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Clean Power energy payback solar europe

Published on December 26th, 2013 | by Zachary Shahan

61

Solar Energy Payback Time (Charts)

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December 26th, 2013 by Zachary Shahan
 
The energy payback of solar panels is a topic that comes up from time to time here on CleanTechnica. The odd thing is that there are people who apparently know nothing about it but decide it’s their duty to tell people the energy payback of solar panels is a decade or more (which it is not!).

One of my solar stories recently got tweeted by Elon Musk, then subsequently submitted to a popular subreddit, then (of course) pounced on by loud nuclear fanatics (story all about that coming). One benefit from that process, however, is that it prompted some well-informed readers to drop some interesting solar charts and resources under my post. One of the comments linked to a Fraunhofer report that included some interested charts on the energy payback of solar power, which I thought should be shared with more people, so here they are:

energy payback solar trend

energy payback solar italy

energy payback solar germany

energy payback solar europe

So, as you can see, even with the technology of today, the energy payback of solar power is between ½ a year and 1½ years in Southern Europe and under 3 years in the rest of Europe (which has approximately the solar irradiance levels of Alaska). That’s quite a long time before the lifetime of solar panels, which have been shown to work to factory specs for over 30 years… and counting.

Bookmark this one for the next time you see one of those off-the-wall comments about the energy payback of solar panels.

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About the Author

is the director of CleanTechnica, the most popular cleantech-focused website in the world, and Planetsave, a world-leading green and science news site. He has been covering green news of various sorts since 2008, and he has been especially focused on solar energy, electric vehicles, and wind energy since 2009. Aside from his work on CleanTechnica and Planetsave, he's the founder and director of Solar Love, EV Obsession, and Bikocity. To connect with Zach on some of your favorite social networks, go to ZacharyShahan.com and click on the relevant buttons.



  • https://plus.google.com/u/0/102556813589894316713/posts Cyrus Manz

    Buulshit

  • http://ecofrugality.blogspot.com/ Amy Livingston

    OK, but…all these charts are for Europe. I live in the US, in central New Jersey. I used the solar power calculator at http://brightergy.com/solar-estimator/ to figure out the payback time of a solar power system on my house, and they told me that to offset my modest electric use of about 214 kWh per month, I would need to install an 11.5-kW system, at a cost of over $32,000 AFTER tax credits. My yearly savings on the electric bill would be $453. They still maintain that the system would pay for itself in “increased value to your property,” but that puts exactly zero dollars in our pockets unless we sell the house. If you look strictly at the savings on electric bills, there is absolutely no way this system would pay for itself over its lifetime. And even if I could meet my needs with a more reasonable 2-kW system, at a cost of $6 per watt, it would still take 19.5 years to pay for itself. So I think I’ll stick with buying my renewable power secondhand, thank you.

    • Bob_Wallace

      You use ~214 kWh/month. About 7 kWh per day? Why would you be looking at a 11.5 kWh system? How many solar hours per day do you average over the year?

      According to the map below you get at least 4 hours avg per day. 7 kWh/4 hours = 1.75 watts. A 2 kW array would meet that need.

      Might want to recheck your math. (One of us is wrong.)

      $6 is high. The national average for residential solar was $4.59/W at the end of 2013. NJ has been installing a lot of solar. I would think prices would be at or below national average there.

  • user114

    Thanks for the informative post (which I only just read).

    By the way, one distinction that I think is worth making is the difference between the energy payback time (the time it takes for a system to recover the energy used to produce it, relevant to environmental sustainability) and the cost payback time (how long it’ll take to pay for itself, relevant to your wallet). For rooftop solar cells, a variety of sources suggest that the former is typically about 2 years and the latter about 10 years.

    I am newly interested in this topic – and not an expert by any means – and was initially confused myself by this distinction, so I figured I’d mention it in case it had anyone else confused. I wonder whether this is the issue of confusion when people have told you the “energy payback of solar panels is a decade or more”.

    • Bob_Wallace

      Several years back the energy payback for solar panels was many years. Some people haven’t kept up with manufacturing efficiencies and solar efficiency improvements which now make the total energy payback two years or less. Under one year for thin film panels.

      Cost payback can vary greatly. If you’re installing in Australia where the total cost can be less than $2/watt and electricity can cost over $0.35/kWh the payback can be quick. If you’re installing in a US state where the cost of electricity is under $0.10/kWh, it’s not all that sunny, and you pay high range costs (as much as $8/watt) then payback might be close to never.

      • user114

        Thanks, Bob_Wallace, for your reply – this is helpful (didn’t know it had changed so much in recent years).

  • Raphael DIY

    I have one in North Alabama U.S.A .( This will be off-grid ) I have a solar panel system 600 watts and 8 – 6volts
    golf cart batteries and a morringstar charger & 12volts inverter to run a refrigerator wrt359sfyw it takes about .90kwh per day.
    It will take me 8 years to break Even and start get my money back If nothing breaks down . and it takes ALL 600 watts to keep the batteries charged. the solar panel are expose to sun all day. off-grid you lose. Best to start with a DIY thermosiphon solar water heater first. Raphael DIY

  • jburt56

    I think the main point of the article should be that there are no energy barriers to the emergence of solar power in contrast to the anticipated eventual negative energy payback carbon will have upon depletion.

  • Chimel

    What kind of energy payback this EPBT is?
    A 920 watt solar array costs $3,200 in the U.S.:
    http://www.mysolarpod.com/solarpodgridtied

    It is expected to produce about 920 kWh a year in the U.S..
    At the average ¢12.31/kWh domestic price, that’s $113.25 a year.
    That’s a 28 year payback, not 2 or 3.
    Less if you have subsidies, but still not 3 years by far.

    Do you have actual prices to support your claim?
    I am pro solar, but you won’t convince anybody with charts and not a single price.

    • Bob_Wallace

      You’re mixing apples and rutabagas.

      The energy payback time talked about in the article is how long it takes a solar panel to generate as much electricity as was used in manufacturing it.

      What you’re talking about is how long it would take a solar system to generate enough electricity to pay for itself.

      In your case you’re talking about $3.48/watt which is too expensive. Germany, Australia, and the UK are installing rooftop for about $2/watt. We’ve got to bring our prices down.

      With a 30% federal subsidy the $3.48 becomes $2.44/watt. Still too high. But let’s work with that.

      Assuming middle of the country, 4.5 avg solar hours per day for a 18.75% capacity factor. 5% financing for 20 years. The cost of electricity produced would be 11.9c/kWh.

      What you may not have included is inflation. That 12.31c/kWh grid stuff is going to average 16.2c/kWh over the 20 year period.

      And the solar system installed today is likely to be pumping out electricity 40+ years from now. That’s 20+ years of almost free electricity.

      Over 40 years with 3% inflation 12.31c electricity will average 19.7c/kWh. Solar is going to cost about 6c over the same 40 years.

      • Chimel

        I am not “mixing apples and rutabagas”, the author is. I did indeed think that such a short duration could only refer to the cost of manufacturing the panels, but the author says that solar opponents mention a payback of “a decade or more”, which I only ever heard mentioned as the financial payback, not the manufacturing energy payback. The author does not define anywhere the “energy payback time”, that’s why I asked him in my very first sentence.

        As for the manufacturing energy payback, it seems to be a consensus that it is about 2 years. Or was, since these figures seem to date from when you could stack up 100 solar cells one inch thick, and now it’s about 100 cells one centimeter thick.

        That’s funny, I used the same 16 cents average today on another forum, but over the 25 guarantee duration, not 20 years.

        4.5 avg solar hours per day is only for summer. Here in Washington it is 1.26 hours in January, so people usually stick to a 3 hours average, or 1,000 kWh per year for every kW installed, which is also a good approximation. 1,100 kWh is probably more accurate with today’s high efficiency (16-17%) solar cells, but then, averages are just that, averages. Better stick to the actual solar hours for your particular location to make it real, not just theoretical, or you’ll never take that step.

        • Bob_Wallace

          Everything in the article is about Energy payback.

          You’re talking about system Cost payback.

          It’s very common for anti-renewable people to claim that solar panels take a decade or more to repay the energy it takes to manufacture them. I even recently saw someone claim that they never paid back the energy used.

          It is true that energy payback time used to be much longer. But things change and the critics seem to not want to keep up.

          4.5 is an all year average. More in the summer, less in the winter. The NE part of the country is 4.2 hours. The SW 5.5 hours and higher.

          Solar hours are approximate. Good enough for back of envelop discussions. Obviously there will be variations in those regions.

          • Chimel

            Well I belong to a very conservative, even contrarian, forum, and never ever saw these people against solar mention an energy payback of a decade or more, so it is probably not a very common argument against solar, more like rare exceptions.

            What I actually noticed is that more and more of these people are shutting up, because they see their colleagues installing solar panels a hundred at a time on their dairy barn rooftops, and obviously making money out of the deal. I doubt many of these protesters care much about environmental issues or energy payback. If they mention these issues, it’s more for the sake of protesting than because they genuinely feel concerned about it. You can tell they really have no argument left when one of them today mentioned both the environmental problem of the “reflections” (as if rooftop panels could reflect anywhere but on the sky) and the cheap defective Chinese panels, even though people who really want to invest in solar would not settle for even 20 year guaranteed panels when the 25 year ones are available.

            And sorry, but nothing in the article defines energy payback or links to a corresponding wikipedia entry, so my question is legitimate. It is basic authoring to define what you are talking about somewhere in the introduction, otherwise the whole article is basically useless to most readers. I am quite certain that some pro-solar people would link to this article, mentioning the “payback” (leaving out “energy”) as being 1-3 years according to location, and will pass for fools in the eyes of anti-solar people.

          • JDL51

            I thought the very same thing when I read it. That’s usually the main criteria that everyone is interested in for residential systems, when does it get to the breakeven point for the user, not when it’s energy neutral from a manufacturing standpoint.

      • Steeple

        The cost of electricity in the US is lower than it was 30 years ago. So 3% inflation growth is an aggressive assumption.

        • Bob_Wallace

          Well, according to the EIA the Average Retail Price – All Sectors (c/kWh) was 6.57 in 1990 and 10.13 in 2013.

          chrome-extension://bpmcpldpdmajfigpchkicefoigmkfalc/views/app.html

          That’s a 1.85% rate of increase.

          • Steeple

            See real prices that are flat or in decline

            http://www.eia.gov/totalenergy/data/annual/showtext.cfm?t=ptb0810

          • Bob_Wallace

            “Real” prices are actual prices converted to a standard (current/some year) dollar amount.

            Math has been used to remove inflation.

            The nomimal price rises with inflation.

            The 12.5/kWh one pays today will not stay 12.5 if history repeats itself. Inflation will take it higher. One needs to compare the cost of solar against the likely price of electricity over the life of the system. Not to what electricity cost when the system was installed.

          • Steeple

            Not sure who pays 12.5 cts; we pay 8.9.

            Commodity values typically don’t keep up with inflation over time. That’s why the real prices have been in steady decline.

          • Bob_Wallace

            Well, you could look up the cost of electricity listed by state. You’d find that New York pays about 20c with Alaska and Hawaii significantly higher. And that there are states that pay less than you do.

            That’s the funny things about averages. If you look at the numbers behind them they often are not the same.

          • Steeple

            Total population of Alaska and Hawaii is less than 1% of total US population.

          • Bob_Wallace

            Are you drinking this early in the morning?

          • Steeple

            Please dispute what I said.

            Don’t know why you consistently have to act like a Jackleg, Bob.

          • Bob_Wallace

            What does the head count in Hawaii and Alaska have to do with anything?

            BTW, in terms of population Hawaii is number 40 and Alaska is number 47. North Dakota, Vermont and Wyoming bring up the rear.

          • Steeple

            If you want to be intellectually dishonest to manufacture electricity price trends that differ from history and use the examples of remote, off grid and lightly populated regions to support your answer, knock yourself out.

            Just don’t be disappointed when real investors who do rigorous analysis come up with a different conclusion.

          • Bob_Wallace

            Are you arguing that the cost of electricity will not increase?

          • Steeple

            There’s a good chance it doesn’t if
            1) the cost of renewables continues to trend down
            2) demand destruction via LEDs and other technical improvements continue
            3) shale gas continues to keep natural gas prices in the
            $4-5 range with low volatility

          • Bob_Wallace

            Renewables will replace existing coal and nuclear. And since the thermal plants paid off their costs are already low. For the first 2-3 decades that should be pretty much a straight across price swap. Increased by inflation.

            It’s unlikely natural gas prices will stay low. Many of our wells play out quickly which means the cost of keeping the supply coming will rise due to drilling costs. The NG market is expanding, even moving into export mode. High European NG prices are going to attract as much as we can fit on ships. There’s a good chance that CCNG prices will rise faster than inflation.

            We may see some price reduction as solar pushes down sunny day peak demand and lowers merit order ceilings.

            Further down the road, when the first round of panels and turbines have been paid off, we’re likely to see electricity prices dropping. But that’s a few decades out. Long after the “when will my solar system pay for itself” period will be over.

          • Steeple

            Apache has already stated that they aren’t going to drill another nat gas only well until 2018. The gas experts are saying we have plenty of gas.

            I guess they should talk to you.

          • Bob_Wallace

            How many rigs are now drilling, Steeple?

            How many wells are being refracked?

          • Steeple

            Gee, Bob. I dunno. How many people have their heaters on now?

            Bob, why does it bother you so much to have your views challenged? I find that’s how I learn the most.

          • Bob_Wallace

            You have a history of cherry-picking.

            One company not drilling is not proof that all have stopped.

          • A Real Libertarian

            If all do stop, then the fracking bubble just burst.

            It means it isn’t profitable to frack and to become profitable prices have to rise, a lot.

    • Ross

      Have to agree with Chimel. Perhaps the article can get an edit.

  • Neemowe

    HEY our off grid solar 9Kw pv system will cost around $46,000 Cdn dollars to purchase and install. Current price here of Kw/hour is $0.15. Monthly bill is $92.00 on equalized billing. How on earth does your math ever reach a payback of 1.5 to 3.5 years? Our solar radiation in southern Saskatchewan Canada is far better than Europe. Do you guys even own a system or have installed one? I figure our payback will be 12 years at which point I will have to fork over another $12,000 to replace the battery set. you fools are dreaming!

    • Omega Centauri

      They were only talking about the “energy” payback. The system returns the amount of energy to the economy that it took to build. Cash (capital) payback takes longer, as the price/cost of a PV system is several times higher than the cost of the raw energy required to build it. The concept is useful for evaluating energy flows within an economy -will a PV buildup at such and such a rate consume more energy than we are spending to build more?

    • Bob_Wallace

      OK, you’re paying > $5 Cn$ per watt. That’s about $4.70/watt in US money.
      German solar is about $2/watt, US. That’s a big difference.

      A 12 year payback is a 7.2% return on investment. That is an excellent return on a low risk, fixed investment.

      If you’ve got batteries then you’ve gone off grid I assume. Not many people are going to do that. You aren’t going to beat $0.15/kWh with an offgrid system. That math will not work.

  • Will E

    hello Zwerius
    hurray for you, payback time for fossil, that’s a goody.
    give us the charts of fossil payback time, please
    What I never see is the combination of solar panels on the roof
    combined with air to water heat pump, and solar on the garage with EV car.
    use what you produce
    all electric, fossil free.
    saves a lot of money, makes a lot of money

  • Zwerius

    Many times I read articles about Solar PV energy pay back time.
    Allmost never about energy pay back time of fossil or nuclear plants.
    Why not? The powercompanies don’t like to discuss that.
    Because the energy pay back time of conventional power plants is INFINITE!
    After completion, you keep putting more energy in them than you get out of them…
    Maybe it’s good to spread this word too.

    • Marion Meads

      This would be a good companion question to ask the payback time of other power plants when someone is questioning the payback energy for solar PV. I will remember this.

      The payback time is usually given in terms of capital recovery. Many fossil plants has already been paid off in terms of capital, so they are operating on maximizing profit from the buying price of fuel energy and the selling price of electric energy. And for solar, sunlight energy as fuel is free.

      • Bob_Wallace

        Just throwing some data into the discussion.

        Even before one adds in the energy needed to run a thermal plant the numbers are not good compared to wind and solar.

    • Omega Centauri

      Traditionally when computing EROEI (Energy Return On Energy Invested) the box has been closed around the human economy. Energy resources taken from nature are assumed to be free. That measures where the economy can find/maintain/increase its own energy budget, but is doesn’t even pretend to make an attempt to evaluate what is happening to the biosphere as a result.

      • Bob_Wallace

        There’s a problem with the EROEI concept.

        It was built around energy sources which were finite. The idea was that if you were going to be using up fossil fuels in order to get more fuel you better make sure you were getting more than you were using.

        Since solar and wind are for practical purposes infinite those concerns don’t hold. We can’t use up all the energy that hits the Earth on a given day. And the amount will only increase over the next three billion years until the Sun gets so hot that it roasts us.

        Energy payback for the capacity built is a valuable measurement. It helps us price the technology.

        Since energy costs are free for wind, solar, tidal, geothermal, hydro, etc. we don’t need to worry about EROEI. Or energy density. Just cost of electricity produced and any external costs there might be.

        • Omega Centauri

          I’m not defending EROEI as it has been used by the fossil industry, but simply stating what it is. In terms of an industry trying to bootstrap a new energy infrastructure it is a decent quide. But the assumption that the geological deposits are free for the taking was a key part of the concept.

          I wouldn’t consider wind, tidal and geothermal free, since the resource size is limited. Especially as geothermal is largely heat mining -the resource is finite unless you can wait thousands of years for heat flow from the deep earth to replace what you’ve removed. Wind and tidal have the property that a low efficiency deployment can forstall better technology from exploiting the same resource -at least until it is agreed to tear down the old machines and repower.

          • Bob_Wallace

            There’s no cost for wind or sunshine. And we’ll never use up what is available in a given amount of time.

            Recovery time for enhanced geothermal should range from less than ten years to no more than 50.

          • Omega Centauri

            At least on land, there are a limited number of good wind sites. Also WTs do reduce windflow near where they are deployed. Which translates into other WTs needing to be not too close. Due to liability and security concrens, WTs mean large areas are off limits to the general public, so they do have quite a large impact per peak watt. PV uses much less land if you include land where the public is fenced off from.

          • Bob_Wallace

            We won’t run short on wind sites….

          • Bob_Wallace

            And since I haven’t gotten to use this for a while…

            In 2010, the US used 4,143 TWh (terawatt hours) of electricity. (11,300,000 MWh per day.)

            It would take 375,415 3 MW turbines with an average CF of 43% to produce 4,143 TWh of electricity.

            The footprint of a wind turbine is typically around 0.25 acres. This includes the tower foundation, roads, transmission and support structures. 375,415 turbines would require 93,854 acres or 147 square miles.

            147 square miles is:

            3.13 Disney Worlds.
            6.5 Manhattan Islands.
            39% of Los Angeles.
            12% of Rhode Island.
            0.7% of San Bernardino County, CA.
            0.02% of Alaska.
            0.004% of all US land area.

            BTW, we are now testing 7.5 MW and larger turbines. Land area doesn’t increase much with increases in turbine size so we could cut land use in half if needed.

            Of course no one suggests a 100% wind-fed grid. A mix of renewables minimizes storage needs.

          • Omega Centauri

            All the area around the WT for a couple of times its height, is OFF LIMITS. The excluded space is actually quite large.

          • Bob_Wallace

            Off limit for what?

          • Craig Allen

            Farmers (such as my cousin in the Cowell Hills in South Australia) continue to graze livestock under wind turbines. I doubt that this is the case at coal and uranium mining sites or at thermal power stations. The general public can’t go onto private land to look at a wind turbine without an invite from the landholder. But that’s the case with any farm. Do an internet search for “wind turbine sheep” and you will get hundreds of photos of them happily coexisting.

          • JDL51

            A solar grid 100 miles by 100 miles would produce enough electricity to supply the needs of the U.S. The American Southwest has plenty of empty land and plenty of sunshine falls on it, that aside from transmission issues, is an ideal place to set up solar farms that would supplement wind, hydro and NG base power stations.

        • Jan-Erik Vinje

          EROEI is good for all energy sources renewable or not. For solar, wind and other renewables there is an initial upfront investment of energy that enters the EREI calulation. For typical silicon solar cells we know that it takes a bunch of energy to purify silicon from the sand raw material.

          In the early days of solar PV you would get less electricity from the cell during its entire lifetime than it took to produce it. So it couldn´t actually be used as source of energy surplus, but rather as a way of aquiring energy on places where it would be harder to get and where batteries would be unpractical. The cells would give you EROEI of less than one and be an energy drain. Now this equation has reversed and you get EROEI of 30 or more for the best cells. This is better than most current fossile sources.

          Since this process is becoming more efficient and we can purify to solar grade silicon in a small fraction of the energy it used to take and this equation is still improving solar PV is set to outperform old dirty energy sources on a monetary basis. Traditional non-renewable sources like coal and oil are rapidly becoming harder and dirtier to produce, the EROEI is falling.

    • dynamo.joe

      Solar/renewable advocates make themselves vulnerable to these kinds of arguments. I don’t necessarily disagree with anything you have said, but no one who advocates building a coal plant or nat gas plant ever says “it’s free”. On the other hand renewable advocates say this constantly, even Marion said it in her reply to you.

      Of course, the reality is it’s not free. You need to pay for land, you need to pay for the system itself, you need to pay for maintenance.

      Off the top of my head, I think it’s about 200 people/GWe of production capacity. Let’s say that they are skilled or semi-skilled labor in a fairly dangerous industry, so they probably don’t make less than $40k/yr. That’s $8M/yr. That cost never goes away.

      • http://bobhiggins.wordpress.com/ Bob Higgins

        “You need to pay for land, you
        need to pay for the system itself, you need to pay for maintenance.”

        You have all the above costs with coal, gas, or nukes as well as other so called “externalities” like environmental devastation and damage to public health, not to mention resource wars and terror threats.

        All things considered wind and solar are a bargain and will only become more attractive over time.

        • dynamo.joe

          Show me where I said “none of these costs apply to traditional power generation”.

          What I said was traditional power advocates would never try to make the “it’s free argument”. Conversely renewable advocates make that argument all the time and it is demonstrably false. If you stop making the dumb argument people are less likely to make the dumb reply.

          Just own up to the fact that there are negatives to renewables even if the positives far out weigh them and you sound like a more reasonable person, which, IMO, lowers the probability of a knee jerk response.

          In your response above, you list environmental devastation, damage to public health, resource wars and terror threats as if none of those things could possibly have any relevance to renewable energy. But of course in the real world there are always trade offs and sacrifices.

          All of those things you listed also apply to renewables, to a lesser or greater degree. Acknowledge that, make your argument for why you think your favorite renewable lowers the negative consequences, instead of putting your head in the sand and saying “the world would be a paradise if only we converted to renewable x”.

          • http://bobhiggins.wordpress.com/ Bob Higgins

            Well shucks, show me where I ever said renewables are free. I’m not aware of any rational source that has made such a claim.

            It is a positive however that to get the feedstock for solar, wind, or tidal energy we don’t have to rip the tops off our mountains, build multi-billion dollar fission driven teakettles and worry about where to hide the plutonium, or drill two miles beneath the ocean floor in the middle of our prime fishing grounds and wear hip boots to the beach, or risk poisoning our water supplies, while driving through pastoral vistas filled with gas rigs and tanker trucks.

            And yeah, the oil and gas folks are up front about some of the costs, especially when they come to the taxpayer for subsidies, tax breaks, or depletion allowances, or as the Nuke people do for underwriting or waste disposal, or the frackers for exceptions from environmental laws and ever more roads and water.

            Right now, if we include all the costs, wind is cost effective and solar is close and gaining rapidly. The only people who have their heads in the sand are those invested in dying and dangerous technologies, who lack the vision to see what is approaching on the horizon.

          • dynamo.joe

            See Marion Meads for “free”. See your response for “we don’t have to rip the tops off of mountains”. We absolutely have to rip the tops off of mountains for solar and wind. We just do it for the iron and silicon and rare earths instead of for coal, but they get ripped of regardless.

          • Bob_Wallace

            We have to dig up some sand one time to get the silicon and aluminum to make a solar panel.

            We have to dig up coal every single day to keep the coal plant going.

          • http://bobhiggins.wordpress.com/ Bob Higgins

            Once again, I didn’t imply that mining will end but the sheer volume of coal, is far greater than the amount of rare earth material and mining may be greatly reduced and refined to do far less damage.

            The point is that we see the direction we have to move. We should have been in motion thirty years ago.

            If you can write this:
            “the cost in energy, lives and environmental degradation is considerably less for the solar plant,” I’ll save a seat on the train for you.

    • http://zacharyshahan.com/ Zachary Shahan

      Good point. I should start making that one every time it comes up!

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