Monday, April 23, 2007

Solar Photovoltaics for Suckers

I'm on record that Solar Photovoltaics are far down on the list of viable energy alternatives. An article I just read on Yahoo Personal Finance (Bankrate) makes the point, while ironically implying that there is excitement about a big breakthrough in the product.

The article states that a 1 KW photovoltaic system costs about $14,000, and that it can be expected to reduce utility cost by about $200/year. This implies a return on investment of less than 1.5%. The article goes on to state that there is no operating cost, ignoring maintenance, which typically is rolled into economic calculations at rates between 2-7% of capital expended. In that case, return on investment for the photovoltaic system would be negative. It also tries to capitalize on the common misperception that "energy prices are going nowhere by up". See my previous posts to understand why this is not true.

Every time I make a case like this, someone responds that it is not a matter of economics, it is a case of saving the environment, and maybe the planet. Or, that it is a matter of independence from the oil barons. Ultimately, though, it is just the opposite. The same benefits can be had, much more effectively, by adding insulation, or by upgrading the efficiency of appliances, HVAC or lighting, or by driving a more efficient car. And, every dollar which goes into a less effective solution is a dollar less for solutions which have a greater effect.

But, let's say you are determined to produce energy, rather than just conserve, and want to reduce dependence on the middle east in the process. Attractive alternatives are ubiquitous. Coal, nuclear, oil sands are all attractive investments at today's prices.

What about carbon dioxide and nuclear waste? Solar heat and wind power make good investments. Coincidently, I also read an article today quoting a source of residential scale wind units. The price was about $2-3000 per KW, resulting in a 6-8% return. In other words, the same investment there would reduce carbon dioxide and dependence on oil barons by approximately 5 times the amount of the photovolaic investment. And the good investment would mean you have much more to invest, or maybe even to enjoy the better world you have helped make possible.

I'm an advocate of improving the world, but wasting resources in the process is counter productive. And photovoltaics still fall into that category.