personally choose “butter” over “guns” and we may find that the technology has been with us for a long time. War is presently more popular because those in power see this as more profitable.

        • Rich Loomis

          I altered my spreadsheets to include a 25% efficient cell. At $2/watt, we’re still looking at $1.67 trillion to install a 6kW solar system on every home in the US. The yearly savings in electricity would be $1,242 per home per year for the next 20 years, based on a conservative solar radiation state. The home solar systems would generate 39% of the electricity used in the US. That’s a great savings for Americans, a great improvement to the environment, a great investment by our government for our security, and reduces our dependence on foreign oil … I’m good with this, where do I vote?

          • Anonymous


            And I imagine the cost really will come down a lot. Everyone’s predicting it, even Exxon! Most recent projections I’ve seen are $1/watt by 2020. We’ll see.

            But massive investment and deployment would certainly make the price drop and efficiency increase much more quickly.

          • lil'Ricky

            Actually, with Twin Creeks Technologies new equipment, they are predicting 40 cents/watt for the panels. So, the technology is here now, March, 2012. Installed price would be higher, of course, but if done on a massive scale that would be reduced. We could also reduce our defense spending because our enemies would then have less money to spend on arms….. And remember as well, all this money would be spent here, putting ourselves to work, paying taxes here. Then the savings for the next 20 years would be a massive economic boom for the US.

          • Zachary Shahan

            Yeah, we’ve covered Twin Creeks, and some other companies potentially cutting costs to a huge degree. They haven’t affected prices yet, but I imagine they will, as will others. This is why costs are projected to come down significantly for years to come.

  • Anonymous

    Thanks for that. Yeah, good additional point.

    The savings could really be through the roof.. so to speak..

  • Electric38

    The solar rooftop units should be a little larger KW to allow for electric car battery charging. There could be “plug & play” units available in the near future to cut install costs somewhat. Some building departments are allowing lower cost, fast tracked and simplified permitting. Tax assessors should waive increases for the ROI period).
    The fed is stepping in (Obama Las Vegas speech) to get homeowners on track financially. The new financing terms could allow for solar installs if enough people got behind it. No new home should be allowed to be built without it, especially in the southwest where vast amounts of sunlight are wasted. The business tax deduction for solar PV as re-roofing should be extended to residents.

    Jobs?? Numerous. And what will each citizen do to grow the economy with the extra $2000 of solar energy savings and the extra $2000 in oil/gas savings? Every year.

  • Matthew Peffly

    Then again that is only the direct cost of the war. I’m guessing it doesn’t include the cost to support the injured, VA costs are done yearly so we that we don’t see the impact from a given war. Also guess there isn’t a cost of the lost economic productivity of all those injured or killed, or their families. War just like coal power, has very high indirect cost. Costs that don’t show up in the price tag; but are with you for decades to come.

    • Ed

      Good reply and points out the “hidden” monetary costs of war. However, people rarely factor in the Psychological/Spiritual costs of war. About 10 years ago I ran across a vet from my war who was homeless and near death from “huffing” paint as often as he could.

      So, being someone who understood what he had suffered I sat down to talk with him for a while and asked him, point blank, what is was that had derailed his life (as he had never readjusted to ‘civil’ society)?? We talked for several hours and though vets don’t like to talk about specifics he relayed the story of what he had done that he was never able to “forgive” himself for.

      Turns out that while “torching” a village that had harbored some VC he saw a man enter a hidden tunnel. He promptly tossed in a phosphorous grenade and when they investigated they found that along with that one ‘combatant” there were also 19 other people in that hole. All of them women and children. He hadn’t signed up for that duty and it completely derailed his life. The woman that had waited for him eventually had to give up and he spent the rest of his life slowly committing suicide. How does one factor in the monetary cost of that???

  • John

    “US engaged in war with Iraq, and then Afghanistan” A historical error in the first sentence. Oh dear.

    • Anonymous

      Corrected that.

  • Chittaluru Akil

    As much as I love this post, I’m very doubtful about the 40%, $2/W scenario…of course, I’m not too knowledgeable about it and I’m pretty sure you could argue for eternity.

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