The Solar Revolution and the End of Big Energy

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Is Big Government necessary for Big Energy? The zealots of Big Energy claim that if we wish to keep the lights from going out, we must accept mammoth public utilities, mandatory conservation measures, and even imperialist military conflicts. We are told that to receive more electrical power, we must surrender more personal freedom.

Contrary to the politicians, however, the reality is that we are in the midst of a Solar Revolution, in which the free market is answering our energy needs through technological improvements in photovoltaic solar panels. With investments made on a local and household basis, solar panels offer a personalized form of energy that is independent of Big Government.

Yet the ideologues of Big Energy won’t give up, and are fighting against the Solar Revolution by resorting to demagogic propaganda. One of their most common lies, for example, is that sunlight is "too dilute" — implying that even if we covered the entire Earth with solar panels we would still not capture enough sunlight to power our civilization. But let’s run the numbers, shall we?

At present photoelectric conversion efficiency and under typical seasonal cycles and weather, a solar panel one square meter in area produces about .5 kilowatt-hours of energy per day. Since a barrel of oil contains 1700 kilowatt-hours of energy, it would take 3400 square meters of solar panels to produce the equivalent energy of a barrel of oil per day. The equivalent energy of projected world oil consumption in the year 2030 — 120 million barrels per day — could therefore be met by 400,000 square kilometers of solar panels (=120 million barrels x 3400 sq. meters/barrel). That’s only 0.3% of the world’s land area!

So much for the nightmare of a world covered with solar panels. Now back to the reality of a world covered with fossil fumes.

After the "diluteness" argument, the most disingenuous assertion against solar power is that it is too expensive to replace conventional energy sources. This once was true and might have remained true for some time, but the Big Energy zealots themselves have brought us to a tipping point through their own heavy-handed government intervention, the Iraq War.

To see this, let’s compare sunlight with oil — and add the cost of war.

Currently, Iraqi oil fields produce 2.2 million barrels a day. To match this output with sunlight, we would need 7500 square kilometers of solar panels (= 2.2 million barrels x 3400 sq. meters/barrel). At a market price of $600 per square meter, the total cost of replacing Iraqi oil-produced energy with sunlight would be $4.5 trillion — approximately $410 million a day when amortized over a thirty year hardware lifetime. The equivalent cost in terms of oil-derived energy would then be $190 per barrel.

Expensive, yes, but the official cost of occupying Iraq is $400 million a day, which means that we are already paying a "war subsidy" of $180 a barrel for Iraqi oil!

Moreover, while rooftop solar energy flows directly into our homes, consumers of oil energy also pay the market price. Add the war subsidy ($180/barrel) to the market price (+$100/barrel), and the total cost for "War Oil" is more than $280 a barrel. Most people are oblivious to the true cost of War Oil because it is being inflicted upon the entire economy via the inflationary agency of federal budget deficits, but if the Iraqi misadventure was financed instead by a direct "War Tax" on consumer heating and power bills, solar panels might soon be ubiquitous upon the roofs of American homes.

Technological improvements are strengthening the Case for Solar. This year alone, the cost of manufacturing solar electric panels could decline two-fold, and oil will have to sell for under $100 a barrel to remain competitive. It was always immoral to pretend that "our" oil was under "their" land, but it is already not worth the effort of going to war over it, and soon it may not be worth the effort of pumping it.

While warriors and politicians have failed to deliver a secure source of cheap energy, scientists and business people have been doubling solar energy production every two years. That our politicians remain mired in the energy technology of the nineteenth century has nothing to do with the diluteness of sunlight, or its relative cost. Instead, they seem so enamored of the political power that comes with the ideology of Big Energy that they would destroy the economy in the name of saving it.

Fortunately, the Solar Revolution has too much momentum to be stopped by any government, even a superpower. Our personal liberation from the tyranny of Big Energy is coming one roof at a time, and no army can stop it.

April 30, 2008