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Misinformation In ‘Solar Makes No Sense, But It Does Make Money’ Letter

I’m all for skepticism but I have to take exception with a letter, Solar Makes No Sense, But It Makes Money, published on February 9 as it was filled with misinformation. An open discussion of the human response to climate change that examines the pros and cons of the various approaches for dealing with it is vital; but it needs to be fact-based.

The author opens with claiming that solar PV in Western New York is not economically viable. That claim is supported by an unnamed article from Forbes Magazine about how the Energy Return on Investment (EROI) of utility scale solar PV being rated as 4, meaning 4 times more energy is returned than is used in producing a solar array. It is generally agreed that an energy source with an EROI below 10 makes it very difficult to make money. Using science-based metrics such as EROI is good and important when discussing complex subjects like energy generation, unfortunately Forbes is not a scientific publication. In fact, it is often used as an outlet for opinion pieces by energy ‘consultants’ funded by the fossil fuel industry to spread misinformation.

I looked into the science publications for peer-reviewed scholarship on the EROI of solar PV. The most comprehensive review of solar to date is the paper Bhandari et al, Energy payback time (EPBT) and energy return on energy invested (EROI) of solar photovoltaic systems.

Bhandari looked at 232 papers on solar EROI from 2000-2013. They found that for poly-silicon (the predominant solar technology today) the mean estimate of EROI was 11.6. The range was from 6 to 16 with most of the lower returns from the older studies and the better results from the more current studies. The reason is that newer technology is more efficient and continually improving. Current retail solar panel offerings from SunPower and LG exceed 22% efficiency which will skew the EROI for modern solar toward 16.

The increasing EROI of green technologies is in contrast with the steadily decreasing EROI of fossil fuels like coal, oil and natural gas. Many studies show that the decline started in the late 1990s and that the decline is accelerating. One paper, Brandt et al (2013) found that oil sands production has an energy return of just 6 at the mine mouth and 3 at the point of use. Tar sand oil is what was planned to be sent through the Keystone XL pipeline. Data from the US Energy Information Agency reveals that refineries targeted to receive this low-grade oil (one half-owned by Saudis) will get $1-$1.8 billion in taxpayer subsidies. What is more, the end of the pipeline from Canada is Port Arthur, Texas where it will be refined and exported.

I did find one interesting study specific to a local energy source, Net Energy Analysis of Gas Production from the Marcellus Shale (as in Marcellus, NY) by Devin Moeller and David Murphy. What makes this study so interesting, aside from its local relevance, is the fact that it measures the EROI of High Volume Hydraulic Fracturing (Fracking) from pad preparation at the point of extraction at the wellhead to combustion at the utility turbine where the gas is converted into electricity and fed into the grid. Also included in their study is the energy cost of recycling and disposal of the toxic and often radioactive flowback water. The analysis of well production data included 5119 active wells in Pennsylvania located throughout the Marcellus Shale play.

What they found was “Our results indicate that producing electricity from shale gas has an EROI of 10, which is roughly equal to that from photovoltaics.” They summarize with “Shale gas wells often have annual decline rates well above 60%, which means that new wells must constantly be developed to offset declining wells from previous years. Constant and continuous well drilling is capital intensive and unlikely to continue long into the future. These steep decline rates are also viewed by many in combination with the idea that most of the drilling thus far has been concentrated in the best areas within Shale plays and that, as drilling continues, the overall production levels will decline as more marginal areas are utilized. Indeed, even as technology improves the power generation process, electricity generation from natural gas is delivering less energetic benefit to society over time.”

It is the increasing efficiency and steadily decreasing cost of 21st Century green technologies plus the decreasing efficiencies and increasing cost of fossil fuels, not subsidies, that is driving the installation of utility scale solar here in WNY and around the globe.

Tom Meara is a Jamestown resident.

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